Snapshots (January/February 2008)

A brief look at the achievements of some innovative Caribbean creators

A model wears a bracelet and necklace of amethyst, fluorite, Swarovski crystal and sterling silver. Photograph courtesy Calvin FrenchGet Caught Reading series co-editor and author Nasser Khan with beaming schoolchildren who took part in the launch. Photograph by Petronella GriffithJewellery designer Monika Schenkel is wearing a necklace of aquamarine and sterling silver. Photograph courtesy Alan SalandyMendez outside her Toronto home. Photograph by Michael Goodwin

Can cricket teach you to read?

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but that power is gained through reading. With that in mind, British Gas Trinidad and Tobago (BGTT) and the Ministry of Education of Trinidad and Tobago launched the Cricket Readers Get Caught Reading Competition in September 2007, following the launch of the book series last February. The event will not only include a reading competition but also a “read-a-thon,” with a prize-giving ceremony in March.

The series, first envisioned in 2004, is the culmination of over three years of hard work on the part of Nasser Khan, a Trinidadian cricket enthusiast, historian and researcher.

Khan adopted the idea after hearing the head of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Peter Eckerly, on a local radio programme. Eckerly spoke about a successful project in England that addressed the reading problems that children of immigrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan experienced because there was nothing that sparked their interest. The ECB introduced books on cricket, which caught the attention of the children and their parents, while incorporating all types of subjects, including geography, mathematics and social studies.

Khan had an interest in the issue of illiteracy, since his wife Ramona ran parenting workshops in schools and corporate offices. But after hearing Pamella Benson, at the time the head of the National Library and Information System Authority, and journalist Tony Fraser expose the literacy rate in schools among children—one in four was functionally illiterate—he felt he had to take matters into his own hands. He co-edited the entire series, as well as writing four of the books.

After talks with Heinemann, the publishers, it took three years to find a sponsor in BGTT. BGTT went to the Ministry of Education’s curriculum division to make sure the books were suitable for the five-12 age group.

With similar problems in the other cricket-playing nations of the Caribbean, the aim is to get the books to poor readers around the region, who are predominantly boys. The Education Ministry of Barbados is already using the books, with St Lucia, St Vincent, Antigua, Jamaica and Guyana planning to include them their schools and libraries.

Again the difficulty is finding a sponsor but Khan hopes companies throughout the region will assist. He does not plan to stop with Caribbean nations, but wants to take the series to other cricketing nations such as those of the Indian subcontinent, South Africa and even places such as Toronto, where cricket is played among immigrants.

Mirissa De Four

The Get Caught Reading series is available at all Ishmael M Khan and Sons bookstores in Trinidad and Tobago and online at www.heinemann.co.uk/Series/Primary/GetCaughtReading/Buy/Buy.aspx

Stone loving

The catalogue of a collection by Tobago-based jeweller Monika Schenkel is a list of delicious-sounding stones. One translucent, shiny offering is a necklace and bracelet combo in rock crystal, moonstone and silver. The silver beads are made of glittering fine wire wrapped into an irregular ball, which picks up the rock crystal’s rough shape and the moonstone’s iridescent glow. Another is a honey opal and silver necklace, which glows from within with a warm light. Other combinations include turquoise, aventurine and moonstone; raw blocks of tiger-eye and yellow jade; lava stone and camel bone; and coral and mother-of-pearl.

Her creations, often monochromatic, combine handmade silver beads and findings with semi-precious stones, many in their raw forms.The German-born artisan arrived here via Carnival and steelband music. “I came 1993 with my little daughter for the first time because I was interested in pan and the entire Carnival and music culture, coming myself from Cologne in Germany, a carnival city as well.

“After taking part in Carnival, I realised how diverse the culture is and, as well, how beautiful and different the two islands are, and I knew, after spending three months, that I had to come back.”

Schenkel studied fashion design in high school and worked as a fashion designer in Europe, Canada and North Africa. She also had a gallery for design and art in Cologne. In Tobago she renewed an old interest in things artistic when she started her line of chunky, funky things.

“I was always creative in many different ways. And by travelling the world, seeing many forms of art, it inspired me. My love for beads, pearls, gemstones I discovered in Africa when I saw the beautiful jewellery of various tribes.

“I started about four years ago buying gemstones, silver and other materials and started to make some jewellery for myself. When people saw it they asked me to make some for them as well, so those were my first orders. To get better and further my studies I took a silversmith course in London.”

Peter Elias, who retails her jewellery at his women’s wear shop in West Mall, Trinidad, said it right: you have to feel it to get it. Looking at pictures of the items doesn’t convey their weight, coolness or force.

Schenkel said she chooses her stones for their spiritual properties.

