All in the Blackman family

When calypsonian and soca pioneer Lord Shorty (Garfield Blackman) reformed his flashy lifestyle and retreated to rural Piparo in the late 1970s, Trinidadian music would change forever...

“A creative life is what was encouraged.” Photograph by Mark Lyndersay“If you look at us perform, everybody does their thing.” Photograph by Mark LyndersayClaudette Blackman with her daughters Marge and Nehilet. Photograph by Mark LyndersayEldon and Nehilet Blackman. Photograph by Mark LyndersayIssac Blackman in the studio at Lovers Lane. Photograph by Mark LyndersayMarge Blackman. Photograph by Mark LyndersayMatriarch Claudette Blackman. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySheldon Blackman. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Jamoo Connection boutique. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Love Circle (clockwise from upper right): Sheldon, Isaac, Marge, Claudette, Nehilet, and Eldon. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Love Circle rehearsing. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

When Garfield Blackman, the sharp-dressing “saga boy” calypso star also
known as Lord Shorty, metamorphosed into a barefoot prophet in simple white
robes, packed up his life and took his family to live in the forest, people
said he was crazy.

That a man who had been charged with indecency for his on-stage
antics during a performance of a song called The Art of Making Love,
a man allegedly as versed at fathering illegitimate children as at lyric-making,
should suddenly start talking about God, was unthinkable. But Garfield Blackman
was a complex man. Blessed with intelligence and charisma, he possessed both
a taste for carnal pleasures and the spirit of a social reformer. He could
turn a salacious phrase better than most, but he could also write serious
social commentaries. He was serious about music as well.

“He was the only one who would stay back and really get his music
together,” says Claudette Blackman, Shorty’s widow, of the days when the
two of them were part of a musical revue that toured southern Trinidad back
in the 1960s. “Everybody else would run through quickly and say, ‘Alright
that’s good, that’s good’.” Shorty’s application impressed Claudette enough
for her to forget his initially awkward advances and take him seriously as
a partner — they married in 1964.

By that time Lord Shorty had already made a name for himself in south Trinidad.
He won the South Calypso King title in 1962, and reached the finals of the
National Calypso Monarch competition in 1968. In 1973 he attracted attention
with two controversial songs, Indrani, a chronicle of African/Indian
romance which telegraphed the nation’s racial anxieties, and the aforementioned
Art of Making Love.

As the 60s ran into the 70s and calypso seemed to be ceding
its regional dominance to a fledgling sound emanating from Jamaica, musicians
and performers started to talk, in the way only Trinidadians can, about calypso
having run its course. To Shorty, however, this was a sign that the music
needed not abandoning, but revamping. “He was so perturbed, and really angry
about that,” says Claudette. “He’d say, ‘How they could just leave the music
to play some kind of Yankee boogaloo?’”

Thus began the series of experimentations that would result in the development
of soca. Shorty had grown up in Lengua, a predominantly East Indian village,
and felt that a new national music should, or could, incorporate Indian rhythms,
a notion which didn’t prove as acceptable to the wider — and predominantly
African-heritage — community of calypsonians and musicians. He tested some
of these ideas on his 1974 album The Love Man. “People didn’t go for
it,” says Claudette. “People said he was playing Indian.”

The album that made people stop and listen, and take the idea of soca seriously,
was 1975’s Endless Vibrations, which sold, according to Claudette,
“like hot roti”. The title track, with its call for a new musical vibe, became
a soca classic.

Shorty and Claudette, meanwhile, had built a comfortable life in the southern
town of Marabella. An ambitious and savvy businessman, Shorty started a publishing
company and a record label. He was a prolific writer. Their family grew.

In 1976, he made his first miscalculation: he brought out a calypso tent
called The Professionals. The tent failed, bringing him close to financial
ruin. It also delayed the release of that year’s LP, Sweet Music, which
ended up being released after Carnival, missing the rush of sales. He also
lost money on a tour of Toronto. They had to give up the house in Marabella.

Shorty’s next significant release, 1979’s rather inaptly titled
Soca Explosion, was the work of a changed man — one embittered, perhaps,
by personal financial ruin, but also one applying the same acuity of vision
that saw soca as the way forward. The feel-good party songs had given ways
to introspective and now-classic numbers like Who God Bless, Shanti
Om
, and Money Eh No Problem (which took its title from an audacious
statement by the country’s then prime minister), works which questioned materialism
and explored various forms of spirituality. Trinidad and Tobago’s oil boom
years were still in full swing, but Soca Explosion foreshadowed the
end of that era, and expressed a disillusionment with the state of affairs
that would later be considered visionary.

