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Appreciating our cultural traditions

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

“Yuh think we could go in the States and say we have oil,
Yuh mad oh meh lard, Texas hah more oil more than Trinidad…oh lard, why neglect yuh culture, yuh making meh feel sad, calypso and steelband is de culture of Trinidad…”

—Mighty Power

When I first heard those lines more than 40 years ago, I got my most profound and endearing grasp of the importance of our cultural traditions. That understanding has been enhanced over the decades through practical appreciation of culture (in its broadest manifestations) and through the writings and teachings of the likes of Nettleford and Elder; but it has never surpassed.


Against that background, I experienced on the night before Republic Day, the most thrilling feeling of pride of accomplishment in our cultural creations of the entire celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of political independence and 36th of republicanism.


The experience culminated in 15 steelbands playing, in unison, Sniper’s Portrait of Trinidad. It was a transcending musical and social-history dawning of reality of the spiritual and musical power of the pans and the social significance of 15 steelbands playing in harmony rather than fighting each other at the bottom of the social barrel.



The young pannists, whether or not they have been told of Jules, Spree, Pile, Williams, Mannette, Marshal, Cobo Jack, Pierre, Pouchet and Pereira—“de white boys” who organised Dixieland and Silver Stars—caught the spirit of their ancestors.


At such times we must give special recognition to the “pan pickupers”, Prince Batson and all dem panmen who get blows from police and jail from magistrates in order for pan to survive and evolve. And, as I have been made aware by Rudy Piggott, we must always remember the contribution made to the survival of the pan by the badjohns.



They protected the pans from the bitter internecine conflict engaged in by young men and women—such as flag woman Mayfield and a jamet like Big Six. Ridiculed and stigmatised by a society that considered them “hooligans,” they turned in on themselves.


But before that transcending moment, a few hundred fanatics of the pan were treated to pieces of music of great historical significance and delight. Tokyo playing Lou Donaldson’s Caterpillar was one such piece. The last time I heard it was one J’Ouvert morning on Frederick Street sometime in the early 1970s; it was Tokyo’s Bomb tune.


It was the time of the black sound coming out of the US to accompany political consciousness and the start of the social revolution. The heavy bass line and driving rhythms of the times reverberated between the buildings that morning. Revisited on the drag at the Savannah it was like reaching back into the past to appreciate and enjoy.  


Phase II playing one of Sparrow’s sweetest of melodies, “Rose, gyul ah love yuh bad…” combined the contemporary with the classic period. But the greatest musical experience of the evening/night was Trinidad All Stars sending us into ecstasy with Woman on de Bass: “Dis Indian gyul tie she shut on she belly beating ah sweet, sweet melody on de bass…”


The rapture came when the bass section carried the melody and the tenors and double tenors ramajayed on the theme. The young pan players who were not born when “Smooth” Edwards interpreted Scrunter, played deyself with bling. Leaving the Savannah my mind ran on what could have been if those with control of the resources and not made mad by party politics had a deep understanding of what the Mighty Power preached. If they did they would have been far-sighted enough to have arranged for a selection of 50 pieces of the best music produced during the years of Independence to be placed on the most modern of formats.


Imagine All Stars’ Woman on de Bass, Despers’ Rebecca, Cavaliers’ Melody Mas, North Stars’ Mama dis is Mas; add to the collection the best of the Marionettes and the Lydians; Olive Walke’s La Petite…the immortal Mangoes; Daisy Voisin, Sundar Popo and Sonny Mann with voices and melodies informing of our Indian past and present; Mungal Patasar, Andre Tanker and others who have attempted to fuse our experiences and cultural heritages into a whole; it would have been an invaluable legacy left to the generations to come.


On the discs too would be Sparrow, Kitchener, who in Toco Band predicted the coming of Keshorn, Rudder, Stalin, Duke, Pretender, Lion, Beginner, Tiger, Atilla, Chalkdust, Shorty, Maestro, Super Blue, Merchant, Machel, Bryner’s Independence Calypso and many more.


We should also have found the right spaces and places to hang the canvasses of our artistes; reproduce and display Bailey, Sally, McWilliams, Evelyn, Velasquez; McBurnie and Balkaransingh: “the products of our creative imagination”. Library displays of Naipaul, Lovelace, Selvon, James, Williams, Capildeo, the achievements of Cipriani, Butler and Rienzi should have been informing us. It is not too late. Empty chatter about the “Father of the Nation” does not scratch the surface of our cultural experiences and that which should make us proud.


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