Pat Bishop: She belonged to the house of music

Musician, painter, teacher, historian…No one word defines Pat Bishop, the leading lady of the arts in Trinidad & Tobago, who died a year ago

Pat Bishop rehearses the Lydians in preparation for the ensemble performance of Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha at Mucurapo Senior Comprehensive in September 2008. Photograph by Mark LyndersayPat Bishop. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

“It is as if you walked around the Savannah every day and looked up at the Northern Range, admiring its beauty. And then one day, it just wasn’t there,” said Peter Minshall after Pat Bishop died on August 20 last year.

Minshall, Trinidad & Tobago’s most gifted and celebrated masquerade designer, felt the death of Bishop, whom many referred to as a Renaissance woman, more keenly than most. He and Bishop had been friends, collaborators and each other’s muse for 50-odd years.

More than her paintings and her extraordinary ear for music, it was her brilliant intellect that “Minsh” adored. “The Caribbean had never seen and will never see another Pat Bishop,” he declared.

In Bishop’s 71 years, she did it all. And from start to finish, she did it in style. She signalled her brilliance early on by winning a national scholarship from one of the most prestigious girls’ schools in the country, Bishop Anstey High School in Port of Spain. At university in Durham, England, she studied art. On her return to Trinidad, she taught art at her alma mater before enrolling at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus in Jamaica, where she received her MA in History. She lectured at Mona and UWI’s St Augustine campus for eight years, and in history of art and design at the Jamaica School of Art.

But Bishop’s genius could not be restrained to one field; she then became involved in the steelband movement. And of course the rebel in her identified with the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, the “bad boys” of Laventille, whom she directed on eight tours of the United States, including a famous concert at Carnegie Hall.

Bishop was a business executive, a painter, a musician, an historian, a media commentator, a choreographer and a fashion designer, as well as an ethnomusicologist who arranged music for steelbands; conducted just as many; and directed one of the Caribbean’s most respected choirs, the Lydian Singers.

But she didn’t conduct them only in concert, at prestigious sit-down affairs. Bishop would take her singers across the country, to street corners and villages, to homes and orphanages, to comfort those who needed the balm that only music can provide for wounded souls. In 1994, she received the nation’s highest honour, the Trinity Cross, for her contribution to art and community service.

Bishop’s creativity was as varied as it was immense. At the time of her death, she had been working on a concert, Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle for voice and piano by Schubert. She was also working on a collection of paintings, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. Her longtime Lydian colleague Barbara Jenkins said at a memorial for her: “For Pat, one creative activity inspired another, even segued into another. She could never do just one thing at a time when she was on fire; she had to find outlets everywhere or be consumed by her own energy, go into meltdown.”

At the opening of her exhibition I Belong to the House of Music, in September 2007, her younger sister, the jeweller Gillian Bishop, revealed just how profoundly Pat had been influenced by their parents. She derived her passion for music from their father, Sonny, and for art and design from their mother, Ena. Sonny Bishop loved and lived music. When Pat was a baby, she would cry with such a deep contralto voice that her father swore she would become the next Marian Anderson.

And in many ways, Pat Bishop was Trinidad’s answer to the celebrated African-American singer and civil rights activist, whom she saw perform in Trinidad. Just as Anderson embraced genres of music from operatic arias to spirituals, even lieder (romantic German songs), Bishop’s repertoire ranged from Indian tassa drumming to folk music. Like Anderson, who rocked the Metropolitan Opera in New York – as the first black person to perform there – with a spellbinding operatic performance, Bishop would stun a Carnegie Hall audience, including an excited Harry Belafonte, by conducting a pan side – Desperadoes – as they beat out a hair-raising rendition of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Their performance evoked two standing ovations, and upstaged all the other acts, including Liza Minelli.

Bishop’s deep love for music no doubt sprang from hearing her father’s high tenor as he did chores around the house. He had been a choirboy, so he knew and sang Anglican and Methodist hymns. He would take Pat as a child to hear Dorothy Maynor, Paul Robeson and Robert McFerrin when they came to perform in Trinidad. Sonny Bishop also made the crucial decision to send his daughters to piano and singing lessons.

Meanwhile, their mother designed and made beautiful dresses, and hosted exhibitions in the family home on De Verteuil Street in Woodbrook, transforming the living room into a gallery where she would display the dresses on plywood mannequins. From these Pat learned the art of costume and set design.

Her mother’s fondness for appliqué work, her inventive use of bright colours and textures, and her gift for customising handbags, hats and shoes would one day be reflected in Bishop’s paintings and multi-media installations.

