Words from underground

Trinidad’s open-mike performance circuit thrives outside the limelight

Gillian Moor, Songshine producer. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaOzymajic. Photograph courtesy Richard SpenceSheldon Blackman of the Love Circle. Photograph courtesy Richard Spence

Once a month, a thick crowd crams into a tiny bar in St Augustine, Trinidad, to hear the heartbeat of the underground. Though it’s technically an open-mike show, there’s always a featured guest — anyone from local folk/alt band 12 to reggae-soca singer Maximus Dan or hip-hop poet Dara N’Jeri — and a dozen lesser-known performers. The host is local folk singer Gillian Moor, who produces the show. Everybody comes with an act and a dream; the open mike makes it all happen.

This is Songshine. It’s one of a growing number of such shows on the Trinidad circuit that’s developing into a bona fide phenomenon. Other regular shows in the mix include the Speakeasy, Writers’ Block, and UWI Speak; occasionally, other events also crop up.

It was about eleven years ago that my brother and I came up with the idea for one of the first open-mike shows of this current wave: Sunday Breezes. I was about to travel to Canada and needed a fund-raiser. Others threw barbecues, but as a poet I thought I’d stick with what I knew. I called all the writers and performers I knew and asked them to donate their skills to the cause.

In 1994 and 1995, a collaboration of writer Georgia Popplewell (now Caribbean Beat’s music editor), designer Robert Young, and counsellor Gillian Goddard had run a monthly show in Young’s backyard in St Joseph, featuring rapso, jamoo, poetry, and other kinds of fringe expressions. There was a small stage, and flambeaux provided lighting for the acts and guests. I had performed in more than one of these shows, and made links there with the other performers. Around the same time I met a collective from south Trinidad who staged a massive concert in the Palmiste pasture outside San Fernando. The Backayard, as it was called, was a community celebration featuring acts from Point Fortin, San Fernando, and other points south, as well as friends from up north. Also around this time I “broke ground” in the rapso movement, making my debut on the rapso stage along with a batch of other newbies under the watchful eye of Brother Resistance, the elder statesman of the genre that calls itself “the poetry of calypso.” Finally, artists Edward Bowen, Christopher Cozier, and Che Lovelace had hosted a number of evenings of poetry and old-talk at their Art Space on Woodford Street in Port of Spain’s Newtown district. These circles were small and strange, dominated by the works on the dusty walls of the building, and immensely moving.

It was all these influences and more that led me and my brother Dennis Taye to think Sunday Breezes could be a good idea. We somehow managed to convince actor and director Raymond Choo Kong to let us use his Space Bar in uptown Port of Spain to host what would be five weekly shows, late on Sunday evenings. The performers who turned up — mostly invited, but some coming spontaneously — were a wild, gorgeous mixture. The Blackman family, scions of the father of soca and jamoo, Ras Shorty I, came to play, jamming on guitar and congas. These young people with amazing talents would harmonise and play with terrific skill, never failing to touch all present with their gifts. Elspeth Duncan, a writer who has since produced a number of CDs of her instrumental music and songs, would play guitar. Natasha Joseph, a pannist of stellar reputation, brought her shining guitar pan to bear. Rhoma Spencer, a writer, director, and actress par excellence, did some of her exceptionally funny and on-point social monologues for the tiny audience.

Sheldon Holder, now frontman of the band 12, would be there with his guitar, singing the early incarnation of what he’d later call “eclectic soul”. Mark Jiminez, better known as rapso performer Ataklan, was a regular, as was an old friend of Taye’s and mine, Ozy “Ozymajic” Merrique. No matter who else came or didn’t, we could count on them to be the stars of our show.

I’d read poetry, as would a sister-friend, Paula Obé — who has since published two books of poems and a CD, as well as co-produced a CD and show called Ten Sisters.

Sunday Breezes was a wellspring of talent, and without exception the acts, whether experienced and professional or amateur and nervous as hell, gave from the heart. I was the MC, along with Taye, introducing the acts with Trini irreverence. There was no stage, no mike or special lights. People sat on bar stools, stood up when those were filled, or squatted on the floor. They limed in between acts, got to know one another, and had a ball.

