Reviews (March/April 2010)

The new music, and the books that are reflecting the region right now

Alexandra Sorhaindo, on the boat on the way from Dominica to the UK. Photograph courtesy Alexandra SorhaindoAmanda Smyth. Photograph courtesy Serpent`s TailBob Marley: The Untold Story COVERCD CoverMyths and Realities of Caribbean History COVERRihanna performs in Germany. Photograph by Dave M. Benett/MTV Via Getty ImagesThe Red Earth Collective live in Brixton, London. Photograph courtesy Jerry YoungThe White Woman on the Green Bicycle COVER

BOOK REVIEWS

 

Half the story’s never been told

David Katz

A mixed-race child born into poverty in colonial Jamaica, Bob Marley overcame immense personal hardships to become the first third-world superstar and most prominent advocate of Rastafari, during a life cut tragically short by cancer. Marley’s incredible recorded catalogue and quasi-mystical charisma have spawned all kinds of legacies, including commercial ventures he clearly would not have approved of. His enduring appeal has led to all manner of books in recent years, the Marley shelf now buckling under the weight of them, while other Caribbean icons are largely neglected.

So when I learned of another Marley tome with the grandiose title The Untold Story, I was wary. After all, Christopher Farley’s Before The Legend promised “the private side of a man few people ever really knew”, but failed to deliver any revelations. Could there really be anything left to learn about Marley, or would this be another rehash of a touching, but too familiar tale?

Thankfully, the author in question is Chris Salewicz, a respected journalist who has given us some of the most informed and carefully considered writing on Jamaican music during the last 30-something years. And unlike several other Marley scribes, Salewicz knew Marley personally, naturally placing his prose on a more solid footing.

The book is almost perfectly paced, relating Marley’s tale in the unhurried manner it deserves, driven by thoughtful insights. For instance, exploring Marley’s infancy, he tells us “there were signs that the child had been born with a poet’s understanding of life, an asset in a land like Jamaica, where metaphysical curiosities are a way of life.” Such keen observations continue apace, greatly aiding our understanding of the realm Marley inhabited, and how it shaped his persona.

One of the best things about the book is its use of firsthand testimony, gleaned from original interviews with close confidents, as well as Marley himself. We hear directly from Marley’s mother and wife Rita, fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, bassist Family Man Barrett, guitarist Junior Marvin, I-Threes members Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, fellow singers Desmond Dekker and Joe Higgs, and record producers Chris Blackwell, Danny Sims and Bunny Lee. There is also material from nearly forgotten but equally important early Wailers, such as Junior Braithwaite and Beverly Kelso. Salewicz has made optimum use of these testimonies, helping them to guide the text, whilst, thankfully, avoiding the imagined dialogue that blighted Timothy White’s Catch A Fire.

Of course, I do not want to suggest that Salewicz is infallible, as a few factual errors and the odd questionable assertion slightly detract, but such minor inconsistencies barely disturb this thoroughly excellent read, which really does live up to its title. By carefully excavating new information and poetically relating it with the appropriate level of detail, Salewicz has revealed some hidden aspects of Marley’s character, greatly enhancing our understanding of the complex circumstances of his life, and why his music remains so universally appealing.

Bob Marley: The Untold Story Chris Salewicz
(Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-725552-8, 420 pp)


Rock solid storytelling

Sharon Millar

In her debut novel Black Rock (published in the US as Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange), Trinidadian/Irish novelist Amanda Smyth shows her worth as a lyrical and spare-boned writer. Set in Tobago, with large parts of the story occurring in Trinidad, Black Rock follows the teenage Celia D’Abadie on her search for belonging and a place in the world. Smyth uses landscape and a strong oral tradition of superstition to explore diaspora themes such as alienation, sexual violence and loss of innocence, on islands that change their faces as quickly as a lizard changes colour.

