Snapshots (January/February 2009)

A brief look at Caribbean people doing extraordinary things

Alton Ellis. Photograph by Eric OliveiraArtist Ingrid Persaud at the opening of her solo show. Photograph by Joanne SpencerHunters and Gatherers, an installation by Persaud. Photograph by Joanne SpencerNewton Marshall at the Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race from Dawson City, Yukon Territory to Eagle, Alaska and back, 2008. Photograph courtesy Chukka Caribbean Adventures/Jamaica Dogsled TeamSinger Mona Murray. Photograph courtesy Mona Murray/Jef Vanhoute

Notes from a small museum

Artist Ingrid Persaud shines a light on life in Barbados

One can’t get much more Establishment than the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, first opened to the public in 1934 to display the collection of the Rev NB Watson, retired rector of St Lucy Parish. And it’s always interesting to observe who the Establishment embraces. Last year the museum showcased the conceptual artist Ingrid Persaud.

Persaud is a Trinidad-born, internationally established artist. In January 2007 she settled with her family in Barbados, after living for many years in England and the USA. This return to the Caribbean she sees as a positive move: a commitment to living in the region, offering her two young sons a sense of values, of place and home.

By May last year she was well into her commitment as artist in residence and had opened a solo exhibition of her work at the museum. Through her popular blog Notes from a Small Rock (http://notesfromasmallrock.blogspot.com) she also chronicles the lighter side of Barbadian life, with stories like Macoing on de Rock and Tanti’s got Company at Kensington Oval. How much, I wondered, was the link with the museum a meeting of like minds or a setting in which to explore creative tensions?

Persaud has a long track record of success in a variety of fields. First came an academic legal career that included teaching and scholarship in the UK at King’s College, London and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the USA.

Not content with one career, she gave it up and returned to study fine art at Goldsmith’s College, London, followed by a master’s degree at the equally prestigious Central St Martin School of Art and Design.

She draws on both callings in her creative work. Focusing on conceptual art and the creative use of text as an art form, Persaud has exhibited and undertaken public commissions in the UK. Her work has also been shown at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious of all the biannual art shows.

Asked how she sees her art, she said her creative work deals with unwritten and unseen boundaries caused by social, cultural, political and economic factors. One aspect of this work is a search for a voice that confronts the boundaries of who can be an artist and who is not. Who decides where creativity resides and where it does not?

Also she is clear about the social function of her work. Art for Persaud is about finding a way of confronting the everyday, unwritten, non-physical boundaries that limit people.

And it is some of these boundaries that she confronted in her recent solo show at the Barbados Museum called You Go Down the Ladder, I’ll Shine the Torch. There are no shortages of leads or beams of light in this presentation of her new work to give clues to her concerns. One form they take comprises all-encompassing questions: what is the role of a museum, what should be displayed in exhibitions, who decides; as well as more specific ones: what do individuals collect, why does a public institution collect some things and private collectors others?

For the most part her exhibits are rare or quirky items drawn from the museum’s archives, but presented with a light or humorous touch. She asks us, the viewers, to consider what might be made of her eclectic offerings. A variety of genres are played with, including installation, traditional museum display, diary entries, conventionally framed art and technological innovation. Out of this mix can be discerned an overarching theme of juxtaposition of old and new, the humorous and the serious. Many of the trails come to a halt too quickly, but then the title also suggests that the viewer will need to do much of the work—the “going down the ladder” element of the title, presumably while the torch battery lasts.

In a corner, spilling out from a tall glass cabinet, was a huge, screen-printed catalogue of artifacts that individuals have hoarded for their private collections. The mix was diverse, from plastic spoons to fancy-dress noses, skulls and rocking chairs. Persaud’s exhibition also included diary entries of a single day (Tuesday, May 6, 2008) in an exercise that she called “Make History Today.” It was noticeable that the majority of respondents were women. Many entries, across the gender divide, betrayed, either directly or by implication, a self-absorption with status. Simultaneously, perhaps unsurprisingly in conservative Barbados, self-censorship was also the watchword—apparently no bodily functions or fornication were worth recording that day. These two pieces provided a taste of Persaud’s art: alive and engaging work that makes the viewer a co-conspirator.

While I have emphasised the tensions, there seems to have been enough room for both tensions and links. Persaud is to return to the museum this year to contribute to an installation around Barbados’ hosting of Unesco’s Memory of the World project.

Philip Nanton

 


Dashing through the snow—in Jamaica

In 1988 the efforts of the island’s bobsleigh team led to a Hollywood comedy. Now a team from the tropics is tackling another winter sport—dogsledding

Jamaican sprint star Usain Bolt caused a stir by doing the gully creeper when he won gold at the Beijing Olympics last August. But Jamaicans have been known to attract attention at Olympic events in the past, not just for their speed and showmanship, but for their gumption.