“It is known that gemstones have energy, or call it healing power. They can positively affect a person’s well-being, emotional and physical, so I choose carefully which gemstones I combine.”

Reaction to her work has been mixed, she said. “Either people love it or they don’t. It all depends if you attach value to gold and diamonds in the classic way or if you are brave enough to buy something more unusual and unique made for your type. I have clients who collect my pieces like art.”

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Schenkel retails her one-of-a-kind jewellery via her e-mail: spiritoftheisland@gmx.net, Elias’ shop, and the Art Gallery, Hibiscus Drive, Lowlands, Tobago; e-mail: artgal2@hotmail.com. Her work is also available in Cologne at Gallery Almira, Pfeilstrasse 37

Hitting the high notes

On a lovely spring afternoon in northwest Toronto, unusual sounds are issuing from an otherwise average house. A passerby might not quite hear the accompanying piano, but wouldn’t be able to ignore the window-rattling tenor voice doing an aria from La Bohème.

The house under assault belongs to Trinidadian Cherry Ann Mendez. This is where, amidst marble-topped coffee tables and highly varnished oak panelling, and bookshelves groaning under piles of music, she coaches a select number of students in the finer points of classical singing. She’s a longtime soloist herself, and her voice has been heard in concert halls around the world. “I’m a dramatic soprano,” she says, “which entails doing lots of things, from Aïda to Dido; it’s a wide range.”

Mendez, who was born in San Fernando but grew up in Port of Spain, came from a musical family and has literally been singing all her life. At a kindergarten talent show, she recalls, “I sang ‘Polly put the kettle on.’ I was so brave onstage, they clapped and wanted me back a second time. I never forgot that.”

Ten years later, a 16-year-old Mendez strode into the Radio Trinidad office—“in [Holy Name Convent] uniform, with my schoolbooks”—and announced that she could sing, and wanted to do so on radio. Nonplussed, the radio folks told her to come back when they had a pianist on hand. She did, and ended up with a regular Tuesday-night programme, Cherry Sings.

“I got hell from the nuns, who wanted me to sing only religious songs,” she laughs. “I did not heed them.” Her preference was for light operatic arias, and romantic Broadway show tunes.

Fate came calling a year or so later, when the legendary black American contralto Marion Anderson visited Trinidad. Mendez sang for her, and was advised by the diva to develop her talents in the US. That was the start of a life of musical study and performance.

Mendez has studied extensively in New York, starting out at the renowned Mannes College of Music, where she absorbed the foundations of her future career: diction, language, staging, movement, make-up, costuming, even fencing. “We learned how to walk like a man, act like a man, in case we got ‘pants’ roles,” she recalls.

She also sang and studied with professors from the Juilliard School. Since then she has performed at concert halls and music festivals in New York, Toronto, Italy, Germany and several Eastern European countries. She has (of course) performed in Trinidad; and with the Caracas Opera Company. She has even met the Queen, at a Buckingham Palace party.

A youthful marriage to celebrated Trinidadian cyclist Lennox “Reds” Morris, followed by three sons before she was 25, slowed but did not stop Mendez’ singing career. By then living in Toronto, she would fly to New York for auditions, master classes and recitals.

When her marriage ended some years later, Mendez began taking private voice students. She sang recitals in Toronto and took master classes in New York. As her boys grew older, into their late teens, she confesses, “I just took off for Europe,” flying back and forth; but never, she insists, missing any of their high-school concerts. Well, almost never: “I only missed one, and Allan (her youngest son) never let me forget it.”

Not surprisingly, Mendez’ oldest son, Colin, turned seriously to music, and is now an orchestra conductor. To help Colin develop his abilities, she founded Ars Musica in 1996.

A small arts performing group, Ars Musica has mounted scaled-down versions of major operas (they can’t afford sets and scenery, or large opera choruses) and numerous recitals featuring both Mendez and her students. “We’re the only small group (in Toronto) with our own conductor and orchestra,” she says. She sees the on-stage experience as vital for her students, two of whom have been featured in the Canadian reality TV show Bathroom Divas.

Still glamorous at 64, Mendez has not abandoned her own singing career, but these days her energy is focused on advancing her promising students. She makes periodic trips across the border into the US, to personally present her rising stars to her own former mentors, highly-respected singers who can open important doors. And her commitment to her protégés is absolute: if any of them is singing a concert anywhere within reach, Mendez is right there beside them, mothering from the sidelines, keeping them on track.

Paul Abelha, her window-rattling tenor (and Bathroom Diva finalist) explains why he chose to study with her: “It’s because of her open-mindedness to the voice, in comparison to most of my past teachers. She’s more about discovering what works for the individual, than sticking with a lot of rules and guidelines. With her, I can discover the sound the way I can do it.”

Donna Yawching