gall and gumption

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pls. Advise, Thx

For reasons too dull to enter into, I bought a hard copy of Poets & Writers magazine last week. It was the one with Toni Morrison on the cover, if that is of any interest to you. I am old enough to remember when it was a stapled magazine, a newsletter really, with about four or six spreads. Now it is quite a fat book with a color cover. The reason for this quite incredible growth is apparent immediately you open the magazine, and this reason stays before your eyes all the way to the end.

Creative writing school ads.

Which brings me to my question. All these M.F.As. That's a lot of M.F.As! Where do they go afterwards? Are they all getting published? What are they getting exactly?

Does it seem weird to you that there are so many creative writing schools? What proportion of their graduates are getting published? And why?

Does this incredible number of ads also suggest to you that the hope of literary fame is one hell of a cash cow for an English department? Remember when English departments turned their noses up at Creative Writing? I do.

Seriously, though. Does it all seem a little crazy to you? It does to me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Shipwrecks and Survivors

This is extremely cool, and it's just about the only good news out of the Turks and Caicos Islands all year. That might not sound like much, but honestly if you want to kill an idle hour with some laughs read the news from there over the past year. Not a week has gone by without scandal. The Premier and his (American actress) wife knocking each other around; the selling off of a designated nature preserve to mysterious Eastern European and Russian developers; the Filipino laborers brought in to build another resort going on strike because of the appalling living conditions to which they are subjected (there's yer globalized workforce in case you were wondering what that looked like), which follows by only a couple of months the Chinese imported laborers taking a bunch of Israelis hostage over their working conditions. And then miscellaneous things like the hands down absolute worst headline a head of government would ever want to read about himself -- even by Caribbean standards this place has been a sideshow and this is only the, you might say, above the fold headlines. The British government has sent people out to investigate corruption and of course stonewalling is occurring. Also there was a Ponzi scheme and two hurricanes, the biggest and the second biggest in the island cluster's history. All this year. Hurricanes notwithstanding, the overall appearance of things is that the islands' present government has been busy trying to sell the place out from under themselves as quickly as they can, and have been so shameless and brazen about it that basically the British government has taken over the finances.

I have an aunt from TCI, and I always had the impression, from observation of her, that it was a very dull and rather stolid place, the way British Caribbean territories tend to be. They tend to be rather conservative places, old-fashioned and big on church which is the main way to pass the time there. But to tell the truth, the luxury-resort building boom has become a mania all over the region to incalculably disastrous effect, out of all proportion to the supposed economic gains, which, in any event, are not guaranteed. This madness is what I think is behind the mess in TCI.

I mean, when these development projects run out of money because the Looter Economy has finally eaten itself can we get our land and beaches back the way they were? No, these bloated architectural abortions will sit and rot there for the next 40 years and whatever was killed to put those resorts there will never come back. What is happening throughout the region for the last five years is nothing less than environmental rape, enthusiastically and recklessly endorsed by governments themselves. It is a farcical version in miniature of the old 19th-century Imperialist scramble for Africa, the mad race to gobble up assets. This is the context in which the story of that beach being stolen in Jamaica has to be understood. Sounds like big laughs, but it wasn't any small operator who stole all the sand off that beach, and it is only one incident in the mad race to buy up the beach lands all over the region in the stupid delusion that luxury tourism is an absolutely sure thing. They steal all that sand off one beach to "make" a beach somewhere else, a beach that is totally disconnected from its environment, so that Europeans can play in a waterfront sandbox in an all-inclusive resort while their shit flows into the sea just outside the fence. Consequently (this link is in Spanish) all sorts of extremely nasty and shady people have been getting into the business (English summary here), and as the due diligence on foreign direct investors never trumps ready money, these investors get to do pretty much whatever they damn well please. This exuberant capitalism that people have been riding so high in the rich nations until the last couple of months? This resort land sell-off, and the monetizing of everything that isn't nailed down -- beach, children, whatever -- is what all that fast-moving money has bought in the Caribbean.

But I digress.

When one speaks of "native" people of TCI (as they are colloquially known), one is not speaking of pre-Columbian indigenous peoples (Carib or Taino); I'm not sure any Caribs or Tainos lived there, and there aren't any there now. By "natives" of the TCI I mean the descendants of the slaves who were shipwrecked there in this ship that's just been discovered. The non-natives are mostly Haitians who have settled there, and some expats from North America and the UK.