Celia must leave her Tobago home (symbolised by the well-meaning but weak Aunt Tassi and her menacing husband Roman) and suffer several hardships and challenges before achieving her goal. Adolescent and/or child narrators are especially effective at wooing audiences, and the line between the narrative voice created by Smyth and Celia’s own voice is often finely drawn, which helps the novel to drive itself along almost effortlessly. Good storytellers magpie pieces of their own lives into their work, reinterpreting personal experiences to create new stories. Smyth’s insight into the lost child/woman Celia lies partly in her childhood memories of moving between England and Trinidad, and the subsequent feelings of displacement and alienation.

Celia follows in the tradition of young female Caribbean protagonists who play out the region’s violent histories in their personal destinies. By the end of the novel, Smyth brings her full circle, with a new sense of her adult self.

Smyth wrote the book over four years, holding down a full-time job and writing on Sundays. She explained in an interview that her family’s long history in Trinidad was a key source of inspiration. She was able to draw extensively on the oral traditions of her family, an interest that began in her teens when she would visit old aunts and transcribe the stories of generations past. Most of the superstitious details that appear in the book were passed down from her grandmother and great-aunt, making this a very homegrown Caribbean novel.

The book has been translated into French, German and Portugese, and Smyth has appeared on several prestigious UK lists, including Waterstone’s 2009 list of authors to watch. Black Rock was also chosen as one of the 2009 selection of Oprah’s 25 Summer Books You Can’t Put Down. She is a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA programme, and also studied under Trinidadian writer Wayne Brown, who died last September.

Black Rock Amanda Smyth
(Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 978-1846686962, 256pp)

 


 

Green with envy

Sharon Maas

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a back-to-front book. The first part is chronologically the last, and even before the story really begins we know the tragic end; but foreknowledge is exactly the prod that keeps the reader reading. How, why, did it all go so terribly wrong?

When George and Sabine Harwood, flushed with the glow of a new marriage, arrive in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the mid-1950s, another woman steps into their life and casts a spell on George. The green woman, Trinidad, steals not only Sabine’s husband but her children and her life.

Sabine hates her rival and pines for England. But her love for George is fierce as a hurricane, and she endures the daily vexations for his sake, trusting that their stay is only temporary. Finding herself in an animated crowd listening to Eric Williams, the charismatic political leader, she falls as much under his spell as the restless Trinidadians, and recognises him as not only the island’s saviour but, perhaps, her own.

Subtly weaving truth into fiction, Trinidad-born Monique Roffey has created a captivating roman-à-clef in which Trinidadians will recognise several real-life characters. In eloquent, sometimes poetic, always passionate prose, she paints an intriguing and sometimes disturbing picture of Trinidad in the turbulent post-colonial era.

Roffey leads unerringly into the dark areas of slavery’s shadow. When racism begets racism, it’s time for the hard questions, and this riveting story of a marriage as it crash-lands asks them fearlessly.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
Monique Roffey
(Simon & Schuster Ltd, ISBN 978-1847375001, 448pp)


 

You can go home again

Guyanne Wilson

Commissioned by the Dominican UK Association, Home Again is a collection of the stories of 22 “returnees” – Dominicans who migrated, generally to the UK, but also to Barbados, Canada and to the United States, and who, after an extended period, returned to Dominica, often to retire. Told from the point of view of the returnees themselves, the entries detail their reasons for migration and for returning, and give a glimpse into their lives as they worked and raised families as part of the Dominican Diaspora.

The focus, however, is not only on the migrants’ lives abroad, but also on their lives once they returned to Dominica. The returnees share openly about their experiences in relocating, building homes, and settling once more into the rhythm of life on the island. For many it has been difficult, and most feel isolated from their fellow Dominicans, but few regret returning. Since their homecoming, they believe that they have valuable contributions to make to various spheres, and want to be given a chance to participate fully in Dominican society.

The accounts tend to skim the surface, and lack the depth that would have made the collection a more compelling read. Moreover, editorial oversights become distracting, especially after the first few reports.

Nevertheless, the collection will be useful in bridging the gap between the Dominicans who stayed in the country and those who left – a necessary connection for a nation, indeed a region, which has been shaped so greatly by migration.

