Word of mouth (July/August 2017)

The charms of “August holidays” by the beach, a new film from Trinidad & Tobago ("The Cutlass") goes international, and Grenada’s Spicemas keeps the spirit of the Jab Jab alive

Photo by Sarita RampersadCourtesy The CutlassPhoto by Joshua Yetman

Long days by the beach

Suzanne Bhagan remembes the lazy charms of “August holidays” in Mayaro

Mayaro Beach: a swathe of brown sand that stretches eleven miles along Trinidad’s southeastern coast. When I was in primary school, Mayaro was specifically reserved for the languid July-August holidays. My family would pile into my father’s Toyota Corolla, the black rexine seats sticking to the backs of our legs. We would drive past Manzanilla and through the Cocal, under the shade of numerous coconut trees bending towards the Atlantic Ocean. I loved how the light filtering through the coconut leaves would dance across my closed eyelids.

To get to the sleepy fishing village, we had to cross the old wooden bridge over the Ortoire River. Just before we got there, my parents would start talking about children thrown into the black water below. As the Corolla trundled across the bridge, I would start praying, shutting my eyes tight, hoping the wooden planks would not give way.

School holidays spent at Mayaro meant paddling in brackish streams that emptied into the ocean, or in freshwater pools teeming with tiny, translucent fish. The sea breeze felt sticky and tasted salty. Sometimes the skies were blue.

It also meant digging for chip-chip or pacro, tiny molluscs that Trinis boil then douse in a cocktail sauce of ketchup, salt, garlic, chadon beni, and chillies. While digging for these morsels, we would often encounter sea cockroaches. The more we dug, the more they scurried away from our fingers and deep into the wet sand.

On mornings, we would watch the fishermen pull in their nets from the rough seas. Sunlight dappled the ripples on their sinewy backs as they pulled the heavy nets to shore. After they sorted through the catch, a few dead fish would remain strewn on the beach, attracting beady-eyed vultures who roosted in the nearby coconut trees. When the fishermen left the scene, these birds would swoop down in a flash of black, peck at the dead fish eyes, and squabble over spilled fish guts.

After watching the fishermen, we would enter the clear, cold sea. We could see straight to the sandy bottom where chip-chip and bone-white sand dollars quickly burrowed to avoid our prying eyes.

At night, we would go for long walks, strolling under a pitch-black sky. Crabs would leave their holes and scuttle across the damp sand. Without flashlights, we would step gingerly, for fear of falling into tiny streams washing out to sea. The waves glittered and purred, beckoning us to plunge into the warm, dark water under the milky moonlight.

As I got older, the Mayaro beach house became a refuge against the world. Inside, we drank, swilling beer, vodka, and rum into the early morning hours, laughing loudly as we listened to soca, chutney, and dancehall music. When the self-appointed DJ started playing drowsy ballads from the 1980s, it turned into karaoke.

But early mornings at Mayaro retained their charm. Around 5 am, the sea would rumble as the sky gradually lightened to a soft blue. Dawn would break, a gentle washing of light, a slight gilding of the white, foam-crested waves. The sea would feel cold and clean. The sand would be washed clear of debris. It would be smooth, save for scattered, pearlescent chip-chip or translucent man-o’-war jellyfish. The waves would softly roar, pulling a stray branch into the sea or pushing a coconut further along the beach. It was a time of day when anything seemed possible.

 

Cutting through barriers

As the T&T feature film The Cutlass prepares for its international release, Caroline Taylor talks to the filmmakers about the challenges of Caribbean cinema

If making films in countries with established industries is gruelling, imagine trying to make them in the Caribbean — where, more often than not, the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Still, auteurs eager to tell Caribbean stories on screen soldier on, often getting boosts from regional festivals like the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF), where stronger local features reliably sell out — as was the case with Trinidadian film The Cutlass.

Based on a harrowing true story of a young Trinidadian woman fighting for survival after being kidnapped, The Cutlass delivered audiences compelling performances and stunning cinematography in an impressive feature debut for screenwriter Teneille Newallo and director Darisha Beresford (who both, with editor Drew Umland, served as executive producers). It ultimately copped the 2016 TTFF’s Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature Film and People’s Choice awards — after also winning the Best Film in Development award at the 2012 Festival.

It was nothing less than a labour of love for Newallo, who — having lost her best friend to violence — wanted to find a way to empower women through film. “When I first heard this story, directly from the mouth of the victim, only days after it occurred, I was blown away by her courage and modesty. Most people that knew her and knew of what she went through never really got the details or understanding of what she truly experienced,” she explains. “I wanted everyone to understand.” Beresford was similarly passionate about the film’s power to raise pressing local issues — the lack of support for victims of abuse or those suffering from mental illness, and the connections between poverty and violence. Their commitment to the story buoyed the three producers through years of script development, fundraising, and finally making the film in the remote forested mountains of Trinidad — on a tight budget and production timeline. And once it had finally made its regional premiere, could the film’s local success translate internationally?

