Behind the scandal

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian for January 19, 2015
Crew prepare the cameras and grip gear for the day’s shooting. Photographs by Mark Lyndersay.

There’s something big happening on this quiet street in St Clair.
On the road outside the lavish home are more than a dozen bamboo chairs spray painted gold standing next to a massive mobile crane.
So it’s either a film set, or, because it’s mid-January in Trinidad, an upscale Carnival party.

As it turns out, it’s a bit of both. The film crew for the movie Scandalous have taken over the home of restauranteur Jenny Sharma to film a lavish engagement party and as I walk past the ice blue pool and up the steps to find a contact point, the first person to hail me out is a young man I don’t quite recognise.
Mark Belix is carefully wrapping cutlery into vivid red cloth and reminds me of a photographic seminar I worked on with his parents two decades ago.

We smile, banter a bit and laugh before he gets back to his work, one small bit of the detail drudgery and controlled chaos that lies behind the success of any film production.
Buzzing around are other elements of the details in process. Actress Pauline Mark is getting her hair done, carefully stretched out and stroked, and the cinematographer is wrestling a digital Arriflex camera onto a mount on a rolling cart that’s covered with wires, grip equipment and other bits and pieces of the trade.

The home is covered in prophylactic cardboard. Full size statues stand wrapped with tall slabs of the stuff, the railings and steps of the curving staircase have more taped over them.
Shooting stalled after the musicians gathered to play turned up with a sitar but no sitarist. Director Todd Kessler wants real playing and real sound from the instrument and most of the calls and shouts in immediate earshot are about finding one.

When I finally encounter Machel Montano in the makeup chair, he’s on the phone charming someone into sending a player over to the set, agreeing that the actual music could be a sample, but no, they need a player. Now.

Two hours in, a shot is finally being set up; the film crew having turned 180 degrees from the original shot by the poolside to another looking in at the house.
A young man stands sternly looking at the camera, legs spread wide, his best intimidating glare set on his face.

Behind him, extras are placed and guided, fake food is arranged on the table and the set is readied to capture some footage.
This party will go one for the week, shot in the dozens of little visual slices that build a scene. It’s work of a very particular sort, that seems to inch along before ramping up to film speed before dropping back to much slower prep time again.

As I walk out the door, I hear the magic words for any film production in process, the sharp bark that signals the start of a movie being made, “Quiet on the set!”

Below: Machel Montano, who plays Lee in Scandalous, sits for makeup by Nina Alcantara.

Staz Mair
At left, actor Staz Mair

I’m led to the green room for the set, a lavishly appointed living room with chairs so handsome they seem to defy the brazen presence of my behind in daring to rest on them.
But everyone else is sitting down, so I do, and begin to angle for my first conversation of the morning, with Staz Mair, cast as the unfortunate Bharat, who must face down the awesome horning power of the Monk Monte, Machel Montano.

A startlingly handsome mix of Indian and Russian parentage, Mair has been gifted with a sculpted face that’s model ready and a full head of thick black hair.
Despite that, he’s spent most of his life in London as a singer and songwriter, beginning professionally at 17.

He plays the piano well, serenading the waiting actors with snippets from popular songs and charming a little girl who sits close to him taking the keyboarding lessons one suspects several of the young ladies on the sit wish they had the time for.

It’s almost a little cruel to quickly realise that the handsome Mair is also a bit of a stand-up guy, self-deprecating and funny.
“Well,” he says as we sit down, “I love experiencing new cultures…and I’m a dog person.”
He looks at my dumbfounded expression then explodes with laughter.
“I’m kidding you!”

Clearly he’s sat through more than a few star struck interviewers already and is game for something a little less giddy.
He’s also taken with Montano’s work as a musician, finally catching him in performance at Fantasy on the weekend.
“Oh Machel is a captivating performer,” he says, “nothing like what I’ve been doing, but the energy of it!”

“There’s definitely a connection between music and acting, and that’s why I think he’s doing so well with it.”
Mair has been working on the film since December, working for three weeks before returning to work in January.
“It’s been two and a half months for me, but the creative team has been working on the film for years, so getting a chance to be part of this is a blessing.”

Valmike Rampersad
At right, actor Valmike Rampersad

The actor is sitting quietly in the makeup chair, looking keenly out the window.
Valmike Rampersad was born in T&T, but migrated to the UK at the age of 14.

His family still lives here, and he’s particularly keen to note that me maintains an ongoing link with this country, returning every year for what he describes with some relish as his “fix of callalloo.”

Rampersad plays Nikhil, the scheming villain at the heart of Scandalous, the upsetter of the bodi cart, as it were.
He came to acting backward. He’d been working in PR and marketing for Ralph Lauren, a job he’d enjoyed, but didn’t feel confident about his public speaking and presentation skills.

So he went to night school to build confidence and discovered acting and his life’s passion.
He decided to pursue it and applied to several schools of acting, sure he would be turned down and prepared to return to his day job.

Rampersad was accepted by all of them and chose the Royal School of Speech and Drama, an institution with a rich alumni of practicing thespians.
He began getting roles while he was at school, though after graduating in 2007, he discovered that such rich veins of opportunity were often followed by passages of none at all.

So he works at his craft,
accumulating an impressive collection of credits. Among them he is fond of the 2008 short film Open Secrets and 2009’s Hotel as examples of his craft, and he now has three films in post-production and shot 123 episodes of a series, Cloud 9 in just seven months in 2013.

“I got here by luck,” he admits.
The location scout visited his mother’s house, and the contact led to a reading in 2013 and the chance to work in his homeland, something he’s been enjoying immensely.
“You have no idea how amazing it’s been,” he says with a broad smile.

“It’s been way beyond what I expected, the professionalism, the attention to detail, the way you’re treated. I can’t sleep at night!”
We’ve been squeezed into a hold moment before shooting and the call to be ready comes. Rampersad stops for a moment, thinking.
I wonder if he’s getting into character before he says quietly, “I work hard; I do a lot of projects. It’s been really intense.”

Below: Director Todd Kessler, in blue, at centre, lines up the first shot of the day on Tuesday.

Everybody loves The Fighter

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian for November 04, 2014
Abdi Waithe and Muhammad Muwakil in a scene from God Loves the Fighter. Photographs courtesy the production.

