Reviews (November/December 2010)

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

Courtesy Rizzoli USA/Brent WinebrennerCourtesy Soundway RecordsCourtesy Toute Bagai Publishing LtdGary Hector (vocals, guitar), Damon Homer (guitar), Jerome Girdharrie (bass), Dion Camacho (drums), Phil Hill (keyboards, vocals). Photograph courtesy Jointpop/ Jane DecleIan Thomson. Photograph courtesy Faber and Faber

Recording the region’s heritage for young readers

Debbie Jacob rounds up recent local fiction for pre-teens

There’s a quiet and quite unexpected revolution taking place in Caribbean children’s literature. Always neglected by traditional publishers, a body of children’s literature for readers eight to 12 has been virtually non-existent.

Now, three Trinidadian authors have taken matters into their own hands: Betty Peter, one of the first flight attendants for British West Indies Airlines (BWIA); Andy Campbell, a retired BWIA pilot; and Roy Galt, an avid reader who is now retired. Peter and Campbell have had their work published by small local publishers, while Galt has turned to self-publishing. The result is an eclectic collection of adventures with universal appeal. Building on themes of friendship, loyalty and acceptance, these authors’ works are deeply rooted in the region, with vivid tropical settings and pastimes that allude to a heritage that is uniquely Caribbean.

In Brown Sugar and Spice, Peter conjures up the colonial period in the Caribbean when West Indians put aside their dreams of independence to support Britain in World War II. Her young heroine, Harriet, discovers that life is an adventure even in the most difficult of times. Both Harriet’s parents work for the British government, and her mother is an expert at cracking the enemy’s secret codes. Often alone, but not lonely, Harriet forges her own life as her busy parents perform their patriotic duties. She discovers Caribbean folklore, experiences an enemy attack, takes on her teachers and the education system, captures thieves, and learns that life is really what you make of it. The line drawings enhance the energy of this quaint story. (Editor’s note: The drawings are by Peter’s niece Alison Antrobus, an architect and also the designer of a handbag that was featured in Caribbean Beat 99.)

In interviews, Peter has said Brown Sugar and Spice was written originally for her daughter Samantha. Peter preserves some of her own childhood memories of the Caribbean, documents the colonial period in a fun-filled story, and evokes a sense of nostalgia for a generation of children who have had more access to computers than to their own stories.

Andy Campbell follows up his successful Stories from the Cockpit with a great new trio, Three Scary Stories from the Caribbean. “Camping and Cricket on the Beach” is a Caribbean version of Jaws; “Staring Death in the Face” shows just how quickly a good time can turn to danger; and “A Fishing Trip Gone Wrong” uses the Gasparee caves to create an ominous story of survival. Each story conjures up those days when a beach lime and a game of cricket were the ultimate experience for a boy. In the first story, a group of boys are having a great time until they are scared out of their wits by a shark. “Staring Death in the Face” takes place on a cocoa and citrus estate where boys have gathered to play cricket, but a raging bull interrupts their game and makes them run for their lives. In the third story, Jonathan Bernard and his friends have a scary Easter.

Campbell is an exceptional storyteller who creates a vivid setting, memorable characters, and edgy conflicts that propel his plot forward. He’s especially good at building tension by using a calm, peaceful setting to set the stage for an impending disaster. There’s also a wry sense of Trini humour in these stories.

Boldly the Trips by Roy Galt offers valuable lessons about prejudice and impulsiveness, nestled in a tense, frightening adventure in which three boys out to have a good time end up depending on each other for their lives. The title comes from the nickname given to the boys, the “Trinee Trips”, by their teacher, Mr Dolsingh.

Chanka, Bobby and Peter find themselves in hot water after they misjudge a watchman involved in some questionable transaction. Nothing turns out to be the way it seems and the boys, from the quiet village of Maraval, Trinidad, have to extract themselves from some terrifying circumstances as far off as Tobago. This is an action-packed, plot-driven novel with memorable characters. Of the three books, Boldly the Trips has the most modern setting, and is truly a riveting read.

Brown Sugar and Spice Betty Peter
(Toute Bagai Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-976-8210-2-1, 177pp)

Three Scary Stories from the Caribbean Andy Campbell
(Lightningsource, ISBN 978-9768-054-81-4, 140pp)

Boldly the Trips Roy A Galt
(Litho Press, 260pp)

 


 

The houses of history

Judy Raymond

Caribbean Houses is a vague and slightly misleading title for this lush and beautiful volume. Michael Connors is specifically interested in the “historic Caribbean houses of planters and governors”, and this book presents some of the finest extant examples, along with even grander edifices.