“I could say I had one marriage, two husbands,” says Claudette, who adds
that the only thing that kept her going through Shorty’s questing period was
her faith in God. She was all for the spiritual thing. “Because sometimes
you’d feel a little terrible when he was this flashy man, with all this set
of fast living,” she says, in what is almost certainly an understatement (Shorty
is believed to have had 11 children in addition to Claudette’s dozen). But
Shorty had also become odd and depressive, and she questioned his methods.
Casting off the flashy clothes she could understand. “But he took off his
gold . . . He just started flinging it about the place, by the seaside and
elsewhere. That’s why people said he went off. He just wanted to get rid of
all that. Bondage, he called it.” She was concerned, too, about his hair,
which he had stopped combing — a dramatic political statement by a once meticulously-groomed
man. She sat her husband down and counseled him to “take it down a bit …
be careful you’re not taking up some kind of extremist type of attitude.”

But getting as far as possible from his former lifestyle was
exactly what Shorty had in mind. He re-christened himself Ras Shorty I, and
set about looking around for land in the countryside. He soon found a friend
of a friend who owned a plot in Piparo, in south-central Trinidad. Claudette
wasn’t too impressed when she first went to see it, but the children, who
by then numbered ten, were instantly sold on the idea. The family moved around
1980 into what Claudette describes as a “sort of log cabin-looking house”
with “three-and-a-half” bedrooms, embarking on a classic rural lifestyle.
They lived without electricity (though later they’d get a generator) and water
had to be brought from a nearby spring. They planted their own food.

The talk in Trinidad at the time was that the Blackman children were being
taught exclusively from the Bible, but they were in fact home-schooled by
a variety of tutors, including Abby, the eldest child, and their parents.
Ras Shorty I led the family in daily devotions, and took care of music education.

“A creative life is what was encouraged, basically,” says Sheldon Blackman,
who was born on the cusp of his father’s transformation period in 1978. “If
you had a skill you wanted to develop, you found a way to express yourself
. . . And there was a very strong spiritual — Christian — foundation, that
was centred around school, the land, the music as a family . . . So it was
a family church, basically.”

American cults have given the wilderness-and-religion combo a bad name,
and the usual sorts of rumours proliferated. The Blackmans’ Piparo hideout,
if you were to believe the stories, was a hotbed of Appalachian-type domestic
arrangements and general backwardness.

“We would get all these weird questions,” Sheldon said of the
misconceptions outsiders had of the family’s lifestyle. “People really thought
you’re primitive, that when you see people you’d go running and hiding. And
then they’re shocked when you speak English and when you address them with
a ‘Yeah, what’s up?’, and with confidence. Or that you could carry on a conversation,
you could respond, you had ideas.” Once, when the band was late for a performance,
Ras Shorty I told the promoter it was because “the vine burst”; the promoter
believed him.

In a documentary on the family made in 1985 by a local television station,
producer Judy Alcantara ends an otherwise sympathetic portrait of their situation
by echoing the sentiments of much of society at the time. “Prophet or madman?”
she asked. “Only time will tell.”

Life was not easy. Money was often scarce. “My father had literally developed
a policy of let your conscience be your guide,” says Sheldon. “So wherever
he was called to share, he would go. And whatever people had to offer, we
would receive. If you have plenty, we give thanks. And if we had little, if
we had just a little fig, we’d find a way to make boil fig and stew fig and
fry fig.”
As both Sheldon and Claudette emphasise, the family were far
from isolated. “We were interacting with the society,” says Sheldon. “We used
to come in Port of Spain almost three times a week, and interact with diverse
amounts of people. I would be in Cedros one minute, and then I would be in
Goodwood Park.” When some of the older siblings moved to town, they would
return on weekends, bringing friends. Strangers wrote asking if they could
drop by, and Shorty I always welcomed them.

The vehicle for the Blackman family’s mobility was the Love Circle, the
family band that was the artistic manifestation of the values which informed
their Piparo lifestyle, and also of jamoo (Jehovah’s music), the gospel-soca
hybrid Shorty I developed during this phase. This was a natural outgrowth
of the family’s music-fueled daily devotions. It had always been a musical
household, but in Piparo, in the absence of television and other distractions,
the incentive to create music was even greater. “The instruments were in
the house, and you were encouraged to pick them up and learn to play,” recalls
Sheldon. “And everybody else in the house was playing.” At a certain age,
he adds, you were perhaps steered towards a specific instrument, but most
of the Blackmans became accomplished multi-instrumentalists.

The Love Circle initially comprised Ras Shorty I and the older children,
Abby, Dereck (OC), Sean, Daniel, Gary, and April. When OC, Gary, and Abby
moved on, Shorty started including the younger ones in rehearsal, then in
smaller shows, as the Junior Love Circle.
The band performed in all manner of places, from Rastafarian
drum festivals to churches (although the family never became members of any
church other than their own, and Shorty I found there to be no shortage of
hypocrisy among the so-called devout). But Shorty I was never one to be satisfied
with preaching to the converted. “He said his ministry was ‘unto the Gentiles’,”
says Claudette. “That is why he used to be in all the pubs, all the mainstream
shows, still a part of it.” The Love Circle even performed in calypso tents
during the Carnival season, surprising promoters who didn’t think the band’s
message would fit in with the Carnival mood.

