Reviews – July/August 2012

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

A pinch of saltHair-raising horrorRemembrance of things pastStories from Studio OneTales from a stubborn travellerThe greatness of cricketThe greatness of cricket

 

A pinch of salt

Macmillan’s ambitious A – Z of Caribbean Heritage aims to be a guide to the “cultural, social, political, economic, geographical, natural and historic [sic] heritage of the entire region”. It boldly sets out to cover Cuba and Haiti as well as the English-, French-, Dutch- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

But it’s only 214 pages long and includes illustrations, so there are bound to be many omissions. There are also some very curious entries. The back-cover blurb says the book seeks to be “comprehensive and engaging”. Actually, it’s highly selective, and whether you will be charmed or irritated by it is a matter of taste.

The author, Brian Dyde, lived in the region for 15 years, after first coming to the Caribbean with the Royal Navy, and has previously written travel guides and textbooks. He finds room for entries under such commonplace headings as “donkey”, “dog”, and “goat” (he disapproves of goats because they eat everything in sight and cause land degradation; he frowns severely on the way Caribbean people treat their dogs).

There is, however, no entry for “slavery” or “emancipation”, and not a word on “indentureship”. The only entry that includes the word “African” in its heading is the one on the African tulip tree. There is an account of salt, for those benighted readers who have never come across it: “A substance, sodium chloride, which has no odour but an unmistakable taste.” Dyde devotes as much space to salt as he does to sugar.

Although the political entries are up to date, overall the selection has a distinctly back-in-times feel. In these pages you’ll find Winifred Atwell, but not Rihanna. The Mighty Sparrow is in, but not David Rudder, let alone Machel Montano or Andre Tanker – and certainly no Beenie Man or Buju. 

The reason for the latter omissions becomes clear when you look up “dancehall”: it is, tuts the author, “much deprecated by polite society for its unspeakable vulgarity”. Dancehall’s forerunner fares only slightly better: reggae is “repetitious but sometimes moving”, and its lyrics are preoccupied with “either bewailing some aspect of the black condition or denouncing the white world”. Musicians from outside the Caribbean don’t like it, Dyde opines, because of “the monotony of the beat”.

Dyde has equally idiosyncratic views on politics. Trinidadians will be startled to learn that the Black Power demonstrations of 1970 were “a lamentable episode” that inspired the Muslimeen coup attempt in 1990.

Dyde is good on obscure West Indians, both contemporary and historical, who deserve to be better known in the region, such as Dai Ailian, Trinidad-born founder of the National Ballet of China, and Francis Barber, Dr Johnson’s Jamaican secretary and heir.

The book has some merit, then; just take the author’s opinions with a pinch of sodium chloride.

A – Z of Caribbean Heritage Brian Dyde
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-6811-6, 214pp)

Judy Raymond

 


 

Hair-raising horror in The Skin

What do you get when you mix modern-day Antigua with the myths of the past? A beautiful, funny, yet wonderfully creepy film that had the audience laughing and cringing all at the same time. The Skin is Howard and Mitzi Allen of HAMAFilms’ fourth movie offering. Written by Howard and produced on a shoestring by Mitzi, this film showcases the beauty of Antigua and Barbuda, yet reminds us that the supernatural isn’t far below the surface. 

The movie begins with a young married couple, Michael and Lisa (Brent Simon and Aisha Ralph), whose lovely home is about to be repossessed by the bank. Even with Michael’s photography career and Lisa’s jewellery-making business, they cannot make ends meet. While on assignment at Betty’s Hope Estate, Michael discovers a filthy vase buried in the earth and takes it to an antique dealer, Felix, who offers them a price well below market value to take it off their hands.

They celebrate their good fortune with a shopping spree, but soon afterwards, strange things begin to happen. While they are sceptical about the possibility, a Jamaican mystic informs them that the ancient relic was a curse, not a blessing, and is inhabited by a soucouyant (a malicious spirit who can shed her skin to become a ball of light and who likes to eat babies).

First-time actor and former model Simon does an able, though occasionally wooden, job as Michael, and Ralph is believable as Lisa. Their performance is well supported by their fellow actors. Felix (played by Scottish actor Jeff Stewart) is a smarmy, slightly slimy character, the epitome of a “grotty yachtie”, and Police Detective Morgan who investigates the case (Jamaican Peter Williams) is a nasty, womanising alcoholic. Antiguan dance instructor Veron Humphreys deserves a special mention for her performance as the soucouyant, which she choreographed herself. The show is stolen though, by Jamaican actor Carl Bradshaw, who plays Vision, the mystic who comes to help the young couple. His character is at times creepy and at others hilarious yet always incredibly intense.

Also worth mentioning is the score, which features Antiguan calypsonian Kaiso Joe, whose “Jumbie Jamboree” had audience members singing along long after the movie was done.

All in all, The Skin is another fine offering from a region where film-making is becoming more and more popular, and can stand beside many films made for much more money. It’s well written and although the special effects may look cheesy in places, the acting, make-up and cinematography make this a movie well worth watching. It has played to rave reviews in its home country as well as at international film festivals like Toronto and Trinidad & Tobago.

The Skin
Howard Allen

Bridget van Dongen

 


 

Tales from a stubborn traveller

Ever since Europe’s writers first heard of the Guianas, they have been fascinated by the region. Shakespeare and Milton make references to Guiana in their work, while Voltaire’s pauvre Candide finds himself down and out in Suriname and Cayenne (French Guiana).