The public reaction to Damian Marcano’s gritty urban drama, God Loves the Fighter is a matter of record.
Released for public viewing as part of the 2013 Film Festival, the bleak story of the T&T underclass was the toast of the festival, winning the People’s Choice award and ended up squeezed into every available free screen to satisfy public demand.

There is much that is compelling about the film. It features a top flight cast of performers, less than half of whom are actual actors as a first profession.
The Freetown Collective’s Muhammad Muwakil headlines as Charlie and Lou Lyons is the rap poet Greek chorus of the film, the vagrant King Curtis.

Darren Cheewah turns in a riveting and courageous performance as druglord and whoremonger Putao, dressed in his first onscreen appearance in red underwear and tattoos.
Abdi Waithe is a compelling Stone, the truly amoral dark drainhole of the film around whom everything appears to swirl and disappear.

Jaime-Lee Phillips, a popular model, is so staggeringly miscast as a well-meaning prostitute (named Dinah, with some shameless bravado) that she comes right around to the other side of her role and seemed ripe for a dramatic backstory that puts a pretty girl on her back on the streets.

Like so much that God Loves the Fighter promises, very little of it actually arrives in any satisfactory way.
Veteran actors Penelope Spencer, Albert La Veau and Errol Sitahal invest their roles with significant gravitas, but seemed confused about their story arcs, unsure of where to place the weight of their performances and how to measure them out across the film.

The smoky, lurid contrast of the film quickly becomes tiresome, the deep blacks and extreme colour grading that so dramatically define the film’s first scenes eventually becoming the most consistently oppressive element of the production.

But it’s a heavy-handed treatment that only serves to obscure the details that director Damian Marcano is trying to reveal.
Shot in 2011, largely during the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the film succeeds in offering a disturbing portrait of Port of Spain as a dark and brooding necropolis.

In one remarkable scene, Stone cross-examines Charlie’s vague hope of getting out of “the life” and doing something more. His derisive laughter at the notion of Charlie going to a nine to five job is easily one of the most disturbing moments in the film, ringing true with troubling resonance.

Another scene, which finds Charlie sitting out on a rooftop ledge after an aborted assignation with a “church girl,” also has the feel of honest recollection, but such moments feel rare in a film that’s so determined to plumb the reasons for the city’s pervasive crime and its undeniable temptations.

In God Loves the Fighter, horrors wash over the diesnfranchised relentlessly and without mercy, a terrible tidal wave of greed and ruthlessness.

The film’s deus ex machina comes when Charlie eventually finds himself pushed too far, beyond his bitter tolerance of Putao’s casual racism into a sexual exploitation even he cannot stomach.
God, in this film, actually doesn’t love the fighters and only an irrational act of caring spares one innocent from the punishment of the streets.

Jaime Lee Phillips plays Dinah in God Loves the Fighter.

Fighter vs Warlock
It’s a little surprising to find within a year of each other, two energetic examinations of T&T criminal underculture emerging on local screens. The two films, Damian Marcano’s God Loves the Fighter and Jeffrey Alleyne’s Welcome to Warlock enjoyed quite different fortunes.

A production still of Damian Marcano working on God Loves the Fighter
Marcano rode a strong welcome at the T&T Film Festival to cinematic release this week. Alleyne released Warlock on DVD and triggered
a paroxysm of piracy that gutted his income from the film.
But there’s more that differs between the two films and those differences are worth considering.

Marcano is revisiting his youth on the streets in his film from the perspective of the success that he’s enjoyed after leaving it. There’s grit to the resulting film, but it’s a veneer over a rediscovery of and romance with the idea of ghetto culture.

That leads to traditional story arcs and character tropes; the good whore and the bad boy struggling to make good as attractive leads, the colourful drug lord, the theatrical fascination with guns.
These give international audiences familiar hooks to follow in the film, though the subtitles are irritatingly riddled with typos.

Warlock offers no such concessions. Alleyne delivers his film from the point of view of a bad boy still struggling to make good. He’s done time, been in the life and is still fighting for the mainstream acceptance that Marcano has won through a far more careful and measured strategy.

In the films, the resulting differences in their perspectives is dramatic. The subject matter is similar, but Marcano is tunneling into a subculture while Alleyne’s uses his work to find a way out out.
Warlock followed Fighter in the local market and might be described as a me-too effort, but it’s far more than that.

With its mercurial tempers, its casual use of guns as part of street vocabulary and its insane tangents of violence, it rings truer as a fictional exploration of modern T&T street crime.

And Warlock’s eventual fate on the streets, a victim of casual but staggeringly sustained intellectual property theft, is a reminder that this can be a cruel country for dreamers as well as fighters.

Rebuilding pan’s mythology

A review of the film Pan, Our Music Odyssey
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 21, 2014

Renaldo Frederick takes a time-out in the T&T countryside to contemplate the future of pan.

There’s a moment right in the middle of Pan, the new film about the national instrument written by Kim Johnson and directed by Jerome Guiot that summarises all the hopes that the creative team have for their subject.

The film’s lead, Renaldo Frederick, playing Goldteeth, is walking across an impossibly beautiful forest clearing, lush green as far as the eye can see, his raw, unfinished instrument in a burlap sack slung over his back.

Frederick’s back is to us. He is walking away from a troubled past to a verdant future rich with potential. His instrument, the source of all his hopes, just a weighty promise in its rough container, a burden, by every possible definition of the word.

But the actor’s walk is confident and sure as he puts one foot in front of the other heading into an unknown future.
It would be wonderful if we could consider this an attractive artifact out of the past of the steelband, but it’s also a startling reminder that more than a century after the instrument’s invention, it is still to find itself on the other side of that field, properly positioned against and among all the musical instruments of the world.

At least part of the reason for that is abundantly on show in the film, which chronicles both a fictional condensation of the many trials and challenges that the steelpan had on its path to becoming a mainstream musical instrument in this country and a documentary update on where the steelband movement finds itself today.

The weaving of two such wildly divergent stories dovetails more neatly that any story treatment might have suggested. The challenges and issues that served to advance the acceptance and improvement of the instrument have also worked to create a bureaucracy that keeps it from soaring even further.

Johnson pays close attention to what his documentary is recording, and deftly tailors the narrative of his fictional history to more smoothly fit into the flow of the real world footage, which follows the parallel stories of Phase II Pan Groove, Neal and Massy All Stars and Birdsong as they prepare for the 2013 Panorama competition.

