My Blog List

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Somebody Knocked Me

Knock Them Back

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

I was planning to end the year quietly; thanking God for my seeing out another year. But somebody knocked me. Somebody knocked me hard, hard. And I can’t knock them back. I can’t knock them back because it’s my fastness that caused them to upset me in the first place. Same thing my maternal grandmother used to say: I will read and read until one day I will drop off the edge of the page, like Christopher Columbus would have dropped off the edge of the flat earth. May I have some round paper, please?

And after I got myself in pickle with the knocking, I could not sleep. The only cure for vexation and sleeplessness is to write. Throw some good, hard words under the same criminal, son of a man, and pray, like a good Christian, the words seek him out, find him, and box him down flat.

This is how the story goes. Growing up and growing old on BBC, I should have fallen asleep that night, listening to the World Service, or to comedy or drama on BBC Radio 4 Extra. No. Too early to sleep, my fastness and me took to surfing all over BBC. Arsenal had drawn nil all with Chelsea and cricketing news was as annoying as the bothersome cricket insect chirping in the gully. The occasional, lone mosquito was glad for the occasion and circled above my busy strip.

It was so I came across the news that Andras Schiff, one of the world’s greatest pianists, played a hugely demanding programme of the Goldberg Variations by Bach, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, on his 60th birthday. The article, by Tim Franks, was captioned, “Andras Schiff: Why I won’t perform in Hungary”.

Franks wrote that Schiff had been described as the greatest musician Hungary had produced since the composers Bela Bartok and Zolton Kodaly, in the first half of the 20th Century. The article went on to outline the reasons for the rupture between Schiff and his homeland.

Schiff said he was opposed to the current political situation in Hungary. His criticism of the government was documented. The disturbing, expressed xenophobia and anti-Semitic stance of the “Movement for a Better Hungary” were recounted. The article reported that it was not just the government that disturbed Schiff. He was annoyed with some of the Hungarian people, who showed very little civilian courage, scared as they were to speak up. He delved into Hungary’s sordid past and referred to the deportation of half a million Jews to Nazi death camps. Schiff lamented that he had been threatened. Apparently if he returns to Hungary they will cut off both of his (piano) hands. He rightly noted that art and politics cannot be disentangled and that the audience matters to performers.

So what really knocked me and suspended my slumber? Franks said that Schiff could not understand how senior Nazis could commit terrible crimes, and in the next moment, listen to Beethoven’s string quartet and weep like children. What!?

I have to tell you that I took a long, tortuous journey from first dismissing and discarding European classical music to holding on to it with all the familiarity of a kaiso. I had to listen and read and play and listen again, until one day, in cold London, I found myself chipping to Dvorak’s cello concerto in a semibreve moment right after jigging to David Rudder. Classical music, including some of Andras Schiff’s recordings, comprises one third of the 19,000 plus songs on my iPod. Schiff can play and talk about Beethoven like the literal back of his hand.

So how is it that this great musician, this conveyor of emotions, this champion quencher of musical thirst, does not understand a simple, fundamental, musical fact? When the senior Nazis weep, they are not weeping for the terrible crimes they commit. Schiff knows that. The weeping like children is all about the collision and collusion of emotions that only music can release; that pure, naked, incandescent ecstasy that says the world is now what it should be; void of the evil and lesser ones. In the beginning was the word, and the glorious music after the inglorious deed takes them back to the script of primal, puerile purity.

It is all very disturbing to me because Schiff should know that the most maddening thing is to see and feel something that you know someone else sees and feels and yet they claim that the seeing, the feeling, these common human senses, are not all inclusive. They belong to them and to them alone, because they are the special, unique, chosen ones. Chosen by God even!

So we may have to talk until our throats parch and we become dehydrated. The other side will see our just argument and the financial proof, and still claim only they are entitled to make such arguments. They will claim that music and logic and right and reparative justice can change the world. But only they have the right and the authority so to do, if and when they feel to do so.

And so, this business of reparations, and it is a business, is really long, arduous work. But we have to do it because somebody knocked me and my people. And we are not going to take last lick.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

John Bull A Come

Oh Come All Ye John Bull

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

This Christmas you should replace your Christmas tree with a John Bull? Not a real John Bull. Start with a mannequin. Add a crocus bag or two. Cover it with fig leaves and cane trash. Pad it up with grass and straw. His eyes must be bulging, blood red and fierce, piercing through his masked, daubed face. Angle his head so it is poised with assurance from the cattle horn, tied to the “catacoo,” falling off with the jigging and jagging and digging, and dipping to collect the money.

