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Sunday, August 12, 2007

How You Could Sing So?


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Sting, the former teacher and world renowned musician from Newcastle upon Tyne was once asked when he knew he had really made it. He responded that it was precisely when he heard a window cleaner outside his hotel room whistling his song, Roxanne. I was in a local department store a few weeks before Carnival and I knew precisely then that we were in for a treat this year when a 5 or 6 year old girl, unbothered by the goings-on in the store and without the sound of music in the air, plaintively sang to herself, “Go Claudette”.

We have to understand the anatomy of “Go Claudette” to understand what we will be up against in preparation for the next General Elections. You have to be really hot and brimming with self confidence to start a song pledging that you come to run this place, again. It cannot be an idle boast. Think of the relatively few good, popular songs that carry or start with a boastful “I”. I Come Out to Play by Shadow; I’m Bad by Michael Jackson; I Was Made To Love Her by Stevie Wonder and I Got Rhythm, the jazz standard by George and Ira Gershwin. If you want window cleaners or school children to sing your songs, it makes good sense to start the song with a child singing it, as in “Go Claudette”. Some marketing expert is earning their salary.

In music, as in marching, there are strong beats and weak ones. A jazz singer once chided some members of her (mostly white) audience for tapping and clapping on the strong beats. She politely explained that the strong beats were already strong and therefore if they wanted to be hip, and humane and not cruel, they must accentuate the weak beat, not the strong one. So with the emphasis on the weak, second beat of “Go Claudette”, you add an upbeat after that same weak, second beat but before the next, first, strong beat, which is imagined but not heard. It is as if soldiers are no longer marching to Left-Right-Left-Right but to Right-and-Right-and, with the Left in the imagination only. The strong beat is suspended in ether and you are left totally weakened and rocking as the lady comes to “run this place again”.

Vanity is always a difficult subject to handle. If you are going to tackle human weaknesses such as the seven deadly sins, it is wise to take on one at a time, unless you are writing the classic novel without a hero, Vanity Fair. “Go Claudette” does this with masterful ease as she exalts her anatomy and becomes the ultimate mythical hero by turning us into her personal Narcissus. She delivers on the bald and bold declaration that she comes “to run this place again”. We enjoin the bliss of requited love responding with her hook line as she basks in the reflection from the pool of her vanquished fans.

This brings us to the other vain creature in our society: the politician. When an astute politician declares a mere couple of days after Carnival that he wants the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) to give the nation a detailed account of how the money was utilized, you can bet your ABST dollar he is doing a completely different accounting. His real concentration is on how to stop a ruling political party that will most certainly use “Go Claudette” at its political party meetings in 2009? Imagine a prelude of chanting, “Go Baldwin; Go Baldwin”, followed by PM Spencer proclaiming to his dear good people, “I Come to Run This Place Again”. The die is cast. Between now and next Carnival, the hunt is on for that unique song that can lift a singer and a party from second place to first.

There are many similarities between a singer and a politician. They claim to treat everyone equally at the very same time they make every one of us truly believe we are unique. They promise the world and say they would climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest sea to keep their promise. They cannot exist without us and we cannot exist without them. They are good story tellers even when, especially when, they tell untruthful stories. Their main aim is to get us to open ourselves to them. It is all part of the historic call-and-response phenomenon. They make the call and we respond. It does not matter much which way we respond initially, they can fashion the precise response they desire by repetition. They are like some televangelist in some ways, preaching their own vainglorious sermon. Oftentimes they take your collection money and perform poorly, if at all.

The task is not impossible for the current second place holder. Their researchers will have to study epic works like The Lord of the Rings to understand classical themes such as good versus evil, humility over pride and the heroic struggles against the great ring of power. More familiar territory might be a resort to the Book of all epics and the teachings of the true Master, whose themes personify repentance and forgiveness of sin as prerequisites to admission.

Religion was an enthralling force during the last General Elections. It will have a second coming. There is never a sight as noble as a congregation of contrite sinner rising from the depths of despair, earnestly testifying that they would do things differently if only given one more chance to “run this place again”.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

No Grounds For Recreation


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Some people are unconscionable. They do not have a heart, or better put, they have no heart at all. They have no sense of history whatsoever. How else can you explain me (as my Trinidadian friend would say) the playing of all that riotous music and all that bacchanal for entertainment at their so-called recreation grounds during Carnival whilst we are left locked up just across the road?

