gall and gumption

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Poddy Goodies

I don't know how I did all those dog walks in the years before I had an iPod. Lately my father has been coming along on my morning walks. He walks his dog and I walk mine. What I have realized since I made this change is that when I walk the dogs alone I go into a state a bit like a trance, listening to the music.

So what have I been listening to a lot of lately?

Mississippi John Hurt -- the Library of Congress Recordings, vol.1 and 2 He's one of those singers, like Leabelly, who inhabits that region between blues and folk. He plays guitar sweetly and he has this deep conversational gentle voice, sort of musing. And yet it takes hold of you. These recordings sound like they could have been made last week, his singing has that timeless quality. And you can tell that he was a nice man. An interesting life story too.

Trio Los Panchos -- Los Esenciales Trio Los Panchos is one of those odd outfits that for a while was a huge craze and then just sort of vanished. My father loves them and when I was little he played them on the record player all the time. But then like all these years went by and I never heard anything of them. He mentioned them the other day and I found a CD and then I found some more and I really can't tell you whether it's the nostalgia effect or if they are fun. They are sort of mariachi music meets the Platters with just maybe the teensiest hint of Perry Como. But it's more suave than that, and it's really Latin, and they do have lovely voices.

Lila Downs -- La Cantina If you are entering a Latin Craze Phase you might as well start with this singer. She has managed to turn Mexican traditional styles into something quite new and original. She has this big rich hearty voice and one hell of a pair of lungs, which I think are required for all female Mexican singers. This album is mostly her own version of Norteno music (the stuff with the polka beat) and Ranchero. I'm not sure how to describe Ranchero. It includes that one school of Mexican singing that I like to think of as the "When I'm Finished Throwing Your Clothes Into the Street I'm Going to Find the Bitch and Tear Her Hair Out" style, and the sort where the man is a total skunk and shatters her illusions and steals her innocence and leaves her shedding tears for the rest of her life after a betrayal that she could never have imagined but she forgives him and hopes God blesses him and leaves him happier than he has left her -- this song would be after the neighbors calmed her down of course and she had a good fit of crying. Yolanda Del Rio is the great name among female Ranchero singers. It is the style with a lot of sobbing in it. One of the great things about Downs is that she has this terrific band AND a sense of humor. These songs are all about either eating or drinking away your sorrows, some are pathetic, but "La Tequilera" is just funny, funny lyrics and funny music. If you also get her album "La Linea" you'll be even more impressed with the range of her musical inventiveness.

Desmond Dekker -- King of Kings Probably needs no more explanation, given what I've written here before.

A little more oil in my lamp keeps it burning;
A little more oil in my lamp I pray
A little more oil in my lamp keeps it burning
Keeps it burning till the break of day


I am thinking of moving my Caribbean operations to a separate blog and just conduct my lit major operations here. Some cross-posting would occur of course, as some of what I do on the Caribbean is literary or culturary. But I think that change might free me up a bit.

Any thoughts or suggestions? What you want to see more of? Use the comments.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Louise Bennett Coverley 1919-2006

Today a caller on Motty's show said, "She was good to all of we." And while you watch Jamaica tearing itself apart, you know that on one thing every Jamaican will agree -- that this incredible creative woman spread joy and love inexplicably and steadily and widely throughout her country over the course of her whole life.

She was like reality and not like reality, in the way that great poetry is. She told Anancy stories, the same Anancy stories that our maids and grandparents told us, but she told them somehow filling out the dramatic possibilities of such telling with this wonderful wonderful comic gift. She formalized something like the telling of Anancy stories -- it managed to be high art and, simultaneously, the same stories we had grown up on, she hadn't taken them out of the flow of normal life, but elevated normal life so you could see how grand it was, even in a little thing like that.