Connors, an American university lecturer in the decorative arts, favours the great houses built from the proceeds of sugar, so few buildings are as recent even as the 19th century. This survey covers the entire region, including the Hispanic Caribbean. Santo Domingo became a colony in 1496, and one of the “houses” in this book is Diego Columbus’s palace, built in 1510 and still filled with 16th- and 17th-century furniture. Some of these buildings are positively medieval: the Gothic manner persisted in the region long after it had been abandoned in Europe, so these castles and mansions look even older than they are. Other buildings are also featured: there’s a sugar mill or two and Havana’s baroque 18th-century cathedral, perfectly described by Alejo Carpentier as “music turned into stone”.

Owing to the diverse history of the region, there is no single Caribbean style, Connors explains, although there are some common features, such as the use of indigenous wood and stone, and architectural strategies designed to cope with the extremes of sun and rain, hurricane and earthquake: louvres, thick walls, long galleries, and high ceilings. Otherwise, styles of architecture varied according to the metropolitan influences in each country, so the book is divided into five chapters, one for each colonising power – France, Spain, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. There’s a vast range, from the stark Moorish grandeur of Dominican castles to the cosy townhouses of the merchants of Willemstad.

The photographs are glorious, although a few are rather stagey (in one image of a mirror in a Havana townhouse, a blonde señorita can be seen reflected, posing with a fan and a long white dress on a spiral staircase). Even if you don’t trouble to read the informative and detailed text, this makes an excellent coffee-table book for the pictures alone.

Caribbean Houses: History, Style and Architecture
Michael Connors
(Rizzoli 978-0-8478-3213-2, 272pp)

 


 

Welcome to Jamrock

David Katz

In his thoughtful, thought-provoking and ultimately disturbing book The Dead Yard, British writer Ian Thomson wanders around Jamaica, trying to make sense of its terrifying, post-colonial present. Thomson writes with feeling and the descriptive passages have a visual quality that make you feel you are accompanying him through back roads on local buses and surveying the land from lonely country outposts. However, it is never really clear what Thomson’s intentions are, or even what he seeks to portray; if he has gone in search of “the real Jamaica”, he has somehow failed to recognise it, even as it stares him, mockingly, in the face.

The book claims to show “a side of Jamaica that tourists rarely see in their gated enclaves”, which seems disingenuous, since Thomson spends most of his time in the great houses of the upper crust, whose forebears made fortunes from slavery, or in gated communities housing disillusioned returnees who spent most of their lives off the island. Indeed, the white elite and geriatric returned are nearly as apart from the ordinary Jamaican public as Thomson is himself, which perhaps leads to the author’s arguably distorted summaries of the period following independence, when “the struggle towards nationhood was hampered by the national character”. Thomson also sits in on a murder trial, accompanies priests on peacekeeping missions, pokes around the wharf and gatecrashes a wake, but has little connection with the folk he interacts with.

Books about Jamaica, written by outsiders (including my own) have inevitably been problematic; the island’s turbulent history is complex, and there is much to misread about Jamaican culture. However, The Dead Yard is doubly difficult, because Thomson writes eloquently about Jamaica’s historical past, in ways that are insightful and illuminating, and interrogates the island’s contradictory relationships with Britain and America, yet sometimes offers misguided conclusions through arrogant assertions and broad, unsupported generalisations. In the book, Jamaicans often regard him with suspicion or hostility, which seems warranted, given some of his assertions.

For instance, noting that he “had no idea of what a Rastafari community was like”, (odd for a frequent visitor to Brixton), Thomson visits the Bobo Dreads, a notoriously extreme Rastafari sub-group, in Bull Bay. Recounting the visit, he claims, “Women are rarely an elevated sex among Rastafari and are viewed by the Bobo as virtual chattels.” Would he have made the same casual claim about Christianity on visiting fundamentalist Mormons, Branch Davidians or Opus Dei?

This book veered between being a captivating read and one that infuriated me. I loved the passages where Thomson “reasoned” with Bob Andy, the Tamlins, Byron Lee, Perry and Sally Henzell, and Edward Seaga, but hated the moment when Thomson concludes: “The burden of Jamaica’s post-colonial failure lies not with the United States or with slavery or British imperialism, but with the Jamaican people themselves.”

At the end of the book, culled from three visits, made three years in a row, the author admits he is in no hurry to return, and asks, “How well had I understood this place?” The question echoes through the pages of The Dead Yard, ultimately lessening its impact.