For a very long time we have been enduring this uncalled-for pressure. In the early days, we had additional bombardment from Boy School and Princess Elizabeth Hall. They think Lions roaring now? At least they have natural air conditioning. In the early days, people would dance at Boy School and PE Hall until their clothes got wet and stayed wet for days. Now, they have to go to Ffreyes beach for that. I know for a fact because I was there as a little boy a time when a woman danced so much to the music of Saints Brothers, when she came out of PE Hall to catch a little breeze, somebody handed her something wet, wet, wet saying, “Miss, look you blouse”. Even though I was young, I knew it was not her blouse at all.

I wasn’t there but the older inmates recalled that one time a man who would dress up pretty-pretty like Mr. Carnival danced so much to the music of Oscar Mason, Sons of the Vibratone and drank so much rum, he fell down the steps at Boy School on the west side. They said when he was falling and his entire body was a mere few inches horizontally away from the top flight of the stairs, he straightened back up, deftly took off his costume, folded it neatly, handed it to his drinking partner, and then tumbled down flat, flat, flat.

But I get sad at Carnival time, not because they do not let us out from just across the road; I get sad because they do not know what they are doing to themselves. They call it a celebration of emancipation from slavery. But how can they celebrate something they refuse to discuss? With all the time I have to serve in this prison, I have been reading a book called, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade, subtitled, Beyond the Silence and the Shame by Anne C. Bailey. It seems that we cannot rightly celebrate Carnival without going beyond the silence and the shame of slavery. This compulsory journey beyond the silence and the shame must include black, white, indigo, Indian and in between. Reconciliation in the West Indies by and amongst West Indians is the defining motif of reconciliation. We, West Indians, are the world because the world created us in its own image.

At the heart of this shame about slavery is a complex set of issues but a key one is understanding why Africans sold other Africans into slavery. We already know why Europeans wanted slaves and the overwhelmingly dominant role the Europeans played in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Or do we? In our endless Holy Grail quest to unite all black people through an African passage, we wrongly assign too much additional burden to ourselves because we miss the central fact that during the era of the slave trade, and to a lesser extent today, Africans were not one socially and geographically homogenous group of people living on one continent. It was never so, unless we go way back to the homogenetic genesis of all of human kind. Beyond that, the dispersion and differentiation of black people that we blame on slavery exclusively, mistakenly force us to unite into a continental whole that did not exist in the memory of our ancestors, and into a wholesomeness that only artificially exists for other races. After all, the two World Wars can be seen as European tribal wars to a large extent.

Domestic slavery existed in Africa before the Atlantic slave trade. In fact, many forms of domestic slavery were widespread and not confined to Africa. Anne C. Bailey reminds us that in Europe, serfdom was predominant till the fourteen century. The serfs were not slaves but their rights were limited. According to Anne C. Bailey, “The supreme irony is that it was the very question of slavery that engendered the debate around the issue of freedom and equality”, which themselves were the noble ideals of the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789.

When we critically examine slavery, we can celebrate the fact that we brought to the so-called new world, the seeds and instruments of civilization in that many slaves were highly skilled workers, having honed their skills and garnered their knowledge from the many enterprising kingdoms in Africa, at a time when some natives in parts of Europe were running around uncivilized.

News has reached us that at the Emancipation Watch Night Gathering this year we were finally reminded of an uncontestable fact by the chairman: No where else on earth have people come from under the yoke of slave masters and become owners of lands and islands and masters of their own destiny in such a short period of time. No where. Hence the noblest ideal to celebrate within and without the Carnival season is the survivability and the inestimable contribution of black people. We see some of these qualities in aliquots when we regard the hard work that goes into making a successful Carnival. This hard work is not primarily in reference to the Carnival Development Committee and other formal groupings. Most importantly, it is in reference and reverence to those who have so little and yet do so much for so many so often.

This brings us back to this place just across the road because in Africa prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade, domestic slavery served the role of prisons today. So as you jump and prance and celebrate, do remember that we, just across the road, serve as a historical metaphor for slavery, domestic and Atlantic, from which we emancipated ourselves. Talking of emancipation, I have to tell you that this Carnival, a group of us, men and women, decided to escape one night by climbing over the wall, dressed in black camouflage and then dressed up in carnival clothes. We had to time our escape perfectly to avoid the guards. Regrettably, it all went terribly wrong when we were perched on top the wall and one of the women amongst us prematurely gave the signal to jump all because some idiot just across the road mistakenly shouted, “Go Claudette!”