She had a little radio show that she did, called "Miss Lou's Views" in which she would read a commentary of her own composition, in patois. It was witty and animated and sharp, and along with her own views she would quote the views of a mysterious person who was simply referred to as "My Auntie Roachie," as in, "My Auntie Roachie say..." She had a children's TV program that played every Saturday morning, with round games, folklore, a little bit of acting and all sorts of things. She did all these things with such boundless energy. She sang, acted, wrote plays, a book of Jamaican dialect poetry, produced her own media programs, was a living archive of Jamaican culture and folklore, she was a cultural ambassador for the country and was one of the first who spoke for all. She did all this in a culture that doesn't really do much to help the creative artist, though it does value theater: that it does value theater even now owes a lot to what she brought to the theater. The effect she had on children was simply electrifying: she liked energy in children, and they adored her for it. When she appeared on the stage in the pantomime, in her tie-head and her old-time madras cotton dress -- which she just about singlehandedly made into the national folk costume -- the children in the audience went wild. By the time I was a child watching her at the theater and on TV, that costume was long gone, you didn't actually see people wearing that outfit, but it was familiar, it was us, it was part of our history, because Miss Lou helped us to understand that it was so. She raised consciousness of what it was to be Jamaican, of the unique history that manifested itself in the way we spoke, the way we thought and acted.

All this, and with this common sense, kindness and a sort of radiant generousity of spirit. I should think it would have been impossible to ever say no to her. I never heard a mean word spoken of her.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Foreign Service

Here's a very detailed article about rent-a-dreads from the London Guardian/Observer. My mother wrote me about it. Oh, man, it would have been fun to sit at the breakfast table and watch her make her way through this story. In addition to the film that Gilliard mentioned, there is a play opening in the West End in London. But all the dialogue in this news story is the real thing straight off the beach. I will only add that it is one of the reasons why I don't even try to go to Negril when I go to the Caribbean.

Here is a choice bit:

'You are gorgeous,' Leroy tells one of them, whose attractiveness isn't immediately apparent. 'What part of heaven did you fall from?'

A policeman wanders past, observing but not intervening. Later he tells me it is usually the women who complain on the rare occasions that the force does apprehend hustlers.

She grins at her friend, clearly flattered but not completely fooled. 'Beautiful ladies, some of the men here will hassle you and rip you off,' he warns, appearing genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. 'You need someone to look after you. To show you around. Take you to the waterfalls, the Blue Mountains and the caves and the best parties.' He smiles coquettishly.

The two women look at each other like nervous schoolgirls and giggle. They say they think they are a bit too old for the men.

'No, you ageless,' Leroy continues, shaking his head. 'We are real men. In Jamaica, real men like the cat, not the kitten. And real men like real women. Mature and intelligent and beautiful women like you.'

To some people, their well-rehearsed chat-up lines might sound corny, a bit nauseating, somewhat transparent. But for plenty of women the words are just what they have been longing to hear. They agree to meet later that night at the reggae party on the beach.

When I ask Leroy what he does if he's not attracted to a woman, he responds matter of factly: 'Close my eyes and pretend it's Beyoncé.'

Yeah Mon. Fascinating. One of those pieces of journalism I wish I had written myself.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

This Week's Reading

Mostly it's been the Helen C. White The Metaphysical Poets. It gave me a craving to read them. Donne is the hero of the book, I'd say. She only covers Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan and Traherne. Which leaves out the whole side of the period represented by what you could call the pre-pre-Augustans: Jonson, Herrick, Marvell.

I'm making my leisurely way through The Mysteries of Udolpho again. Anne Radcliffe lived her entire life in the Isle of Wight, I believe. She did nothing remarkable, never went anywhere, had no adventures. But Udolpho and all her books are filled with all these copious, detailed descriptions of scenery, like maybe what you'd write if you only looked at the pictures in old National Geographic articles about scenic Europe, and didn't read the text. It's better than the text in National Geographic though.

So that goes along unhurriedly.

For fast readpmg it's the bio of Faulkner is by Jay Parini. I'll have more to say about it but I'm just too tired now. Oh I also read, last week and the week before, two Elmore Leonard novels, one Sue Grafton novel and one novel by Tom Perry, erstwhile CCS admin extraordinaire and now best-selling thriller writer. What is impressive about Tom's books (this is the second one I've read) is that they are actually literate. Now, when I was in Nevis I actually read the DaVinci Code, yes, oh, come on now, don't walk away. If you had been in Nevis you too would have read anything, anything at all, gratefully. And it's interesting to contrast ti with Tom's book because the DaVinci book supposedly has a lot of expertise about four subjects: art, the history of Christianity, Leonardo DaVinci, and that thing you do where you decode things. There is all this discussion of paintings as though the most important thing in them is that they contain clues. It's not only that this is a thriller and therefore needs this little device; it's really a pervasive and genuine lowbrowness afflicts the book -- it's the author's natural tone of voice.

