Snapshots (March/April 2008)

Look out for these rising Caribbean stars

24-year-old Bajan singer Shontelle Layne. Photograph courtesy SRC/Universal RecordsCurtis Smithen, a young, homegrown Caribbean chefJeanille Bonterre, right, and Varia Williams, centre, play the love interests of Andrew Pilgrim’s character. Photograph courtesy Jeffrey BishopProfessor Donald K Gordon at Canadian bookstore A Different Booklist for the launch of his controversial book. Photograph by Donna YawchingRoasted fillet of swordfish and cauliflower-potato stew. Photograph by Sharon Millar

Shontelle Layne: focus pon me

That’s the title of one of the tracks Shontelle Layne wrote for her debut album. But really, as she says to Caroline Taylor, it’s all about the music

It’s been a busy few years for Shontelle Layne. In between working towards a degree in entertainment law at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Layne has penned hit songs for countless soca singers in her native Barbados, like Natalie Burke, TC, and most famously Alison Hinds, for whom she wrote Roll in 2005.

Hearing Roll prompted SRP Records producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers to go in search of Layne, in order to license the track. But after taking one look at her and listening to her sing, they signed her as a recording artiste, eventually helping her secure a deal with Steve Rifkind’s SRC Records, a subsidiary of Universal-Motown, in August 2006.

Just a few credits short of completing her law degree, Layne had to make a difficult decision: finish her degree, or seize the opportunities that were presenting themselves. And as she recognises, she had an incredible string of luck that seems to predestine her for music stardom.

Before entering UWI, she used to tell her mother she would be the Barbadian Missy Elliott: singing, writing, rapping, producing and making hit music. The declaration seems prophetic now.

The songs on her 11-track debut album, Shontelligence (due for release in the first quarter of this year), are strong and diverse.

“There’s some pop/rock, R&B, hip-hop…but most of it is infused with sounds of the Caribbean…some of the beats are straight-up reggae beats. So it’s like a tropical pop album or something!” Layne laughs (she has a dry and witty sense of humour).

Producers like Stargate (who also worked on Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable) have worked on the tracks, and few, if any, can be neatly classified into a single genre. There is the reggae/hip-hop infused Blaze It Up, with Bermudan superstar Collie Budz. There are heartfelt ballads like Cold Cold Summer, harking back to old-school soul and R&B, and I Crave You, written over the guitar line and chord progressions some might remember from Sting’s Shape of My Heart.

There’s the uplifting, world-beat-flavoured pop anthem, Superwoman (authored by Amanda Ghost, and the only track on the album Layne did not write or co-write).

There are more serious numbers like Ghetto Lullaby, words of wisdom she was inspired to write for her youngest sister; and Life is Not An Easy Road, which she wrote as a song of hope for those who suffer poverty and oppression anywhere in the world.

There are also two irresistible and infectious dance tracks, both of which are strong contenders to be her debut single: Naughty, which she sings with Jamaican dancehall star Beenie Man, and Focus Pon Me.

Of course there is Roll, which, left to her, probably would have not made it on to the album at all, and which she recorded at the request of her record company. Though she co-owns all the rights to the song with Trinidadian producer Sheldon “Shel Shok” Benjamin, she has received some backlash—particularly in Barbados—and met some confusion on the road as to who the song “belongs” to. (You can hear Layne’s version, which differs from the original Hinds recording, at www.shontellemusic.com.)

Layne has all the ingredients for success. Her vocals are assertive and versatile, and she has a flair for writing catchy hooks and snappy lyrics in a variety of styles. She has a svelte, athletic and sultry look that record companies can market. She has the brains and business savvy—which she credits to her law studies and her manager, Sonia Mullins—to help her avoid many of the pitfalls and mistakes that many young artistes encounter in the commercial music business.

But most striking of all is how this young woman, still only 24, remains grounded, confident yet humble, and balanced despite the demands of a career that is accelerating to full speed.

