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Cutting through the stink
Twenty years ago, two young actors and a maverick designer hijacked J’Ouvert with their cutting edge band, 3Canal, playing Jocks-tuh-pose, hitting the streets in nothing more than jockey shorts and panties. By 1997, Steve Ouditt (who conceived the 3Canal mark) had returned to his drawing board, and Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts were joined by fellow actor John Isaacs and Calalloo Company compadre Stanton Kewley, for the transition from J’Ouvert band to rapso group. Blue was not only their first foray into recorded music but also the unofficial runaway J’Ouvert Road March of ’97 and a defining moment in the national festival’s development, marking the emergence of a new generation’s rebellious reclamation of Carnival roots, a new consciousness of and respect for the traditions of resistance embodied in the 19th-century jamette Carnival, then as now threatened by viral consumerism and commodification.
After their 1999 anthem Talk yuh Talk, 3Canal became rapso stars and flagmen of a J’Ouvert Barrio counter-culture to the main festival’s commercialisation and the homogenisation which comes with globalisation. International touring exposure and years of stage experience, local and international fed naturally into their pre-Carnival stage show, now celebrating its tenth anniversary. This year’s edition, Grimee (as in clearing a stink place), previewed on Sunday night at Queen’s Hall to a largely partisan audience of friends, family and media. Even though this was a gathering of the converted, and there were the occasional (minor) glitches that go with any first performance, Grimee distinguished itself in virtually every aspect, from stage design and lighting to choreography, costume, music and lyrics.
Both the Ministries of Culture and Tourism should take note that in Grimee they have a ready-made showcase of contemporary Carnival performing arts, which embraces the living traditions and history of a festival in danger of losing its unique identity. Presented in three chapters, the curtain rose to a stage set dominated by the backdrop of a bachac/jab head in gas mask and an ominous voiceover, speaking directly of the latest pollution: “Right now, dire, heavy sour vibes permeate the land…as more and more people give in to gloom and despair…here we keep reaching and gasping for air…for a breather…for just a little space to breathe.” In essence, Grimee provided a space to re-connect with positive aspects of our besieged land and a culture nurtured on diversity and resistance to oppression, whether colonial or self-imposed.
Those who feel this is a naïve feel-good position would have been disabused by the Carnival Comin Overture, quoting directly from Eric Roach’s 1962/3 poem Carnival: “All art grace and fine delight/is drowned in the frenzy of the carnival/that steeps the city in lust/sweat and garbage.” Those who missed this bleak reference can have been left in no doubt by another quote from Irish poet WB Yeat’s apocalyptic The Second Coming: “Things fall apart/the centre cannot hold.” It’s easy to dismiss 3Canal as pretty bourgeois showbiz boys (to men) or even J’Ouvert opportunists, but beneath and beyond their superb entertainment cachet, they maintain the uncompromising core values of rapso: freedom of expression; spirituality, morality and progressive people-friendly politics; conscious music and searing social commentary.
Chapter One—Carnival is a Living Ritual—allowed Deon Baptiste’s dancers full scope to project the creative energy of J’Ouvert, while 3Canal’s lyrics reminded the audience of pre-Lenten and kalenda/canboulay ritual roots (J’Ouvert Warriors) before celebrating its emancipatory joy (Ah Love It). Chapter Two—Carnival IS Bacchanal unleashed—combined tributes to the sacred, liberating power of dance with an Ole Mas insertion of the Gene Miles character, (reprised by actress Cecilia Salazar) and a calculated critique of our current corruption crisis. The Midnight Robber braggadocio of “Just one song could bring them down” (reminiscent of Rudder’s “lyrics to make a politician cringe”) might well make for another anthem, outside the constraints of the stage show and in this section, which climaxed in a jab jab’s frenzied dutty dance (but this devil definitely needs a cracking whip, rather than a limp length of rope), choreography and an unrestrained sound system threatened to overwhelm. While it was a generous gesture to invite fellow rapso/jamoo artiste Sheldon Blackman onstage for his affirmative “Up Up Up…show your (national) colours,” it is this middle section of the show which will need tightening.
The concluding Chapter Three was prefaced by a sobering voiceover, lambasting the dilution, rootlesness and commercialisation of the main festival: “…now Carnival consists of naked dancers performing erotic acts, with float-sized cameras, bronzed beauty queens messaging products for advertisers. Corporations have all but trademarked the country’s most sacred season…”
This was juxtaposed with a later quote from young Trini performance poet Roger Bonair Agard’s Tarnish and Masquerade: “Through steelpan and calypso/ we learned to live/ under the shadows/ of our grandfather’s tongues/ in the middle of the night/in the stomp of the Shango ritual”) a reminder of roots and a prelude to the symbolic purification by fire of Bun Dem. 3Canal then delivered what their audience had come out for, with a medley of J’Ouvert hits including perennial favourite Talk Yuh Talk and the song that launched them—Blue. This anthem, which refired J’Ouvert, gave lighting designer Celia Wells the opportunity to create an indigo explosion, the high bluelight of a show which in all aspects of production meet the benchmark set internationally by the Haitian production Vodoo Nation.
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