Snapshots (November/December 2008)

A brief look at Caribbean people doing extraordinary things

Ian Valz at the premiere of Panman, Rhythm of the Palms in St Maarten, December 2007. Photograph by John Van KerkhofJadunath`s sculptures and paintings on wood reflect his suspicion of the medical profession. Photograph courtesy Novas Scarman Group/Nik Kadir ShahKei Miller. Photograph by Georgia PopplewellSinger-songwriter Alani. Photograph courtesy Alani GibbonTrinidad-born artist Anthony Jadunath. Photograph courtesy Novas Scarman Group/Nik Kadir Shah

Miller finds fertile ground

Acclaim for a prolific young Jamaican writer

“Imelda Agnes Richardson learned something important on the morning of 29 September 1983; she found out things could change overnight.” So begins The Same Earth, the funny and charming debut novel from Kei (rhymes with “sky”) Miller. He’s only 30, but the success that Miller—who is also a poet—has been enjoying of late hasn’t, in his opinion, come overnight.

“It’s been a strange two and a half years from the first book to now,” Miller said, interviewed at the annual Calabash International Literary Festival in his native Jamaica. “So much happened really quickly. I had a book come out every six months, which really does represent about eight years’ work. That’s not always in the public’s mind.”

Perhaps not, though Miller’s current fertile period would make almost any other writer green with envy. Last year his first collection of stories, The Fear of Stones, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book from the Caribbean and Canadian region. Also last year, his second collection of poems, There is an Anger that Moves, was published, to no small acclaim.

This year has seen Miller edit an anthology of new Caribbean poetry, as well as the publication of The Same Earth, which won Jamaica’s Una Marson Prize, and which Britain’s Independent newspaper called “a humorous, bittersweet fiction, [that] combines the fantastical realism of Márquez with the domestic comedy of Andrea Levy.”

Coming after the weighty Fear of Stones, The Same Earth is an attempt at writing something lighter—in tone if not in theme. The novel tells a number of interconnected tales set around a Jamaican village called Watersgate, including the story of Agnes Richardson, who returns to the village after living in England for some years, only to leave again when a pair of polka-dot panties goes missing.

“I was reading several Trinidadians, [Earl] Lovelace, [Sam] Selvon,” Miller noted. “The tone was so light, so wonderful, and they were saying such serious things. The Same Earth is The Fear of Stones, it is dealing with how society excludes people, how intolerance works in this country. It’s all the same themes; I just found a lighter way to tell it.”

In his poetry, Miller is also interested in big themes, and treating with them in a big way.

“I’m not interested in writing slight poems, small poems. I’m not interested in small metaphors, I’m not interested in subtlety. I’m interested in a language that’s really large and really grand and pushes borders.”

Such ambition is paying off: There is an Anger that Moves was longlisted this year for Britain’s prestigious and lucrative Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers.
Now Miller’s literary journey has taken him away from his homeland.

“I was writing in the Caribbean and getting critiqued by writers from the Caribbean, and after a while I realised I couldn’t get better, in a sense, because [the work] was always understood.”

This led him to do a master’s degree in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he got the fresh critical perspective he sought.

“Sometimes you want your work to live in a place that’s almost hostile to that work because you learn other things about it…where people say literally, ‘I just don’t understand this, I don’t understand what you’re talking about’—I think it does make you a more careful writer.

“It is important to me that I am a Caribbean writer, but I am aware that my audience extends, or that I’d like my audience to extend. I want my work to welcome anyone.”

Miller has left Manchester and headed even further north, to Scotland, where for the past year he has taught creative writing at Glasgow University. So his writing has of necessity taken a bit of a back seat. (“I need to teach myself how to teach. That deserves some time.”) He has, however, started a new collection of poems, and a new novel, an ambitious book he admits to having attempted unsuccessfully before.

“I feel intimidated. It’s a bigger novel than my talent.”

But somehow, you wouldn’t bet against his succeeding.

Jonathan Ali

 


Spice Girl from Grenada

It’s underground acoustic night at London’s Blagclub in Notting Hill, a long narrow room jam-packed with a raucous after-work crowd. Even after the hostess pleads twice for silence during performances, the musicians struggle to be heard above the laughter and chatter.

Then Alani steps onstage and after a quick greeting begins to sing. The room quiets, but within minutes her performance is almost drowned in the sound of beer-soaked merriment. The distraction is too much and in the middle of her song Alani screams a piercing “Shut up!”