The filmmakers and I crossed paths cordially in Phase II’s panyard in January of that year as the band began pulling its pans together to rehearse the composition by arranger Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe that would eventually win the competition.

We both had to run the gauntlet of the band’s management in securing permission to proceed with our projects, my own presentation being in support of a photo essay on the Phase II journey to the big yard.

Such executive imprimatur did not guarantee acceptance for me, however. Pan men tend to be deeply suspiscious of people with cameras. They are smart enough to know our little magic boxes don’t steal souls, but savvy enough to realise that they are perfectly capable of capturing and transporting the soul of what they do into mediums far from their control.

Eventually, after
publication of my piece, I earned some kind words from some of the band’s pannists who had earlier given me the stinky eye.
I can only imagine the magnification in scale of their appreciation of the efforts of Kim Johnson, whose great love for the steelband permeates the film.

Faced with the challenge of condensing a monolithic history for an instrument that is so deeply rooted in the culture of T&T that it would be impenetrable to all save the most committed non-locals, Johnson has simplified.
His characters are stand-ins for multiple persons, sometimes dozens of them, who were all working in different ways to improve both the instrument and the lot of its musicians.

The many stories of the movement’s slow but steady drift from the fringes of society to its heart are implied quickly and briskly through the experiences of Goldteeth and his brother, the many clashes condensed into two fights, the troubled relationship between the colonial elite and the citizenry become a lawyer’s intervention with a magistrate to save a young boy from jail.

The result is a film that hums along briskly, skipping like a stone across a vast pond of history to weave the two skeins of storytelling together.
As Johnson argued at a private viewing of the film a week ago, it is a pan film, not the pan film, just one in what he hopes will be many more that tell the remarkable story of the instrument and the people who shaped it.

What Pan, Our Musical Odyssey emerges as most successfully is a first effort by local talents to tell one of our most remarkable stories. The film is a heartfelt effort to offer the story of the steelband from our point of view, freed of the romance and patronage of first world perspectives.

And it is here that the film resonates most effectively. By drawing in and placing on centre stage people who would have been treated as extras in a film destined for the traditional cinema circuit, Johnson, Guiot and producer Jean Michel Gibert have offered up a film that rings true for even the most cynical local mind.

You don’t have to love pan to love Pan. At its best, it salutes the spirit of invention, the grit of quiet determination and the fire of undimmed hope that has sparked the best in every sphere of practice that finds T&T nationals rising to the top.

Pan may be the story of Goldteeth and three steelbands, but it is also the story of Chang and Vaucrosson, of Minshall and Berkeley, of Hasely Crawford and Ato Boldon, of Penny Commissiong and Wendy Fitzwilliam.
It is a story courage in the face of staggering odds, keeping faith in the face of cynicism and believing, always believing.

Homeward bound but going where?

A review of Clifford Charles’new jazz album Homeward Bound published in the Sunday Arts Magazine on September 28, 2014
Let’s acknowledge up front that Clifford Charles is a skilled and inventive guitar player. His approach to interpreting songs is nimble and adventurous and his backing band on this work is capable enough.
The thing that the guitarist is trying to do with this album may simply not be possible, however.

Charles spends the first two-thirds of his album trying to wring jazzy interpretations out of popular recent soca songs.
His choices for this treatment are certainly appealing songs on their own. Destra’s It’s Carnival and Call my name, Kerwyn Du Bois’Bacchanalist, Bunji Garlin’s Differentology and David Rudder’s Bacchanal Lady all come in for musical review and reinterpretation.

There are usually three ways this gets done. The rhythm is altered, either by dramatically speeding it up or slowing it down, it gets replaced entirely with another style, something quite different like ska or bossa nova, that changes the feel of the song, or riskiest of all, the melody gets dramatically rearranged.

But soca is a very stripped down style of music, which isn’t surprising given the way it quite specifically targets the dance floor or in our case, the road on Carnival Tuesday.
In that way, it tends to resemble electronic dance music (EDM) most closely and there hasn’t been a big rush by modern jazz practitioners keen to plumb the musical possibilities of the catalogues of Crystal Method or Armin Van Buren or to toy with the now alarmingly passé dubstep.

It’s no surprise then that the most successful of these reworks is Bacchanal Lady, which was created in an era in which more than one person was responsible for all the music that went into a song.
Which isn’t to say that the other works are insignificant. Charles’opening chords on Call my name have a bittersweet, yearning quality that brings a new beauty to Destra’s under appreciated song and his jaunty playing on Bacchanalist perfectly fits the song’s essential message.

Things begin to fall apart with his overthinking of Differentology, which comes over as a brooding remorse at the whole idea of Carnival and stumbles more than once trying to add clever musical cues to an admirably spare song.
I didn’t much care for the phased electronic piano stylings of Kittitian keyboardist Ron Clarke which just felt dated on a modern album, and the generally murky mix of the recording didn’t serve the guitarist’s work well at all.

I expect to find most of the soca reinterpretations, particularly the Destra songs and Bacchanalist, added to the playlists of DJs working mellow MOR sets for appreciative older audiences.
That’s going to be a good thing for Clifford Charles, because his work is going to be heard and appreciated and, most importantly, paid for.

But the best works on the album are the ones buried down at the end, Soca Theme, Say yes and Inna d Dance, three numbers that speak to a very promising idea of how soca’s melody can influence and direct a very accessible Caribbean jazz.
All three songs are written and performed entirely by Charles, with urgent vocals by Chara Hoseinee Friday on Soca Theme.

Soca Theme is a driving, funky song, the beat freed of the need to appeal to a masquerader in costume, galloping along at a madcap pace urged on by the peppery strumming of the guitarist.
I’d really have liked to hear his work here more clearly in the mix, but that’s remedied somewhat in Say yes, a delicate blending of lavway and love song that shows off Charles’tasteful and measured playing.
Apart from some pleasant flourishes on Call my name and Bacchanalist, this is the best showcase for his work on the album and it rewards repeated listening.

Inna d Dance is very much an island vibe number, bouncy and agreeable and the composition by Charles that’s most likely to get some notice.
The guitarist carves clear, fluid lines against the gently rocking beat that hearken back to the type of precise, unequivocal playing that Eric Gale was well-known for.