With Tom Perry's book you don't really have a lot that's too exotic or remote, though I guess hit men gone amok could be considered exotic. If I didn't already know that Perry is a lit major I would guess it from his prose, which is sophisticated without any recourse to fakery or pretentiousness. It's working prose, its literary quality mostly apparent in a certain mature rightness of tone. There are a lot of readable genre writers, as you will find if you ever find yourself stuck on a desert island with nothing to read but that sort of thing. I read everything of John Le Carre that I could get my hands on in Nevis, and everything I could find by John Grisham who is mostly a dreadful stylist. I say mostly because the thing he does best he does rather well: describe minor characters who happen to be lawyers. You will suddenly, after zipping through all sorts of transparent setups (one of the things I had to get used to reading this stuff was that all the apparatus of it was so obviously just that), and then for the sheer fun of it he produces some lawyer who could steal the whole book if given the chance. But none of the others, except Le Carre, writes this well.

Anyway I'm now halfway through this bio of Faulkner. I'll have to post on that separately though. I will. I've been filling the book with little sticky tape flags.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Let's Par-Tay

John Donne's Satire III. Of Religion.

...though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

And/Or Herbert's Dooms-Day.

Come away,
Make no delay.
Summon all the dust to rise,
Till it stirre, and rubbe the eyes;
While this member jogs the other,
Each one whispring, Live you brother?

Ten Bucks Worth of Barf

So on Monday I cruised the magazines at the newsstand in Union Station, having some time before my train, and I picked up two magazines I had never read before and will never, if it can possibly be avoided, read again. One is called "Pages," with the subtitle "The magazine for people who love books." The other is called "Bookmarks" which claims to be "For Everyone Who Hasn't Read Everything."

The cover of pages has a takeoff of the Michelangelo's God creating Adam, you know that great image, but instead it's Tom Hanks lying on what looks like a lily pad, apparently suffering from constipation. God, inexplicably, is Liam Neeson, and he's handing the costive Hanks a copy of the book, "The DaVinci Code."

Also featured, some sort of interview with Gay Talese, and a peek inside the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Surely this cover should have told me that I did not need to buy this magazine. But sometimes my cravings get the better of my judgment; that is the only way I can account for some of the things I have eaten lately. Perhaps this can happen with reading materials. You can never get enough of the substitute for the thing you really want, Eric Hoffer said if not in quite exactly those words.

Between the covers, ads, fluffery and hackery. The other thing was that the articles were so weirdly edited, as though someone had assigned the cutting to some sort of editorial equivalent of an axe-weilding maniac.

It also featured, in the back, an essay by some woman named Catherine Seipp. Her essay is about manners and child-rearing.

She is annoyed by the presence of a teenage girl who is talking on a cell phone and then sort of picking at her face and hair. But she takes the opportunity to impart a lesson in manners to her daughter who is there with her:

On my other side, Maia [the daughter] sat quietly reading Seventeen. "I'm going to sit on the other side of the waiting room, away from the chimpanzee girl," I whispered to her. I dislike being near people who pick at themselves in public, like apes.

You might think that such surpassing cluelessness couldn't possibly get any worse. But it does.

The woman who describes herself as trying to set a good example with manners and morals, is in a shopping center in L.A. wearing a T-shirt that says, "Stupidity is Not a Crime, So You're Free to Go."

A mother with a small child smiled, hesitated for a moment, and then volunteered, "I'd like to send that shirt to our president."
"Well," I said pleasantly, "I wouldn't, I guess, since I voted for him."
"Oh," she said, flabbergasted.
At this point, her son, about four years old, began a pantomime of stomping on ants as he yelled, "Stomp Bush! Stomp Bush! Stomp Bush!" Evidently, he'd been trained to do this, like an organ grinder's monkey, whenever the word president was uttered.

