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Who We Be?
An essay by Marsha Pearce
Among the various creative offerings for our 50th anniversary of independence are songs that are already packaged and promoted with music videos. We Are (My Trinidad and Tobago), written and performed by Remy RemBunction (Roland Edward Marc Yearwood), is one such song. Another is Going for Gold, written by Machel Montano and Kernal Roberts. Going for Gold is performed by Montano, who declares in a line from the song: “This is our destiny to show the world just who we be.”
Both Montano and Remy undertake, through not only song but also image, the aim of expressing who “we are” or “who we be.” A close look at their audiovisual products helps us understand what they are contributing to a necessary conversation about independence and identity. In the same way that our national anthem tells of the creation of Trinidad and Tobago, Remy’s song and images seem to be forged in the fires of hope and prayer.
In an early sequence in his music video, flames blaze behind him as he sings an invocation of unity and equality in our nation. Remy tells us in song: “Oh islands here in the sea, let us keep swimming in oceans of integrity, aspiring and achieving with real unity, believing and nurturing that philosophy.” With images of a slave ship and indentured labourers, he reminds us how our ancestors created a foundation so that we could “stand independently.”
Yet what does it mean to be independent? What does independence look like? On August 31, 1962, the day of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Great Britain, Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams delivered a speech by radio to the new nation. Among his words: “You are now a member of the Commonwealth Family in your own right, equal in status to any other of its members….You are on your own in a big world, in which you are one of many nations, some small, some medium size, some large. You are nobody’s boss and nobody is your boss.” His repetition of the words “you are” signifies early efforts at defining what it means to be independent—what it means to exist autonomously.
This year, in the midst of commemorative acts for the golden jubilee of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, we find a handful of songs putting a spotlight on considerations of who we are and—maybe more fittingly—who we ought to be as independent people. Such songs include Kurt Allen’s calypso 50 Not Out, a song that uses cricket as a metaphor to emphasise our resilience as a nation and people.
Ravi Babooram’s Sweet T&T (with lyrics by Samraj Jaimungal (Rikki Jai) and music by Roger Ramoutar) is another tuneful product that celebrates Trinidad and Tobago as a unique nation in the world. Babooram’s chutney soca piece weaves a symbol of independence into the melody with the incorporation of a sample of the T&T national anthem.
Remy gives us his perspective. The music video is replete with still images of members of our society who have contributed to the nation in areas as diverse as literature, music, politics, fashion, painting, dance and sports. Independence is written in the faces of those like David Rudder, Sir Ellis Clarke, Penny Commissiong, V S Naipaul, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Pat Bishop, Pat Chu Foon, Peter Minshall, Ian Ali, George Bovell III, Keith Smith, Rikki Jai, Mungal Patasar, and Meiling who are among those featured in the video. These people embody independence not in the sense of separation from each other, but rather as connected to each other in the making of a collective T&T self.
For Remy, “We are one heart, one soul, so brave, so bold, building stronger, growing together, climbing higher, reaching further.” It is interesting that, in the music video, the shape of Remy’s body becomes filled with images of Port-of-Spain’s new urban landscape, the recent buildings of our capital city.
Concrete, glass and steel overlap with flesh and blood in a way that ties the construction, reshaping and transformation of Port-of-Spain with our own evolution as a people. Are we defining ourselves on our own terms, independently? Or are we shaping place and self according to those standards of other regions and peoples?
Remy acknowledges that “we’re not free of controversy,” but he encourages us to remain steadfast in our commitment to self-definition as he lifts his shirt and scrapes his chest with a declaration that he bleeds red, white and black. In his vision of Trinidad and Tobago he sees who we are through a lens of patriotism.
According to him, “we are mas band and calypso birthed from her womb, we are bright chaconia flowers in full bloom. We’re the speedy cocrico, the scarlet ibis in full flight. We are kings and queens and scholars. We is a soca fete in the night.” He insists that he sees hope for us and says there is no turning back.
Montano echoes the same sentiment with his own song, singing, “There’s no turning back” as we go for gold. His piece combines a focus on the 50th anniversary of independence with equal attention to our participation in this year’s Summer Olympics. His music video features television sets showing past Olympic events in which T&T athletes have participated and other notable moments in our history.
The presence of television in the video is significant because Trinidad and Tobago introduced television technology at the same time that the islands became independent from Britain, making Trinidad and Tobago the first islands in the English-speaking Caribbean to introduce the medium. Montano also includes juxtapositions of the pan and the tabla, strong visuals to support his lyrics, “We are united, standing side by side.”
Among the locations at which we see Montano singing in the music video are shots of him in front of the National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa), one of our fairly new buildings in Port-of-Spain. Montano is dressed in a T-shirt with the number 1962 printed on it as he sings with Napa in the background. He takes us back in time while attempting to simultaneously salute our present and future. Yet with controversy surrounding the cost to construct Napa and some complaints that the building’s functionality is not in keeping with requirements of the performing arts, can we see such a building as an identifier of independence?
Furthermore, the title of Montano’s song, while appropriate for inspiring Olympic spirit, begs the question: have we really arrived at a golden jubilee of living as independent people or are we still going for it? Yet Montano’s video is not without compelling visual messages that can speak to a sense of independence. We get a vivid picture of togetherness and harmony as he spins around with his sneaker-clad feet in one shot and the video cuts to a shot of an East Indian dancer who seems to keep in step with Montano’s movements as she turns around with ghungrus (foot bells) around her ankles.
Both Montano and Remy offer up ideas of unity and equality as being forceful components of what our independence and a T&T identity should entail. Their musical styles also reinforce this idea as their respective sounds demonstrate a sonic identity created through a collaboration of genres. We are undoubtedly still working out what it means to be independent, still working out who we are, and there is no quick and easy way to do this but artistes like Montano and Remy urge us to do so with boundless faith in our destiny.
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