The Bull masquerade used to be rampant in the Caribbean. Red Bull in St. Kitts-Nevis. Jam Bull in the Virgin Islands. Jonkonnu in Jamaica. Junkanoo in Bahamas. John Bull in Antigua. Writing in the journal, Folklore, in 2009, Robert W. Nicholls explores the Bull masquerade in the Caribbean and claims the Bull masquerade entertainment reached its apogee in Antigua.

Falling from apogee to nought might have to do with a John Bull meeting his match, literally, when he was burnt to death in 1981. The immortality of John Bull was hinted when it was assumed that the deceased John Bull was the great Arthur Sixteen, only for Arthur Sixteen to appear at the funeral undead and unburnt.

The death of John Bull in the year of our independence might also signify the removal of one of England’s national symbols, John Bull. Nicholls writes about making up John Bull to appear fearsome but turning the tables on him by whipping him in return for the whipping of slaves. The author also underscores the psychological aspect and insight associated with this inherent inversion in which the negative experience of oppression and resentment against the colonizers is re-presented in a perceptible but camouflaged form.

The detailed study of slavery is important for many and varied reasons, including how we re-presented oppression in a perceptible but camouflaged form. This is vital because oppression seemingly never ends, regardless of the source. Hence the modern day need for new re-presentations in new perceptible and new camouflaged forms.

The creative arts will save us whether it is good, regular public theatre, televised soap opera, or double entendre calypsos, etc. There is always need for a John Bull. Our culture is awash with healing arts. Healing includes being thrown into comic relief on seeing some female members of our tribe abandon (must be wittingly) their beautiful hair for a discordant wig that neither complements nor compliments them. Instead, the results represent the natural outcome of a raucous fight between an old, wet, stringy mop and a traumatised, sodden floor cloth. Life is more bearable when it is reflected in a story, a song, a photograph, a painting, or even when heard (sometimes) on the radio.

But we must also learn that being a performer is not just about re-presenting and entertaining. We ignore the financial origins of slavery and we disregard reparative justice as much as we discount the financial and marketing aspects of our culture, to our detriment. The John Bull must be paid. The John Bull must pay.

Notwithstanding all the apparent fun and excitement at Christmastime, Nicholls makes the crucial point that the John Bull, like the Mocko Jumbie, functioned as a vehicle of social control. The Mocko Jumbie used his intimidating appearance to modify behaviour, particularly among ill-disciplined children. So too, was the John Bull used as a cautionary threat to reprimand children who had been naughty, especially a bed-wetter child. In return for the dancing and the disciplining of children, the John Bull was offered money, drink and food, with varying degrees of liberty to help himself to food and money from vendors.

These days, children are raised differently. We no longer use Mocko Jumbie and John Bull to control children. Some regard such measures of control as abusive. What is remarkable about the social control the John Bull purportedly engendered is that the John Bull himself was under the control of the clap-whip man. This probably suggests that even if the method or the vehicle of social control changes, the new method and new vehicle also should be under the control or scrutiny of a new clap-whip. These days we have new John Bulls chasing and abusing children without clap-whip justice.

The passing of John Bull into mythical status must be re-presented by retelling and reshowing because the absence of myths is said to leave a vacuum for real monsters to plague us without control. In place of a Christmas tree, a bedecked John Bull with his attendant, controlling, clap-whip man might just be the perennial, Caribbean symbol of conscience we need.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Road to Independence

Jumbies on the Road

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

If I had one wish to make this country better, what would that wish be? And what would be the basis of such a singular, important choice? I should take a good look at the finest machine on earth and see how it functions so I can learn something.

A man comes up to me with flailing hands and fluttering lips, asking me if I am done registering to vote and if I want to join his party. Not getting an answer, he wants to know if I am going to vote, and for which party. Not giving him a chance to ask me another personal question, I tell him I am going to vote for myself. His mouth and brow move quizzically in opposite, parallel directions, pondering that I have a party too. Before he offers to join or merge I let out that my political party is called Me One Party.

Me One Party will campaign on the sole promise to mop up, fix and revolutionize the transportation system in this country. Just that. A good look at the adult human body, the finest machine on earth, tells me something essential. With over 100 trillion cells, numerous tissues and many organs, the most important system in the human body is the transportation system. Indeed, any pathology textbook will disclose that problems with the transportation system in humans are responsible for more sickness and death than any other category of human disease.