You need to stop and think about this for a minute: The British slave trade ended in 1807, and Britain was actually in the business of intercepting slave ships off the coast of West Africa, and thus keeping them out of the Caribbean. Slavery itself (as opposed to the traffic) was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1833, and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; but Spain was still transporting slaves into the Caribbean late into the 19th century and slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. My grandmother, who is still alive, traveled to Cuba as a teenager after her parents died and lived there for two years with relatives. It is quite possible that she met people who had living memories of slavery. She might even have met people who had memories of slave ships.

The Trouvadore, the ship that sank off the Turks and Caicos Islands, was engaged in human trafficking, and when it sank the thought apparently never occurred to anybody to send the victims back home. No one apparently tried to recapture the escapees of another slave ship that wrecked in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the 1600s. The Africans on that ship stayed long enough to form relationships with the Caribs who were in St. Vincent until well into the 18th century. Their descendants, known as the Black Caribs (they called themselves the Garifuna and they still do) were all shipped off by the British to Central America (Honduras and Belize mainly) where it was expected that they would die off. But they did not die off. The Garifuna flourished, not without struggle, but they've held on to their identity and they keep the memory of their distinct history. They just celebrated the anniversary of their arrival in Belize nearly 200 years ago, and this article, by Garifuna writer Wellington Ramos, explains what that means.

Let us not forget that when we were deported we were expected to die and never to be heard from again. Today, with the determination of our people and the support we continue to receive from our ancestral spirits, our culture is still alive and kicking. I urge every Garifuna not to sit down idly by and wait for the Garifuna culture to die but to do something in his or her lifetime to ensure that day will never come to past in his or her lifetime.

Our forefathers Thomas Vincent Ramos, CJ Benguche, Elijio Beni, Satulle, our late brother Andy Palacio and all the other Garifunas who contributed to make this day a reality and we the living, who continue to work towards the preservation of our rich culture deserve a big round of applause.

Many of our Garifuna brothers and sister have migrated from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize to the United States and other countries throughout the world. No matter where we live, every year around this time there is a special feeling that enters our mind that is inexplicable, and which brings back good memories of celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day in our native countries. Especially in Dangriga, Belize, where it all started in the Culture Capital.

Now, if you know me, you know that I am not a believer in the romance of tribal life. And that's really not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about something that I tried to get in the piece on Havrilesky. There are people who are forced to define themselves in response to consciousness of the power relations of society, as a matter of survival, and that means that they cannot afford to forget history. To forget history is to forget who they are, and that is dangerous to the living as well as unjust to the dead. The Garifuna, shipped away from their home, could not define themselves by their home. They had to remember and renew their sense of identity, in a non-geographical way, and that means remembering their history. It's rather impressive, isn't it, that a people of such accidental and recent origins should have such a strong feeling of their uniqueness as a people? That history isn't in the remote past, it has no cutoff point; it continues through the present moment. It speaks through his language. And history, I must say, has been remarkably consistent with these amazing people; when it finds them at home in a place where history wants something, history just takes it as if they are not there--

Today, in Honduras, we have received reports that the Honduran government is still trying to drive them away from the beachfront properties where they have been living for years. These lands are then sold to foreigners who want to build huge hotels and resorts. Despite their resistance, the Honduran government continues to exercise their right of eminent domain over the Garifuna’s properties.

--as if they had never been.

So you see the shipwreck is good news. Because one of the things it does is remind us that history actually happened and is happening, that it wasn't historical forces that sent that ship to the TCI, but most likely a little group of investors -- a private investment trust, maybe, or a hedge fund -- that put up the money and perhaps that money was leveraged and laundered and leveraged so much by the time it got back to the original owners, with interest, that it wasn't recognizable, and the crime that produced it wasn't anybody's responsibility and really they were very nice people who gave a lot of money to orphans and other charitable causes and enjoyed watching sports.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Another Planet Heard From

Over the course of the past year or so Jamaica has experienced a series of abductions and murders of children -- horrible, horrible crimes.

I'm sure you are aware that Jamaica is one of the most violent places in the world that isn't actually a war zone. People who live there have had to get used to living with this danger, and, you know, they manage; as life has gotten harder they just adapt as they need to.

So when I consider what Jamaicans have already lived through, I am especially struck by their reactions to these murders of children. Horror and outrage and an almost superstitious fear. The government has responded by hurriedly drafting legislation modeled after the child sexual abuse laws in the United States, and the speed of the response indicates something of the strength of feelings involved, I think.

