The Buzz (November/ December 2003)

What's fun and happening in the Caribbean

Braeton Brutality (2001) Metal: from the collection of the artist. Photograph by Kent ReidEmeline Michel. Photograph courtesy Emeline MichelF—-ing State of Emergency (2002) Metal, bandages, and cloth; from the collection of the artist. Photograph courtesy Christopher IronsGillian Moor of the Moors. Photograph by David WearsIllustration by Marlon GriffithOn the discOn the screenOn the shelfOn the shelfPhotograph courtesy Mt Gay Rum DistilleriesPhotograph courtesy Mt Gay Rum DistilliersRikki Jai. Photograph by David WearsWayne Marshall. Photograph courtesy VP RecordsWorld champion Kelly Slater testing “the Soup”. Photograph courtesy Alan BurkeZiggy Marley. Photograph courtesy Private Music

On the shelf

The enigma of revival

Literary Occasions

V.S. Naipaul, ed. Pankaj Mishra (Knopf, ISBN 0-375-41517-3)

At this late stage of his career (he was born in Trinidad in 1932), V.S. Naipaul’s main interest seems to be himself. How he started to write, how he learned to “see”, how his writing evolved, how he slowly assembled in his mind the fantastic jigsaw of the unknown world — this has been an obsession for at least 20 years. In book after book, always elegant and honest and precise, he has told the story in different ways. (In an introduction to this new collection of essays, his editor Pankaj Mishra explains rather apologetically that “each book is a new beginning, which dismantles what has gone before it”, as if each new version of the story is like a software upgrade.) This constant turning of process into subject can easily become trying, especially with its stern judgements about how other people have chosen to “see” and evolve: one could easily assume that Naipaul is the only writer to have confronted the trials of exile and alienation, disadvantage and exclusion, with courage.

The 11 essays in Literary Occasions, ranging from 1964 to 2001, are described in the publisher’s blurb as amounting to an “intellectual autobiography”, i.e. another extended visit to the same place. Only two of them have not appeared in book form before. One of these is a ruminative piece about the Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, which pretty much puts Conrad in his place; the other is Naipaul’s 2001 Nobel lecture, “Two Worlds”, which is a magisterial meditation on — well, his own evolution as a writer. Naipaul’s introductions to his epic novel A House for Mr Biswas and to his father Seepersad Naipaul’s The Adventures of Gurudeva also appear here, along with the 1999 booklet Reading and Writing: A Personal Account and the “Prelude to an Autobiography” from Finding the Centre (1984). The other five pieces were previously collected in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), and now reappear under a more demure title.

Since Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, there has understandably been much excavation of his backlist — omnibus collections, reissues, stories and essays shuffled around in new editions. He is, after all, a formidable man of letters, and this is his 27th book. Literary Occasions will be useful for readers new to Naipaul and his analysis of the writer’s responsibility, and it is good to have all this closely connected material between fresh covers. It has worn well. But there is no hiding the fact that the book itself is essentially a piece of elegant repackaging.

Jeremy Taylor

 

On the screen

Ready for el close-up

In recent years, the number of Cuban entries has dwindled, the spotlight taken by high-profile films from Argentina and Mexico and Brazil. But, after 25 years, the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (aka the Havana Film Festival), which screens over 400 films to 400,000 attendees in 20-plus cinemas over a 10-day period, is still going strong.

Cubans are among the most cinema-mad — and film-literate — people in the Caribbean. Before the revolution, Cuba was an important market for Hollywood, with an estimated 1.5 million Cubans visiting the cinema weekly. After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the first cultural institution created by the revolutionary government was the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), which aimed not only to create an indigenous film industry but, also, according to its director Alfred Guevara, “to demystify cinema for the entire population; to work, in a way, against our own power; to reveal all the tricks, all the recourses of language; to dismantle all the mechanisms of cinematic hypnosis.”

Thanks to European film-school-trained figures like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the country’s greatest filmmaker, and documentarian Santiago Alvarez, what could have become a body of artless propaganda evolved instead into a cinema of world renown. The best Cuban films — Alea classics like Death of a Bureaucrat and Memories of Underdevelopment, or Humberto Solas’s Lucia, for instance — were anti-commercial and anti-Hollywood, but they were also deeply humanist, and often quite critical of the system which spawned them.