Audiences and critics will no doubt fall into the easy trap of comparing her to her compatriot Rihanna (with whom she shares a manager; who was also first produced by SRP Records; who is also on a Universal-Motown label, Def Jam; and with whom she has been friends since their teenage years, when Layne, a drill sergeant, had to make Rihanna, an unruly cadet, drop down and give her 10 push-ups). No doubt they’ll continue to make a fuss about Roll. But that would be to miss the point. And for Shontelle Layne, the point has always been the music.

For more information: www.myspace.com/shontellemusic

 


Telling it in black and white

There was not an inch of extra space at A Different Booklist, in midtown Toronto. It was packed to the rafters with well-dressed West Indians, some of whom had driven from as far away as Ottawa, or flown in all the way from Barbados.

The occasion at the bookshop was the launch of what is certain to be a controversial publication, Language and Racism: Historicity, by Professor Donald K Gordon.

Born in Jamaica in 1935, Dr Gordon studied in Toronto in the 1960s, and taught Latin American Studies at the University of Manitoba from 1970 until 2001, when he retired. Along the way, he amassed a raft of professional honours, including the designation of Professor Emeritus in 2004.But only those closest to him knew that, for many years, Gordon had been quietly researching what one admirer at the gathering called his “work of heart”—a stinging indictment of the pervasive racism he says abounds in society.

Delving into the minutiae of countless newspaper articles and headlines, and leaning heavily on the works of Frantz Fanon and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, Gordon produces a plethora of examples to support his theory that racism against blacks is not only alive and well, but ingrained in the very fabric of the language, in such words and expressions as “blackmail,” “black sheep,” “black magic,” “black as sin,” and “Black Friday.”

He believes the constant negative usage of the word “black” reinforces—even in the minds of black people themselves—the stereotype of black inferiority and the presumption of white superiority, leading to subjugation and self-hatred on the part of the former and unrelenting racism on the part of the latter.

Language and Racism: Historicity will no doubt generate debate, both academic and otherwise.

Donna Yawching interviewed Gordon on the night of the launch.

Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
The thesis is that language is the essential basis of racism. Everything negative is black. Children internalise this. Lots of kids ask me why everything bad is black. I am not the first person to point this out: Frantz Fanon deals with it extensively.

What do you think you bring that’s new to the topic? As you say, it’s not a new theory.
I’ve covered it more extensively and in greater detail. (Others) did state the thesis, but they did not elaborate. I’ve tried to do so.

While one might agree that “black” has taken on negative connotations, why should that necessarily be attributed to racism? Didn’t many of these associations occur long before Europeans even discovered black people? “Blackmail,” for example, comes from Old English.
Who is it who gives meanings to words in dictionaries? Language usage can be made to change—look at the word “gay.” I’m saying that there’s a preponderance of words with “black” that have negative connotations; and any psychologist will tell you that this constant linking of black as negative, and drumming it into you, must have a negative effect.

I’ve made the point that we (black people) have imbibed the poison to such an extent that we ourselves use it as common currency. Ebony magazine has given an example: instead of saying Black Wednesday, let’s say White Wednesday; whitemail; white sheep. An increasing number of black people will understand, and will change.

I’m not trying to change the world, because I can’t; but I am trying to make black people more conscious.

Can’t a lot of this negative usage be considered almost primal, rather than racial, growing out of an atavistic fear of darkness? Night=black=mystery=evil?
People are afraid of black people. People are afraid to work with black people. They think there’s something inherently bad with black people, simply by being black.

Do you think that still holds true?
To a large extent, yes. I think racism is alive and well, and not diminishing at all… I’m not saying there’s a resurgence; but there is no diminution. Look what recently happened at Jena.

What about negative “white” terms: white feather, white flag, white elephant?
They are relatively few, compared to negative black terms.

Why should a newspaper be considered racist for using terms like blackmail and black market, that are just part of the vernacular and are not generally considered to carry any racial undertones?
The point I made is that there’s an interdependence between the media and the public. I’m not accusing them of being racist, but they propagate it by the very nature of the media.