The producers have signed with Los Angeles-based Leomark Studios, and The Cutlass had its international market premiere at the Marché du Film (the business counterpart of the Cannes Film Festival) last May, as part of Leomark’s new market line-up. “Many buyers and distributors that have seen our film are impressed, but they are not exactly sure what to do with it . . . yet,” says Umland. The biggest question for this and other Caribbean films appears to be who the market is, and whether the films will translate — sometimes, literally. “We have been told by some that our dialects are challenging, and then by others that the dialects are attractive,” says Newallo, “so I think there is still a bit of reservation about whether or not the world is ready for Caribbean film.”

Wild Eye Releasing has bought the (non-theatrical) North American distribution rights to The Cutlass, and Leomark will distribute around the rest of the world. But the producers have retained the theatrical distribution rights to the Caribbean, Canada, and the United States, managing cinematic releases in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and other Caribbean territories this August, followed by Miami and Toronto and other select North American cities. Once successful, it’s a business and distribution model they hope other Caribbean films can successfully emulate.

“There is no real market yet for Caribbean film, [which] means that Caribbean filmmakers today have the opportunity to consciously create our own market,” says Newallo. The three producers are confident regional filmmakers can carve out a niche in the international marketplace. “As long as the stories are universal and the target audience can emotionally connect with the characters,” adds Beresford, “there is no reason why Caribbean films can’t be showcased internationally.”

For a full Q&A with Newallo, Beresford and Umland in Discover Trinidad & Tobago, click here.

 

When Jabs rule

The spirit of the Jab Jab, with its roots in Grenada’s history, makes Spicemas unique. Laura Dowrich explains

The scene from atop the Guinness truck was a sight to behold. Thousands of people adorned with glowing bracelets, neon necklaces, flashing hats, and glow sticks, waving their hands in unison from left to right, creating a sea of twinkling lights and revealing a beauty to Grenada’s Carnival that only added to its uniqueness.

Known as Spicemas, Grenada’s Carnival (falling on 14 and 15 August this year) has long held the traditional Jab Jab figure as its visual representation. Grenada is, after all, considered the Jab Jab capital of the world, and in recent years has successfully exported the Jab Jab culture through its music and marketing.

But on this Carnival Monday night, in the heart of St George’s, the capital, along the wharf in an area known as the Carenage, the oil of the dutty mas gave way to lights. One of the island’s best-kept secrets, this Monday Nite Mas was perhaps the largest gathering of the entire Carnival, with bands assigned to corporate entities with deep enough pockets to cater to the thousands. In 2016, the rules changed, allowing individuals to stage their own bands alongside the corporate heavies.

Earlier that morning, along the same route, throngs of men and women gathered for J’Ouvert celebrations. As in Trinidad’s Carnival, J’Ouvert in Grenada signals the official start of the festivities — but unlike its southern neighbour, where masqueraders in old costumes, mud, cocoa, and blue devil paint create a kaleidoscope of colour on the streets, Grenada’s J’Ouvert is the sole domain of the Jab Jabs. Masqueraders proudly daub their bodies with black oil, faces stoic as they engage in their annual ritual, ignoring curious tourists who flit in and out of their groupings, cameras and phones recording everything.

With a French patois name meaning “devil,” the Jab Jab or Jab Molassie originated on sugar plantations during the era of slavery. One story says the Jab Jab portrays the spirit of a slave who fell into a vat of molasses and comes back every year to torment his master. Another suggests that in the days of slavery, whenever fire broke out on an estate, enslaved labourers were immediately mustered and marched to the spot. Horns and shells were blown to collect them and the gangs were followed by the drivers cracking their whips.

Whatever the origins, after Emancipation the formerly enslaved commemorated their experiences by taking the Jab Jab to the streets, wearing horns and chains and blowing the conch shell. Today Grenadians maintain the tradition, parading with snakes, pig entrails, pig heads, and buckets of slimy worms, all in an attempt to intimidate as they personify the devil.

J’Ouvert goes on all day, and gives way to pretty mas in St George’s on Carnival Tuesday, but Jab Jab mas continues in other areas of the island over the full two days. In St David, where I visited last year, scores of people from nearby villages trekked by foot to line the streets to see the Jabs on Carnival Tuesday.

The soundtrack to the festivities, as in other islands, is soca. But in Grenada there is a distinct Jab Jab sound that has been created to boost the Jab Jab culture. Tallpree is perhaps the most famous proponent of Jab Jab music, since he released his mega hit “Old Woman Alone” in 1999. In the last ten years, artistes such as Lava Man, Mr Killa, and Shortpree have also taken up the mantle to make Jab Jab music global.

It’s been described as a distinctly percussive sound with a three-beat repeated refrain. The lyrics often talk about the pride Grenadians feel in their historic tradition and the practice that goes into being a “wicked Jab.”

Like other Carnivals in the region, Grenada’s boasts its share of competitions. There’s a highly anticipated and fiercely contested soca monarch competition, a calypso competition, steelband Panorama, Band of the Year, and a Queen pageant, among others. Then there are the fetes. Tallpree’s Preeday is one of the most anticipated, along with the “white” parties, White in Moonlight and Pure White, and a number of imports from Trinidad. The fetes feature performances from a slew of Grenadian acts and top regional soca stars.

Like its famous spices, Grenada’s Spicemas has something for everyone to enjoy — and, coming latest in the regional “summer” Carnival schedule, it ensures you close off your fun with a bang.

 

For more information on Grenada Spicemas, visit www.spicemasgrenada.com