Time for the poet

Published in the Sunday Arts Magazine of the Sunday Guardian on March 09, 2014.
The cover of Anthony Joseph's new album, Time.

Anthony Joseph’s new spoken word album, Time, is a remarkable document from the poet, a funky collection of wordscapes, narratives and recollections of his youth in Trinidad and Tobago that’s limned by a passion for detail and clarity of purpose.
The album opens with a declaration of intent, Time: Archeology, a rehistory of the Caribbean’s genesis seen from the eyes of a man who sees influences, spirit stories and the human narrative of the region as a swirling miasma made up of geography, explorers, faiths and beliefs existing in both harmony and conflict.

“The struggle continues,” he says, “to define a space, to make this place our home.”
“While the diaspora unravels like a broken necklace.”
In these three potent sentences he brings together his sentiments about the challenges of the people and their broken geography, the scattered archipelago of the Caribbean’s islands.

There are, to be clear, more words, thoughts and literary richness on the first two songs in Joseph’s Time than there are on most contemporary hit albums and yes, I’m looking at you here Mrs Carter.
Joseph pulled Time together with a financial backbone raised on a
European crowdfunding website, KissKissBankBank, meeting and just surpassing the project’s 7,500 euro goal in April 2013.

That enabled a robust collaboration with American neo-soul funkster Meshell Ndegeocello, whose inventive and catchy bass playing anchors the album, a sparse, tasteful musical complement to Joseph’s steady and insistent reading of his poetry.

Ndegeocello, listed as composer, arranger and producer, assembles her full band’s worth of instrumentation (Joseph normally performs with his own Spasm band) but never seems to deploy all of it at once, bringing strong melodies and riffs into play in the spaces between Joseph’s words but backing away as his stories build, strong, wild and often fevered.

On Tamarind, a recollection of a beautiful woman with a “dark seed glow,” he writes…

Crossing the hard road in her
high thighed denim and the bus drivers and the shopkeepers
stared down from their canteens to watch her stroll past
in the deep white heat of midday like some emissary of the sun
that couldn’t be touched or even whistled after.

It’s the kind of writing that defies casual analysis. It’s poetry, strong and engaging, but these are also songs and stories that demand than a moment’s thought and threaded with uniquely Trinidadian perspectives, subjects and inspiration they are a very special experience on their return to these shores.

The centrepiece of the album is Michael X (Narcissus), a tough and unsentimental retelling of the shocking T&T murder story of Abdul Malik.
It’s Joseph’s longest work on the album, clocking in at seven minutes and 45 seconds but it seems compressed.

The piece has an almost cinematic feel to it, unreeling quickly from the announcement of Malik’s hanging to an unswerving examination of the brutality of the murders and the conflicting swanky allure of Malik himself.
Ndegeocello strips the band back to an insistent percussion driven bed for this work, all drums, congas throbbing, driving the story along with impatient cymbals shimmering above it all like fearsome blades of menace.

An all too brief excerpt from this unwavering account of the famous murders retelling the role of Gail-Ann Benson …
She had been shown around the bamboo.
She had asked ‘What is this hole for?’ And Abbot tell her ‘This is a hole for decomposed’ A hole dug to quench mercy. - Go from here - run! A hole dug to suffocate tears.

Time isn’t only concerned with history though. On Kezi, he might well be singing from the headlines in T&T.
He sings of Kezi: “Kezi is a woman have nine children an’ she seven months pregnant with twins.”
He sings of Mother Mavis: “A stray bullet pass and enter one house and shoot Mother Mavis dead.”
The music is contemporary rapso. The words and ruthless and insistent in their offended questioning.
The answers are not forthcoming, even for Joseph.

He concludes…
“Lord, tell me why it have so much things wrong with this beautiful country.
Tell me why it have so much thing going wrong in this beautiful island.”

Anthony Joseph’s collaboration with Meshell Ndegeocello has brought something quite startling into the world. An album with a lineage that’s claimed equally by Lancelot Layne and The Last Poets, a way of working with music and dense spoken word poetry that’s both compelling and tastefully respectful of the urgency of the power of the words themselves.

This is not a collection of works for easy listening. You will probably need to have the album’s liner notes, 12 pages of which are given over to transcripts of Joseph’s unapologetically dense and intricate poetry to fully appreciate what you’re listening to.

What you get as a return on that investment is a chance to immerse yourself in the world that the poet has experienced, a world that is as much disappointment and blood as wonder and transcendence.
In one of the few works that isn’t rooted in Joseph’s life in the Caribbean, he celebrates Malala Yousafzai, the determined girl child who defied the Taliban.

On Girl with a grenade he celebrates her defiance…
“It takes a child to build a fire in the sky, to light a flame for generations to come. It takes a heart, a lung full of breath to carve a human space in this madness.”

Started off as a dancer, which name drops T&T performers like rain
new video for Tamarind
Anthony Joseph’s
website with links to the album online
Anthony Joseph will participate in the 2014 edition of the Bocas Lit Fest.
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