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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Carnival of the Animals

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

Apologies to Camille Saint-Saens

I am guilty. But musicians are a wicked set of people. My girlfriends and I are having a girls-night-out and so we are sitting and talking, and generally having a good time. One of the musicians sends over a bottle of wine. But I don't drink, so I don’t business. My girlfriends suggest I take a little sip. Just a teeny, weeny sip, like we do at communion. They encourage and remind me that Jesus turned water into wine. And so I take a sip.

I just smell the thing. My lips hardly move, more-less open. Suddenly, the band strikes up this soca music. The next thing I know is that one on my brand-new, expensive, high heel shoes just slide off my foot, and dance away, without my permission.

I work hard for my money. I can't afford to lose anything. So naturally, I get up to get back my wandering shoe. The next thing I know is that the other shoe I still have on, or think I have on, decides to become an apostrophe and follow the walk-way one.

Contrary to what some people think, I am not a bad girl. I just can’t help it. Some people are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and even sex. All I need is music. I am not even an addict, really. I am a slave (from a land so far). The story I hear is that my great grandfather used to play organ in church; and the Sunday when I was christening, he played the organ so well (after drinking off the communion wine, on top of a flat of white rum), the whole church, including the parson, and innocent, baby me, put down one piece of dancing in the house of the Lord.

So I have to dance out the penalty for that Sunday by being a slave to music. Being a slave is a very complicated thing. Long ago in Africa, before the Atlantic Slave Trade, we had domestic slavery. In African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Anne C. Bailey tells us that domestic slaves were usually criminals or debtors sold into slavery, and that domestic slavery played the role prisons serve in industrialized societies today. So it is not hard to understand how some domestic slaves were sold by Africans to Europeans. We have to study this because revisionists are saying all sorts of things about how many domestic slaves Africans sold, and how many Africans who were not domestic slaves were captured by Europeans by themselves or in cahoots with Africans.

Domestic slavery in Africa was totally different from the chattel slavery we ended up in after we crossed the Atlantic. Anne C. Bailey tells us that chattel slavery in the Americas meant servitude in perpetuity, and the inhumane, chattel slavery system was codified in law. The African, domestic slavery system was much more varied and sometimes included ways in which slaves could rise above their station and even become chiefs.

But I don’t like to talk about this slavery business because my girlfriends get upset. All I am trying to tell them is that they should not mix up domestic slavery in Africa and chattel slavery across the Atlantic. A chattel is an item of movable personal property, such as furniture, domestic animals, etc. But I know why they get upset.

The way I see it, some of my girlfriends are still in chattel slavery. One of them cannot go anywhere without her extensions. The amount of hair she has in her bedroom, you will think her bedroom is a saloon or a barbershop. Stories say she got recently left because when her boyfriend pulled on her extensions one night, her extension clean gone, and his extension gone too.

Another one is said to take fastness on holiday in Florida and go on the Ferris wheel with her extensions and her boyfriend. When the Ferris wheel and the breeze rise up, the extensions rise up too and fly clean off like an airplane. The gal so embarrass by her nice, natural, ebony, nappy hair, she covers her head (as if her head bald), and bawl and bawl until the whole Ferris wheel wet down. But the boyfriend, playing big man when they reach back home, is telling a different story on how the whole Ferris wheel get wet.

So when it’s carnival time, and I dance, and my shoes go away and sometimes parts of my body look like they want to jump up and get out of prison, it’s not my fault. But I ask why. Why we have carnival celebrations right beside Her Majesty’s Prison? It is so sad and ironic. First of all, as a reminder of domestic slavery in Africa, all people of African descent should have a completely different approach to prisons. How can we lock up our people who have wronged our society and make them wrong each other (again and again) in a prison society? They are not animals; not chattel.

This is why carnival is always so very sad to me. We celebrate emancipation and we fight for reparations. Good. One of my friends says that reparations must come and that reparations have nothing to do with how we treated or treat each other; even if we eat each other. True. (Good thing I am vegetarian). But why are we so afraid to confront our native past and fix our prisons and prisoners as a reminder of our glorious and inglorious past and customs?