The crowd of English professionals falls silent, mouths open in shock.

She later apologises for being rude. But the lesson—don’t mess with a West Indian woman—is well learned by the audience, who remain quiet for the rest of her set.

Although London-born, Alani is proud of her Grenadian heritage and with a voice as emotive as Billie Holiday’s and full of Alanis Morissette’s angst, she seems destined to join the ranks of Rihanna and Leona Lewis, superstars with big voices and Caribbean lineage.

Alani’s sound is hard to classify: a bit of soul, a dash of jazz, a sprinkling of reggae and a pinch of pop, all stirred with haunting lyrics and passionate performance.

“I find it hard to describe or pigeonhole my music; I take music in, dissect it and reconstruct it, but there is a purity to it,” she says.

The first time I hear Alani sing, she is standing on a plywood platform on a street corner, one of 150 musicians featured at London’s Explore Sites & Sounds, a festival of music and architecture. There are at least six other acts in the same time slot, but her striking looks and penchant for hitting high notes attract an admiring crowd. Since February, Alani has moved from small venues to fringe music festivals, singing her truths to whoever shows up.

Sipping from a large paper cup of hot water—the only thing she’ll drink before a performance—Alani explains her affinity for smaller gigs. “I’ve been using my own material, building my confidence and stage presence. [It’s] the best place to learn the craft.”

Not that she’s a novice. At 27, Alani Gibbon has been performing since the age of three, and by her fifth birthday was attending stage school, where the lessons included singing, dancing and acting.

Ten years later she was signed to Sony Epic as a member of Kleshay, the first black girl group to join the record label’s UK division. Kleshay toured with Lionel Richie, released two singles and explored the UK’s underground urban music scene. Despite a repertoire of pop and R&B, they never made the mainstream. After three years Kleshay was dropped by Epic and Alani embarked on her own musical journey.

“I’ve sung for crowds of 40,000, but I’ve never had the chance to sing my own material, to stand up and sing something personal,” she explains.

Recently ending an acting stint as Zadie in Daddy Cool, a musical set in Trinidad and the UK, Alani is also a designer, working on a collection of hand-detailed vintage army jackets for her Larde Darede line.

“I just want to live off my music and art. I’d be glad to know I can live off Alani.”

Although looking forward to a possible gig in Grenada, she is busy recording her debut solo album. One single sure to hit all the right notes is End of the Road, an aching, bittersweet ballad detailing the ending of a love affair. It is this song she chooses to close her gig at the Blagclub.

“This is a quiet song. If you are going to be loud, there is no point in me performing it,” she tells the chastened crowd sternly. But with a smile and seductive tone, she promises, “It will be worth it.”

Judging from the applause at the song’s end, Alani kept her promise.

Gizelle Morris

 


 Playing the panman

After more than two decades of dominating the stage in St Maarten, Ian Valz has stepped up to the big screen, with the release of the first locally produced feature film, Panman, Rhythm of the Palms.

Since its December 2007 red-carpet premiere in St Maarten, Panman has been screened elsewhere in the region and is on the line-up for film festivals in the UK, North America, Europe, South Africa and Australia. It was scheduled for showing at the Curaçao film festival and at Carifesta in Guyana and to have a grand premiere in the Netherlands this September.

The film has picked up two awards, winning the narrative feature film category at the Hollywood Black Film Festival, and Best Score at the Brooklyn International Film Festival, both in June.

“We are very proud of these accomplishments,” the Guyana-born playwright said. “Perseverance and hard work always pay off.” And with 15 years of work poured into this film, Valz knows what he’s talking about.

Panman’s cast are all home-grown actors, most of them introduced to the stage and groomed by Valz himself. Among them are Rita Gumbs, Shama Flurton, Gary “Gee Money” Euton, Cedric Ortega, Betty Nisbeth, Angie Johnson, Marcus Biabianny, Andrew Dick, Edmund Paul, Ruby Bute and Liesbeth Kamerling.

The film tells of the rise and fall of panman Harry Daniel, played by Valz, who also wrote the script. Harry is a Caribbean icon whose life takes a plunge when he becomes totally immersed in his music and his drive to pass on the pan culture.

Panman is based on Valz’ play Rhythm of the Palms, first produced in 1991. The film is the debut feature of Dutch director Sandy Burger and co- produced by scriptwriter Norman de Palm.