Take a drive on the eastern main road in Cedar Grove. You will descend into a trough that spans the width of the road. There are two remarkable features of this inverted sleeping policeman. Firstly, after mashing up the road some months ago to run pipe or wire, the debris that was dug up was simply put back. In a few weeks, a trough came. It took many weeks after that for the roadmen to fix it. And in a few more weeks, the trough returned, only this time it had fragments of materials from the repair.

Secondly, all this mashing up and just putting back the debris, and the delayed repair and the return of the trough, have happened before, under the other government. Does this not suggest that at some time, some of us have to look in the mirror on the wall and ask ourselves if we have done a good day’s work? When will we stop negotiating our vehicles through troughs and holes and craters and start ensuring that people like us, not just politicians, do a simple job well?

Yes, we must keep one eye on the politician but the other eye must be on ourselves. This is why I am voting for myself and I am asking everyone to vote for that person in the mirror. A few blocks from the trough in the road in Cedar Grove, people gather to register to vote, and they complain and complain, almost wanting to swear and curse, were it not that they are on school ground and there is a church nearby. Yet we the same people cannot decide to block the road and refuse to move until people like us, some doing the same registering and fretting, fix the trough in the road, properly.

Transportation is paramount because transportation teaches us about communication. No matter how independent you think you are, you need to move, and people need to move for you to move. Movement is a basic characteristic of all living things. School children know this, although the way some of them use the road suggests otherwise.

Proper transportation brings people together. Using the transportation system wisely and courteously is a hallmark of civilized people. Not like the man whom I graciously allow out from a side road. I am wrong to blow my horn and gesticulate that he can at least say thanks. I am wrong because, the ungrateful son of a man tells me expletive stories about my mother and her private anatomy. My dear mother is long dead and, to the best of my knowledge, she is not walking around as a daytime jumbie. And even if she were, do female jumbies travel naked?

A good transportation system with the attendant proper controls and neighbourliness will allow us to be more considerate of others. So some of my neighbours in Hodges Bay will not think that their family can walk and ride bicycles on the road when my family cannot do the same because the road has literally gone to the dogs, their dogs. And their dogs on the road intimidate my dogs and my family and bite my people. Now suppose we were to bite them back? Your independence and my independence cannot collide.

Register to vote. And vote. But if you really want to know whom or what to vote for, whether good roads or good schools, or whatever, put yourself to the voting test. Look in the mirror and consider seriously if you can vote for yourself. And look back to see if you mash up the mirror.

Me One Party is campaigning that transportation is the most important system in any civilized, independent country. Transportation can either bring people together or push them apart. Be a truly independent voter and vote for yourself. The road to independence is not paved with good intentions. It is simply paved well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Why I Play Music

I started playing saxophone in the 1960’s after a singing competition in school to win the favours of a schoolgirl went awry. My competitor sang first and either he or someone else had turned off the microphone. Worse, the damsel in distress in my quixotic mind was totally oblivious of my gallantry before but certainly not after my ridiculous disaster on stage.

I grew up listening to West Indian music and everything else of the radio and I actually thought Mr Benwood Dick was a real, decent gentleman! Thanks heavens I did not have a sister then.

I played relatively little saxophone at home with schoolmate Dr. Charlie Roberts but I recall walking home from his house one night with the music Why Was I Born played by Stanley Turrentine ringing in my ears.

In Jamaica I was fortunate to fall under the spell of the American trombonist and arranger, Melba Liston who was the first tutor of the Jazz class at the Jamaican school of music. The late Jamaican Cedric “Im” Brooks taught me the vital link between music and society as we played in diverse venues from the common yard to the uncommon prison.

It was also in Jamaica that the late Vincentian medical student, Ronnie Saunders introduced me to Weather Report and Return to Forever, two groups that told me music was indeed the language of heaven. Cushioned between them and Bob Marley and playing in Cedric “Im” Brooks and the Light of Saba, music became an indispensable part of my life, jostling with my medical career.

Coming back home in 1983, I always wanted to play the pan much more than the occasional touch I had on campus in Jamaica. The Hell’s Gate Steel Orchestra afforded me that opportunity in the Golden Gates Steel Orchestra, the adult class of pan players taught by Stafford Joseph.

I consider myself a woodwind player with all the saxophones, flutes, English horn, clarinet and bass clarinet and bassoon fighting for space at home. But the pan reminds me of being transfixed by North Star Steelband as a little boy until the shrilling sound of my grandmother calling my name in a perfect fifth interval or an octave reminded me that I was on an errand.

The nexus between a single player and a symphony of musicians in a steelband brings about a unifying oneness that truly underscores the fact that music is the language of heaven. For a fleeting moment during a rehearsal or a performance, life touches you on your shoulder and bids you welcome.

