Reviews (March/April 2009)

The new music and books that are reflecting the region right now

David Dabydeen. Photograph courtesy University of WarwickEditor of Trinidad Noir: Jeanne Mason. Photograph courtesy Jeanne MasonEditor of Trinidad Noir: Lisa Allen-Agostini. Photograph courtesy Lisa Allen-Agostini/Eric GrimsJoanne Skerrett. Photograph courtesy Joanne SkerrettThe late EA Markham. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press

CD REVIEWS

Some Enchanted Evening

Marvin Smith

Some Enchanted Evening is the debut album from Trinidadian lyric baritone Marvin Smith.

Eleven tracks long, this disc features Smith’s take on familiar music against the piano playing of Alan Cooper and Charles Brunner. Because of the lack of heavy instrumentation, Smith’s textured vocals boom out rich and undiluted, caressing songs like Schubert’s “Standchen”, Bizet’s “Toreador” and Caccini’s “Amarilli”.

Listeners will love Smith’s treatment of Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer”, “Reviewing the Situation” from Oliver and his animated Porgy in “Bess, You is My Woman Now”, a collaboration with Anne Fridal in which the two voices are nicely interwoven.

The disc was produced by Fridal.

D Fearless Warrior

The Original Defosto Himself

Known for his skillfully composed pan tunes, singer/songwriter The Original Defosto Himself turns out an impressive body of work with D Fearless Warrior.

“Catwoman”, a witty ditty arranged by Leston Paul, sets the tone. It’s an upbeat Defosto you’ll hear, his raucous laughter streaming mid-song, as also heard in “Runner Boys”.

“A Blue Crescendo”, which pays tribute to Superblue with a catchy hookline, “blue fever”, “Dr Jit” and “We Silver Hero” are some of the songs listeners will find musically palatable. Musical sweetness abounds throughout this CD.

Serving as producers on D Fearless Warrior are Leston Paul and Junior Ibo Joseph.

4 Quarters

IALS (It’s a lifestyle)

Hip hop/rap music in Trinidad and Tobago is not as popular as soca and calypso, but the genre has a thriving underground presence.

IALS (“it’s a lifestyle”) is the latest group of young men to rock the mic. In the songs on this disc the rappers talk about ills – be it the direction of the rap genre or the social ills of the country. These guys are in a class of their own. And they show it in their native Trinidad dialect rather than adopted US rapping styles.

The rap style of IALS is not as abrasive as Fiddy et al. Instead the group’s style can be called “Will Smith meets 3Canal” (without the singing) in that it is wholesome.

The guys are also planning a full-length album, Black Dice, for later this year.

Essiba Small

CDs courtesy Cleve’s One Stop Record Shop, Frederick Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Dark chocolate …with a bitter taste

This anthology comes after a little over 20 had been published in the Akashic Noir series launched in 2004. Its predecessors have been mainly North American-based, with just three exceptions (London, Dublin and Havana), so its Trinidad leg is an accomplishment of sorts.

The sensuously constructed cover photograph by Alex Smailes is of richly textured browns: a dark-chocolate girl clad in coffee smokes a cigarette languorously, sharing drinks at a small table covered by a mocha cloth, whose stiff folds brush against the crossed legs extending from her diaphanous skirt. There is a smooth and almost creamy texture to the image, until the eye falls on the loud, chunky gold shoes – a whorishly unexpected touch that effectively inverts the picture, invoking a reassessment.

So it is with this collection – divided into two sections depicting ten “town” and eight “country” stories – you’re heading toward one destination, until something jars and shunts the mind onto a different track.

The introduction tries hard to communicate how different Trinidad is from the popular ideas that market the Caribbean. The contributors are mainly Trinidadian, though many live elsewhere, but all the stories are based on the island, and try, in one way or the other, to either explore its dark side, or to expose the underbelly that is often masked by brochure depictions of a carefree, fun-loving society.

The first part, “Country”, opens with the editor’s pick: “Pot Luck” by Lisa Allen-Agostini, a captivating plot of marijuana mayhem that twists to an engaging end. Though valiantly trying to keep verisimilitude going, the dialogue often stumbles into the wrong register and it weakens the characters, but it is well worth the read.

Kevin Baldeosingh’s “The Rape” is almost scientific in its journey towards dénouement. There is very little movement in terms of action, but the laid-back sensation invoked by the attention to details of the moment is perfectly attuned to the pace of the village life it seeks to convey, and it works to convey the slowly building pressure that finds an unexpected release.

Jamie Lee Loy’s “Bury Your Mother” is a dark and depressed account that is perfectly suited for this anthology, as is Darby Maloney’s ironic and frustrating tale of the “Best Laid Plans” which go awry in the worst way possible.