Valz’ filmmaking is anchored in his love for theatre, which he has spent the last 24 years nurturing in St Maarten. He has produced or acted in close to 100 plays and has trained hundreds of actors. His productions are usually performed in front of sold-out audiences. Valz produced the first television mini-series, Peacock Dance, in 2002 and the first musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, in 1988.

He received one of the highest decorations in the Kingdom of the Netherlands when he was knighted by Queen Beatrix for his contribution to the development of local theatre.

He plans to turn at least two of his other plays into films in the future.

Judy H Fitzpatrick

Panman can be ordered by e-mail from: ianvalz@yahoo.com


Portraying the shapes of pain

Anthony Jadunath seeks catharsis in his passionate works of art

Red, the colour of power and passion, shiny, bright and thick as blood. It drenches the explosive work of disabled London-based artist Anthony Jadunath.

Ranging from the nightmarish to seductively sublime, Jadunath’s visceral sculptures, carvings and etchings, fashioned from chunks of wood and scavenged bits and pieces, are as subversive as they are shocking.

Red is the predominant hue and his subjects are dark and bizarre. Saws drip red among dismembered limbs, bulging red eyes stare out of frightening faces, and nude, voluptuous blondes expose all.

In one piece, called Confrontation, two metal dragons of nails and barbed wire face each other, razor maws open, while in Killing of a Man, a decapitated male body sits in a chair, a bleeding head in its lap.

“I think often of death these days. Feeling death makes the work more powerful, it gives it more to communicate better,” says Jadunath, 63.

It’s not only his recent work which evokes strong emotions and explores themes of anger, fear and menace. His earlier pen-and-ink drawings on rolls of paper are even more violent. Creating angry art was an escape from a chaotic life.

Born in Trinidad at 18 Davis Street, Belmont, in Port of Spain, Jadunath’s memories of the island are hazy but pleasant, although he hardly keeps in touch.

“I remember the smell of burning asphalt at the Pitch Lake. If I had money I would go on holiday to see the Pitch Lake,” he says.

After his father died, Jadunath and his mother emigrated to England when he was nine.

Abused by his stepfather, Jadunath embarked on a whirlwind of destructive behaviour and stints in various institutions, which culminated in his being committed to a psychiatric hospital after an overdose at 15.

It was then that Jadunath discovered art as an escape from the life that tormented him. On his release, he continued to explore his creativity and at 22, exhibited for the first time. As the clouds of chaos seemed to clear, Jadunath became more involved in the arts, working with children and winning a grant which let him start an etching course at the Croydon Art School.

“I taught myself, and then went to art school; I did not learn this there,” he says, pointing to a sculpture.

His work was shown to the late Victor Musgrave, filmmaker and founder of London’s Outsider Archive, and as a result more than 20 of Jadunath’s pieces were housed in the collection.

Jadunath married and started a family, but continued to pursue art, spending his days gathering the discarded bits and pieces that would be incorporated into his work.

In 2002, ill fortune struck. He went into hospital to be treated for a gangrenous toe. When he woke up, one of his legs, from toes to mid-thigh, was gone. In 2007, while still coping with the loss, he was again admitted to hospital for gangrene and lost the other leg.

Now confined to a wheelchair, Jadunath lives in a downstairs apartment in Croydon, South London, where he works, driven by a new emotional intensity.

“I think often of death because of my legs,” he admits, looking down into his lap.

Even if he did not give voice to these feelings, the preoccupation with his loss is obvious in Jadunath’s recent works, which are dominated by themes of dismemberment and mutilated legs and toes.

“When I am doing them (art) the feelings of hurt, anger and a whole lot of emotions—that we all feel, really—are fused into it. Once exhausted, I move on to another one.

“Whoever has these feelings in them will see them in my work,” he adds.

Despite Jadunath’s intensity, an element of whimsy, humour and hope creeps into his art.

“This series of work is more comical and cartoon-like,” said Keith Watson of London’s Novas Contemporary Urban Centre, which recently hosted an exhibition of Jadunath’s work.

But sitting in a wheelchair, of the kind you would find used at public hospitals, the legs of his grey pants pulled into a knot and tied with strips of cloth that look as if they were torn from an old sheet, his hands covered by mismatched fingerless gloves, there is no humour, only sadness, in the artist’s brown eyes.

Gizelle Morris