And of course, at any time of crisis, the Church must weigh in.

Bishop Joseph Ade-Gold and Pastor Oswell Robert Raymond told The Gleaner that many sex crimes were linked to occultism.

Both clerics claim that the practices of cultic worshippers have motivated some Jamaicans to conduct morally reprehensible acts. They also said that the Church should partner with the police in spearheading a united front to offer clear guidance, particularly to impressionable youths.

"The types of crime we are seeing, with the mutilation of bodies, are signs of the cults. We know that this is a country that practises a lot of obeah, and because of that, there is no doubt, in my mind, that this is what causes this kind of behaviour."

Raymond also said cultism was shredding the moral fabric of Jamaican society.

"It is anti-Christianity. It has to do with a lot of things. For instance, that Emancipation Park statue is in no way a legacy for any prime minister or leader to have left behind. It causes all kinds of promiscuity.

"It is pornographic in itself and is raping the minds of young children. All these things are linked."

He dismissed social conditions in Jamaica as a factor fuelling sexual crimes.

Statues? Statues?

So I looked up the statue that has so exercised the mind of Rev. Raymond, and well, to see was to understand. Tell me if you think I'm right (Caution: The Male Figure Has a Rather Large Package).

Evidently, Rev. Raymond sees in this tragedy an opportunity to push a totally irrelevant point that belongs to his own agenda, and he can't pass it up.

It's interesting, though, that he blames obeah. It illustrates a point that I've been writing about elsewhere; that these old beliefs and habits of expectation about how you can know and what you can know, about how the world works, which include but are not confined only to obeah, are still very influential in Caribbean life. I mean, if you need obeah work done you can order it right off the Internet. One reason why these habits, beliefs, and practices endure is because there is a sort of revolving door between the remnants of the old African beliefs and what people at home call "wash-foot" churches. But it's also a revolving door with medicine as well, and with the courts. People will back up their medical treatments with bush doctoring and obeah, and they will go and get obeah work for their court cases. It's all rather pragmatic, cover all your bases and just go with whichever one works. Belief and skepticism are about equally divided among all the options. You can carry the same set of expectations from one to the other.

Obeah and the remnants of the slaves' Shango religion have existed in the English-speaking Caribbean for hundreds of years and have never involved human sacrifice or blood-drinking or Satan-worship or any such nonsense, and everybody knows this. There is no historical evidence, and there is as yet no evidence in any of these terrible crimes.

So why is this man pushing this lie? Might as well ask why the ancient Christians kept calling the old Pagan deities devils.

The Reverend dismisses any other inquiry into causes, but he doesn't have the facts on his side. A quick search in the paper turns up perhaps another line of inquiry. More recently, the same day in fact, that the Reverend made his comments, was this story about two convictions for human trafficking, in Caribbean Net News. Moreover, it appears that the background to this case is that the government has been working on trafficking, which, it is not too hard to see, is driven by the same sorts of problems that contribute to the overall violence. In a culture where so many people do not learn to place a value on the lives of their fellow humans, violence comes easily and, in conditions of extreme economic hardship and lack of opportunity, exploitation too.

Not everything in our historical legacy is lovely to look at, and one of the enduring uglinesses of Caribbean society is the cynically exploitative nature of relations between men and women. It's hardly a secret: calypsonians (male and female) have been singing about it as far back as you care to go, and it is a recurring theme in the region's emerging indigenous theater.

But at least the singing and the plays keep this aspect of life there in the front of people's minds, just as it is impossible not to notice that prostitution is an adjunct of the tourism industry. I was in Antigua several years ago and was accosted by an aspiring professional loverboy who could have been as young as 14, but could not have been more than 16. And then there is a whole layer of salesmen and middlemen who, acting as free agents, connect the customers to the goods. I would not be surprised to learn that the sex industry in Jamaica has expanded hugely over the last 20 years or so.

What is of concern is what is not sung about: the fact that there is a certain "flexibility" in some quarters about what constitutes "legal" age. On one small island I know of, men--grown men, married men--brazenly cruise the gates of the high school at the end of the school day. The rewards for participation, for the girls, were gadgets like cell phones and clothes.

To me it seems simple: by turning a blind eye to exploitation in one area, you encourage it to develop in other areas.

