gall and gumption

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Big Thing

No that wasn't it either.

Theory of Misha

You have to think very hard before you get a German Shepherd. Misha, who is probably three-quarters German Shepherd, is seen here hiding from ghosts. Well, that's what my father called it once in one of his sudden little bursts of tenderness for this wretched impossible dog. Added to the challenge of being a German Shepherd (all emotional controls turned to maximum hysterical intensity), she has suffered abuse that really hurt her self-esteem, and she now has a problem with seizures. In her seizures she sees things and snaps at them, and when it gets to be too much, which it does sometimes even with the drugs, she crawls into a small dark space, this one, and gets a little peace. She is really more sensitive than is altogether compatible with most forms of dog happiness. Outside, she is nervous and watchful all the time except occasionally when she gets on the trail of a squirrel or when she plays the Growling Game with Sweetie as we head for home. Other than that, you can tell that she's just overwhelmed by all the stimuli, her ears are back, she's guessing at what to do or suddenly possessed by some utterly idiotic impulse, she's making it up and it's all a bit much and she can't wait to get home and get fed a treat and maybe flop down on the floor and have her belly rubbed.

Sweetie is recovering from abuse, but it took place in her first year, she was rescued, and life has been pretty much an uninterrupted picnic since then. As my old roommate Rob says, "Some of us have to pay up front." But she still has the ways of an island street dog: skulk about shamefacedly near the rum shop and someone will toss you a couple chicken bones or swing a kick at you, or both. If a human bends down to pick something up off the ground skitter away quickly, don't wait around to see if it's a rock or if it's intended for you. When you go somewhere you've never been before, mark your trail with scrupulous care. Bury your poop (if she has an accident at home she buries it by putting my underwear or my father's socks on top of it). She makes her own decisions, you can see her sizing up situations. I don't say she does this well. I find myself saying to her, "Sweetie, maybe you just shouldn't try to think." What trouble she and I have had over our four years together has always come from her thinking and her attempts to deal with what she regards as problems, using her remarkable street smarts and her sense of duty to the pack which is me and her. But also she just has weird ideas.

On the windward coast of Nevis was a beach I used to like to go to with the mad Englishman. We'd walk along and collect driftwood or go and play in the rather rough waves. There was one area of it where this high, dome-shaped spit of land stuck out into the sea, overhanging above some rocks. The water was shallow there and you could walk under the overhang almost. Goats, grazing in the area, would sometimes fall off this dome onto the rocks and die. So there were lots of goat bones there and among the things I gathered was a goat skull, which I had plans to draw and which I also hoped would deter burglars because they do look a bit satanic. It was clean, dry, no stink. I took it home and left it outside on the retaining wall until I was ready to draw it at some distant date. Well, over the next several weeks this goat skull became the subject of a quiet and genial political struggle between me and Sweetie. I would come home from work and find the goat skull in the middle of the paved area of the back yard, or in the middle of the driveway, or in Sweetie's Project Staging Area, the place where she brought her plastic containers and bits of road kill. For days it would just stay there, then I would tidy up and put the goat skull back on the retaining wall. Within 24 hours it was back in the Project Staging Area again where she never actually did anything with it. It didn't move from there until I moved it, but when I moved it, she moved it immediately back to wherever she thought it should be. Then when she began to flirt with Mike, the Canadian guy who lived in the apartment downstairs, she would prance around with it and break off bits of it just so show off. And so with all of that she pretty much won the whole Battle of the Goat Skull.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Few Small Discoveries

It's been a good week for them. I spent a couple of hours (or at least that's what it felt like) at Tower Records in Rockville with Mark P. (Big shoutout to Mr. and Mrs. P.) I have to say he discovered me rather than the other way around. Well, some of you will know how nice that would be.

At Tower I searched in vain again for the old Don Giovanni with Fischer-Dieskau as Don Giovanni, Kirsten Flagstad as Donna Elvira, Martti Talvela as the Commendatore (best Commendatore ever), the woman with the really ditzy voice who plays Zerlina, conducted by Karl Boehm. No luck I can't find it anywhere. I lent my copy to someone who disappeared with it out of my life. I have another recording of Don Giovanni but it's like when I listen to it I am listening for the other one and not hearing it.

But I went over to the International music section and found a Sparrow CD that I -- well. Oh my dears I wish you could hear this song called "Maria." I had forgotten all about it, but it got a lot of play when I was small and is associated in my mind with the grownups getting wild. I showed my father the CD and he said, "Oh, yes, a great dance tune." Which it is. A slow sinuous Latin dance tune, to dance cheek to cheek, a poignant sad romantic ballad about a man who has to part with his girl Maria.

Maria darling I must go,
But remember I love you so.
Unfortunately we must part
Girl you don't know how it breaks my heart.

I wish I could stay with you
And give you what is yours, dou-dou*
But until we meet again I know,
Right now we got to say adio'
Oh Maria!

Oh darlin if I had my way,
Forever with you I would stay.
Cause it ain't have another girl**
That I love so much in this whole world.