Later writers would actually visit, bringing with them various imperialist assumptions. Anthony Trollope, who was scathing about the rest of the West Indies, thought British Guiana a “Transatlantic Eden”, and Evelyn Waugh spent a miserable Ninety-Two Days there.

Now another Englishman, John Gimlette, has had a sojourn in the region, and this is the sympathetic yet clear-eyed result. A barrister by profession, Gimlette has previously written books about Paraguay and Newfoundland, and is a winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

Wild Coast – the title is not authorial invention: for centuries this often inhospitable place was known to Europeans by that name – is divided into three sections, covering Guyana, Dutch-speaking Suriname, and French Guiana. Each section is shorter than the previous one, as befits, perhaps, the relative size of each country.

Gimlette begins in Georgetown, a city that remains worn down from the dark decades of Forbes Burnham’s rule and whose inhabitants, sharply split along racial lines, thrill to talk of impending revolution. He visits what once was Jonestown and finds people there still haunted by the events of over 30 years ago, though he uncovers nothing new about that horrific postscript to the flower-power generation.

On the Rupununi savannah, Gimlette is bowled over by the hospitality of Diane McTurk and family at the Karanambu eco-tourism lodge (which I can attest to). In the rainforest, he stumbles upon a hidden world of cocaine smugglers and automatic weapons, private river-island fortresses and Brazilian prostitutes (which bypassed me completely).

Heading across the border, Gimlette is charmed and frustrated by Suriname’s pretty but “mind-bogglingly obscure” capital, Paramaribo. He is vouchsafed a visit with a Maroon tribe, and follows tirelessly – and somewhat romantically – in the footsteps of the eighteenth-century soldier John Stedman, who set down his own travels here in a once-popular account, Five Years’ Expedition against the revolted Negroes of Suriname in Guiana on the Wild Coast of South America.

French Guiana is Gimlette’s last stop. After touring the prison islands where the notorious Papillon and others did time, he visits the space station, and listens to complaints that the best jobs in the département are reserved for the métros, people from France. Finally, on the border with Brazil, he goes searcing for evidence of an ancestor who met his demise here, on the Oyapok River.

Gimlette is an enthusiastic, even stubborn traveller, and he goes to some places, one feels, out of sheer bloody-mindedness. This gives the book some longueurs. And there are a few factual errors, including a VS Naipaul quote misattributed to his brother Shiva.

Still, at its best, Wild Coast skilfully blends history with observation, anecdote with analysis, and is by turns a moving, troubling and funny read. It is also a timely take on a region that’s a little bit South American, a lot Caribbean, and fully deserving of our closer attention.

Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge John Gimlette
(Profile Books, ISBN 978-1846682520, 358pp)

Jonathan Ali

 


 

Stories from Studio One

Studio One is undoubtedly one of the most important entities in the history of Jamaican music. Often hailed as Jamaica’s Motown, the record label and recording studio launched the careers of virtually every artist to emerge during the ska, rock steady, and early reggae eras, as well as a good many dancehall-oriented artists. The list is truly endless: Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Lee Perry, Dennis Brown, Freddy McGregor and Glen Washington all started there, while many Studio One rhythms of the 1960s and 70s are still being re-cut today.

Studio One’s album-cover art is as distinctive as the music issued on the label, and this massive coffee-table book (The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records) makes good use of them. Respected writer Steve Barrow highlights how the company evolved in his introduction, and hones in on why it was important during several different phases of Jamaican music production. Soul Jazz’s Stuart Baker also provides a brief essay about the cover art itself.

The covers are a real delight for the eyes. Albums like The Cecil Lloyd Trio Live at the Penthouse, Jerry Jones at the Hotel Kingston and Myrna Hague’s Melody Life evoke a bygone era, as does Lennie Hibbert’s More Creation. Chapters devoted to dub, gospel and calypso albums are really fantastic, reproducing many rare originals with a very strong visual impact. It all reminds how important and varied Studio One’s output was, unparalleled in Jamaican popular music.

Ten years ago, Soul Jazz assembled a documentary DVD to honour Studio One’s fiftieth anniversary, pairing the film with a compilation CD. The documentary has now been reissued as a standalone item, and remains essential viewing.

Label founder Clement Dodd, who died in 2004, was notoriously reluctant to give interviews, so Stuart Baker undertook an incredible feat by gaining much firsthand testimony, which forms the bulk of the documentary. There are also illuminating anecdotes from singers such as Alton Ellis, Leonard Dillon and Sugar Minott, plus DJs Dennis Alcapone and Lone Ranger, Skatalites’ trumpeter Johnny Moore, and engineer Sylvan Morris, all important contributors.

As the film is two and a half hours long, portions could have been edited out, especially since some interludes suffer from poor audio or visual quality. Some contextual narration might also have clarified things for audiences unfamiliar with the tale.

However, the strong testimony about Dodd’s early trips to America, the creation of his studio, the genesis of ska, and the development of reggae all help to aid understanding of the way Studio One came into being, and why it was so important. There are certainly many illuminating moments. King Stitt noting that Dodd’s mother was the original selector of his sound system, Ken Boothe explaining how Dodd convinced him to go solo, Dodd recounting the attempt on his life that led him to migrate to New York, plus archive footage of Jackie Mittoo, Ernest Ranglin and the Skatalites make this a necessity for all fans of Studio One and anyone truly interested in reggae.

The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records edited by Stuart Baker (Soul Jazz Publishing, ISBN 9780 9554 81772, 216pp)
Studio One Story (Soul Jazz DVD)

David Katz