It's possible at this point that one freak or group of freaks are responsible for the killings of children. In the meantime, if the Rev. believes it's some sort of supernatural Satanic evil at work in these crimes, why does he want to get mixed up with the very nonspiritual investigative methods of the police? Doesn't he have faith? Why doesn't he go off somewhere and pray about it?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Not Sure I Was Ever That Young

I remember the days when the high point of my daily Internet reading was reading Heather Havrilesky's contributions to, with artwork by Terry Colon. In those days I wasn't much aware of politics on the net: Joe Conason at Salon was about it, I think. I was looking for writing, and Havrilesky was one of my favorites, to be read wherever I could find her work.

So you know, it sort of pains me to have to say that this Salon piece is just awful, awful. So why am I bringing it to your attention, you may well ask? Mostly because of the peculiar way in which it is bad.

It opens like this:

Dear boomers: We're sorry for rolling our eyes at you all these years. We apologize for scoffing at your earnestness, your lack of self-deprecation, your tendency to take yourselves a little too seriously. We can go ahead and admit now that we grew tired of hearing about the '60s and the peace movement, as if you had to live through those times to understand anything at all. It's true, we didn't completely partake of your idealism and your notions about community. Frankly, it looked gray and saggy in your hands, these many decades later. Chanting "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" at that rally against the Iraq war made us feel self-conscious in spite of ourselves. We felt like clichés. We wondered why someone couldn't come up with a newer, catchier, pro-peace slogan over the course of 40 years of protests. We knew we shouldn't care that some of you were wearing socks with sandals and smelled like you'd been on the bus with Wavy Gravy for the last three decades, but we cared anyway. We couldn't help it. It's just who we are.

And look, we really did stand for something, underneath all the eye-rolling. We're feminists, we care about the environment, we want to improve race relations, we volunteer. We're just low-key about it.

I don't know which generation I belong to, for a start. I don't know which generation anybody I know belongs to, but in my case when everybody was supposed to be having these character-forming experiences (character being formed by the outward manifestation of one's pop-culture tastes) I was living in another country where none of this applied. So was most of the world, by the way.

Nevertheless, when American pop culture took on a much more emotionally significant role in my life, when I entered my teens and started having a social life and yearning for, if not actually managing to have, a boyfriend, the music was pop culture that Havrilesky doesn't mention at all in her piece, but which was terribly important to one significant segment of American population: soul music.

When soul music began to be explicitly about race relations, the songs were about, among other things, the cheapness of Black life: about how, civil rights victories notwithstanding, Black lives were not valued and Black men, especially, were dying under circumstances that few people felt terribly concerned to clear up.

I remember being on my first visit to California at age 11, and being driven to San Francisco by my Aunt Fay and hearing on the radio that George Jackson had just been killed at San Quentin. There we were, approaching the footing of the Bay Bridge, and just across the Bay, that very day, George Jackson had been gunned down. He was one of the ones that people did know about, but lots of Black men were dying and being incarcerated in such ambiguous circumstances, the underlying assumption being that their lives weren't worth much and it didn't matter. The value of Black men's lives had to be asserted, and young Black men had to be reminded to believe in their own worth in the face of a society that by and large did not believe in it.

That was the theme of, for instance, Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City" or Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead." Soul music referred not only to these tragedies but to the need for Black people to set a value on their own lives, like in Earth Wind, & Fire's "Shining Star." There was so much of this stuff, right up almost to the 1980s. One of the last really great ones coming out of this period was Al Jarreau's "Could You Believe in a Dream?" which takes up the old gospel tropes, so well-worn and well-loved and makes them sing one more time.

There are people who have been waiting, quietly and stubbornly, carrying something forward that they didn't start: the day after the election I stopped in a friend's office, and of course I was overflowing with the good news. We talked about how we had passed the night before, the waiting. She said that when the election was called, she wept a little for her mother, who my friend had looked after for years and years and years, and who had died at 91 years old this spring. "And then I gave my thanks to the Lord," she said. My friend is probably close to 70, which means that for no small part of her life, she lived in a segregated USA. The thread that she has held goes back a lot further than Ronald Reagan. It goes back further than she can see, and it has been carried longer, quietly, through danger and tragedy.

That's low key.