Explain how the power structure makes it so that no matter what foul names a black man may call a white man, it never has the same impact. Why “honky” never quite cut it, and why no other effective term of contempt has arisen.
A lot of black people don’t use those terms enough—terms like cracker and honky—because we don’t want to “descend to their level.”

The second thing is the matter of the media: we have no control at all over the media, none. It is white folks who control the media. The media must have an impact on how you think.

Why is it okay for a black person—for example in rap music—to use all kinds of negative terms to refer to themselves and their women, but not okay for a white person to do so? Is this an example of self-hatred, or self-empowerment?
I object to black people calling each other names. I object to rap songs that call names, and put down black women, especially. I have the strongest objections to those songs.

There is no way black people should be demeaning other black people. Saying “I can do it, but a white man can’t” is a stupid argument. It’s vulgar and demeaning. There’s no redeeming quality to that.

Assuming your theory about language is right, what do you think can be done to change things? It’s unlikely that the whole vocabulary is going to change just because black people don’t like it.
Black people ourselves ought to stop using “black” in a negative kind of way. We have to understand what’s happening to us and do something about it. The consequence (of the current reality) is black people killing each other and blaming it on the legacy of colonialism.

You reject the term “non-white” and you think that “black” has negative connotations. What do you propose in their place?
(Instead of passively accepting designations such as “non-white” or “people of colour”) we can describe white people as “non-black,” or “colourless people.” We should stop being so pacifist, we should stop turning the other cheek, because we have been the victims. We should resist this business of saying we will not descend to their level. That is a mistake.

Have you ever been accused of paranoia?
Yes, I have been—a friend of mine accused me of exactly that. But a year later he came around to seeing my point of view, and was manly enough to call and say that I was right.

You say in your book that “Even at university level, blacks must know their place and be kept in check.” How does this jive with your own professional success and exalted position?
Let’s just say that I’m the exception. I have experienced outright discrimination. But I have insisted that my qualifications and experience be respected.

If historical realities had been reversed, do you think blacks would have been any less racist than whites?
We would have been far more human. We’re always demonstrating our humanity.

Why is it that your book has no publisher? It is self-published.
I got 19 rejections. I got two firm “yeses,” one in Canada, one in the States, but then they just petered out, so I just did it myself.

 


The sweet hand of Curtis Smithen

An executive chef from the tiny island of Nevis won Sharon Millar’s heart with his mushroom risotto

“Smell that?” Dusk is falling quickly as I follow Curtis Smithen over a rickety little bridge towards the glow of a funky little beachside restaurant. “I know that smell since I’m small.” The warm smokiness speaks to all of us born in the Caribbean. Something seasoned with a good dash of island herbs is roasting on a bed of hot coals. Some intangible in the delicious gloom of twilight, the roar of the beach and the sweet anticipation of a good meal makes me realise that this is where Caribbean culinary artistry is born.

Smithen’s laid-back charm puts an amiable face onto the conventional image of an executive chef. He has done his little island proud with his steady ascent up through the culinary ranks and his recent appointment as executive chef of the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma, at Emerald Bay Great Exuma, Bahamas, was a feather in the cap not just for him, but for all young and aspiring Caribbean chefs.

In the traditionally patriarchal societies of the Caribbean, men are not usually found in the kitchen. But those who do learn at the knee of a favourite aunt or beloved grandmother are often recognised for their instinct at the oven and taught with care.

With the Caribbean rapidly evolving as one of the last unexplored culinary frontiers, homegrown young chefs like Smithen bring to the table a familiarity with unsung and unknown products of the regional food basket.

One taste of his mushroom risotto at last year’s Niche (the Nevis International Culinary Heritage Exposition) was enough to convince me that this man knows his way around a kitchen. Risotto is not a tremendously pretty dish, so what it lacks in beauty, it must make up in taste. Smooth and sharp at the same time, the mushroom risotto was the star in a room of epicurean prima donnas, prepared with a true “sweet hand” as we say in the Caribbean.