If anything, Homeward Bound suffers by not having a clear enough market in mind. Jazz buffs are likely to be infuriated with his overly respectful handling of the soca pop songs and irritated by the mix.
DJs and casual listeners will find rich and very usable material in his soca reinterpretations but won’t have much use for his original works.

But it’s these compositions that hold the most promise for his future musical adventuring. With some more aggressive arrangements and less laid back playing, Clifford Charles has the potential to carve out a very special place in the local jazz landscape.

The Band
Clifford Charles - Guitar, all instruments on Soca Theme, Inna d Dance, Say Yes.
Sean Friday - Bass Guitar
David Richards - Drums
Ron Clarke - Keyboards
Chara Hoseinee Friday - Vocals (Soca Theme)
Jesee Ryan - Sax (Bacchanal Lady)
Producer - Clifford Charles
Album available from Cleve’s, Kams and Crosbys, on the web at CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon and
on the guitarist's website.

Influences on their sleeve, chops to spare

A review of OMG It’s 5 Miles' 1st EP, originally published in the Sunday Guardian Arts Magazine for September 21, 2104
From it’s overly theatrical opening, a short clip of rain effects and the sound of a car screeching into a crash, the hand wringing angst that continues throughout the first official recording by 5 Miles to Midnight (hereafter 5M2M) is pushed front and centre.

After that wholly unnecessary bit of audio FX though, the band crashes into its first song, The end of her, powered by the triphammer drumming of Rhys Thompson who anchors the bottom end of the six song album.
Shimmering on top of that is the guitar work of Alex Burt Ou Young and Shallun Sammy, who trade rhythm and lead work in a seamless tapestry of modern guitar embellishments.

By the second song, Surefire, it’s clear who these guys have been listening to.
This is the song that most clearly offers up the double-barrelled influence of The Killers and Fall Out Boy, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Both are bands I have a lot of time for and 5M2M inherits their disinterest in the traditionally overwrought drama of modern rock.
So without much ado, the local boys power through their six song recording, spending precious little time feeling proud of their instrumental cleverness and investing their efforts in solid songwriting and elegant musicality.
You won’t find many long lead breaks or wild riffing here. These are songs with a sense of purpose that don’t waste time on grandstanding frippery.

That they play well together and clearly know what to do with their instruments only strengthens the result, a seamless collection of radio ready modern pop rock.
The band too often seemed that they could stand to do a little growing up as people. The themes of the songs far too often feel a bit too navel-focused and keenly dramatic.

There’s an awful lot of anguish about “taking control,” “just one more night,” and “just letting go of the pain,” but hey, I’m not their audience, I’m a jaded old dude who’s been around the block far too many times.
For the young, emotionally lost young rockers likely to be drawn to this release, there’s likely to be a lot of empathy for the stories of rather mild pain and loss that the band sketches out broadly, if a bit thinly, in their music.

Flogging 5M2M for this sort of thing is really a bit of a reviewer’s set up though. Hook lines that teens can both empathise with and sing along to are the price of entry into this market, and the band’s ticket is bona-fide.

5 Miles to Midnight is…
Rhys Thompson - Drums
Mark Wallace -Bass
Alex Burt Ou Young - Guitars
Shallun Sammy - Guitars
Liam King - Vocals
Dale E.P. Dolly - Keyboards

TTFF9: Something for everyone

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on September 15, 2014
Jonathan Ali, photo courtesy the TTFF.

This year, the T&T Film Festival hosts its ninth consecutive celebration of films created in this country, in the region and the diaspora.
It’s been a steadily growing enterprise, recording 18,651 attendees for its screenings in 2013, the lion’s share of which were viewed during the festival proper.

The TTFF’s editorial director, Jonathan Ali, sat to answer some questions, posed by a customer-focused devil’s advocate, about the state of the festival and where it seeks to go in the future.

Q: Who does the Film Festival hope to attract as an audience? For the few shows that I’ve attended it seems to be largely the same folks over and over, with a lot of cross-pollination between the world of art galleries and the Lit Fest.

A: You clearly need to get to more screenings, Mark! We strive to be diverse in our selections when programming the Festival, and the increasing, and increasingly diverse, audiences reflect this.
The audience that will go to see the two-hourlong avant garde ethnographic documentary set in Nepal (Manakamana), is not necessarily the audience that will go to see the local farcical comedy A Story About Wendy 2, which is again perhaps not the audience that will go to see Bad Hair, a Venezuelan social-realist drama about a young boy obsessed with straightening his curly locks.

Q: Who does the Film Festival hope to attract as participants? Is there an overarching agenda or mission that guides the selection process and the efforts to bring new film makers into the festival?

A: The Festival’s main mission is to show the best new films by filmmakers from T&T, the Caribbean and the diaspora. We also seek to help develop the local and regional film industry by hosting workshops, panel discussions, presentations and so on.

So we seek to attract the filmmakers who are making these films, and who are enthusiastic about what are trying to do for the industry and be a part of it all.

We also hand-pick professionals from the international film industry—directors, producers, funding agencies, distributors and more—who are interested in what’s happening in the Caribbean.
Many people are interested to come and work with our filmmakers, share information, network, and make real and lasting connections that can get Caribbean films seen by a much wider audience.

Q: With the exception of God Loves the Fighter and the A Story about Wendy filmlet, have there been other films that have drawn in a popular audience?

A: Every year multiple films play to sold-out or near sold-out audiences during the Festival.
Two examples from last year in addition to God Loves the Fighter would be Bruce Paddington’s documentary on Grenada, Forward Ever, and Miquel Galofré’s Jamaica-set prison film, Songs of Redemption.

And then, there were several screenings of packages of local and regional short films that were also sold out.
In previous years we’ve had films like Mariel Brown’s Eric Williams documentary and Remembering a Revolution, on the 1970 events, plus internationally acclaimed films like Beasts of the Southern Wild (whose director, Benh Zeitlin, was our guest) selling out multiple times.
We feel vindicated when we see these large audiences; we know we’re succeeding in our mission.

Q: Is the entire Film Festival being staged this year with a blind eye to the runaway success of Welcome to Warlock? Even if it isn’t the kind of fare that usually gets screened, doesn’t it deserve some discussion or examination?

A: You said it yourself: Welcome to Warlock—which I have seen and admire, if more for its ethos than its aesthetics—has had unprecedented success.
The Festival seeks primarily to provide a platform for local films—all kinds of films—that are yet to see the light of day, let alone any kind of success.