Home Again: Stories of Migration and Return Celia Sorhaindo and Polly Pattullo, eds.
(Papillote Press, ISBN 978-0-9532224-5-2, 248 pp)

 


 

Footprints in the sand

Paul Crask

In 1932 Elma Napier dropped out of London’s high society and, together with her husband and children, began a new life in Dominica, at the time a rather insignificant outpost of colonial Britain. Her autobiographical account of her life in Dominica, Black and White Sands, was written in 1962, but has not been published until now. It’s certainly worth the wait.

Napier’s matter-of-fact narrative style is punctuated by very humorous and tongue-in-cheek accounts of interactions and conversations with local villagers, as well as with her peers on Dominica’s Legislative Council, of which she became a member following the death of her husband in 1940. Her detailed descriptions of exploring Dominica, the frustrations of trying to implement change and improvement, and life in the colonial Caribbean during the war years, all make fascinating and very entertaining reading. A strong personality shines through the pages of this book and it is difficult to feel anything other than admiration and affection for its author.

Napier described her life as a “curious patchwork”, and in its final instalment, she casts aside social convention and enjoys an offbeat and rewarding island life. A precious book, Black and White Sands is sure to captivate readers, regardless of their familiarity with Dominica or the Caribbean.

Elma Napier died in Dominica in 1973 and is buried next to her husband in “a quiet place under trees” at their Pointe Baptiste estate.

Black and White Sands Elma Napier
(Papillote Press, ISBN 978-0-9532224-4-5, 260pp)

 


 

In canoes and without the paperwork

Tracy Assing

An essential text for any reader of Caribbean or world history, Basil Reid’s Myths and Realities of Caribbean History does exactly what its title promises. In 11 chapters, Reid uses fresh archaeological and anthropological information to treat with some of the most famous myths of Caribbean history, starting with the belief that Caribbean history began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Using Trinidad & Tobago as an example, Reid, who lectures in archaeology at the University of the West Indies, writes: “The Amerindians … whose past is largely undocumented and whose time conception was predominantly cyclical, are usually perceived as completely lacking in histories of their own, even though their past extended as far back as 7,000 years ago.”

But, he points out, “History is being increasingly defined as not restricted to written records but to the dating of events, whether orally or in writing. In short, there is growing recognition among researchers that past non-western, non-literate societies, including pre-Columbian societies in the Caribbean, had dynamic histories.”

He also debunks a myth still being taught in some Caribbean classrooms, that Arawaks and Caribs were the two major groups in the pre-colonial Caribbean. He lays forth instead an exciting time, before the arrival of Columbus, when tribes from Central and South America travelled to, explored, settled and traded throughout the Antilles – much like we do today, but in canoes and without paperwork. Those tribes that did settle, through relationships, war or trade, evolved into early Caribbean people.

There is no evidence, either archaeological or from first-hand observation by Europeans, that conclusively proves the island Caribs ever consumed human flesh. But according to Reid, “The word Carib soon became a general Spanish term for hostile natives.” Yet some First Nations people in St Vincent, Trinidad, Dominica and other islands still refer to themselves as Carib today. This underlines the need for historical accuracy and the need for continued research and publications such as this.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, as you should have this book in your library. The language is only occasionally technical and there is a helpful glossary at the back and a list of references, which can be mined for further reading. The book is also full of well-presented maps, pictures and illustrations of artifacts and archaeological sites.

History is alive and the Caribbean is, sadly, very underresearched. Even Reid cannot be in two places at once, and his university job keeps him out of the field for most of the year.

Myths and Realities of Caribbean History Basil S Reid
(University of Alabama Press, ISBN 978-08173-5534-0, 208pp)

CD REVIEWS

 

Red Earth Dub

The Red Earth Collective Featuring Soothsayers Horns

Red Earth Records is home to an ever-changing collective of highly talented musicians active on the reggae, jazz, and African music scenes. The label is based in Brixton, South London, home to one of Britain’s most diverse communities, and although low on finance, Red Earth has issued several inspired genre-defying CDs over the past few years, bridging the divides of jazz, rap, reggae and dub with a diverse, multi-ethnic crew of like-minded musicians.