A sense of humour was passed on as well. Bishop’s sharp wit was cushioned by a droll sense of humour, and a huge compassion for all humanity. She inherited her mother’s belief that work was a form of worship, and that faith in a higher being demanded service to others.

It was the sisters’ spirit of enterprise that would result in Bishop’s juggling roles such as director of the Carnival Institute, lecturer in fine art at UWI in St Augustine, conductor of the Lydian choir and orchestra, and arranger for various steelbands, as well as community worker and social activist.

Her “courage under fire”, as Gillian called it, may have come through their parents’ urging, always, not to cry.  Her father would say, “Thoroughbreds don’t cry.” Bishop could doodle on the back of an envelope and create a national anti-litter campaign. Thirty years later, Trinidadians still remember “Chase Charlie Away”, Charlie being the smelly, cantankerous character she had sketched in two minutes.

“The only way our children are going to find their place in the sun is to know who they are and to get on to the information superhighway,” Bishop told journalist Lisa Allen-Agostini.

They would know they are part of the world and not just someone that must say ‘Yes, master’ to Miami and survive on barrels from that part of the world.”

More than anything, Bishop wanted to banish the self-doubt that has plagued her people throughout their half-century of independence. She knew the answer lay in the very things they discarded: much like the old oil drums that now make the most amazing music.

Time and again she showed them the solution: like when she brought together the distinctive beat of the Indian tassa drum with African drums and pan for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

Pat Bishop showed her people – in everything she produced, arranged, painted and said – that the answers to their problems lay within: that they could, like her parents, create with their own hands, and their own innate talent, the reality they imagine.

Not so much an interview as an audience

Linguistics scholar Guyanne Wilson remembers an encounter with the imposing Pat Bishop We met to talk about words, Pat Bishop and I. About what happens to words when people sing.

In part it was a PhD student’s nightmare interview: the informant who will not do the tasks you have set, and who answers questions with harder questions.

“What is the rationale for this?” she questioned, minutes into the interview.

Only after, stuttering, I explained the point of my study would she talk about words. She wanted singers to do with words what artists do with paints.

“I want the word ‘coloured’ so that its meaning is articulated. In other words, coloured language, so that if you say, ‘Smile’, I would like ‘smile’ to smile. And if you said, ‘So be strong’, you want it to be strong.”

In part it wasn’t like an interview at all. She answered some questions with snippets from songs, singing an African-American spiritual, a West Indian folk song and a  madrigal in quick succession, and with accompanying accents. She sat up in bed, but really she was on stage, rendering a performance. Then in an instant the bed was transformed into a lectern, as she enlightened me on the finer points of understanding the audience for whom a song is intended, or explained the changes that had taken place in the teaching of music in Trinidad & Tobago since she was a child.

We talked about the Lydian Singers, the Trinidad-based choir she had led since 1987. Under her, the choir’s repertoire expanded from conventional choral repertoire to include “absolutely anything. I mean, we just had a Carnival show…We did calypsos, mainly choral arrangements or choruses with calypsonians…At Christmas we did Misa Cubana which is Cuban. The Christmas before that, we did the whole of the Messiah. So that’s fairly catholic.”

Her concerns for the musical literacy of steelbandsmen extended to singers as well. “For my sins I teach both kinds, the unlettered many,” she said with a smile and a sigh. “If I didn’t have to spend so much time, as we say, ‘ponging’ out notes and then it would be easier to retrieve songs, because you know, there’s just so much that can be retained in the memory.”

But she persisted, working especially hard to make what some have termed an adopted art form, choral music, more at home in Trinidad & Tobago, despite    what she called “cultural confusions”. “I came home [after studying at the University of Durham] and found that children with perfectly good voices and so on didn’t know andante. They look it up and it says, ‘moderate walking pace’.

“But who’s walking where? A moderate walking pace in the hot sun in Trinidad at midday is not a moderate walking pace if you’re in the north-east of Britain on a December day.

In spite of her own efforts, Bishop acknowledged, the choral art form was waning in Trinidad & Tobago, but did not necessarily believe that efforts should be made to strengthen it. “Preserve it for what? This is the age of Facebook and YouTube.”

Pat claimed to be “technologically challenged, nay, defeated, so I wouldn’t know. I don’t know anything about the people of this age. I am old. I know what I know. I know what I can do.

“But I don’t know what ought to be done. I haven’t the slightest idea. Not my age, not my time.”

“I am not in the business of prescribing, of saying, ‘This is what it ought to be’. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, not at all. You do your do. Get your computer. Get with the Internet or whatever comes next.

“I can only go on doing what I can do, hopefully the best way I can.”

Perhaps what she left, then, was not advice, but an example.