That said, there will be a number of panel discussions during the Festival, and no doubt Welcome to Warlock will come up in conversation.
In fact, I look forward to it.

Q: What was the original intention of the Film Festival and what is it’s current mission if they aren’t still the same?

A: The Festival began in 2006 as a much-needed forum for local audiences to see themselves reflected on the big screen.
That still remains a core intention, but the mission has broadened. We now show films not only from T&T and the Caribbean but also from independent world cinema, which has proven a hit with our audiences.

We also are working more than ever before to help develop, in association with several partners including the T&T Film Company and the Film Programme at UWI, the local and regional film industry.
If we want to show local films, we realised we needed to help local filmmakers get those films made. So absolutely, there are synergies between the two, there is interdependence.

Q: Can you point to decisive successes that have emerged from the Film Festival? Have these served to provide leverage points for a local film industry?

A: The ever-increasing audiences at the Festival show clearly there is a desire, a market for local films.
We are fighting a formidable battle: a century of domination by Hollywood, and, therefore, a public that by and large has traditionally not been able to respond to anything but the commercial American formula. (I love good Hollywood films, by the way.)

Again, the increasing audiences at the Festival and the increasing number of local films being made are positive signs. We need to be patient.
And we need the committed support, financial and otherwise, of those who can and should give it.

Q: If you had to explain the T&T Film Festival to someone who has never been to one before, how would you describe it, why should they attend?

A: The Festival has many different components: great films of all kinds; relevant, affordable (usually free) workshops and other industry events; a chance for local filmmakers and cinephiles to interact and network with professionals from throughout the region and around the world.

But, above all else, the film’s the thing. So I’d narrow it down and tell your hypothetical person to come to this year’s edition and see a certain film, an Indian film, called The Lunchbox.
It’s a small movie, about how a mislaid lunchbox brings a young woman in a loveless marriage and a phlegmatic middle-aged widower together, without them setting eyes on one another.

It’s a spare, poignant, human drama, perfectly balancing sentiment and tact, with exquisite performances. If the person doesn’t find the film to be beautiful, tell them come see me and I’ll give them the cost of their ticket back.
No, double the cost.

About the T&T Film Festival…
The TTFF runs from September 16–30 at MovieTowne PoS and Tobago, Little Carib Theatre, Film Programme building at UWI, Medulla Art Gallery, Alice Yard, Alliance Française, Hyatt Regency Hotel, UTT at APA, Drink Bistro and Lounge.
All films at MovieTowne and Little Carib Theatre are $30 each. At MovieTowne, students in uniform or with student ID pay $15.

Find out more at
the festival’s website, or pick up a copy of the printed guide from MovieTowne or Little Carib Theatre.
An electronic copy of the guide can be downloaded here: and for the dedicated cinephile making decisions on the move, the Festival app for iPhone and Android is available on the appropriate app store.

Band together

Launch concert review by Mark Lyndersay, originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on June 24, 2014.
From left, performing at their album launch at the Little Carib Theatre, executive producer Michael Low Chew Tung, Anthony Woodroffe, Vaugnette Bigford, Rodney Alexander, Dean Williams and Modupe Onilu. Photographs by Mark Lyndersay.

It was the start of something, to be sure, and the crowds that filled the Little Carib Theatre last Thursday were keen to witness it.
It’s rare for a local jazz concert to claim standing room only status, but the musicians of the TriniJazz Project earned it for their first public outing performing at the launch of their eponymous new album.

The concert started promptly with bassist Rodney Alexander at centre stage for his composition
Musiq. Right from the start it was clear this wasn’t going to be a straight reading of the album, and the call and response passage by Alexander’s bass and Anthony Woodroffe’s felt sharper and more passionate than it was on the recording.

Woodroffe’s song,
I’m into you, followed with a lot more verve and lilt infusing the live version of the beat backing the composer’s delicate flute lead. A slashing percussion solo by Modupe Onilu pushed the song along even harder, coaxing the flautist to jam even harder when he returned to lead the song.
There was a delightful moment as guitarist Dean Williams leaned in close on the tips of his toes during a roaring jam to listen to Woodroffe’s playing as they eased off the soloing to rejoin the melody.

Dean Williams’
Li Jwe Gita (He plays guitar) followed with far more fire than he recorded for the album. Williams showed some fascinating strumming technique on the number, pushing outward from the ghetto of beat embellishment to which rhythm guitarists have been consigned for most of the soca era.

The result was a guitar lead that started like just that sort of playing before pushing outward with layered multi-chordal strumming and a deft fingering technique that sometimes felt like just a little too much fireworks for the melody.

Following the track list of the CD closely, Modupe Onilu’s
Awon Omo Ti O Ti came next, the percussionist offering a theatrical introduction to the song with his array of music and effects generating gear before leading the song on a small xylophone, the first I’ve seen in a T&T concert since the days when Andre Tanker used one for his sets at the Hilton.
An inspired trading of riffs between Williams and Woodroffe took the Onilu’s song soaring before the guitarist’s dense barrage of notes took it to escape velocity.

Every serious singer should have a song that they own, and Vaugnette Bigford has found hers with her reading of Merchant’s One Superpower for this album. When she took the stage with her backup singers a respectful hush descended on the rowdy boys who had been romping on the stage just moments before.

The live performance was even more contained than it was on the album, backed by a lush, gently swooping music bed led by a sustained chorale by her backup singers and Low Chew Tung’s synthesised organ.

Bigford would also perform
Memory of your smile, lifted somewhat by a gentle bass solo from Alexander that suggested pulsing heartbeats and would return for the second to last song of the set with a lanyap number, a surprisingly tentative version of Valentino’s Birds Flying High.
Yeah, No, Maybe got an energised makeover from a band emboldened an overwhelmingly strong response from the audience and a growing comfort with their confident interplay.

Rodney Alexander starts the wildness off with a Hendrix-style solo played with his teeth, surprising Dean Williams who moved quickly to take up the challenge.
The two traded fierce solo runs before Woodroffe parted the two like a smooth sax peacemaker, which then brought Onilu running to the fray with a really tiny drum from which he coaxed some gentle moans.
“These guys just won’t behave,” laughed Woodroffe after the number, “and it’s my song!”