When the Havana Film Festival began back in 1979, the Cuban cinema industry was 20 years old and nearing its peak. In addition to the obvious goals of asserting Cuba’s status as a major film player, and attracting visitors bearing much-needed foreign exchange to the country, the festival was also seen as a means of bringing movies to the film-hungry Cuban public without paying for distribution. The event quickly established itself as the premier film event in Latin America, and today the Havana Film Festival remains the place to see the latest Latin American films, and — since the addition of the MECLA film market — the place to buy them as well. Non-Latin works are featured in festival sidebars and in retrospectives devoted to the works of major international filmmakers, and the festival has been visited lately by prominent mainstream American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.

About 20 fiction features compete each year for the Grand Coral, the festival’s top prize, though out of the 28 films which have won it since 1979 only two — the Brazilian hit City of God (2002) and Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) — will probably be familiar to most readers of this magazine.

In even-numbered years, film festival attendees are offered the chance to take a double-dip of Latin culture — the Havana Jazz Festival takes place right afterwards.

The 2003 International Festival of New Latin American Cinema runs in Havana from 2 to 12 December. For details, see www.habanafilmfestival.com

Georgia Popplewell

 

On the disc

Get happy

Reid, Wright and Be Happy   Ron Reid, Orville Wright, and David “Happy” Williams (Sanch, CD 0301)

This is not pan-jazz; it’s jazz, plain and simple. Down to its classy presentation, Reid, Wright and Be Happy sets a new standard for Caribbean jazz. The trio comes to this project, of course, with impeccable credentials. Reid, a pannist and bassist who gave us the outstanding Calypsoldier some years back, and Wright, a pianist, are both Berklee School of Music grads, and Williams studied bass at the London College of Music; all three have played with world-class ensembles. On the two vocal numbers, I Know It’s Real and Just Imagine, Nia Allen’s voice is fine, if not outstanding; but I was actually more thrilled by the three men’s chorus singing on Wright’s stellar arrangement of Kitchener’s The Road. Plus, I think posterity would have been better served if this had remained a purely instrumental release. And in their rendition of André Tanker’s Morena Osha, the reggaefied bassline does not, to me, entirely work. Otherwise, it’s hard to find fault with anything on this album. I’ve already mentioned The Road, but the trio’s adroit, hard-bop interpretation of another pan classic, Ray Holman’s Pan on the Move, is equally unforgettable. Also outstanding are the two compositions by Williams — the mellow, castillan-toned masterpiece Keep the Master in Mind, and the more uptempo Happy’s Story — as well as Laura’s Waltz by Reid, and the trio’s stirring interpretation of the bittersweet standard A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. And, as usual, Sanch doesn’t disappoint when it comes to presentation and liner notes.

Georgia Popplewell

 

In the cask

Rum tales

From Cuba to Guyana, Trinidad to Antigua, the Caribbean exhales rum culture. These are the islands of the spirit’s birth, and the history of rum — a story of sugar plantations, slavery, emancipation, and ultimately international appreciation — shadows our own.

Some of us, following centuries of rumbullion exposure, have become rum snobs — aghast should anything but white rum be used to make cocktails! This rum élite, fearsomely knowledgeable when it comes to flavours and aromas, distillation techniques, and secrets of blending, also knows that rum can be a remarkable storyteller. And these experts say no rum story is older than that of Barbados, where the Mt Gay distillery has documentary evidence to back up its claim to be the world’s oldest surviving rum-maker — 300 years old, and counting.

Many historians believe this estimate to be a touch conservative, pointing out that Bajan rum was created long before. Nonetheless, the legal deed, dated 20 February, 1703, complete with age-darkened, dog-eared edges, is the world’s oldest proof of rum production, listing the equipment found on the Mt Gay estate at the time: “two stone windmills . . . one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house.”