I like the way you walk, Marie,
And I like the way you talk, Marie.
I like the way you smile, Marie;
You know you have me goin' wild, Marie.
Oh Maria!

I went home to Marie last night.
Somebody nearly out me light.
I don't know what was his reason.
Now the police have him in prison.

I don't know if what he said was true;
He says he loves Maria too.
But now I can't see what to do;
He have me eyes well black and blue.
Oh Maria!

*Dou-dou is means "sweetie," in the French Creole that they used to speak in Trinidad and which is, I believe, just about extinct.
**"It ain't have" is Trinidad English Creole for "there isn't any/there aren't any."

It is a calypso, suave, slow, sly, with the punchline at the end. It is personally evocative, but I never knew when I was small what a funny song it was. And yet even without that I recognize that the personality of Sparrow as it appears in this song was a part of the world I was living in, it evokes now the feeling of that peculiar world all around me.

"Mr. Walker" is on this album too. It is a road march, it has that beat that you can just keep playing over and over the whole length of the march. Every Caribbean person over the age of 30 probably knows this song.

She ugly, yes, but she wearing them expensive dress.
The people say she ugly but she father full of money Oh Lord, mama Woy-oy.
Good morning, Mr. Walker, I come to see your daughter.

Sweet Rose Marie promised she would marry me
And now I tired waiting, I come to fix the wedding.
After the wedding day
Well, I don't care what nobody say
Every time I take good look at she face I seein a bank book
Oh lord mama woy-oy...

Sparrow is master of the vignette, as in "Sparrow Dead," another great road march song.

"I hear he had cancer."
"I hear he had yellow fever"
"Something in he bladder..."
"...and a double dose of leukemia"

Two gossip mongers gossipin
I stand up in a corner listenin.
Before I could a ask who dey talking 'bout,
A newspaper boy start to shout, "Sparrow dead!"
Who kill de Sparrow? Nobody know.

If you see dis woman
Wid a flag in she hand
She bang she belly,
Tellin' everybody
Sparrow dead!

Well big mouth Lillian
Say the funeral was on television.
She picky head cousin say "Mmmhumm, de coffin cost twenty thousand.
That is why he sell de company,
To pay de doctor and de burial fee."
While they talking ups come big Belly Angie
With a paper bawlin' "Girl, all you ain't see?"

Use your imagination and try to see a Carnival road march, a solid mass of people dancing to this bouncing and driving beat and the master of it all on top of the truck Sparrow himself, laughing at rumors of his death. So many things come together. A calypsonian must project a presence, he has to make life large in his own person. At this, Sparrow was, and is still acknowledged to be, the best.

It's not sloppiness that makes him mix the idioms of Trinidad the way he does in his songs. It is a perfect command of the the way these idioms (standard English and Creole English with, even still, a little French and a little of the old Yoruba) mix themselves up in ordinary speech. You swing in and out of them, high and low and all the different levels in between.

The other album I picked up in the International music was a collection of Trinidadian music from considerably before Sparrow's time. It is a collection of, to be precise, supernatural music, falling into three categories: Shango music, shouter music from the really really roots "wash-foot" churches, and obeah music.

Shango music, which is early calypsos on the subject of Shango which was the Trinidadian version of the same animist religion you find in varying forms all over the Caribbean. Shango is the name of the principal Yoruba god that the Africans brought over with them. He endures there still in Obeah, in voodoo, in Santeria. You can hear about him in Cuban music, where he is known as Chango. In Trinidad Shango was illegal at the time of these calypsos (and quite likely still is, like obeah in Jamaica and other islands). But the interesting thing about these recordings, and a thing I did not know, is that Yoruba was still being spoken in Trinidad at the time when these songs were recorded.

In fact there is a book about it that is among the things I crave. Trinidad Yoruba wasn't exactly the same as the homegrown Yoruba; like English and French and Dutch it got Creolized. That Creolized Trinidad Yoruba is now basically a dead language, but it survives in a dictionary and in these songs, in these irreverent calypsos that had to beware of the censor. Some ofthese songs are the old Yoruba songs, others are slick little calypsos offering a bit of commentary on the obeah or Shango or just some ghosst story or other.

Why did these languages live so long and then die? The force that kills Caribbean Creoles is social advancement. That is, as people move up the social ladder they look down on their origins. Naipaul wrote in one of his heavily researched historical novels that the slaves who had been in the Caribbean for a generation or two looked down their noses at the ones who had arrived. There are people in Jamaica who in addition to their English names, "Clarence" or "Fitzroy" will have an African nickname like Takoo, that they are a little embarrassed about. And in St. Lucia, where people speak both French Creole and standard English, parents prohibit their children from learning the French one. Because it is associated with being a rube, with being backward and from the bush, with the shame of humble origins and low class. But words, phrases, memes, crossed class boundaries, back and forth, nonetheless. The first time I ever heard the word "coonoomoonoo" was when I was about nine, and the person who used it was my paternal grandmother, a woman who grew up in a great house, during an argument with my grandfather. My grandfather scolded her for using such language. But she is a woman on whom scoldings are quite thrown away.