Dean Williams introduced his second song
A Woman’s Sweetness, declining with a sheepish smile to explain the song’s inspiration. While the song starts well, Williams began to overplay it, losing the delicacy of the recorded version of the number in a shimmering cascade of effects and solo jam smarts.
The concert ended as it began, bookended by a Rodney Alexander composition,
Country. By then the TriniJazz Project was sounding less like an artful collaboration of like-minded players and more like an all-star band.

Alexander’s song offers many opportunites for soloing and interplay, and they were enthusiastically mined by capable players whose comfort with each other’s abilities filled the room with deft playing and confident vamping on the sweet, laid back beat.

Many hands make light work

The TriniJazz Project
Parlemusic Productions
Album review by Mark Lyndersay, originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on June 24, 2014.
The TriniJazz Project is several things all happening together on a single CD.
Producer Michael Low Chew Tung, better known in the community of jazz musicians as Ming, gathered a group of young jazz musicians who had never recorded before to make an album.

The result is a collection of eight original instrumental works and two covers that push gently at the boundaries of the easy listening jazz that finds the largest audiences in T&T.
Each of the participating musicians is represented by two songs on the disc, providing a small but intriguing insight into the creative thinking of bassist Rodney Alexander, guitarist Dean Williams, saxophonist Anthony Woodroffe, percussionist Modupe Onilu and vocalist Vaugnette Bigford.

Mikhail Salcedo guests on tenor pan, drummer Richard Joseph does double duty as the album’s designer while Ming plays keyboards and runs the show.
The standout number on the album is Bigford’s sepulchral reading of Merchant’s
One Superpower, an arrangement that turns the song into an sombre indictment of man’s ambitions and hubris.

Compared to that tour de force work, her next song, a straightforward reading of Ray Holman’s
Memory of your smile falters. It simply isn’t in the same class of performance opportunity.
Bassist Rodney Alexander emerges as the album’s strongest songwriter, his bass driven songs
Musiq and Country providing expansive landscapes for the group’s proclivity for soloing and engaging in all too brief, though fiery exchanges.

These are also the songs that feel deepest rooted in a calypso style of composing, Country in particular feeling like a lost lavway from the fifties while Musiq reaches back to the funk-calypso experiments of the 60’s and 70’s that predated the formalising of the soca beat and so strongly influenced the compositions of Ralph McDonald.

Which isn’t to dismiss the work of the other musicians at all. Onilu’s work,
Awon Omo Ti O Ti, spends its first full minute exploring the musician’s collection of percussion based effects to create a persuasively primal atmosphere before racing into a nimble number led by his xylophone playing.

Questions Unanswered, the music swirls intriguingly without finding dramatic resolution. But there was no such uncertainty on Dean Williams’A Woman’s Sweetness, which lopes along like swing of a woman’s hips, flush with the confidence of its attractiveness. On Li Jwe Gita, the fretwork is flashier but elegant, layered over a bouncy beat that flirts with both samba and the Laventille Rhythm Section.

Anthony Woodroffe’s songs,
I’m into you and Yeah, No, Maybe both play to his strengths on the flute and saxophone but neither feels fully formed on the album. Even his colleagues play politely and respectfully and not even the usually incendiary presence of Mikhail Salcedo on Yeah, No, Maybe can rouse the song from its polite pacing.

Collectively, the album is a strong and eminently listenable collection of local music. Hardcore jazz buffs won’t find much to surprise them here, but the far larger audience of music lovers will find a lot to enjoy in this accomplished collection of local additions to the T&T songbook.

Ming has done a remarkable job of planting seeds on this album, recording five very promising musicians early in their careers and giving them a chance to explore the evolution of this album together.
This is definitely one of those “stick a pin here” recordings and it’s going to be interesting to see where these musicians go from here.

The TriniJazz Project
Vaugnette Bigford - Vocals
Anthony Woodroffe - Saxophone, flute
Dean Williams - Guitar
Rodney Alexander - Bass
Modupe Onilu - Percussion

Additional musicians
Michael Low Chew Tung - Keyboards
Richard Joseph - Drums
Afiya Althill - Vocals
Mikhail Salcedo - Tenor pan

Making Dimanche Gras sing

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on March 24, 2014.
Carl ‘Beaver’Henderson at his St James recording studio. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Nobody can doubt the credentials of Carl ‘Beaver’Henderson as a musician and producer. After his long runs in bands, beginning with The Last Supper when he was in his teens alongside Robin Imamshah and most spectacularly in Fireflight, he has been a constant presence in the music industry.

Henderson has been running his own studio as a producer since 1991, releasing work under his label, Heat of the Tropics.
His biggest recent hit was Ganga Farmer, with local reggae artist Marlon Asher in 2009, which triggered a ten city tour of Europe with Asher, Jah Melody and Maximus Dan three years ago that took the performers across the continent for two weeks.

His next tour will begin in the first week in June, when he takes 50 artistes from T&T, representing a sampling of the cultural profile of the country on another European tour, set to begin in the Berlin Festival of Cultures.
Henderson recognised a natural link between European dance music and soca almost a decade ago and has been stealthily seeding elements of the music into the local productions he’s worked on and encouraging other artistes to take note of the similarities.

By 2015 he hopes to have a new product on the local market that he’s calling electronic calypso.
“Not soca,” he insists, “that’s a brand that’s not particularly well known outside of T&T. People still know about calypso outside.”
But the veteran musician and producer still has a soft spot for the seminal music, so when TUCO’s Brother Resistance called a month before Dimanche Gras, Henderson had no real choice but to respond to a call from a former schoolmate and long term friend.

“I accepted because calypsonians have been pushed into a corner,” Henderson explained.
“I wanted to put them in a position of respect. I answered the call as a fellow soldier.”
There were no illusions about the scale of the challenge.

“I knew of the reports of the last couple of years, and I knew that I had a target on my back. Everyone had a reason why not. There were all kinds of negatives, but I kept telling everyone that failure is not an option.”
“My first decision was to produce with a television audience in mind.”

So Henderson turned the Savannah stage into a television stage set, placing the band, Errol Ince and the Music Makers at centre stage and having the calypsonians emerge from backstage. The large screens were the same ones used at the Soca Monarch competition.
To complete the illusion, he blacked out everything that wasn’t stage or audience, designating the extended wings on either side of the stage a “no-fly” zone and charging security with ensuring that nobody, not even the President of the Republic, was allowed to walk there.