But how could we have known? We were raised under Ronald Reagan, smiling emptily under a shellacked cap of shiny brown hair like a demon clown, warning us (With a knowing nod! With a wink!) about those evil Russians stockpiling nuclear arms thousands of miles away. We were raised by "The Love Boat" and "Eight Is Enough" and "Charlie's Angels," a steady flow of saccharine tales with clunky morals. There were smiling families, hugging and learning important lessons on every channel, while at home, our parents threw dishes at each other's heads. We went to church and learned about God's divine plan every Sunday, but all it took was one Dr. Seuss cartoon about an entire world that existed on a speck of dust, and our belief in God was deconstructed in an instant. Our childhoods were one long existential crisis. We ate Happy Meals while watching the space shuttle blow into tiny bits.

What is this but a confession of having seen no further into the world than the view of her parents and the television set?

You did your best. But we rose out of that murky soup of love and confusion, of stated beliefs without the actions to back them up, and we grew cynical. We doubted even the most heartfelt, genuine statements. We didn't want to be blind to our own faults, like you were, so we paraded our faults around, exalted in our shortcomings. The worst thing, to us, was to not see ourselves clearly. The worst thing was to not be in on the joke.

So we cast a jaded eye on ourselves and each other. We drank too much and listened to obscure indie rock bands. We dressed badly and communicated in four-letter words and read books like "Infinite Jest" and "The Corrections," modern-day versions of your precious J.D. Salinger in which everyone is a fake and the high capitalist world is bought and sold and even the purest form of art is a commodity, not to be taken seriously. No one can be trusted, nothing is pure -- these are the truths we held to be self-evident.

Was there nothing else to read?

Early in my life after moving to the States, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to believe that I would become myself by becoming just like everybody else. Not because I was so much smarter, but because I couldn't afford the stuff. It would have required, in 1977-1978 or so, that I own a stereo, a car, several pairs of Dolphin shorts, the right backpack, the right runnning shoes, the right jeans, the right sort of jacket (quilted pastel-colored ski jackets god help us) and various other accessories. It would have required that I keep up with music that was mostly foreign to me -- I had no chance of ever becoming a Deadhead, I didn't care for most disco, and somehow I had lost my capacity to identify completely with anyone pop culture phenomenon. I was a foreigner and I couldn't claim to have anything culturally or generationally with people who had grown up in American high schools and listened to rock music. My little exposure to it had not been enough to sink in. And if it doesn't sink in then it probably won't sink in at all. For a while years ago I dated a Deadhead (don't ask, OK? Just don't even.) He tried to get me to go with him to a Who concert but I politely refused. OK maybe not that politely. Offended at my refusal, he suggested that maybe I refused because I was too old. "I was too old for that shit when I was 19," I told him. Which is the truth.

So if I had anything that endured out of the sixties and the seventies, it was the politics, not the style. The style was just a garnish. Which appears to be the complete opposite of Havrilesky's experience.

All these pop-culture artifacts that Havrilesky described were around me, but they didn't define me, even though for a while I very much wanted them to. I was really caught up in another effort. What I remember of that period is enormous difficulty and challenge in understanding most of what was going on around me and, for that matter, within me. I had breakthroughs from time to time, quite striking ones, but mostly I was lost, and that's the important, real part of my experience. When I began to sort of find my feet and get a sense of who I was and what I was meant to do with myself, I did not see stylish acquisition as a priority in (as my mother calls it) working out my salvation.

Which is all to say, the sea of pop-culture dreck that Havrilesky characterizes as experience, and the cliches by which she characterizes the "boomers" were not an important part of my experience, and I am quite sure that to the very slight degree they were anybody's experience, each person experienced all this stuff in a different way. They might have used the artifacts of pop style to present themselves in the world, but that alone is not the story of anyone's experience. All the interesting stuff about living is not about style. And it's not on the TV.

Style is what Havrilesky is talking about here, and she's not really addressing any recognizable human being; she's creating a "character" out of her inferences about Boomer Taste and Boomer Style, sort of modernizing The Fonz.

I am tempted to think the only person in the room who believes that it's all about style is Havrilesky herself, and that her response to what she perceived as the awkward "uncool" style of her boomer elders was -- more and (as she imagined at the time, and this is what people always imagine) better style. I'm not sure that this can be blamed on Ronald Reagan, as appalling as he was. In fact it's weird, isn't it, that when she looks for the cause of this failure to recognize content, she makes an appeal to more content-free experience, to Reagan's influence on style, and to the influence of the TV.