I never learned to speak Jamaican patois (Creole). I can mimic it, whole sentences and phrases, but I can't think in it. This despite the fact that throughout my childhood and into my teens there was always someone in the house who spoke patois, the housekeeper, who spent as much time with us on any given day as our parents did. But in any event, as Sparrow's songs beautifully illustrate, Caribbean speech, Creolized speech exists on a sort of continuum, just like the whole phenomenon of Creolization -- of becoming something that wasn't African or European but something made out of both that was made there, is ot a single process, it's many and it goes on, at different paces, it's the whole becoming the Caribbean people, that strange and diverse mutt-mixture of cultures and races. Nothing there is all one thing or the other. Even though I don't speak patois, my style of invective falls into the cadences of Caribbean speech. I use rhetorical tropes and memes that come from the Caribbean, even though my diction and vocabulary are standard English with just the trace of the accent. (The accent fluctuates depending on the company I'm with.) It isn't an affectation. I get comfort from it, I get a sort of pleasure even in the middle of a rant from saying things in just this way. This by the way, is a habit I picked up in my teens, when Jamaican patois and its great rhetorical resources started migrating up the social scale -- which is another whole story.

One reason why I went back to St. Kitts, to the Caribbean, was to get the language back. I could do that in St. Kitts even though they speak differently there from Jamaicans and I would never confuse Kittitian speech or Nevisian speech with Jamaican.

Now St. Kitts is an island that has forgotten a couple of languages. And the memory of those other languages accounts to me for the difference in speech between there and Jamaica. The French had St. Kitts for a long time, and certain features of Kittitian pronunciation are evidence of a lingering Frenchness. A lot of Kittitians don't pronounce the letter "R" with any consistency. The way they pronouce "IR" is quite distinct: it tends to come out as "UH" "Girl" becomes "Gyul," for example.
Jamaica was never French and doesn't have these little quirks. It has others. As you go up the social scale these little features are less evident.

But one of the strangest things in St. Kitts is this one vestigial remnant of a lost language that only turns up in the masquerade. An unbroken and pretty much unchanged tradition of dance and drumming has existed in St. Kitts since slavery days. They call it masquerade. If you arrive in St. Kitts on a cruise ship you are likely to be met by a drummer and a troupe of little boys. The little boys are dressed in these very colorful costumes with tall headdresses and they dance in a recognizably AFrican style, skipping and winding. Sometimes the drummer will be accompanied by a fifer, though fifers are now becoming very scarce, it's an endangered art form The whole thing might seem a bit hokey, and so it always seemed to me. But one night a masquerade troup was practicing in the little neighborhood, not quite a slum, near to my house. I just happened by and got curious, so I joined the audience that was seated on the steps of a rum shop. There was a drummer, and a fifer, and this group of little boys, maybe 8 of them, not in costume but just in their street clothes. And they were dancing seriously with concentration, it was intense and real, right in the middle of the street. But the really strange thing about it was that as they danced the little boys would periodically shout or mutter these unintelligeble phrases. It was clearly part of the performance. I asked the owner of the rum shop, who was a friend of mine, what the boys were saying and he said they weren't saying anything. They were just making the sounds of a language that was completely forgotten. When was it forgotten? Nobody could say. The meaning was gone and all there was was the sound, it was only the sound that was being passed on.

Spooky, huh? I thought so.

In the U.S. you can see Kittitian masquerade at the big West Indian Labor Day parade in Brooklyn. Since this is the biggest ethnic parade in the U.S. you could blink and miss it. If you ever do see them, remember that at night in St. Kitts, in the streets and alleys of Basseterre, they still dance for one another, and though they've forgotten the words they remember what they sounded like.

By the way this is not the big thing I mentioned a couple of posts ago. I'm still working on that, the pages are in a muddle.

Meanwhile big shoutout to new reader/old friend PAM! (I might keep doing this unless it bugs you people.)

Friday, September 15, 2006

...and good morning to you too, fatso

This morning I was walking to the back of the longish queue for the train from Germantown. Most of the people who take the train are regulars (one way I'm sure I've gotten on the right train at Union Station is I look for familiar faces. There are only two or three people on my train that I speak to. A woman I met on the first day I ever took the train, and a couple days ago this Chinese woman with a Chinese Bible just started chatting with me. Other than that, no one. So this morning as I'm walking to the end of the queue this woman with whom I have never exchanged even the words "Hello dog," gave me the once-over and said to me, "Casual day, huh?"

Of course I did everything you are not supposed to do: I immediately glanced down at what I was wearing and it did seem to me that the shirt (which is about seven years old) was looking particularly disreputable. I had changed into it after I noticed that the first shirt I put on this morning had a big grease stain front and center. And then I did worse, I blushed. I tried to explain (didn't mention the grease stain, probably just as well.) The title to this post is one of those things you think up hours later when it is of no earthly use.

The big piece

You will not believe me but I am still toiling away at it.