The newly appointed producer also had to work with a team he was largely unfamiliar with. Brother Resistance had called on The Players Workshop, led by Gregory McGuire, Mervyn DeGoeas and Giselle Langton, to work on the theatrical aspects of the production.
“So there’s a month to go and I’m working with people I’ve never worked with in my life.”
Henderson committed a week and a half of his production schedule to building chemistry with the group, allowing him to keep his focus on the technical and presentation aspects of the show.

“I planned it on paper, but there was never a full rehearsal,” he said.
“We never got access to the stage until Saturday night. The sound check, dance rehearsal and set construction where happening simultaneously on Sunday.”
I arrived in the Savannah at 11pm on Saturday night and never left until 3am on Monday morning. I had no sleep; I went right through.

“I can tell you that was a lot easier when I was in my twenties.”
The first time Dimanche Gras producer emphasised speed and efficiency for the production. Each calypsonian had nine minutes to deliver each of their two songs, which ensured that the production would run to at least four hours.
Henderson’s mandate was to deliver a show that started at seven pm and ended at midnight.

“I think what everyone responded to was the flow of the show and our determination that there would be no lapses.”
“The anthem was to play at 7pm, but there were problems with security armbands, and we started at 7:03. Good enough for some, not good enough for me.”

Technically, Henderson introduced a dedicated bus to capture and enlisted Robin Foster and Samuel Jack to mix live audio during the show for broadcast. There’s now a full 64 track recording of the show to go along with the HD video produced by CarnivalTV for streaming.

The final statistics from the event not only satisfied viewers, but also justified Henderson’s decision to produce for television. The HD feed pulled 75,000 viewers on Carnival TV alone. The average viewing time was four hours on that platform.
“Ideally,” Henderson said, “a show like that should be two and a half hours long, maximum. I’d advise anyone not to let the show run that long.”

Ultimately, the Dimanche Gras 2014 producer notes that the success of the show was largely owed to the sense of common purpose and commitment to excellence by the team.
“At my last tech meeting an hour before we began the show I asked everyone what could go wrong,” Henderson said.
“Everyone explained what might happen and what was in place to manage it. After I listened to that, that’s when I finally relaxed.”
“The respect that I got from TUCO and the calypsonians was phenomenal, the NCC was extremely supportive from Chairman Allison Demas on down. Everyone cooperated, and it all came together because of teamwork.”

“I think my biggest success was in motivating people.”
Henderson recalls that the executives of support companies were putting down work to make the project happen, Cheval Maraj of All Events and Lighting Company and Ricky Raghunanan who built the stage structure were right there, alongside their workers making the project happen.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “Just do it right. You have to know where your market is. There are so many more things I could do If I had the time and the budget. I’d produce a show that nobody would forget for a long time.”
“This is a game where there are more coaches in the stands than on the field. I decided it was time to get my hands dirty.”

“For Carnival I’ve been a performer, I’ve been on the stage, I’ve been in the audience. That’s the experience and perspective that I bring to the table.”

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.

Finding the jazz in kaiso

Published in the Sunday Arts Magazine of the Sunday Guardian on March 02, 2014.
R’Kardo St’Von performs at the Little Carib Theatre during the Tribute to the Masters show. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

The playbill described it as A Tribute to the Masters - A Kaisojazz Experience, but it was really a tentative exploration of some delightful kaiso classics as R’Kardo St’Von, backed by an experienced band, offered some gentle twists on legacy calypsoes.

The music, largely culled from the era of the singer’s youth, offered fertile ground for such musical reinterpretation, though some songs proved more successful than others.

St’Von, a capable and often colourful song stylist proved to be a generous leader of his team of musicians, giving them room to contribute creatively to the proceedings, but the show had the feel of a project that was under-rehearsed and under-arranged, the sparkling moments of inspiration in the performance contrasting sharply with straighter readings that seemed perfunctory.

The evening began with a deep dive into the treasury of calypso with a gentle lavway on Roaring Lion’s J’Ouvert Barrio, which offered the first dazzling moment of the evening for pannist Dane Gulston.
St’Von began singing along with Gulston offstage, finally backing onto the stage as the song wound to a relaxed conclusion.

Next up was David Rudder’s The Long Time Band, the first of the composer’s songs to be performed and the best known among the selections.
This was saxophonist Tony Woodroofe’s song, his long feathery solos fluttering around the edges of the melody.

Blakie’s Arabian Festival was the song that engaged St’Von most effectively in the entire show, and he had enormous fun with the lyric, the challenge of the tongue twisting intricacies of the song putting a broad and heartfelt smile on his face.

For Shadow’s Soca Boat, the singer fell into the trap that so many do when covering Shadow’s music, adopting the calypsonian’s tall, stiff stance and direct and declarative vocal style. The potential of this song was best exlored in the solos, which danced around Rodney Alexander’s insistent bassline.
Relator’s Steelband Music rose to another level during the call and response scatting and pan runs between St’Von and Dane Gulston.

Yet the moments of inventiveness and passion of the first half of the show didn’t carry over completely into the second half, which would prove to be a more loving and respectful engagement with the songbooks of St’Von’s favorite calypsonians.

His covers of David Rudder’s There is a land and The Hurricane emphasised percussion, but the singer felt cautious in his approach to the works, though when it came to his Sparrow medley, he rallied strongly.

Marvin Dolly’s gently strummed calypso guitar stripped the normally brassy Maria back down to the plaintive plea that’s at the heart of the song’s lyrics, stripping it of Sparrow’s bravado. St’Von’s reading of Sa Sa Ay seized on a romantic delivery of its French chorus, while the singer worked hard to rephrase the vaguely rapey lyrics of the song into a romantic adventure.

Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor was turned entirely over to Dane Gulston who delivered a merry romp on the tenor pan with the song, twisting and swerving with verve and enthusiasm around the classic melody.
St’Von returned for a warm rendition of Flagwoman, jazzing it up Al Jarreau style, before offering an exuberant and saucily appreciative reading of the heady raunch of Kitchener’s Battimamzelle.

Oddly enough, he would end the show with almost straight readings of Black Stalin’s Caribbean Man and Black man feeling to party, two songs that despite the perfection of their Errol Ince arrangements seemed ripe for some considered and dramatic reinterpretation.
For an audience seeking breezy and confident interpretations of classic calypso in a smooth jazz style, Tribute to the Masters would have been an amazing evening with kaiso classics.

