On the Beat: Skye Hernandez on Beat’s 20th anniversary

As Caribbean Beat celebrates 20 years of publication, former editor Skye Hernandez pays tribute to the magazine

Skye Hernandez. Photograph courtesy Skye Hernandez

Like many others, I consider Caribbean Beat the best in-flight magazine I’ve ever come across. It is an encyclopaedia of Caribbean life and culture, a magazine one actually reads on the flight and often takes home, where it goes on to become a well-thumbed collector’s item.

So it was with great excitement that, in 1997, I traded in the adrenaline-laced life of a newspaper reporter and editor for the more sedate rigours of magazine production. My next three years as managing editor were an invaluable learning experience, but also an opportunity for me to bring a reporter’s instincts for finding stories from the throwaway newspaper culture, where an error can be corrected – or forgotten – by the next day, into the meticulous world that is magazine editing.

The philosophy of Beat, as I understood it, was that Caribbean culture was unique and important. The magazine was all about excellent writers and subjects; it covered, among other things, what was going on in popular culture, books and music; and featured personalities from every sector of endeavour, historical events, up-to-date information on events, and destination specials for visitors. Most of all, it conveyed a deep love for the Caribbean. The magazine’s point of view was absolutely Caribbean and it owed its personality to its Devon-born founding editor, Jeremy Taylor, whose vision and high standards could be felt on every page.

It was not a magazine to flick through and put back into the seat pocket; it was kept as a resource. The Ministry of Education once called to ask permission to use part of an article I’d written on Christmas traditions in different Caribbean countries, and I was amused years later that it turned up as a comprehension passage when my sons were in secondary school. It was also a thrill to be approached by newspapers (usually Sunday editions) for permission to reprint articles from the magazine – it was always a great feeling when our bi-monthly publication scooped the local press.

Beat was peerless at matching writers to topics, and some of the definitive articles I remember well from my time at the magazine were Georgia Popplewell’s (she became our music editor) on chutney and parang; Judy Raymond’s interview with artist and designer Carlisle Chang; Barry Chevannes on Rastafari; Pat Ganase on Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee; Polly Pattullo on the Montserrat volcano; Christopher Cozier on Barbadian artist Annalee Davis; Chris Salewicz on Jamaica’s dancehall queens; Mark Meredith on Caroni Swamp guide Winston Nanan; a delightful one-off short story, written and illustrated by Clint De Leon, called “Fishening”; and everything by Caribbean Classics writer James Ferguson and Jeremy Taylor. Contributors included Rex Nettleford, Petrine Archer-Straw, Simon Lee, who wrote a lot on music and Dominica’s Caribs, Roxan Kinas from Barbados, Mark Wilson, Donna Yawching, and Garry Steckles writing on music from his home in St Kitts. A short note we received from Nicholas Laughlin on the death of Guyanese poet Martin Carter was so perfect that I wished him to be a future Beat editor, which did come to pass a few years later. Brendan De Caires, who edited and worked on the layout as I was starting at Beat, was an invaluable guide to me at the beginning. He’s a wonderful writer and I truly wish he’d had time to write more for the magazine.

We were so lucky to have amazingly creative photographers, including Abigail Hadeed, Sean Drakes, Mike Toy and Wyatt Gallery, and artists including Stuart Hahn, Marlon Griffith, Wendell McShine and Shalini Seereeram.

Our team at Caribbean Beat was small – always has been – but tight, and really more like a family. It included Renee West, Gabby Ache and Beverly Renwick. We got along well, despite all the usual tension between editorial and advertising, and I’m still in touch with Beverly, who returned to her native Grenada after several years as advertising manager at Beat. Mr Taylor, or “JT”, was our guide editorially, and Hazel Mansing and Joanne Mendes took care of us – Joanne with a firm hand – in the admin office.

I would like to think I contributed in some small way to the development of two young people who started work there as editorial assistants during my time: Stacy Lalbeharry, who’s gone on to make a name for herself in the media industry; and Dylan Kerrigan, now Dr Kerrigan, and teaching anthropology at the University of the West Indies.

Working with designer Russel Halfhide was an experience in itself, a revelation of the precise detail and talent necessary for people trained in graphics in the pre-computer era. In those days Russel was quite disdainful of the easy way of doing things. Producing a magazine under his hand was an epic journey. He would read the articles carefully and consider the photographs and illustrations. Then he would design the pages on correctly sized “tissues”, with carefully detailed instructions showing the Pantone colours, exact dimensions of photos, lines, shaded boxes, all in perfect calligraphy. Kevon Webster, one of Beat’s current designers, was the lucky understudy whose job it was to translate Russel’s markings to the computer and put it all together. I would have liked to see more of Russel’s work as an illustrator in the magazine; occasionally he’d bless us with one of his wonderful drawings.

I left Beat with a wealth of knowledge about how to produce a magazine, contacts all over the region, and an appreciation for detailed, careful work (and I also picked up Mr Taylor’s habit of making endless lists). But even more than, that it nurtured my love for the Caribbean, and I think this is what continues to make it an invaluable resource.

Happy anniversary, Caribbean Beat! I hope you’ll continue to be around for a very long time.