The Jamaican bobsled team first created near-hysteria in 1988 by taking part in the Winter Olympics in Canada, then upset all expectations in 1992 in France. The four-man team finished in 14th place, ahead of countries that actually have snow—the US, Russia, France and Italy—and in the two-man races they finished 10th.

The world celebrated their effort and Hollywood was inspired, producing the film Cool Runnings, with comedian John Candy leading the cast. The Jamaicans have sent a team to the Winter Olympics ever since.

Now Jamaica’s pushcart derby has inspired its participation in another winter sport, dog-sledding.

The team trains for part of the year on dry land in Jamaica, using “second-chance” dogs, adopted through the Jamaica Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. For the rest of the year they train with specially-bred Alaskan Huskies and Pointer Crosses in North America.

The dog sled idea came from Danny Melville, the founder and CEO of Chukka Caribbean Adventures, an award-winning adventure tour provider in four Caribbean destinations—Jamaica, Belize, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos. His partner in the dog sled venture is American country singer Jimmy Buffet. In 2007 they launched soft-adventure tours for dog lovers at Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Ocho Rios, on Jamaica’s north coast, where horse riding, river tubing, 4×4 safaris, canopy tours and bicycle tours are also on offer.

The Jamaican dog sled team is led by two mushers, 24-year-old Oswald “Newton” Marshall and 21-year-old Damion Robb.

Marshall, who sings reggae songs to his dogs to get them moving, started working as a gardener at Chukka Cove Farm, but is set to compete in the 1,000-mile 2009 Yukon Quest in February. He first has to finish the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race in a good time.

Robb is scheduled to participate in nine events so far this year, starting with the Kinross Classic I 6-Dog Pro in Michigan in January and ending with the Snowflake international (4-Dog Pro) in Minnesota, with a few major races in Canada tossed in, such as the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships in Quebec.

Team founder Melville says: “From the very start, my goal for the team was to have a Jamaican compete in the Yukon Quest, and it is amazing to think that Marshall is one race away from taking us there.

“To have Robb competing at the World Championships in his sophomore season is more than even I dreamed possible.
“Every Jamaican should be proud of these young men for their hard work and success in a sport they didn’t know anything about a couple of years ago.”

Tracy Assing

 


 

Not just another woman

Singer-songwriter Mona Murray is based in Belgium, but has bigger plans for her debut CD. Essiba Small spoke to this well-travelled Trinidadian artiste

Recording artists often tell stories of where they were and what they were doing when they heard their song on the radio for the first time.

Singer Mona Murray, who recently released her first CD, Another Woman, was drinking a “ferociously strong” cup of coffee in Belgium, where she lives, when her song I Fall Again hit the airwaves.

“I was in a cafe with a musician before starting our rehearsal and he suddenly looked at me and said, ‘That’s you!’ So I listened and it was I Fall Again.

“I don’t know how long it would have taken me to pick it up myself. My hairdresser had a good laugh because he put on my album especially for my appointment—and again it was only after a few minutes that I clicked.”

The sixth of seven children, and the sister of former West Indies wicketkeeper Deryck Murray, Mona, grew up in Trinidad on soca, soul, R&B, rock, pop and jazz.

At eight, she wanted to take singing lessons, but was advised to join a choir when she was 15.

“That put me right off that idea, so it wasn’t till I went to London at 18 that I started taking private singing lessons.”

Murray went to England to study Commonwealth literature, but she also did a few singing gigs. So when the opportunity presented itself to be part of the four-member group The Magic Platters, she was game. The second-generation group was formed by the original Platters lead singer, Tony Williams.

For 13 years Murray toured the world with the group. She especially enjoyed touring close to home, whenever the group visited “a South American country, with people who wear their heart on their sleeves.

“At every concert people would come up to us, not just for albums or autographs, but to give us a personal memento in exchange for the music: someone’s chain and crucifix, a compact with a mirror, invitations to someone’s home. [At] every concert there was a warm personal encounter, sharing emotions and positive vibes.”
Murray settled in Belgium after The Platters signed a contract with a Belgian manager and she met her boyfriend.

“When I started working with them, we were based in a hotel in Flanders to do our tours. One of our first shows was in Lièges, where there is a strong live music scene, so when I met my boyfriend it was an easy decision to move to French-speaking Wallonia.”

The Platters tour would later inspire Murray’s own debut disc, particularly the songs Your Love is the Love, Let Me Feel Your Body and I Fall Again.

It’s still too early to tell, but sales for Another Woman are already looking good. Murray has also promoted the CD with her band of four musicians and two backing singers, in major music festivals, with good radio, television and press support.
Another Woman is laid back, with Murray’s vocals reminiscent of Carly Simon, and the backing music a feelgood orchestra-meets-pop hybrid. But of course, since she’s from Trinidad and Tobago, she’s been asked more than a few times why she isn’t singing soca.