Well, now the TV has shown her something different to believe in at long last. I doubt that the Obama administration will improve the quality of TV even in the long run. So perhaps she should still consider turning the damn thing off once in a while.

Update: Had to make some cuts in this. It was just too long.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I May Have to Get This Book

Excerpts from a biography of Serge Gainsbourg at the Guardian. If I had a second whack at life I'd like to be crazy like this. I mean, really, you might as well live.

A week had been booked at Island's Dynamic Sounds studio, a place Gainsbourg would describe to Birkin on his return (with a touch of artistic licence) as the most primitive place imaginable, with chickens clucking about on top of the mixing board. At the outset, it looked like it might turn out to be seven days too long.

"When we arrived," said Lerichomme, "the engineer wasn't there and we couldn't really communicate because Jamaicans speak a special kind of English we found difficult to understand, and for a while Robbie didn't know which one of us was the singer and kept talking to me - because Gainsbourg was older than me and he was wearing a suit." Not that they gave the impression of caring either way. "It was quite tense, no one smiling - it was a case of take the money and run. Gainsbourg, to try to ease the atmosphere, tried to talk to them and said, 'Do you know any French music?' and they started to take the piss out of us, 'French music? We're Jamaican.'

"Gainsbourg and I looked at each other, crestfallen. This wasn't good. Then Sly said, 'We know just one piece of French music, a song called Je T'Aime . . . Moi Non Plus, which has a girl groaning in it.' And Gainsbourg said in English, 'It's me'. That changed the whole mood. We recorded very, very fast, and when it was done they didn't want to leave. They hung around the studio to hear the playbacks, smoking their enormous spliffs, saying, 'Great! Brilliant!' "

Drummer Sly Dunbar remembered getting a call from Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records. "He said this French guy wants to work with us, but he didn't realise he was the guy who did Je T'Aime - it was very popular in Jamaica. We couldn't believe it. He didn't say why he wanted to do a reggae album. So when we met him here in Kingston we said, 'So, we're going to make it polished?' And he said no, no, no, he wants it raw. It took less than a week to do everything. He just sang and said he wanted us to play reggae, so we just played reggae, and he didn't say anything - he was into the music, but he was also having a good time. He was constantly smoking and drinking but he never looked drunk. I didn't see him smoke ganja, it was just his French cigarettes in the blue pack.

"He was singing in French. We didn't know what he was singing about, but his singing was good and the melodies were great." Perhaps it was for the best that they didn't know. Relax Baby Be Cool - one of the album's perkier tracks, a mix of reggae, 1960s R&B and comic-strip "bing-boong" noises - is a chat-up routine taking place against a backdrop of hooded Klansmen, morgues and blood running through the streets. The minimalist lyrics of Eau et Gaz à Tous les Etages (Water and Gas on Every Floor) has a man taking his dick out and pissing and farting his way upstairs. The slinky singalong Lola Rastaquouère is an ode to an underage rasta girl whose breasts are "two spheres that I would give up two months' pay for, just to get to roll my poor joint between them".

But the song that made Gainsbourg notorious, the song that had the album flying out of the shops back home in France, was the second track, Aux Armes et Caetera, released in 1979. Over a swaying backdrop of laid-back reggae with a patter of percussion and slinky support vocals from the I Threes, an understated Gainsbourg talk-sings the words familiar to every Frenchman: " Allons enfants de la patrie/ Le jour de gloire est arrivé " - the opening lines of the French national anthem. It was a masterstroke. Hearing a bunch of Jamaicans messing with La Marseillaise was, for the French, the equivalent of the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen and Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner rolled into one.

If we had ever chanced to meet I would probably have broken my heart over him.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Big Day

You know, for me for a long time this vote was about getting rid of the criminal conspiracy. But in the last few days it seems to have opened up into something else, something else much bigger and happier. I'm not alone in this, as I noticed reading Tbogg a couple days ago.

I'm in my fifties and I never thought that I would see an African-American elected President of the United States in my lifetime. I just didn't think we had it in us but it appears that we have most assuredly come a long way.

But it's much wider than that. Yesterday, via the St. Kitts-Nevis email list, I found this speech that the Prime Minister, Dr. Denzil Douglas, gave on his weekly radio talk show.

Today, the people of the United States will choose their 44th president. On the ballot are two men with impressive careers of public service - Senator John McCain of Arizona , and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois . As a government that honors the sacred right of all people to choose who would govern them, we will applaud the will of the American people – whatever the outcome - and look forward to working with whomever the people of the United States chooses to lead them over the next four years.