Shani Mootoo’s “The Funeral Party” feels like it could be the outline for a full-length novel, so rich is the potential for developing its intricately connected and complex characters. Sometimes it comes across too studiously, but that does not conceal the possibilities for developing this story.

“Standing on Thin Skin”, by Oonya Kempadoo was very descriptive, yet controlled, in a pleasingly deft way, as was Lawrence Scott’s brooding in “Prophet”. Ramabai Espinet’s “Nowarian Blues”, a failed migrant’s ponderings on decisions as she returns home to briefly nestle with her revolutionary lover, is a sombre and reflective study of the itinerant’s journeys.

My favourite was really Robert Antoni’s leggo-no-hand advisory on “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives”, which was such a hilarious record of the absurdity of officialdom that it might be the only piece not quite tailored to the premise of the collection.

As a whole, I enjoyed this compilation of new work. Some of the stories are a little overdone, either as obvious morality tales in the clashes between good and evil, or in the self-consciousness of the ornate prose. But that is the minority, and there is more of the tentative feel of young work that shows potential for future creative writing.

It is actually a very good mix of voices, as the blend of experience and youth coming from several different perspectives make for an interesting degree of variety.

Vaneisa Baksh


Trinidad Noir
Eds Lisa Allen-Agostini & Jeanne Mason
(Akashic Books, New York, ISBN 13: 978-1-933354-55-2, 340pp)

 


 

Dreamboat from Dominica

Monday mornings were never good for Amelia since she lost her comfortable private school job as an English teacher. Working in the public school system constantly reminded her of what she had lost: the “love” of a man who just failed to mention he was married, and the “two swimming pools, lacrosse games, landscaped grounds, and the genius students” of her old school. What she did have were students who didn’t even pretend to like the literary classics, an alcoholic mother and a no-good, always-in-trouble-with-the-law brother.

She was in a rut, just going through the motions, giving herself pep talks day after day that as “a strong, independent, smart, single woman”, she didn’t need a man to do anything for her. That was until her roommates told her that while in Dominica, they had met a guy who was perfect for her and gave him her e-mail address.

When Amelia saw the picture of Drew Anderson, all she could think was, he was one fine black man. The son of the former Dominican Prime Minister, he was educated in America, returning home after his father died for seemingly altruistic reasons. An idealist, he was building schools throughout the island with his own money.

Their e-mail relationship quickly progressed to lengthy phone calls, with him asking her to visit him during spring break. With her best friend Whitney encouraging her to make a leap of faith – going to a foreign country to stay with a man she’s never met before – Amelia went off to Dominica, only to realise that though she may look like the people, being African-American, she was viewed as an outsider, here to steal the local hero and budding politician.

Amelia and Drew’s relationship faces numerous obstacles: the distance, his interfering mother, the way it seems he is never willing to defend her to his neighbours and friends, and of course, his secret identity.

There is a lot happening in the story – her mother’s struggle with alcohol, her brother’s misadventures, Whitney’s mental breakdown and Drew’s legal problems. While the story is engaging, the reader is unable to identify with Drew and isn’t allowed to fall in love with him. His character is presented as secondary to the story, though  surely he is central to the idea of a Caribbean romance. Portrayed as a true mama’s boy, it’s surprising that he plans to marry a woman who butts heads with his mother.

Told from Amelia’s perspective and written in the first person, the story is all about how she feels, thinks, behaves. She has issues a modern-day woman can connect to – problems with her weight, job, family, and finding true love and romance. Readers can relate to the some of the contemporary cultural references used, and although they should not expect to get a true sense of the Caribbean from the novel, it is ideal for light reading on the beach.

Letting Loose
Joanne Skerrett
(Kensington Publishing Corp, ISBN 978-0-7582-1423-2, 312pp)

Mirissa De Four

 


 

Pharcel from the madding crowd

In his first novel, Pharcel: Runaway Slave, Alix Lazare tells the familiar story of the struggle for freedom and independence by those enslaved in 18th-century Dominica.

He gives a fictionalised account that is based on historical data and characters (credited in the preface). In so doing he creates a narrative that contains all the elements of good storytelling: conflict, suspense, intrigue and treachery, and characters who are brought to life in a meticulously described landscape that offers both solace and peril to its disparate inhabitants.

Narrated in the third person, the main plot revolves around the runaway slave Pharcel as he struggles to find his place among his own people and in the wider hierarchical society of the island. Like many of his fellow slaves, he is desperate for freedom, and faces his enemies, both human and non-human, with fortitude and cunning.

He matures into a benevolent leader whose overwhelming desire is “freedom and a place where the 50 men and women in (his) camp can live in peace.” Pharcel sees this as ‘”he beginning of a kingdom that will have no end. A people free and separate that will be there long after the planters are gone.” Yet he remains an enigmatic and isolated character.

