A fortunate few invitees witnessed the recent Little Carib workshop performance of Jab Molassie, a music theatre production, which is the latest project of the visionary Calabash Foundation for the Arts.
A (supposedly) objective review should be cautious with superlatives, so while attempting to be constructively critical in the interests of arts journalism, I'm constrained to admit that I can think of no performance on a Trinidad stage in the last 20 years which exuded the electrifying creativity Jab Molassie brought to town.
And this is only the beginning, the second workshop of the year, which brought the small band of musicians together with vocalists and a dancer for the first time, after only three three-hour rehearsals.
The first public performance is planned for next May, yet given Calabash's brief "to contribute to the development of the performing arts in T&T by enabling the creation of new indigenous works which will be performed on local and international stages" it was obvious to the Little Carib audience that the work they observed in process and progress marks a major watershed in T&T's performing arts, and a serious contribution to Caribbean and contemporary World Music.
Jab may be a highly ambitious project but the combination of a judicious choice of libretto (storyline) and personnel ensures that it is feasible and proves that working within limits does not necessarily mean limited work.
The libretto (an adventurous first for UTT double bass instructor Caitlyn Kamminga) is a local adaptation of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale–a Russian folktale version of the Faust legend, in which the Soldier exchanges his violin for a book from the Devil which realises all his desires (recalling the biblical moral:
"What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.")
Shifting the setting to Laventille ("Home of the Dead End Kids") and replacing the Soldier with Starboy might cause some ripples among those who profess concern over negative perceptions and stereotyping of communities (although Starboy Muhammad Muwakil hails from Belmont rather than Glencoe) but Kamminga's decision resonates with Stravinsky's original motivation.
Stranded in Switzerland towards the end of the Great War in 1918, Stravinsky opted to collaborate with Swiss writer Ramuz to produce a short work with few characters and instrumentalists, which could easily travel.
So the scale of the original accords well with Calabash's developmental nature. Musically too there are resonances. Stravinsky's score was created from folktale, legend, dreams (particularly his dream of a gypsy woman playing violin to her child) and such diverse musical sources as the Tango, the Hispanic Pasadoble and early Jazz (imagined by Stravinsky from imported American scores).
It's impossible to fault the conceptual framework Jab is building on, but any artistic idea is only as good as its implementation and interpretation.
Composer and musical director Dominique Le Gendre gave locals a stunning taste of what the Royal Opera House in London and the New York-based Ensemble du Monde have been recently commissioning.
Just as the libretto draws on Trini Carnival and J'Ouvert culture, Le Gendre references the spectrum of T&T musical culture, opting for a nine-piece ensemble (complete with double tenor pan) which recalls the Venezuelan style string band accompaniment of early calypso.
However, there's nothing anachronistic about the score or instrumentation–which incorporates J'Ouvert's foot shuffle chip and bottle and spoon into conventional percussion. It was a delightful surprize which made perfect sense to see Trinidad's starboy jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles peeking puckishly from under his porkpie alongside his partner Ismail Lumanovski, the virtuoso Macedonian gypsy clarinettist and classical violin soloist Jonathan Storer.
On paper the ensemble, or "band" as Le Gendre refers to it, might look improbable to those expecting "classical music" but just as Stravinsky dispensed with unnecessary conventions drawing from popular and folk culture, Le Gendre dips light-handedly and sometimes humorously into our musical heritage, which owes as much to kalenda and Baptist chants, kaiso and rapso, the rattle and roll of J'Ouvert, as it does to regional influences like the Creole jazz inspired by Martinique's biguine. From the opening bars to Starboy's frantic violin solo at the finale, the music created all the magic promised in Jab's prosaic red book.
The initial melodic theme redolent with mystery and a hope beyond the "Dead End" Laventille setting, rode a percussive rhythm, which I can see some audiences rising from their seats to do that slow wine and shuffle unique to Panorama patrons.
The music for Jab definitely requires the kind of attention not possible in a 50-minute performance, where so much else is happening onstage and hopefully we can look forward to a CD (along with a DVD of the entire production) with which to indulge ourselves.
But for now suffice it to note that it thrilled and seduced, moving effortlessly from classical to jazz to J'Ouvert, folk and possession with magical reality.
A beautiful touch, among so many, was Starboy's violin solo for the dancer which recalled the music of the formal French Creole pre-Emancipation carnival balls.
The story carried by the music, vocalists and dancer remains open-ended, denying the inevitable Faustian coda with a question: "Dere hope for him yet? Doh know how...What yuh tink 'bout Starboy now?"
Co-opting 3 Canal Rapso veterans Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts along with real-life starboy Muhammed Muwakil, local opera diva Natalia Dopwell and local vocalist Germaine Wilson, was another stroke of Creolising inspiration, mixing classical and popular voices. Muwakil, who in his Midnight Robber incarnation is the spirit of forceful menace, may have to bring some of that force to future performances both to make the power bestowed by Jab's book credible and to raise his role above that of the Rapsonians, whose acting experience showed.
While a local director with vast experience of straight drama and musicals voiced doubts as to whether audiences would be able to follow the storyline and more importantly believe in the magic of Jab's book, I'm confident that the magic is there in the music.
Magic, catching the power and possession through rhythm and melody are integral aspects of Creole culture, all of which I felt at the Little Carib workshop performance.
This learning experience, which involved UTT students as understudies, is as invaluable to the final touring show as it was for the small first audience. While government continues to dither over arts funding, Calabash and sponsors FCB and Neal & Massy must be congratulated for assembling, commissioning and launching what has every promise of becoming an international success, rooted in T&T.