The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica
Ian Thomson
(Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571227617, 359pp)

 


 

Tumbele! Biguine, Afro and Latin Sounds from the French Caribbean, 1963 – 74

Soundway

David Katz

Before the creation of zouk in the mid-1970s, the French Caribbean territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique had very cosmopolitan music scenes. As is made clear in this first-rate compilation, the biguine form that dominated both islands during the 1960s and early 70s was a hybrid that blended European jazz melodies with the rhythms of Africa. But making the mix even more heady were other diverse influences: Haitian compas, Cuban guaguanco, Puerto Rican bomba, and even Congolese rumba all had an impact on the music scenes of both islands, making their output especially rich and nuanced.

Britain’s Soundway Records has a strong reputation for quality reissues of scarce and unknown global archive material, and this superb collection represents another epic journey of discovery. The 24-page booklet is illustrated by rare images, and compiler Hugo Mendez’s notes go the extra mile to tell the story of this fascinating music, revealing the importance of figures such as Guadeloupean saxophonists Robert Mavounzy, Abel Zenon and Rapahel Zachille and Martiniquan guitarist Frantz Denis, who played leading roles in the development of styles distinctive to their island.

All the music presented here is excellent, and much of it is truly surprising: “Jet Biguine” by Les Loups Noirs D’Haiti, recorded in Fort de France in 1972, captures the intersection of compas and biguine, while “Dima Bolane”, an old Congolese hit for Pepe Kale, written by Manu Dibango, is rendered here by the Congolese band Ryco Jazz during a visit to Pointe-à-Pitre during the late 1960s.

 


Jamaica Mento 1951 – 1958

Fremeaux & Associates

Outside of Jamaica, there has always been a lot of confusion about mento, the indigenous folk genre that ruled the island before the advent of electric forms such as ska, rock steady and reggae. The confusion stems from mento’s overseas marketing as calypso, to cash in on the craze stimulated by Harry Belafonte’s wide-ranging success. But mento has distinctive instrumentation that often makes use of homemade wind instruments, such as a bamboo saxophone, as well as the oversized thumb piano, known locally as a “rhumba box”. Mento must thus be seen as a distinctly Jamaican music, particularly as its lyrics often deal with political and social issues peculiar to Jamaica.

Thanks to websites such as mentomusic.com and popular acts such as the Blue Light and Blue Glaze mento bands, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in the form, making the arrival of this two-CD box-set all the more timely.

The compilation, which is split between the “country” and “urban” mento styles, features some of the earliest recordings made in Jamaica, and the accompanying 44-page booklet explains the significance of pioneering figures such as Lord Flea, Count Lasher, Harold Richardson, Hubert Porter, and Lord Fly, all of whom are featured here. Reggae fans will also be delighted by the inclusion of early efforts featuring guitarist Ernest Ranglin and singer Laurel Aitken, while the eminent Jamaican dialect folklorist Miss Lou provides a fascinating early take of “Day O”.

DK

 


 

The Longest Kiss Goodnight

jointpop

Rock and roll is a young person’s game – supposedly. “It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away,” Neil Young sang. Young is no longer young of course, yet still rocking. Over recent years a host of retired bands have dusted off their guitars, sucked in their paunches, and taken again to the stage. And do we need reminding that Mick Jagger, wrinkled and wriggling, still can’t get satisfaction?

After 15 years together, Trinidad’s jointpop are yet to get satisfaction, either. “We’re getting old/Yet still half the story to be told,” singer-songwriter Gary Hector declares on the band’s new release, their boldest attempt to turn a cult following into wider acclaim. Accessible yet never anodyne, The Longest Kiss Goodnight comprises ten songs filled with insistent tunes, gorgeous hooks, and big, beautiful choruses.

“$oul$ Going Cheap”, the lead single, is the band’s most honest take yet on their struggles for success. “It’s getting harder to write these songs,” confesses Hector, over a staccato keyboard riff, guitars snarling all around. “Please Don’t Tell My In-laws (I’m an Outlaw)”, meanwhile, is an infectious stab of garage punk, while the wry “Camden Ketchup” is redolent of early Elvis Costello.

“We Can’t Work it Out” and “Planes, Trains and Pain” are bruised ballads that should almost have Lennon/McCartney listed in the songwriting credits, while “Loveless Street” is an anthem to all the lonely people (“I know my way around here,” goes the refrain). And the buoyant “Wrong Side of the Sunshine” has a massive chorus begging to be sung by thousands in arenas far and wide. It’s the least this album and its not-young, not-old creators deserve.

Jonathan Ali