Originally called Mt Gilboa, the estate comprised several separate plantations in the northern parish of St Lucy; the name “Mt Gay” appeared later, to honour Sir John Gay Alleyne, an 18th-century aristocrat who managed the 280-acre estate until his death in 1801. In the 19th century, as the plantation grew in size, it passed from the ironically named Sober family to the Thornhills. But it wasn’t until 1918, when an astute businessman by the name of Aubrey Fitzosbert Ward bought the now 372-acre Mt Gay estate, that Mt Gay rum, as we know it today, truly began its ascendance into international drinking lore.

When Ward purchased a Aeneas Coffey still in the UK — permitting a single or continuous distillation process, as opposed to the double distillation process of the pot still — he revolutionised the quantity and quality of rum being produced. Shortly afterwards, Mt Gay moved its operations to Bridgetown, where the rum produced at the distillery in St Lucy was aged in Kentucky white-oak casks, blended, and finally bottled. Today the Ward family continues to be involved with Mt Gay Rum Distilleries, the majority interest in which was acquired by the Remy Cointreau Group in 1989.

Another famous Caribbean storyteller, V.S. Naipaul, once insinuated that the Caribbean story is actually a non-story, because “history is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Well, rum may not quite be the equivalent of, say, electricity, but no one can deny its creation right here, or Mt Gay’s remarkable achievement as it celebrates its 300th birthday as the world’s oldest rum-maker.

Dylan Kerrigan

 

On the disc

Rhythm roundup

The best of the music reviewed in Caribbean Beat in 2003, as picked by our editors

  • Notable additions to the Caribbean jazz canon came from the trio of Ron Reid, Orville Wright, and David “Happy” Williams with their outstanding set Reid, Wright and Be Happy (reviewed in this issue) and élan parlé, who continued their jazz fusion explorations on Caribbean Renaissance.
  • Reviewer Simon Lee called Honest Jon’s London is the Place for Me (Trinidadian Calypso in London 1950–56), a compilation of early works by Kitchener, Beginner, Invader, Roaring Lion, and company, “a priceless slice of kaiso history and an aural counterpart to such literary works as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Lamming’s The Emigrants, which charted the early immigrant experience,” making the album one of our top two picks in the vintage calypso category. The other was The Man Who Never Ever Worried, Rituals Records’s reissue of 12 classic songs by the great Lord Pretender, whose death in early 2002 ended a 71-year career.
  • In soca, reviewer Mike Goodwin liked Singing Francine’s I Want You, and Georgia Popplewell was partial to young Turks Bunji Garlin (The Black Spaniard) and Treason (Word on the Street), whose flawed but ambitious contributions offered a glimpse at where the music is headed. “As the uptown/downtown divide in Carnival widens,” Popplewell said of Treason’s album, “and as younger performers stake out bigger portions of the Carnival space, it’s going to be about who can most successfully negotiate the minefield of hip-hop, dancehall, and other rhythms that are the stock in trade of global youth.”
  • Martiniquan/French Guianese guitarist Chris Combette’s splendid De Plein Sud à Salambô was our top pick from the French Caribbean, while in reggae we were impressed with the handsomely packaged Burning Up: The Best of Sizzla, which culled 30 songs from the roots reggae superstar’s vast catalogue, and Dub Side of the Moon by the Easy All Stars, which took on the monumental task of reproducing Pink Floyd’s classic album in reggae form — and succeeded.
  • Beat’s top rock picks were from Trinidadian bands Orange Sky (Of Birds and Bees) and jointpop (Exile, Baby), whom reviewer B.C. Pires had no hesitation in comparing with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: “in terms of musical achievement,” said Pires, “. . . these are the West Indian equivalent of Rubber Soul and Beggar’s Banquet.”
  • And our favourite steel pan release came, not surprisingly, from the studios of Sanch Electronix, whose compilation Pan for the People: Steel Orchestras of Trinidad and Tobago/Switzerland featured classic Panorama arrangements of the past 20 years by figures such as Jit Samaroo, Ray Holman, and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, meriting this description: “collector’s item material, as well as a fine introduction . . . to the steel pan in its native, orchestral mode.”