No Steelband Holds A Terror

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

If the best way to honor your parents is never to refer to them in the past tense then I must go to the graveside of my father to tell him I now understand what he says about Hell’s Gate: Whenever North Star and other steelbands compete, the supporters of Hell’s Gate say, (in “beautiful arrogance”), that Hell’s Gate have to win; even if they don’t compete.

After a few years of skirting around a single tenor pan, I made a second, successful attempt to play in panorama this carnival, in addition to playing in the All-Star Band for the calypso semifinals and finals. If music is the food of love, Shakespeare warned that excess of it can sicken the appetite. In fact, my appetite for pan music has increased immensely.

Almost everyone knows that Hell’s Gate is the “oldest, continuously operating steelband in the world”. Relatively few people have had the opportunity to witness or take part in the continuous evolution of this profound and essential institution. I am truly grateful and immensely thankful for the honor and privilege of being accommodated by the band.

A panyard is a social and cultural unit that brings together a cavalcading mass of people. Like seemingly disparate musical notes, this gathering can combine to produce the most remarkable treasure of communal bonding. The sharing function of music must not be confined to the stage and audience interplay. Indeed, as most artistes will confess, what happens on stage is sometimes a mere pittance of emotion compared to the richness and entanglement of rehearsals.

The late Jamaican saxophonist, Cedric “Im” Brooks, introduced me to this wonder of music in the making of the community, one Saturday afternoon in the 1970’s in Patrick City, Jamaica. There were woodwinds and brasses and double bass, drums and percussions all over the yard with women cooking, washing and plaiting hair and children running about. If music is the food of love it must be shared to avoid the consequences of excess.

Learning the flat tune, the original melody, and the complex arrangement was a challenge. Here I was among players, some just one year older than my eight-year-old granddaughter, who absorbed the music called out note for note and phrase by phrase by the arranger, Maestro Khan. After about the fifth phrase, I had forgotten the first phrase and so I had to rely on getting the music sheet to learn from the score what they readily grasped by rote like new, eager sponges.

This learning by rote was most remarkable in the extent to which an entire evening’s lesson was learnt and recalled the next day. What did these children posses that I didn’t, apart from their youthfulness and the color of their hair? There were older players too, including adults. But the children’s ability to harness the dictated music astounded and inspired me.

On one memorable occasion, Maestro Khan called out a set of notes that covered all 12 notes of the musical alphabet. My fascination was congested by the sheer musicality of the arrangement and the nimble control of this musical gem by the children. In equivalent music theory terms, it was as if Maestro had taken the three primary colors and weaved all the possible colors from this trichromatic chord to arrive at a kaleidoscopic rainbow of sound. The children, and some of the adults, did not recognize the music theory of the phrase, but certainly they must have had understood this musical nugget in ways more than those provided by the sheer geometry and geography of the pan. Certainly they knew the physical layout of the pans very well but there must have been something else, some sort of musical, sonic logic that complemented the pan structure and made sense to them in similar ways to how music theory informed others and me.

This learning by rote that in recent years has being taken by Maestro Khan far beyond the confines of simple musical patterns, speaks volumes about the way children learn music and warrants a scholarly dissertation. It also translates into the way children learn in general, freed from the restrictions of early, excessive theoretical explanations and undue machinations.

Not only can these children learn, they can teach. They taught me a thing or two. I was informed, very respectfully, by my nine-year-old pan teacher that when I was rolling the notes, my entire body was shaking, and that only my wrists should move! I told her I knew but I needed more practice. She kindly suggested I keep practicing. The fact that she was always stationed in front of me suggested that other players reported my Parkinsonian musical tremor to her.

Regarding my initial difficulty using my wrists for rolling and other technical maneuvers on the pan, my older musician, non-pannists, friends, suggested an exercise that cannot be mentioned here in detail. Suffice to say it gave new meaning to the suggestion an adult female might offer a rejected male by reciting to him King Obstinate’s line, “Wet you hand and wait for me”.

The panyard generates order, discipline, respect and reverence. Refreshments give the hands a break from the pan sticks and quiet the stomachs. From the caring of the pans to the pushing and guiding of the trolleys through the streets of the city to the Big Yard at the Recreation Grounds for the pan man war (with weapons of sticks and pans only), absolute dedication and the overwhelming feeling of being part of history surround you and take you in.

Hell’s Gate is an institution that must be nurtured with respect for history and with clear, present and future planning. The stage is set for a wonderful journey far into the future from the start in the 1940’s. With Maestro Kahn as arranger and an eager cadre of young players blending with mature pannists, and a supporting cast of good management and sponsorship, panorama is simply one of the many things Hell’s Gate does well and wins. Indeed, much more than winning panorama is expected of the “oldest, continuously operating steelband in the world”.