There are some older folks who say that a sweet hand cannot be learned. As a child, he was fascinated by the transformation of chunky root vegetables such as yam and dasheen, which, paired with dried coconut, emerged in a miracle of alchemy as steaming layers of brand- new flavour; truly superb food emerging from outdoor coalpots that emitted the delicious smell of seasoned meat spitting into caramelised sugar. He spent much of his childhood roaming the streams and rivers of the island chasing the ultimate prize, the plump crayfish that still populate the streams today. The next step was to cook them, on the beach with a match, dried coconut palm leaves and a quick rinse in the salty sea water—a feast of kings for hungry little boys.

His favourite meal? Pig-trotters souse and red beans. Or a good bone-in chicken roti. And his earliest memories are tied to the Sunday morning ritual of his mother preparing the traditional melongene (eggplant) and saltfish breakfast dish that holds a beloved spot in the memories of West Indians.

His appointment as executive chef of one of the flagship Four Seasons Caribbean resorts speaks volumes not simply about his culinary ability but also his management skills. As part of the staff of a global hotel company that encompasses 73 properties in 31 countries, star employees must display devotion to service and personal.

With specialties such as herb-crusted lamb with ratatouille (Nevis Vegetable Stew) served with coconut sauce, and his Bahamian creation, baked lobster macaroni, this is one Caribbean chef I will follow over any bridge. Just remember, if he’s coming to dinner, don’t forget the soused trotters.

Recipe: Mushroom risotto

Ingredients

1lb mushrooms (button and shiitake)
2 cups arborio rice, cooked al dente

3 shallots, finely chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 cups heavy cream
2 tbsp whole butter
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup chicken stock, hot
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil

Method

Sauté the shallots in the olive oil, over medium-high heat for 45 seconds, or until translucent.
Add risotto and cook for three minutes.
Add the mushrooms and fresh thyme, cook for three minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the heavy cream and chicken stock and cook for five to ten minutes.
Add the butter and Parmesan cheese.
Season to taste.

Recipe: Roasted fillet of swordfish and cauliflower-potato stew with garam masala sauce

Ingredients

1 swordfish fillet lightly seasoned with salt and pepper
1/4 cup cauliflower flowerets, blanched in salted boiling water
1/4 cup potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch dice, cooked in salt water
1/4 cup frozen garden peas
2 tbsp diced tomatoes
1 tsp vegetable oil

Recipe: Garam masala sauce

Ingredients

4 each white or yellow onions, peeled and sliced thinly
1/2 cup red lentils
1 tbsp mustard seed
1 tbsp ginger
4 garlic cloves
1/2 can diced tomatoes
1 bunch cilantro (shadon beni), half of it chopped
cayenne pepper to taste
1/2 cup curry powder
4 tbsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp cinnamon powder
4 tbsp ground coriander
3 tbsp ground cumin
3 tins coconut milk
2 tbsp vegetable oil (not olive oil)
1 tsp chicken base
2 tsp finely chopped shadon beni or coriander for garnish.

Method for sauce

Blend tomatoes, ginger, garlic, cilantro (shadon beni) and cayenne pepper, and set aside. Combine all the spices—curry, turmeric, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, coriander and cumin—and toast over a medium heat until they release a fragrant smell. Be careful not to burn.
In a large saucepan, sauté onions until very translucent, add the lentils and cook with onions for two minutes.
Add the toasted spices to the pot; make sure all spices are stirred in.
Pour in the blended mixture and continue to stir all the ingredients, avoiding burning.
Add chicken base and coconut milk and simmer for 20 minutes, then add mustard seed.

Makes approximately one cup.

Vegetables
Sauté vegetables in hot oil for two minutes.
Add garam masala sauce and stir together.