Three superb performers give us their top Caribbean listening picks for 2003

Wayne Marshall

Da Real Thing just shows Sizzla’s class as an artist. This is real roots reggae and the vibe is powerful. Elephant Man’s Good 2 Go — it’s off the hiznick. The beats, the energy, the sound. And my album! Marshall Law — I’m proud of the compilation. It’s great listening music.”

Rising Jamaican dancehall star Wayne Marshall released his first album, Marshall Law, in September 2003

Gillian Moor of the Moors

“For me, three releases stand out. On Exile, Baby, jointpop’s second album, rock rules, but their calypso roots are evident too. The sad but sweet 122345-544321 and I Hate Entertainment are among my favourites. Of Birds and Bees by Orange Sky has come, I think, closer than their previous albums to capturing this rock/ska band’s onstage energy and sound. Roadblock is my standout track. And Love Bomb by Sheldon Blackman of the Love Circle is a mini-release, but for me the jamoo vibration is always powerful and sweet, and its pro-peace message is a timely one.”

Trinidadian rapso-rocker Gillian Moor released Moon Madness in December 2002; in 2003 she took her sound in a fresh direction, forming a new band, the Moors

Emeline Michel

“I don’t have any ‘best of’ picks for this year. Many artists in the region appear to be repeating themselves, chasing some notion of ‘international pop appeal’, or haven’t put out anything really new . . . Some of my favorite artists are Chris Combette from French Guiana, Kali and Kassav from Martinique and Guadeloupe, respectively, and Beethova Obas and Boulo Valcourt from Haiti — this year I simply continued to enjoy their ‘old’ stuff!”

Haitian singer Emeline Michel’s album Cordes et Ame (Strings and Soul) won the 2000 Musique En Folie awards for Best Haitian Album and Best Production

Reporting by Kellie Magnus and Georgia Popplewell

On the shelf

Bliss was it in that dawn

In the Kingdom of Light: Collected Poems  

M.G. Smith, ed. Wayne Brown (Mill Press, ISBN 976-8168-07-2)

Once there was a time when the moon was bigger, the stars were brighter, and young men in love wrote poems (nowadays, young lovers post to their weblogs, or text each other). One such young man was Michael Garfield Smith. It was 1938; 17 years old, a student at Kingston’s Jamaica College, he made two life-shaking discoveries. The first was poetry: Smith was “stirred into song by the dawning nationalist movement”. The second was love, and for an older woman: eminently unrequitable, and hence eminently suitable for verse.

There’s no indisputable proof of this beloved’s identity, but all the circumstantial evidence suggests Edna Manley, sculptor and patron of the arts, wife of one future prime minister and mother of another, the central figure of the Jamaican cultural revival of the 1930s and 40s — and 21 years older than Smith. She was his original muse, and a loyal friend, but never reciprocated his ardour.

Writing in 1984, Manley praised Smith’s “gift of responding to . . . intense visionary experience”, but wryly noted, “he is not perhaps a craftsman”. In his elegant introduction to In the Kingdom of Light, Trinidadian writer Wayne Brown disputes this judgement, pointing to Smith’s “disciplined elation and sophistication of craft”. And the hundred-odd poems assembled here disclose many instances of elation and sophistication. Smith had a good ear, an eagerness for beauty, and a gift for rendering in phrases his ecstasy at the world’s, and love’s, possibilities, as in “You and the moon”, which Brown lingers over, or “The Glory Poem”: “cut this surging throat / To flood the world with dawn.”

But more than a few cringe-inducing lines lurk amidst such splendours; this apostrophe is unfortunately typical: “O beautiful / O beautiful / The cruelty”. Reaching for the faux sublime, Smith often catches instead the genuinely ridiculous. And his poems have their share of unearned metaphors, unsubstantiated rhetoric, and uncontrolled emotion — not recollected in tranquillity, but erupting melodramatically. What Brown calls “the imp of portentousness” prances with impunity.

These are flaws we forgive in the juvenilia of an important poet; but the poems in Kingdom of Light are both Smith’s juvenilia and his entire oeuvre, written in a seven-year burst. He went on to an eminent career as a social anthropologist, but in 1946, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, he ceased to be a poet. He was 24. “The scope of his poetic achievement has gone largely unrecognised,” writes Brown, “in part perhaps because his poems were never collected.”