“The truth is, melodies and lyrics come into my head and I don’t try to fit them into a specific style—I sing them how I hear them. Your Love is the Love is a little funky, All I Ever Need is country-flavoured rock, Let Me Feel Your Body is a little Marvin Gaye… And of course 13 years with an American group probably influenced my style subconsciously.

“As soon as I write a song that’s soca or dance [music] I’ll record it that way. I’m a big David Rudder fan, so if I keep listening I might get some inspiration.”

None of the songs on her CD is in French; Murray said English just came naturally.

“When I start composing a melody, the words for the chorus and/or first verse usually come at the same time, and naturally enough, they come in my language.”

But she isn’t afraid of singing in another tongue.

“One of my projects is to compose a duet (in English and French). I occasionally perform one or two songs in French (Quand On N’A que L’Amour by the Belgian singer/composer Brel is one of my favourites). I’ve been heard to sing a couple of songs in Portuguese and Spanish.”

Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves, Rachelle Ferrelle, Elton John, Luther Vandross and Take 6 are all part of Murray’s exhaustive list of musical influences. She often performed songs by Franklin, along with Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Norah Jones, when she was part of the Platters, she said.

“And then I also do jazz shows, with jazz standards from Billie Holiday to Elton John.”
Murray has been writing songs consistently for the last eight years, and wrote all but one (I Fall Again, co-written with Gerald Calhoun) on Another Woman. She’s already begun work on her next CD.

“I’ve already got eight songs for the next album, which will have a slightly different feel.”

But her focus now is on promoting Another Woman.

“I am also targeting festivals in Belgium…I also want to start promotion on the Flemish side of Belgium, and work on Europe in general: Germany, Holland, the UK, France and the rest.

“And then of course the US, not forgetting Asia and South America—the world, basically.”

 


From Trench Town to the top

A golden voice fell silent with the passing of Jamaican singer Alton Ellis, whose 50-year career was studded with musical gems. Honoured by his country, he was loved by fans right up to the end. David Katz charts his course

Alton Ellis, who died of cancer last October, aged 70, was one of Jamaica’s best-loved singers. Blessed with a distinctive, expressive voice, Ellis was a constant presence on the Jamaican charts during the 1960s and 70s.

Ellis was raised in the heart of the west Kingston ghetto district of Trench Town. At Boys’ Town School, he excelled at sports and music, and was so eager to perfect his vocal skills that he often broke into the school at night to teach himself to play the piano.

In 1959, while working on a construction site, he formed a duo with Eddie Perkins. Their first recording, a slow ballad called Muriel, produced by Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, was an immediate hit.

After recording a couple of follow-ups for Dodd and My Love Divine for Vincent “Randy” Chin, the duo disbanded when Perkins emigrated. Ellis worked as a printer for the next year and a half before forming a short-lived duo with John Holt, cutting Rum Bumpers for Randy in 1965. Ellis continued recording for Dodd, notably cutting a few duets with his younger sister, Hortense.

Moving to Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle stable, Ellis assembled a harmony group, the Flames, scoring one of the biggest hits of 1965 with Dance Crasher, a song decrying the “rude boys” wreaking havoc in Jamaica’s dancehalls. The following year he cut the monumental Girl I’ve Got A Date, named by many as the first rock steady recording, and soon after, Rock Steady, the first to refer to the genre by name. Other notable tunes cut for Reid include an original called Breaking Up and brilliant cover versions of Johnnie Taylor’s Ain’t that Loving You, Chuck Jackson’s Willow Tree and The Delfonics’ La La (Means I Love You).

In 1967, Dodd poached Ellis back from Reid, sending him on a UK tour with Ken Boothe and the Soul Vendors. Further gems followed, such as A Fool, one of many songs inspired by his tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Pearl, as well as the album Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul. Ellis then migrated to Canada, where he spent three years, working the nightclub circuit as a soul singer.

Back in Jamaica in 1970, he scored big with You’ve Made Me So Very Happy, popularised by Blood, Sweat and Tears, as featured on the Sunday Coming album, and the following year, the spiritually eloquent Deliver Us. Big Bad Boy, another anti-rude boy song recorded for Keith Hudson, was another monster hit.

In 1973, Ellis moved to the UK, and issued the excellent self-produced Still in Love in 1977. Sporadic Jamaican recordings followed, while the annual Rock Steady Revues he presented in London were always eagerly anticipated, as were his live appearances. In recent years, Ellis headlined several festivals in the USA and Europe.

In 1994, Ellis received the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government for his contribution to the country’s popular culture. He died in London last October 11. All who knew him will remember a kind, intelligent soul devoted to music, while fans around the world will mourn the loss of one of Jamaica’s most exceptional voices.