And so I dance. I dance half naked even, at carnival time. Police can lock me up, again. I dance until they move carnival celebrations from Antigua Recreation Grounds, next to the prison, or reform the prison to liberate our memories of domestic slavery in Africa. Only so I can keep my brand-new, expensive, high heel shoes from wandering.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fit For A King

Without Load

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

I hear how they planning. To celebrate fifty years of singing calypso, Sir McClean “King Short Shirt” Emanuel is being honoured. A potpourri of activities is being put on buffet, ranging from informal to formal events including magazine publication and awards as well as invitations to calypsonian from near and far. Excellent; well deserved. But there is something lacking in the way a king should be honoured, especially a calypso king.

To begin to understand how a calypso king should be honoured, we have to remind ourselves that calypso is our life in song in all guises and disguises. The presentation of this life-art has changed over the years since the King started singing, and some attention to a uniquely and originally Antiguan format should guide us to the way we honour one of our calypso kings.

In 1983, I came back home after some 13 years of absence. I was initially shocked when I watched the 1983 carnival calypso show on television. In addition to a calypsonian singing (Children Melee) on stage in front of a band, there was a theatre of characters all over the stage, acting out various parts of the song being sung, with props and costumes galore. To my returning eyes, this was not a calypso show at all. This was a spectacle of nonsense; an orgy of confusion.

But it soon occurred to me that there was a reason for this novel presentation. Gone was the BBC radio drama that glued us to the radio like clammy cherry on corn meal paper in an exercise book. Gone was the regular sustenance diet of theatre plays. Gone was the hot and sweaty dance hall with live bands. Maybe some of the past had deservedly disappeared so that a young searching teenager did not see when adults behaved like little children; like the time when we sneaked into a dance at Princess Elizabeth Hall and saw someone hand a grown woman a piece of cloth from the dance floor, and say, “Miss, look you blouse.”

Now, everything was rolled into one big production. The calypsonian had taken our life in hand and whilst echoing it in song, all forms of art were mixed into a spirited jamboree. It seems to me therefore, that the way we honour a calypso king is not just to let him get up on stage and sing, if sing at all; not just to invite his peers to his court to sing; if sing at all; not just to hand out awards, the handing out of which we almost always make mockery.

We must invite the King and his entourage to sit down, observe and enjoy his majesty. We must call on our composers, arrangers, musicians and artistes. We must take the songs of the King and embellish and transform them musically and dramatically; such that the King hears and sees his works in indigo and tangerine, black and blue and white with slices of lemon green, dashes of bright yellow and drops of bright red and burgundy.

But to do all this, we have to revalue our musicians and we musicians must reinvent ourselves. We were once in the service of kings. We were commissioned by royalty and noblemen to compose and perform music. In modern times, the record companies became our commissioners and now we struggle to play at hotels and fight over meagre wages with less meagre principles, weeping by the rivers of Babylon.

If the King and his peers have to sing, why not do what Jamaica did with Beres Hammond a few years ago (and John Holt before him) by adding a sinfonietta, including viola, cello, bass clarinet and bassoon, asking our Venezuelan and Chinese musician friends for assistance, along with local musicians who play some of these instruments, adding the unique touch of steel pan. The King’s “Lamentation” is lamenting for this.

If music is our life in song, we must complete the circle by transforming our music to showcase the very life from whence it came. To do this, our composers and musicians must learn to compose, arrange and play in ways far more complex than what now passes for excellence. There is a direct connection between the lack of music orchestration and arrangement, and what passes for verbal discourse, dialogue and discussion in our society. This is so because one cannot regularly and seriously compose and orchestrate banality and the audience cannot listen and appreciate sterile, pedantic nonsensical sounds forever. Music, like any other language must be a story, a tale; and it must be logical, or even deliberately illogical. It is like human form; it must have a head, a body and a tail or a foot. Music make us reason and reasonable.

Recently Mr. Rick James has called for the replacement of the Carnival Chairman with an Artistic Director. Apart from the fact that artistic people do not often make good managers, the suggestion is a reflection of the lack of art forms in the land and the unreasonable expectation that all our art forms must be wrapped up and boiled down into Carnival, since they are lacking or diminishing or dead otherwise. If Carnival were a woman, some of us would be arrested for unlawful cultural knowledge for the myriad things we put into and take out of her.