In the Kingdom of Light is a necessary volume, allowing us to consider the achievements of a man who 60 years ago was a thrilling new talent in the young but rapidly maturing world of West Indian letters. (It’s disappointing that this collection comes without basic apparatus like an index of first lines, or notes informing us which poems were previously published. There’s no hint of chronology, and the poems are undated, making it impossible to judge the evolution of Smith’s craft.) Individually, some of these poems frustrate, some embarrass, but many delight. The finest of the love lyrics, quietly burning with agony and rapture, are deeply moving. But not as moving as the cumulative sense of promise unfulfilled. We’ll never know if this was the best Smith could do, or if he could yet have attained the true kingdom.

Nicholas Laughlin

Through subtle trees this wind

Through subtle trees this wind
This music thin small hands
Yet in the season of rain
Earth understands

This sea hides many isles
Where dawn takes birth and home
And builds the kingdom of light
Through which we roam.

M.G. Smith

On the disc

Ziggy goes solo

Having produced eight albums with his siblings, and with the weight of his father’s legacy behind him, Ziggy Marley steps out on his own with Dragonfly (Private Music, B00006CYB2), a sprawling album that blends rock, pop, folk, soul, and just the faintest hint of reggae to create a sound that’s more Bob Dylan than Bob Marley. It’s a break from the family tradition, but not completely. Sister Cedella helps out with background vocals, and Ziggy’s children Daniel, Justice, and Zuri sing along with Dad on the album’s last track. Other collaborators include John Frusciante and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kellie Magnus spoke with Ziggy about the new release.

This is a very different sound for you. What was the inspiration behind Dragonfly?

The inspiration behind it is for me to be true to what I feel, be true to who I am, and the type of music that I feel to do. We artists . . . our job is to express ourselves, not to express the expectations of others, but to express ourselves and keep creative. That’s what this record is all about.

What’s it like trying to forge your own musical identity while at the same time carrying your father’s legacy?

We don’t think about those things when we’re making music. We just let go. We have no preconceived ideas or no thoughts of responsibility, because if you start thinking too much then you lose the creativity — you’re now manufacturing things, not creating things. Creativity only comes when you can free yourself from responsibility and free yourself from expectations. To make this music, you just have to let go.

Have you always approached making music that way, or is this a new realisation you’ve come to?

It’s a realisation that was in process from the beginning. Throughout my career and my life I just kept trying to understand myself more, trying to open up myself more in the music so that people can hear the way I feel more. In the beginning it was more about trying to sing something . . . say something important. [I was] trying to emulate my father in the early days. As we grow, we seek spirituality, [try to] find a philosophy for ourselves that makes us feel uplifted. Then as we grow in that spirituality, at the same time we get more inspiration, based upon the way we’re  thinking. As that goes on we get to understand more . . . let go more, release more . . . don’t limit yourself
. . . be universal.

What other musical influences did you incorporate into this album?

Everything that you hear on this record comes from inside of me. It doesn’t come from me looking outside and taking something from somewhere else and putting it in what I have. As an artist I have every music inside me.

You’ve kept a relatively low profile the last couple of years. What have you been working on?

I’ve been working on myself. We take some time to rejuvenate we spirit, just relax, have some space, have some time. Reflection. Meditation. Growth. Just making music for creativity. Trying to make weself better every day.

This album is your solo debut. Will you be making more records with the Melody Makers or with your other brothers?

Yeah, man. That’s the future right there. This is just like fries — on the side. [laughs]

Your three children appear on the album. Will they follow you into the business?

I don’t know. Some of them seem musical. [My] children are all over the place creatively. They do music, they do everything. I’m not pushing them in any direction. We have to let them choose where they want to go in life.

How are you different as a father than your father was?

I’m a little bit more there. I’m not that totally committed to the music industry or business that I have to be away all the time. Because of what my father did and the work that he did, I don’t have to be out there working that hard. I have more time to spend with my kids, but it’s all because of him anyway. Because if he didn’t work that hard, then I’d have to be out there working that hard now.