As an institution nurturing a community ranging from children to grandparents, musicians and others, and going beyond the confines of panorama criteria, I now understand what my father says the supporters say: Hell’s Gate have to win, even if they don’t compete.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


On The Passing of Cedric "Im" Brooks, Jamaican Saxophonist

Cedric “Im” Brooks was a gentleman musician who spoke through his instrument. A generous and gifted man who inspired me. I vividly remember the first time I saw him play at the Creative Arts Centre on UWI Campus, and then many months later playing in his band on Campus and on many stages and in many places in Jamaica.

I fondly reminisce on our practices, especially practising in his yard, a place where music was the food of love as we played on and on. Cedric was the man who took me to Patrick City one Saturday in the shadows of the afternoon to a yard full of people and music and food and peace and love to see and hear musicians such bass man, Joe Ruglass, and to show me, in real time, the communal value of music.

As a young medical doctor in Jamaica, searching for the real remedies of life, Cedric lifted me up through the diverse places (including a prison yard) we visited in Jamaica playing his music, through the musical sounds I heard him create, and tried to create myself under his influence, through the life-long lessons of love and peace, and through the inner quietness of that warn and unique Cedric-smile and his bounteous, belly-full laughter. A musician without a sense of humour is a musician with no sense of time, and hence not a musician at all. Cedric could be jocular to the detriment of a jawbone.

My only regret is not keeping in touch with him after we left Jamaica. But Cedric taught me that listening to the music and taking the music back to its source, the people, is that cycle of life that all musicians must complete to be in harmony with each other and with “Im”.

Rest in peace dear master, teacher and friend.

Give thanks.

Dr. Lester Simon

Thursday, March 14, 2013



Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

I want to know where jumbies go. I want to know where jumbies go because I want to find them. I want to find them because I have a job for all the jumbies of all the fallen victims of crime in this country. I don’t have any jumbie money to pay them but I suspect they will rest in peace after they do the job I have for them.

A woman is shot dead in broad daylight and the next kneejerk, tear-jerk thing I hear my government talk about is the death penalty. State sponsored jumbies; if they can catch them and give them a fair, timely trail. Anyone who has ever stolen anything, from sugar cake and soda pop, to other people’s money; anyone who has committed a crime; anyone who has ever done anything wrong; anyone who bears a head above the shoulders; must know that all criminals have one thing in common: the central belief that they will not get caught.

How can we live in a modern society where the Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force crawls out for the occasional crisis, and parade, but otherwise sits and awaits an invasion from outer space? All the while, we are being regularly and constantly invaded by body snatchers on earth. Absolute vodka.

The Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force is part of the Regional Security System (RSS). The web site for the RSS states, "The Regional Security System (RSS) is a "hybrid" Organization, in that its security forces comprise both Military and Police personnel who remain under the command of their respective forces. It was created out of a need for collective response to security threats, which were impacting on the stability of the region in the late 70’s and early 80’s".

The RSS has been engaged in a wide range of operations, from the 1983 uprising in Grenada to the 2010 operations in Haiti, including hurricanes and other real and potential disasters in the region.

The Mission Statement of the RSS reads: "To ensure the stability and well-being of Member States through mutual cooperation, in order to maximise regional security in preserving the social and economic development of our people".

In response to the latest, brazen murder, the local arm of the RSS is being called out for joint stop and search operations, etc. We have done this before. Criminals may do stupid things but criminals are not stupid. The time has long passed for the re-engineering of the Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force so that there is a regular, visible presence of appropriately dressed and equipped security personnel punctuating this entire land. Violent crime and murder are the real, manmade destabilizing disasters that are threatening the social and economic development of our people. The invasion is here, clear and present.

To do anything less than to redeploy, retool and retrain the local arm of the RSS and indeed the entire RSS is to play into the hands of criminals. The hybrid force that the RSS refers to must be a regular, common and constant active feature of national security. The kneejerk reactionary call for the death penalty must be superseded by clear thinking. Think like a criminal, and you might not get caught out, again and again.

I want to put the politicians in this government and in the opposition on notice that if the local Defence Force is not restructured to effect a regular hybrid force suitable to our needs, and if anything untoward happens to me or my family or my friends, I have an army of jumbies (including mine) ready to hunt and haunt every single last one of them and chase them to the hottest part of hell, where the burning flames are neither red nor blue; just eternally hot, hot, hot.