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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.