Fish
Grill swordfish over hot coals or on indoor grill until firm to the touch. Do not overcook.
Place vegetable and potato garam masala decoratively on plate. Place grilled swordfish on top and garnish with finely chopped shadon beni or coriander.

Recipe can be doubled easily.

Eat and enjoy.

Recipes courtesy Curtis Smithen

 


Bonterre bowls them over

A “Caribbean Queen” takes her star quality to the silver screen in the regionally-produced cricket movie Hit for Six, reveals James Fuller

And New York-based Trinidadian Jeanille Bonterre, the host and producer of Downtown Island, on the Caribbean music cable channel Tempo, is excited about the project.

“Everyone can relate to different aspects of the film, and Alison Saunders-Franklyn [writer/director/executive producer] deserves great credit for that. She has managed to take issues relevant to everyone and explore them using a sporting theme. You don’t need to know anything about sport to appreciate the human angle: emotions like love, jealousy, selfishness, ambition and forgiveness are familiar to all.”

Hit for Six follows the tale of Alex Nelson, a talented but inconsistent cricketer, who is trying to recapture his place in the West Indies side after three years in the wilderness. He is also driven by a desire to regain the respect of his estranged father, a former great West Indies player himself.

Stir a love triangle—of which Bonterre’s character Astrid Jones is a part—into the mix and it’s a story that Bonterre says has something for everyone.
Filmed in Barbados and Jamaica, the movie had its premiere during the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean last April and has since opened all around the region.

“We’ve had nothing but rave reviews so far,” says the Santa Monica College and Ryerson University graduate, who picked up the Best Actress Award at the Barbados Film Festival for her portrayal of soca singer Jones.

“My acting experience had been all dramatic, in theatre. This was my film debut and it’s nothing like being on TV,” she laughs. “There you just tend to let things happen and bounce off the people around you but here you’re scrutinised from every single angle, every move and delivery. Richard [Lannaman, director of photography] would be saying, ‘The lighting is on your left,’ ‘The camera angle is this or that,’—you have to be so technically precise.”

Sporting action doesn’t often transmit authentically to the screen, but Bonterre, who is often referred to as the quintessential Caribbean Queen, says Hit for Six achieves this.

“Right from the opening scene you have a beautiful setting: the tropical sun, the lead character, Alex Nelson, making a play, the crowd reaction, the noise, the passion, the atmosphere. It’s all there. It is a scene which encapsulates Caribbean cricket culture and one which has really connected with the Caribbean audience.”

A number of West Indian cricketing legends make cameo appearances, including Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, Sir Everton Weekes, Joel Garner and the Reverend Wes Hall.

Empress Jeanille, as Bonterre is known on Tempo, grew up among cricketers, and counts Trinidadian batting great Brian Lara as a personal friend. Whether Hit for Six can scale the heights outside the Caribbean, as Lara did, remains to be seen, but, in any event, it is an experience which has left its lead actress eager for more.

“I definitely want to do more acting—but I want to repeat the exact same experience with a Caribbean crew and Caribbean screenplay. I have been firmly launched on that path.”

Bonterre is fiercely proud of her West Indian heritage and an unashamed champion of all things Caribbean.

“I’m living in New York…and yet I am still able to zone in on my Caribbean identity. What is wonderful is that people are then interested in where I come from, and I can tell them all about our wonderful region and culture. It’s enabled me not to stand out, but to stand up.”

The Carenage-born presenter is also aware that, as a young and successful West Indian female, she is becoming a role model for women in the region.

“I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I would like to be a role model for Caribbean women. It would be an opportunity to help people out and show them the way. Every decision I take, I think about the impact it will have on others.

“I only ever do things that feel right. If others want to pose half-naked on magazine covers that’s fine—but that’s not me. You look at offers and think, ‘Is that more about the fluff or the substance?’ I think about what is being asked of me, whether I am challenging myself and whether there’s any compromise to my Caribbean-African identity. I have to have purpose in what I do.”