Or perhaps their style. The definition of jamoo as gospel-soca didn’t begin
to describe the nuances of this roots music, which incorporated elements of
folk, reggae, jazz, and rock, and  had plenty in common with the work
of artists like André Tanker and the members of the rapso movement.
The Love Circle demonstrated a high degree of musicianship, and had a sound
that was loud and enveloping and swept you up in its embrace, with Shorty
I’s soaring tenor floating above harmonies of the others. Somehow, too — unlike
traditional gospel, and more like roots reggae — the music appealed as well
to the not particularly devout, in spite of its Christian content. All blessed
with striking good looks, grouped around the imposing white-robed figure
of Shorty I, the Blackmans were also effortlessly stylish, in colourful flowing
robes and head-ties designed by Avion Blackman under her Jamoo Designs clothing
label.

Any doubts that might have remained about the significance
of the Love Circle were dispelled in 1989, with the release of Watch Out
My Children
, the stirring anti-drugs anthem which remains the group’s
best known piece. “It came about when Shorty I went into Port of Spain one
day,” Claudette says. “He came home that evening and said, ‘I don’t know what
this place coming to.’ He’d seen some young boys just sitting around looking
like their life had been wasted. He called one of the young guys and started
speaking to him. And they couldn’t explain their life, they couldn’t say
what they were even doing tomorrow. And when he looked at them, he realised
they were on cocaine.

The Love Circle knew the song was special, and audience reactions bore that
out. “We would look at the audience, and it was heart-breaking,” Claudette
says. “We would see people with tears coming out their eyes. Because everybody
had a situation where they had a young person on drugs of some nature.”

A music video was produced by Banyan in 1989, and in 2002 Watch
Out My Children was chosen by the United Nations International Drug Control
Programme as its theme song. Ras Shorty I did not live to see its second incarnation,
however, for in 2000 he succumbed to bone cancer and died. He was 58. At
a massive funeral at Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain he was hailed as
a visionary and cultural pioneer.

After Shorty I’s death, the Blackmans moved from Piparo to Tunapuna, just
outside Port of Spain. Sheldon, Eldon, Nehilet, Claudette, and Isaac today
occupy a house on a narrow street called Lovers Lane. It’s a far cry from
Piparo, but they’ve managed to recreate some of the atmosphere, in the form
of a garden filled with rustic wooden artifacts and concrete walkways inlaid
with coloured stone — manifestations of the creative life their parents had
encouraged them to live. Behind the house is the Jamoo Connection boutique,
where they sell CDs and items from the Jamoo Designs clothing line, now run
by Nehilet and Marge. The older ones have gone their own ways, but keep in
touch. Abby lives elsewhere in Trinidad; OC and Haile live in Los Angeles,
and have a band called Upstream; Sean, Gary, and half-brother Daniel have
a band called Abstract, and are based in Asia. Avion recently married Mark
Mohr, leader of the band Christafari, and lives in Los Angeles.

Sheldon, now 25, has emerged as the family leader, a role he says he was
groomed for from quite young. He spearheads the organising of concerts and
the business of the Jamoo Good News company, and also manages his own solo
career when he’s not travelling to Europe to perform or attend youth conferences.
The Love Circle torch is carried today by Sheldon, Eldon, Nehilet,
Marge, Isaac, and Claudette. They’re all songwriters and soloists in their
own right, and the group continues to function on stage as each member’s backup
band, as well as performing the inspirational ensemble pieces they’re known
for.  What’s most interesting is the varied styles these children of
jamoo — who count the Cranberries, U2, and Bob Marley among their influences
— have evolved. Sheldon is a the big-voiced roots guitarist; Marge is a wistful
folkie; Nehilet a hip-hop queen in the Janet Jackson mode; Eldon a quiet rocker;
and 21-year-old Isaac, who has just released his first CD, has developed a
commanding R&B/rock god presence which belies his small stature. “The
whole infrastructure we set up is that the group will always remain the Love
Circle,” says Isaac, the youngest in the family. “If you look at us perform,
everybody does their thing, and just as we are on stage is just how we intend
to do the albums, one after the next, and after all that we’ll bring out another
Love Circle album again. Each member of the group is quite capable of having
their own personal career, and be strong, and they could hold the fort by
themselves. That will make a strong unit.”

A LOVE CIRCLE DISCOGRAPHY

Children of the Jamoo Journey (1999)
The Love Circle (Jamoo Good News)

Jamoo Victory (1999)
Ras Shorty I and the Love Circle (Jamoo Good News)

Remember Me (2000)
Sheldon Blackman and the Love Circle (Jamoo Good News)

Home Grown: Jamoo Fresh from de Backyard (2003)
The Love Circle (Jamoo Good News, JGN 1004)

Remember Me Reloaded (2004)
Sheldon Blackman and the Love Circle (Electro Sounds, ES 00147)

In Your Eyes (2004)
Isaac Blackman