Three years ago bassist and University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) lecturer Caitlyn Kamminga began working on an adaptation of L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The Soldier's Tale was written nearly 100 years ago and is based on a Russian folk tale about a World War I soldier who trades his fiddle with the devil for a book that predicts the future.
Kamminga's adaptation, Jab Molassie, is set thousands of miles away in Carnival in T&T, to music rooted in the calypso tradition. In the piece, a musician sells his instrument, and consequently his soul, to a jab molassie.At first glance, the two stories seem a far cry from each other, but during an interview last week, Kamminga said there were many parallels between the works. One is that Stravinsky was heavily influenced by African rhythms and jazz at the time of writing.
Kamminga did extensive research–with massive amounts of help from local historians, artists and others such as the security guard at her son's school who helped her achieve some authenticity in the dialogue."I brought him the script and he laughed at me and said, 'They might say that in New Orleans but they don't say that in T&T.' So I sat with him and we went through it."
The narrator, Corporal, is named after the guard.Some of Kamminga's main assistance came from UK-based composer Dominique Le Gendre, who is writing original music for the piece, and photographer Maria Nunes. Nunes' logistical assistance to both Kamminga and Le Gendre morphed into the creation of the Calabash Foundation for the Arts, which is funding the project.
The "helpers" weren't always positive, however. When Michelle Ayoung Chee of the Tallman Foundation first read the script, she found fault with the setting in Laventille. "She looked at me and said, 'Why does this have to happen in Laventille? Why does it always have to be Laventille?' And I said it's the truth and of course it could be set in Westmoorings. You can set it anywhere. It's a Faustian tale and that's what makes it so universal."
When Le Gendre first saw the text she was "immediately sold.""The most important part of the piece is the text. The description of the Lady Young in the opening scene is fantastic and it really captures what it is and it's very poetic," said Le Gendre. 'This story is a dilemma'
Nunes believes the Faustian aspects of the story lend well to adaptation."I think it's important to understand that this story is a dilemma. It's a piece of theatre that will invite the audience to ask questions. That's what makes it very relevant to us in Trinidad–the message is what you take from it; it's not trying to tell you what the answer is but allowing you to arrive at the answer."
Equally as important as the text is the music. Kamminga and Le Gendre stress the description "musical theatre." Le Gendre sees the work as a revival of what she believes was the golden age of theatre in T&T during the '60s and '70s."This is a very conscious and deliberate move to reconnect with all those who played a part in shaping our theatre and us as performers, so it's very much intact with the traditions in which I grew up where there was a marriage of music and theatre. The music I'm writing is rooted in our traditions. It's melodic. The music has typical bass lines and riffs and it's a wraparound of our musical legacy from the chantuelle days come right up to rapso because there's a lot of chanted parts," she explained.
Some of the notable people who shaped this time period include Derek Walcott, Beryl McBurnie and Noble Douglas. Douglas has been brought on board as a choreographer. Other notables involved in the project are rapso group 3Canal (Wendell Manwarren, Stanton Kewley and Roger Roberts), spoken word artist Muhammad Muwakil, and UK-based actor Martina Laird.
For Kamminga the benefits of immersing herself in T&T culture through recreating Jab Molassie have been manifold."It's drawn me to things that I hope and dreamed would happen. When I got interested in this job (as a UTT lecturer) my father said, 'Why the hell would you want to leave London to go to Trinidad?' But I told him that when I see my life in London, I feel like it's in black and white and sepia. When I see it in Trinidad I see it in technicolor. There's such a rich tapestry of culture here. Every layer you peel back you realise there's more and more to peel."
Calabash Foundation for the Arts
Jab Molassie gave birth to the Calabash Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit organisation incorporated in August 2012, whose mission is to provide funding and support systems to contribute to the development of new creative works in T&T. After its first full production in May, the foundation hopes to take Jab Molassie on a secondary schools tour followed by an international tour.
Part of the Calabash mission is also to support young artistes, which is why the workshop process was so important to the development of Jab Molassie.In early January a week-long workshop was held at UTT which included intense sessions for the composer, librettist, musicians and vocal performers. The workshop allowed the composer and librettist to hear the work and refine details. An important aspect of the workshop are the young artistes who participate. Their participation is as both performers and understudies to the creative roles.
At the January workshop participants included Natalia Dopwell, Rhian Guerrero, Germaine Wilson, Kendel Haynes and Muhammad Muwakil. The next workshop will be held in May.