After the series was over, Ataklan and Taye carried it on, under the name De Holy Underground, at the Space Bar and later at the Café des Artistes in the since-demolished Bagshot House in Maraval, before it drifted to an end.

Then, in 1999, I wanted to hear a friend of mine play guitar. Joey Rivers, at the time the lead guitarist of the soca band Xtatik, also played cuatro, old time kaiso, and jazz. I wanted to hear him play off the soca stage — and I wanted to read some of my own poetry and hear other poets read — but there was no venue in which to do it. So my brother and I made one. We arranged a show at Davises 100, a bar in Port of Spain, and sent out the word that the show was on. It was called Izahvibe — a phonetic spelling of “it’s a vibe,” which is what the evening was. It used the same format as Sunday Breezes, except that this time there was an actual mike to be left open. Joey came through with a side of guitarists, and they played for the first time a set that they would go on to refine into a popular café act.

The show continued every two or three weeks, and featured a new act each time: Orange Sky, jointpop, Ozy, Ataklan, Paula, and now-defunct bands like Big-Eyed Grief and Kevin McMayo’s No Name Band. A number of poets, especially, used it to try out the material that had been gathering dust in their folders. Among the most touching stories from that period: Marylin Pantin was working bar when she decided to come up and share the poems she wrote. She had never read before, but used to pin her poems to her bedroom wall for her alone to see. The first time she read — a sensuous poem about loving a younger man — she brought down the house. She became a regular, and has gone on to have a successful career as a performance poet.

Though we never paid performers, giving them at most a gratuity for transport (there was no entrance fee, but we did pass a hat), we provided something Trinidad didn’t have anywhere else: a space to stretch. Soca shows are a dime a dozen, and there’s a small but significant rock scene, largely fuelled by the bands themselves, who produce their own shows. But for the many dozens of poets, rapso performers, and other kinds of “alternative” acts, Trinidad was a barren wasteland.

Izahvibe went on for three years, on and off, and then came back in 2004 as Izahvaps over one long weekend. But when it wasn’t running, people would ask us, “When is the next show?” My response would be along the lines of: “When are the people who use it going to start their own shows?” Izahvibe was never meant to be the only one.

I was thrilled in 2001 when Paula and Anessa Baksh, as Fish Ink Press, came up with the concept of Ten Sisters, a women-only poetry and folk music collective that would hold occasional shows around the country. From that series came a CD featuring the likes of singers Avion Blackman, Karissa Lewes, and Gillian Moor, and humorous poet Farida Chapman; Marylin’s on it, too, along with poet Carol Hosein and other spoken word artists.

From subsequent configurations of the Ten Sisters came two women who collaborated on the Speakeasy, singer Corinne Grey and poet Dara N’Jeri. As Mahogany Groove they staged a monthly session at the famous Woodbrook restaurant Veni Mangé, where even more poets congregated. (It has since moved to the Skyy Bar, down Ariapita Avenue.) At last, the spoken word circuit is gaining momentum. Crowds spill out onto the sidewalk for these sessions, which are intensely anticipated and faithfully attended by fans of the word. N’Jeri’s own rapid-fire shots, social conflagrations set to the throb of a hip-hop beat, are undoubtedly one of the main attractions, but there are other acts who have an avid following. One such is Word, Sound, and Power, a four-man group of militant young poets who lick shots at oppression and social injustice. Muhammed Muwakil, one of the group’s members, has replaced Grey, now that she has moved to India, as a Speakeasy producer.

And the young poets of Queen’s Royal College and the Bishop Anstey High School, both in Port of Spain, as well as students of the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, have started their own shows also. Writers’ Block and UWI Speak are growing in popularity, and at long last providing much-appreciated venues for young poets and other wordsmiths to express themselves.

The Speakeasy takes place at the Sky Bar, corner Murray Street and Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, every first Thursday of the month. Songshine takes place at Trevor’s Edge, corner St John’s and Eastern Main Roads, St Augustine, every first Sunday. UWI Speak takes place at the Students Activity Centre, UWI, St Augustine, every third Wednesday during the teaching semester. Writers’ Block takes place in the school hall, at either QRC or Bishop Anstey High School, Queen’s Park West and Abercromby Street, Port of Spain, respectively, monthly on an announced date