Its outstanding release for 2009 was One More Reason by label mainstays the Soothsayers, which featured guest appearances by legendary Jamaican singers Johnnie Clarke, Linval Thompson, and Michael Prophet, as well as London-based vocalists of Caribbean origin, such as scene stalwart Bob Skeng, and noted rapper Michie One (who recorded her best-known work in Jamaica with Sly and Robbie). Red Earth Dub has atmospheric remixes of the best tracks from One More Reason, along with new jazz-oriented instrumentals, highlighting the superb musicianship of the band’s core players. Trumpeter Robin Hopcraft and saxophonist Idris Rahman most often take the spotlight, their driving melodies supplemented by the intricate keyboard chops of Idris’ Mercury Prize-nominated sister Zoe and the hypnotic lines of Benin-born bassist Kodjovi Kush, aided by the guitar lines of Alan Weeks, another local player of Jamaican origin, and snatches of the various ghostly vocals.

With respected dub producer Nick Mannsseh at the mixing desk, this is dub that grows on you with gradual insistance, hidden contours surfacing through repeated play.

 

David Katz

 


 

Blue Emperor

Nigel Rojas

The great thing about Nigel Rojas is that he never tries to sound like anyone else. His smoky, unpretentious, weathered voice is all his own, and that’s what makes him a unique act.

On his latest album, released after he returned from an 87-city tour of the US with his band, he serves up 11 tracks, a musical concoction of reggae, soca, and rock.

“Lonely Days” is the disc’s opener, but it’s the futuristic “2019”, with a catchy chorus that is reminiscent of the rapso band 3Canal’s anthem “Blue”, that will grab your attention. Rojas’ storytelling makes sure of that. Founder of the band Orange Sky, Rojas isn’t afraid to sing in the colloquial language of his native Trinidad, as heard in the groovy “Anniversary”, in which he celebrates his lady “with the Cokes-bottle body that have meh in a state”.

“Wicked System” is unapologetically reggae and in it Rojas sings candidly about being let down by the wicked system and the power in speaking up: Be brave in the face of the wolves dressed as sheep on a mission.

Other impressive tracks on Blue Emperor include “Situations” and “Meditation”.

ES

Nigel Rojas CD courtesy trinidadtunes.com

 


 

Rated R

Rihanna
A lot has changed since the 21-year-old singer made her debut with A Girl Like Me. Gone is her sweet island-girl-meets-Beyoncé look and sound. When the whole world found out that she had been a victim of abuse at the hands of now-ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, the Bajan girl – who once sang of protecting someone else under her “Umbrella” – became a woman hurt.

Her latest release seems to be an outlet for the gamut of emotions she must have gone through in the following months. On this disc she is edgier, angrier – heck, there is even an explicit version of the album out.

But strip away her booming voice and the kick-a** attitude she adopts on this disc, and you’ll see a young woman who is trying to make sense of it all. More than once she makes references to the very public breakup with Brown, on tracks like  “Cold Case Love”, in which she sings:  What you did to me was a crime, and “G4L”, in which she is the woman scorned, seeking revenge with lyrics like: I lick the gun when I’m done because I know that revenge is sweet.

But like any other abused woman, she also heaps some blame on herself. On the track “Stupid in Love” she sings: I thought I saw your potential/Guess that’s what made me dumb.

“Hard” echoes the sentiments of Gloria Gaynor’s classic rebound hit “I Will Survive” and teams her up with hip hop’s Young Jeezy. Here she asserts her resilience and her ability to get over the pain, her voice melting like butter on gritty street beats. The singer also gets to live out her rockstar dreams on the track “Rock Star 101”, complete with a wailing guitar from 80s guitar god Slash. Radio is sure to pick up the pop-tinged “Fire Bomb” and “Rude Boy” in time for summer 2010 in the US, thanks to their radio-friendly qualities.

As fast as she leaves it, Rihanna returns to the darkness again, just before the album closes off, with the haunting “Russian Roulette”, a song about suicide that – honestly – will give any listener the chills.

Essiba Small