When will we rescue our musicians? Why don’t we have a musician in the commission of the Governor General? Where are the families and businesses that can invite and pay musicians to play in their chambers? Where are the musicians to station themselves at vantage points in our city and play their hearts out for us natives? Before we came over here, we showed the world the value of music. Long before Bach spoke to us through his first recorded work, “Air on a G String”, we were talking music to each other through the air, without a string; wireless before cable. And so, the police band can get vexed with me till their grey uniforms turn blue. When they really play, they must arrest our ears and hearts with bars of music instead of incarcerating our souls behind bars of iron.

Only when we begin to reconfigure our calypso, which is our folk music, back into the lives of folks, can we breathe extended life into this art form, complete the circle, and push the cycle of creativity and really honour a calypso king with a spectacular cavalcade of his music. And when we do that and allow the King to see and hear his music and his life transformed by arrangers, musicians, dramatists, singing-meeting orators, artistic directors and dancers, into dimensions he never imagined, he will have a very difficult choice.

At the grand ceremony, either the King will have to be manually extricated from his throne at the end, or, some time before that, as he sees and hears his life and our lives in conjoint retrospect, and in an assured artistic, cultural future, he will jump up from his throne and run away, like a pleasured child stuffed with pockets of confectionaries. And then, as he himself sang, “A motor car without load, couldn’t stop shorty down the road.” (Sing the chorus).

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Art of Listening

Listen Up

Did you attend the Spring Garden’s Moravian Church service in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? No one I know will say it publicly so I will. The members of the Royal Antigua and Barbuda Police Force Band should be locked up with their musical instruments, and maybe also with small rations of bread and water. The keys to their cells should be smelted and the amalgamated, melted mass poured, over separate locations, into the Atlantic…no... the Pacific Ocean; far, far away so that they can only get out of musical jail after doing penance for the harm they are doing to the ears, minds and hearts of normal people and to themselves.

Listen here. At some time in the life of a musician or any professional, a decision must be made on the quality of service provided. Even prostitutes know this. The problem with the members of the police band is generic to a fundamental issue facing all professionals in a developing country (including doctors, and not excluding myself).

Music is a listening art. The innumerable times I have not listened and fallen flat (or sharp) are testaments to how easy it is to miss the beat; to stray; to get caught up with oneself; to think one is wonderful and smart, and brilliant like some big, bad musical wolf; when all the while even Little Red Riding Hood can see under the blanket cover. You cannot hide inside the music forever.

The fundamental paradox boxing all of us in a developing country is how we balance the sands of opportunities against the singular rock of reliability, hard work, and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. It is difficult. It is not impossible. We have to learn to listen and set limits and standards. Three disciplines in life with which I am familiar enforce the importance of listening.

Medicine demands listening. And this listening is not just listening to patients and colleagues. A good doctor must listen to the inner voice. Allow me to add this virtue to the list of deserving accolades in respect of the recent celebration of the life and work of our eminent surgeon, Mr. Cuthwin Lake. (Someone else will say why doctors respectfully refer to surgeons as Mister instead of Doctor). Mr. Lake is a great doctor because he is, above all else, a great listener.

Marriage demands listening. A young, female friend of my wife once revealed that she had discovered the hidden secret of a good marriage. She was buoying (and “boy-ing” ) as if she had had a moment of eureka (probably in a bath tub too). She let out that husbands will do whatever their wives tell them to do; and so all wives have to do is to tell their husbands what to do. It was that simple, like all great discoveries. This lovely, neophyte wife must never be told that her good, listening husband had made the simultaneous Archimedean discovery (in the same bath tub) that if he wanted peace (and its homophone) he must, at least, pretend to listen.

The problem with music is that it is all timing. It takes time to learn an instrument, to play it well, and to listen. In the life of a musician there are long periods of being away from others, immersing oneself totally in sounds of music. There are many stories of some women who swore they would be the happiest women on earth if only they received even less than one per cent of the love, care and attention their musician partner showered on their instrument. There are also stories of some women dropping musical instruments “accidentally”.

It is extremely difficult to be a policeman or a doctor or any other professional, and also play music well. We have to be prepared to make huge sacrifices in securing and maintaining a good instrument, spending countless hours and years practising and listening to the inner voice that tells us when our playing is neither cerebral nor cordial but simply anal.