 In the water

Come on in, the Soup Bowl’s fine

Off the east coast of Barbados, where the swells rise out of the deep blue Atlantic and break over the reef-encrusted rock shelf, climaxing in an instant with awesome power, roars one of the Caribbean’s best surfing waves. Landlubber locals refer to the area by the name of the nearby village of Bathsheba; Bajan surfers prefer the title “Soup Bowl”.

At its best, the predominant right-breaker is a powerhouse wave all good surfers should test themselves on someday (Outside magazine ranks the wave in the world’s top ten). When Soup Bowl churns, the best of the best charge down the line, catching barrels before they’re sucked over and worked out — a sight to thrill even non-fans.

Since 1994, Soup Bowl has been home to the Independence Pro Surfing Championships, a two-day regional event, run by the Barbados Surfing Association (BSA). With a purse of around US $7,500, surfers from Barbados, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the eastern US, and Venezuela all participate. In 2001, six-time world champion Kelly Slater, on a year’s break from the World Championship Tour, showed up, won the event, and, being the good sport he is, donated his prize money back to the BSA. This year, young Bajan Mark Holder is the home-crowd favourite. His style of attacking every wave, going for mad airs, sweet lips, and unbelievable floaters, is always a winner with the audiences of 5,000-plus who come to watch, lime, and party the weekend away.

While Bathsheba beach becomes a “tent city”, as those caught roofless camp out under the stars, the neighbourhood guesthouses heave with team members, their supporters, and the various soundtracks a multi-national event like this brings together. Apart from the competition, lots of other activities rack up the crowd hype. Jet-ski demos and parachute displays are two favourites, but it’s the “expression sessions,” in which contestants ramp the lips of waves, propelling themselves high into the sky before splashing back down into the ocean, that really impress onlookers. The culmination of the weekend is the huge prizegiving party at the Ship Inn, which later spills over into other hip St Lawrence Gap nightspots.

Back at the beach, Soup Bowl still roars, pounding and foaming as it breaks, forever ready for more.

The 2003 Independence Pro Surfing Championships take place on 8 and 9 November

Dylan Kerrigan

 

Can’t get enough waves?

Two video releases from Longbow Communications offer the chance to relive the 2001 and 2002 Independence Pro Surfing Championships in the comfort of your living-room. Pepper in Da Soup Bowl, as the name suggests, is muy picante, with plenty surf action, great cinematography, and an eclectic soundtrack. The 2002 event is captured on Reef Madness, offering more of the same, but with soundbites, commentary, and interviews, providing extra background on the wider Barbados surfing scene. Want to know which year had the bigger waves? Well, 2002 edged it for me, but judge for yourself.

For further information visit www.bsa.org or www.longbow.tv

 

On the shelf

Hard and fast

Ariadne & Other Stories

Ruel Johnson (self-published, no ISBN)

When these stories won a Guyana Prize for Literature last February, they were in manuscript, unpublished. Almost a year later, they still have not found a commercial publisher, and have appeared in book form only because the author has published them himself with the help of local subsidies (“Printing courtesy of Courts”). That’s a shame: it means you will probably find the book only in Georgetown bookstores, when it deserves much wider distribution. Also, it is in dire need of a merciless editor. But Johnson is certainly a writer to watch. He is at his best when dealing with raw relationships, the groping for love and the hurt of loss, the terrible gulf between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese, the threat of violence. Here the concrete reality of Georgetown life hits hard: young Guyanese grapple with ethnicity and sexuality, the dialogue is sharp and fast and gritty, and Johnson is not afraid to experiment with narrative technique. Not all the nine pieces are so well grounded; sometimes Johnson is tempted to impose one narrative voice upon another, or to let the writing soar into the lyrical stratosphere beyond the reach of clarity, with much less satisfactory results for the reader. But the best stories here (“Killing the Kitten”, “April”) deliver what good short stories should: distilled experience and a tight structure which can conjure up a whole world of meaning in a few hundred words. For anyone visiting Georgetown or curious about the life beneath its surface, Ariadne is a book well worth seeking out.

