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Where the Mom with the pot spoon gone?

Published: 
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
The young Claris Clarke, a stalwart supporter and “founding cook” of the Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. PHOTO COURTESY CYNTHIA FRANCIS

The single most successful steelband of all time once had an engine room that never touched the stage, but was almost as important. It was located at 66 Laventille Road and instead of congas, scratchers and toc-tocs, it employed pots and pans and swizzle sticks.

Chief cook and bottle-washer at the facility was well-known mas’ player, general busy-body and woman warrior, Clarice Clarke— known by most as the founding “cook of the band”.

In the early Desperadoes days, Clarke, who was born in Grenada and sailed to Trinidad at the age of two, established herself as an indispensable part of the team. Though she might have tried her hand at it at some stage, and participated as fellow warrior in the several street fights the band engaged in the early years, she was not known to have ever played the instrument with which she remains so closely associated.

Band manager, Curtis Edwards, describes her as the “mother” of the band. So, when she passed late February at the age of 96, there was no question that her March 1 send-off at the Lapeyrouse Cemetery would witness as much an expression of grief as an outpouring of music.

Clarke’s 80-year-old niece, Cynthia Francis, remembers high energy, selfless generosity and sheer magic in the kitchen. “Anything she put her hand on came out good,” Francis testified to T&T Guardian at her St Barb’s home. “Few of them (band players) could say they never eat by Claris.”

It might not be that the entire family was always happy about her association with the band and some of the “bad boys” who passed through its ranks plus, according to Francis, “she used to take a little drink.

“We used to talk to her,” Francis says, “but she was stubborn.”

In fact, Clarke’s standard response to critics of her association with the band, mas-playing and “the little drink” was that mosquitoes usually avoided people with alcohol in their bloodstream.

But it was not always fun and games or pan, for that matter. During the pre-Despers’ days, Clarke’s early marriage to Leroy Julien had come to a tragic end when the military man returned from the North African campaign of World War II with a mysterious disease that eventually claimed his life.

The two had apparently met while Clarke worked at the US military base in Chaguaramas. The dark days that followed Julien’s death saw the opening of a small parlour along Laventille Road where the young widow sold touilums and tamarind balls and other goodies made at home.

Though she never stopped cooking and selling homemade fare, she took up a job at the Trinity Cathedral where she eventually worked alongside the future bishop of T&T, Rawle Douglin.

Food preparation still in her blood, Clarke went on to set up shop at the helm of the tuck shop at Eastern Boys’ Government Primary School, along George Street, Port-of-Spain. With the closure of the tuck shop, she re-established her home parlour in the early 60s. During this period, the “Laventille Band” had changed to the “Dead End Kids” to Desperadoes which brought together three previously separate bands.

“She didn’t play pan, but she played mas,” Francis says. Though she moved from Desperadoes mas to play with the legendary George Bailey at one stage, Clarke maintained her connection with the steelband as cook, woman warrior and stalwart.

Edwards, who was Clarke’s godson, pauses reflectively when asked what the passionate supporter and “mother of the band” meant for the progress of the band over the years.

“She was always considered the mother of the band, the first cook for the band. She used to wash clothes for members of the band,” he says. “She was the first lady of the band.”

Clarke’s niece, Joycelyn Maxmanien, 79, says though her late aunt “had a hot mouth” and was known to competently down a drink or two, “she would give you the last clothes on her back … she was generous and would never find that anybody is too bad to help them out.”

Maxmanien remembers, with a mischievous smile, being 13 and attending her first fete with Clarke at the Princes Building near the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain where they had a grand time. Clarke was a great dancer and the perennial life of the party.

Sometime along the way, Clarke fell in love with and married Kelvin Clarke and not long after gave birth to Joseph—godson to the late Port-of-Spain East MP, Dr Cuthbert Joseph, and now a retired customs officer living in Trincity.

Try as he might, Kelvin, who died a few years ago, was unable to convince his wife to move with him to the eastern town where he had bought the same house their son, Joseph, now occupies. She stayed back and continued her role as food entrepreneur and philanthropist, leading an emerging cadre of non-playing, hardcore supporters of the leading band.

Francis remembers her late aunt as “a free spirit” who once surreptitiously experimented with caraili as a substitute for mauby bark. When her customers, workers on a nearby project, found out about the culinary sleight of hand, they all insisted that she keep the caraili juice flowing.

As the band gathered for her final farewell at Lapeyrouse, there was no shortage of jokes, anecdotes such as these, and tears.

So, where the Mom with the pot spoon gone?

Some reckon she has joined an engine room, elsewhere, with the likes of pioneering band leader Rudolph Charles, eulogised as the “man with the hammer”, and revolutionary pan tuners, Lincoln Noel and Bertie Marshall, who helped give Despers’ pans their sweet sound, even as the mother of the band kept the kitchen fires burning.