In a developing country like ours, anything passes for everything. We argue that checks and balances are not in place and official standards are lacking. But how can we call ourselves musician, transfused with the healing elixir vitae from Apollo; entrusted to speak and heal with this wonderful universal language, as all musicians must be, and not have that inner, personal, listening sense of good and bad, right and wrong? Yes, we do not get sufficient time off to practise and yes, we have to have more than one job to make ends come a little closer to meeting. So what do we do? What song shall we sing that is acceptable in our sight in this strange land?

The words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart must be in consonant harmony. Those in professional and national authority must stop pussyfooting, understand the immense value of music, and stop devaluing musicians. On the personal level, we musicians must either find the flipping time and make more than the flippant effort that music demands, or stop disturbing, and provoking, the beautiful instrument. Play it right or do not play it at all.

A friend of mine, who is also a doctor and a musician and married, and hence is a great listener, reminds: “Some are deaf; many more do not listen.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Give Flowers Not Gardens

An Inconvenient Knight

Black people have a problem; a big, big problem. And Antiguans and Barbudans have it worse; maybe the worst. Somebody says that all black people should get along; and everybody believes that. You believe that? Not me. I know, personally (how else?), a whole ton of my own black people (I mingle with them every, single, solitary, confining day) from whom I will beg God to separate me, if I were unfortunate enough to end up with them in some un-earthly place. Move me Lord; move me; send me back to purgatory; even down to hell (to rhatid!), but get me far, far from this madding crowd of neaga, especially far from some of those so-called, holier-than-thou, Christian ones.

Divisiveness, to a point, is a good thing. Short division and long division must be understood and practised so that addition and multiplication and unity can make sense. It is the mortar of democracy. And yes, it cannot be too thick or too thin. We, Antiguans and Barbudans seem to be very fine long distance runners; and so we carry things, including divisiveness, way too far. But a national hero cannot talk to us like that. Tell us what you want to say; but tell us so we can tell everybody, including school children.

Can it be that this overpowering desire for us to be one, dear, good people, and work together, is forcing us to this very end, by any means necessary? It cannot be. This is why we must believe in real, serious old-time jumbie: We put way too much burden on living, national heroes, forcing them to be super-human in life, when in fact it is post mortem that we see the true national hero. Most heroes must be dead people. And national heroes must be dead, dead, dead; because it demands a long period of time and study, in the permanent absence of the candidate, to truly assess the worth of a national hero.

Being a living, national hero is like going to your own funeral (as if you had a choice). It has no earthly or heavenly, positive value to the national hero. It is purgatory; living hell. It is for the congregation of the living that national heroes become. And moreover, we learn more from the total sum of the errors of our heroes than from the early, primary good they do.

So, if that inconvenient night teaches us anything; it is that, starting with the Father of the Nation (and moving right along), we must look at the successes and failures of our heroes. Regarding their failures is not a recipe to laugh and get giddy and point finger and become even more divisive and reject them. It is to register, by indelibly writing down, the simple fact that they are, were, human. And hence, my dear good people, our national heroes, by definition and purpose, and in the future, cannot be oxymoronically alive, lest we kill them, dead, with the burden of an ox.

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Memoriam

Dr. Rex Williams

Rex in peace my brother. From Kensington Court to Grammar School; to Jamaica, London and Birmingham. Sadly, I never visited you in South Africa. From Rising Sun Steel Band to fete on campus and off campus. You always opened your heart to the music and the love that true friends share.

I cannot recall you been constitutively angry, even in ('nuff) argument, which almost always ended with a laugh, or a bet, or both.

It is strikingly strange how memories of you, in the twinkling of a tear-drop, travel faster than the speed of light when the sound of death flashes from South Africa to Antigua and Barbuda. It must be some sign of extra-special relativity. Whenever we meet, I always ask you when will you come home. And now you answer me for real (“fu tru”).

But when it is all said and done, and dusted, and the ashes call you back, I want to remember you through the immortality of memories. As Sir Derek Walcott said in reference to calypsonian Spoiler, and so to you I will: I decompose, but I composing still. Rex in peace, my brother. Rex, in peace.

Si (Dr. Lester Simon)