Jeremy Taylor

She had to have been crazy why would he come now unless he feelin lil suicidal then the old gate creaks on its rusty hinges and the dog barks high and then growls low but the neighbours and then the footsteps on the old staircase and Rehanna getting bigga and there is that swift short rapping on the door and her hand trembling slightly steady now cool it and the bright 2 o’clock in the afternoon April sunlight pouring in behind him and a glimpse of his face under the floppy hat as he turns to shut the door behind him and she turns and goes to the fridge and the cold air pushing into the room lightly swathing her face and when she turns to him, the two beers in her hand, he is already seated, head laid back, arms along the back of the couch, knees apart and in the air is the faint odour of shoes.

You does drink Carib?

Anything . . .

— Ruel Johnson, from “April”

 

On the disc

Musical masala

Libra Tula-Raasi

Rikki Jai

Trinidad’s five-time Chutney Soca Monarch seems to have his sights set firmly on the international market with this ambitious new release, whose 12 tracks run the gamut from soca to bhangra, with some rock, techno, and Bollywood film songs thrown into the mix. Rikki Jai slips with chameleon-like dexterity in and out of genres, and between Hindi and English, sometimes — as in Too Late, Jai’s bid for pop icon status — within the space of the same song. Mostly, it works. Fans of Asian popular music who don’t mind their bhangra, chutney, film songs, and techno rolled up into one masala-like mix will certainly be happy with an album which includes Kya Hai Pyar, a Hindi-language cover of Haddaway’s techno mega-hit What Is Love; River Lime, a soca number which borrows its intro from Guns ‘N’ Roses’s Sweet Child of Mine; a remake of Zindagi ek Safar from the Bollywood classic Andaz; Dil May Tum Ho, a cover of Red Red Wine featuring ragga singer Vybe; and East Indian in New York, a bhangra reinterpretation of the Sting hit.

Georgia Popplewell

Christopher irons, Jamaica

Chanting up

Full time Babylon realise that every ghetto youth is the element of surprise . . . wicked heart I must put you down . . . burning you with word . . .

— Sizzla, No Other Like Jah

Christopher Irons is an intense and driven speaker. His voice starts softly, then rises and falls. Each point is conveyed with a sense of astonishment and consternation at the world he depicts. As he starts to “buss lyrics”, he leaves you no headspace. It makes no sense to interject. He wants to provoke. He has a childlike excitement as he describes his existing works, and those yet to be made and unleashed on “dem.” His humour is sardonic, entertaining, wicked. It’s not surprising that Irons, who graduated from the Edna Manley School of the Arts in Kingston in 1998, has become one of the more spoken-about sculptors working in Jamaica today.

Sitting in the backyard of his modest living accommodations, over a year ago, he unravelled for me the bloody conflicts between various gunmen, criminals, youthmen, and politicians in contemporary Jamaica. He talked about the Braeton Seven, a group of young boys killed in suspicious circumstances by police. “There is no space for Jamaicans in this country, only politicians,” he mused, as we looked at one of his sculptures, a metal dog entitled F——ing State of Emergency, with its face in the dirt and menacing vultures picking at its rear end and its head. Under its body were rat-like forms. Its formal construction, the inventive use of found materials, and the skilfully captured gesture of desperation were all purposely defaced by a layer of graffiti-like scrawling.

Months later, on another visit to Kingston, I was heading out from dinner with a group of associates when two cars collided. Irons and another young artist were in the car that was hit. A feeling of dread came over me as I walked to them. Irons looked at me, blood pouring down his face, asking if the cut would leave a bad scar. I was out of my element, in every sense. His voice was childlike, but remarkably focused.

“No,” I said. “It looks small . . . Come, sit on the pavement and catch yourself first.”

Irons was preparing for a big moment in his life. He was heading to Nigeria to study and work there, as one of the latest recipients of the Commonwealth Scholarship. I was shaken that night by the thought of how close Jamaica came to losing two of its most promising new artistic voices.

Since my first meeting with Irons, Sizzla’s song No Other Like Jah has been on my mind. Irons is not a “ghetto youth” in that literal sense. But he is a countryman come to an anxious Kingston art scene prepared to chant downtown up, with a message about power and territory and a sense of direction.

Christopher Cozier