There is something different about this election, however. And it has generated intense interest and excitement in every corner of the globe. And because Senator Obama is of African descent, the utterly brilliant race he has run against the most powerful and impressive opponents in both the Republican and Democratic Parties, fills us – also people of African descent – with a sense of awe, and wonder, and hope, and pride. It fills us anew with a sense of life’s possibilities… .it makes us think about our own capabilities. It reminds us, as individuals and as a nation, of what is possible when there is discipline…..dignity…..perseverance. It reminds us - with electrifying clarity – of what is possible when there is a commitment to excellence.ellipses in original

I have heard so many of Dr. Douglas's speeches, and I am certain he is genuinely moved. How can we not look at this moment, so unexpected, with awe, and wonder, and hope, and pride?

And yet, here we are.

Well, I don't know what came over me, but my head has been full of all that righteous soul music of the sixties and seventies, and they sound especially good to me today, as if the promise in them was still fresh, the I.O.U. was still valid and another big payment got made today.

Hence, more Curtis for you!

Because maybe the mothership is coming in for a landing and we're a few light years closer to

And so tonight I think about those who stepped up when it was harder to believe, when it was ridiculous to believe.

I'll fall asleep with my heart full of thanks to them all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Byron Lee 1935-2008

Quite possibly you never heard of him.

You know that from time to time here I'll write something about really old calypsos. One recent acquisition was some from Trinidad in the 1940s. The first time my father heard it he said that when he was growing up in Jamaica in the 1940s, all the live music you heard basically sounded like that, just a little more upmarket than a mento band really. In Trinidad where calypso had become a sort of mania the sound was bigger but things like this traveled more slowly around the region.

And then in the 1950s Byron Lee happened. Since then, he gave Jamaica and the Caribbean 48 years of straight-up, fun, extremely danceable calypso, reggae and soca. Music that could work at an army officers' ball, at a road march, that went anywhere, that you might dance to in an evening gown or glitter-sprinkled semi-nude, down the middle of a big street in broad daylight.

How they endured! They were there before ska, and they were there through all the permutations of dance hall. Byron Lee founded his band, the Dragonnaires, in 1956. If you grew up in Jamaica any time after that, effectively you grew up on his music, it was like the background music to life. I would say that even though a lot of important (socially, historically, politically) Jamaican music went off in a completely different direction from the soca-calypso-reggae line that Byron Lee pretty much stuck to, I was always surprised over the years to discover that 1) he was still playing, and 2) the esteem in which he was held grew each year. And yet he was really out of fashion in an odd sort of way: he never had dreadlocks, he never did any "dub" or any of the really hard, edgy stuff that increasingly dominated the reggae scene. But every few years or so he would throw out something utterly irresistible, like "Tiny Winey", and in between hits he was simply dependable. Absolutely dependable. And yes, if you watch the video that far, "Boom boom" means what it looks like it means (the recording has a bit of a glitch in the middle but it's the original video they put out with the song).

He might have been your parents' music, but something in it made you want to dance in spite of yourself.

If you liked that, there's lots more of him on YouTube. Caribbean people love their YouTube. Watch for his collaboration with the Mighty Sparrow on one of Sparrow's few serious love ballads, "Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart," a song I remember being sung by, it seemed, every single housekeeper and domestic helper in my early life. A huge hit in Jamaica that you probably never heard or heard of. Jamaican people love sappy ballads. If you get out into the towns in Jamaica or listen to the radio you will hear a lot of the music that is known in the States as "Easy Listening." Jamaican people have an abiding affection for this stuff, and for American country music of a certain style and vintage.

In the clips you will notice that no one in his band is wearing dreadlocks. Byron Lee was middle class. He was Babylon. He was square. But he was, according to the tribute paid to him by Jamaica's House of Representatives, the first person to make reggae known in North America. My impression is that other musicians respected him for his musicianship, his total professionalism, for his genuine, generous good nature and for the fact that he always looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself. And what you might not get or realize from here is that all through the reggae epoch there have been calypsonians, soca bands, and balladeers, right up to the present, singing alongside the hardcore dancehall or protest songs. Byron Lee ruled in this division of Jamaican musicl he ruled it longer than reggae has been in the world. For many people this will be like losing a friend, a familiar voice that was part of life all along.