What is it with her and the monkeys and chimpanzees?

Bookmarks was more of the same, with the addition of some really appalling letters. A lot of the reviews were really compilations of blurbs from reviews that had been written elsewhere.

Which is how I learned that our Bob B. has written a review of John McGahern's last book, his memoir/autobiography. It's in the Chronicle, but not online apparently. Next time just email me, Bob.

You cannot imagine how depressing it all was. I am still trying to get it off me. I'm reading Helen C. White's book, The Metaphysical Poets, which Al Stephens recommended to me years ago. It is good, but reading those magazines made me feel so discouraged and wretched. Why? I suppose that's how you feel if you think, well, it can't be that easy to screw up writing about books, and you pick these things up and you're spending the rest of the evening, way past bedtime, rinsing and rinsing the slime out of your hair. It made me feel lost, like I fell off the edge of the world into wherever the people live who read this shit. Does this happen to you? I'm geting to be morbidly sensitive as a reader now, along with everything else, apparently.

I'll try to think of something. Got.... to.... move..... on.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Jean and Dinah and Winston

Steve Gilliard posted this review of a new film about the rent-a-dread phenomenon in the Caribbean, and the fact that older white women from North America and Europe go there looking for romance which they are quite content to pay for. Some of his posters are scandalized to learn of this, and Gilliard finds exploitation in it. Here's what I posted in response.

If this is news to you, you have never spent time on a Caribbean beach outside of those all-inclusive resorts. If you have you are aware that there are all sorts of peddlers -- of handmade jewelry, T-shirts, sarongs, little pipes, weed, massages, hair braiding, and yes, romance.

I have known men who get into these affairs, and some women. Sometimes it ends well, sometimes it ends badly. You could say the same about the romances that are not for pay. These have the advantage of both parties going into it with their eyes wide open. It has gone on for a long time, I can remember tourists being squired around by "tour guides" when I was small (my grandparents owned a hotel for a while). I prefer to think of it as mutually assured exploitation and as long as nobody gets hurt, I don't see what the problem is.

Certainly one of the things that could be done is for these guys (AND the women) to put their heads together to get some of the protections that sex trade workers get in the most civilized countries.

You might not be aware that there is a whole sort of subgenre of calypso, going back probably to the 1940s, in which a white woman comes down to the islands, drinks some rum, marches in a carnival band and goes wild.

And that real calypso that the Andrews Sisters made so popular, "Rum and Coca-Cola?" What do you suppose the line "working for the Yankee dollar" means? In every single calypso referring to the Americans, who had a base in Trinidad during WWII and for some years after, the word "Yankee" was shorthand for sex for money.

The Mighty Sparrow's greatest songs, the ones that made him the acknowledged greatest calypsonian of all time, were almost all about sex for money. In "Jack Palance" the old grannies (with their face like Jack Palance) are getting into the Yankee action, in "Don't Go Joe," a woman steals her Yankee boyfriend's wallet while crying because he's leaving. And in "Jean and Dinah," a local man gloats because now that the Yankees are gone the prices are within his reach again.

These are very funny songs; all the characters in them are spirited and perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Calypso fans of the 1950s and 1960s, when Sparrow and Lord Kitchener were putting out songs like this, speak of both these guys with reverence. Because they recognized and made art out of what is common knowledge in the Caribbean: that outside of marriage, most sexual relationships have some kind of financial component. (As do many marriages, here in the U.S.) But there are all sorts of shades and degrees to these relations. For a lot of people, money ("He looks after me") is wrapped into their idea of a viable relationship. That it is potentially exploitative and often really so, everyone acknowledges, and has acknowledged for hundreds of years. Some people think it the exploitation is worse now than it was under colonialism.

Something else to point out is that in the colonies there was a shortage of white women. Far more men went out than women in the early days, because working there was something you would do if you couldn't find anything in England, or if you had disgraced yourself and got a fresh start.

Black women who entered into liaisons with such men got some distinct advantages, and so did their mixed children: by the time Anthony Trollope toured the Caribbean in 1858, Jamaica's legislature was made up mostly of mixed brown people, the children and grandchildren of slaves.

And, I'll just add, they owned land.