In spite of the laborious descriptions of physical surroundings and the dubious plausibility of the search for treasure, the storyline keeps one riveted to the very end.

Pharcel: Runaway Slave
Alick Lazare
(iUniverse, ISBN 0-595-39578-3, 304pp)

Bonnie-Lou Darmanie

 


 

Molly makes her escape

In this novel Guyanese-born writer David Dabydeen weaves a fascinating tale of a life in turmoil after a decade of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

In four parts, Molly and the Muslim Stick chronicles, through the eyes of the main character, Molly, the various stages of her life as she struggles to survive the aftermath of an impoverished and traumatic childhood.

What is admirable in this writing is the telling of a tale set in the early to mid-20th century that also resonates with the present-day reality of dysfunctional familial and social relationships, abuse, isolation, madness and exile. Molly’s journey follows the path of those who are lost, whether to the vicissitudes of war, innocence or femaleness, and she has, like those she symbolises, sacrificed creativity, spirituality, indeed the essence of her being.

Mired in the bleak north England town of Accrington, Molly is submerged in a life of hardship and stagnation. Her mother’s quest for the idyllic consumes her existence, and her father, in an effort to survive the harsh and dreary reality of his own life, forces her down a path of self-destruction. Molly is driven to the brink of madness.

She finally arrives at a place where the Old World meets the New. As she describes it, “The noise of the engine comforted me with its familiarity, reminding me of the motor cars and buses in Coventry, but I soon lost myself in the nature of the jungle.” The real becomes part of the surreal, the strange meets the familiar.

Through his language—at times exquisite in its imagery; real in its crudity of sexual depravity and madness; at times absurd in Stick’s verbosity—Dabydeen takes the reader on an odyssey through untainted landscapes to encounter magical entities, human and non-human alike.

Those who savour the boundless possibilities of the creative mind will find the panoramic meander through this novel a fascinating but challenging one.

Molly and the Muslim Stick David Dabydeen
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-0-230-02870-8, 177pp)

 BLD

 


 

How Archie made his mark

Edward Archibald Markham died in March 2008, at 69, just as his memoir was going to press, so he would not have seen the last version of his life story. The act of writing was probably in itself an enormous effort in terms of summoning up memories, verifying them, and particularly, totting up personal experiences and corralling them into categories suitable for publication.

Yet Markham was no stranger to the writer’s world and its idiosyncrasies – he had to his credit six works of fiction, one non-fiction and ten collections of poetry, in addition to other books which he edited.

And Markham, commonly referred to as Archie, seemed to have been a voluble man, with no shyness about airing his views and no reluctance to explore every possible medium to do so. His self-confidence may have arisen from the privileged status he occupied as a young man growing up in a well-to-do household in Montserrat. Born in 1939, Markham lived alone with his “Mammie” until he was 11 in the large house known as Government House that he repeatedly describes in torrential detail, as if there could never be enough words to convey its size, its location and its central meaning to his life and that of the village of Harris’ (pronounced “Harrises”). So often does he return to these details that one begins to speculate whether the memoir was written in episodes at different points and might not have benefited from tighter editing to remove that overdone quality which slightly mars the telling.

Markham’s story is essentially that of the West Indian migrating to England in the 1950s in search of opportunity. His mother sent her two older sons to get a “better education” in England and, by 1956 transplanted them all.

Markham relates the process of settling in at Maida Vale, trying out various careers: making ladies’ belts and handbags, writing, singing, playwriting, before settling back into school. He describes his schooldays with some enthusiasm, and takes some care to illustrate not only the racism he encountered and sidestepped, but also his own coping measures and the effects it had on his friendships.

The memoir is interesting at several levels. While it deals with familiar themes such as growing up in the West Indies in the 40s and 50s, and migration, it brings a perspective from Montserrat, a tiny British territory even by island standards (16 by 11 km) and it comes from someone who felt he had grown up in privileged circumstances – both are rarely heard voices.

For 14 years he had been professor of creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University, and had worked in media, the theatre and at various universities. Writing had always been at his centre.

His return to Montserrat, after the island suffered the wrath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, led him and Howard Fergus to publish Hugo Versus Montserrat, which helped to raise relief funds, and then after the volcano, Soufrière, erupted, he petitioned the British Government to find a new Montserrat for the people. It may have seemed an outlandish proposal to the British, but to someone who had come from a small island, and had spent almost all his adulthood living in other countries – England, Germany, France, Papua New Guinea – the idea of transplanting an entire society was not so ludicrous.

The consequences of such an action, however, are profound and diverse, and in a sense, this memoir is precisely the tale of those effects.

Against the Grain: a 1950s memoir EA Markham
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN  9781845230302, 192pp)

Vaneisa Baksh