Unfortunately, the event didn’t draw much of a crowd on opening night and most of the Little Carib Theatre’s seats remained unwarmed.
For those who came, the show satisfied, but also cried out for a bit more rehearsal and more of the inventive arrangements that popped up occasionally, a hint of the creative power seemed leashed by the urbane cool of the show’s mood.

R’Kardo St’Von, lead vocals
Michael Low Chew Tung, keyboards
Marvin Dolly, guitar
Rodney Alexander, bass
Modupe Folasade Onilu, percussion
Anthony Woodroffe, saxophone
Dane Gulston, pan
Charli Griffith, Kelli Nova and Shaun-Mark Murray, backup vocals

The other end of the whip

Originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian Features Section for February 12, 2014
Chief of the Original Whipmasters of Couva, Ronald Alfred and interviewer Rawle Gibbons take questions from the audience at the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Rawle Gibbons can count his conversation with Ronald Alfred as one of the coups of his career.
The chat, part of the Masters of the Mas project launched in 2010, is an initiative of Jouvay Ayiti, a collective that gathers the resources of Arts-in-Action of UWI, the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies of Tunapuna, Scherzando Steelband of Curepe and Studio 66 of Barataria.

Alfred is not known as a talkative person. He is a giant of a man, broad shouldered and barrel chested, but you wouldn’t see that immediately when he works as the king of The Original Whipmasters.
In the band he wears vivid yellow with brilliant accents of colour, shards of mirror and wisps of swansdown decorating his costume, which tinkle merrily with every step.

Alfred shrinks into that costume, his massive frame blending in among the colourful, masked imps that constitute the band, their presence a mix of tinkling bells and slashing crack of whips. And none is louder than the explosion of the Whipmaster King’s massive braided rope, a sound that pressures the eardrum even across open air.

Ronald Alfred spoke for more than an hour with Gibbons on February 03 at the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre, the whipmaster agreeably coaxed into discussing the history, inspirations and antecedents of the band.

Cross-lit and bearing up a bit hesitantly under the insistent view of twin video cameras, Ronald Alfred offered a recounting of his knowledge of this remarkable band, which stands as an almost untouched instance of traditional mas; its practices and techniques handed down from generation to generation across most of the last century.

It’s a sacred tradition for the Alfreds, who have introduced each of their children to Carnival from the pram.
“My whip hangs in my house,” Alfred told the audience in the centre’s auditorium. “It ain’t in no bag or in some corner.”

The whip, the symbol of the band’s distinctive approach to the jab jab masquerade, is something of a coveted item and curiously enough, not one that Ronald Alfred hesitates to share.

He teaches schools the tradition of the mas and makes 75 each year for the children who attend his master classes. At Christmas, he creates another 100 for the community surrounding Whipmaster Drive, the family’s home in Couva and finally makes another 57 for the band members.

It’s a labour of love for Alfred and his family, who don’t charge people to play mas with them but demand something more precious and far rarer than cash, a dedication to the ideals of the masquerade that is their life.
At the end of the talk, Ronald Alfred rose from the tiny chair in response to a request for a demonstration.

As the video crew scrambled off the stage and the Whipmaster King put his mask on, the power of his masquerade seemed to fill the room, along with more than a dozen members of the band, their jingling bells a musical susurrus that was soon punctuated by the cracks of whips large and small.

The power of the jab jab mas, a spectacle of colour and gentle bells that holds the terror of the deadly clown with each snake’s strike curling of the whips, undimmed by something as clinical as a documentary recording under unkind fluorescent lights.

The conversation with Ronald Alfred is part of Jouvay Ayiti’s 2014 production of a devil Mas band titled “Impersonation” (spelt IMPsPersonsNations). The group tries to interview veteran mas performers who have worked in the style of each year’s band. The next scheduled talk is with Blue Devil masman Tico Skinner at Studio 66 on February 24.

The recording of the Whipmaster talk will form part of the project’s archive and a copy will be given to the Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Centre for use in the Schools Broadcasting Service.
The 2012 Local Lives story on the band is

Elize Rostant: Nature’s jeweller

Story and photographs by Mark Lyndersay.
Originally published in the Sunday Arts Magazine of the Sunday Guardian on December 01, 2013
Elize Rostant working on pieces from her Christmas collection at her Cascade home. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Elize Rostant had one of those engagingly bohemian childhoods that’s this country’s best gift to a child.
Growing up in Gasparillo, her parents spent many hours piling into the family car on trips into the countryside.
“It was really seeing the country,” as Rostant recalls. “I’m just trying to recreate that beauty in my work.

"She was raised along with two sisters and two brothers by parents who were both teachers.
“Looking back I realise it was a very academic household. My parents were the only people on the street who had gone to university. We had a library and when we read and found something we didn’t understand, we would have to go and look it up in the encyclopedia.”

“That was just normal to me then, but I know now just how uncommon that was.”
Almost as uncommon as her distinct memories of her father in a dashiki and full afro deejaying as Sio’s Super Sounds and a mother who continued to play music for pleasure.
“We were encouraged to experiment,” she said.

So Elize Rostant did, and found her calling in art early in an internship with jewelry designer Gillian Bishop when she was just 15. The family connection was hardly tenuous. The late Pat Bishop was the godmother of her sister Alyssa; so another Bishop adopting another Rostant was just part of the flow between the families.

Elize Rostant would go on to take her degree in fashion at the Savannah College of Art and Design crunching the course of study into an intensive two and a half years.
Of all the design paths that the school trained her for, however, it seemed that she was always on a path back to jewelry.
“Even my finals work had these metallic collars,” she recalls with a smile.

With formal training in design, she began to appreciate her mentor Bishop’s work even more.
“I’m always inspired by her work; you’ll see a gem hanging off the piece by just a little wire. Amazing stuff.”
The young artist returned to T&T and took up a job at the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism to render the compensatory service that her scholarship called for.

“Last year I realised that I hadn’t done anything for two years, and it was really time to do something.”
The show that resulted from that first return to her art met with mixed results.
“My last collection included feathers, which people liked, but didn’t buy,” Rostant confessed.

But the young jeweller isn’t daunted and will present her work, alongside other work by Christine Lorde and Gillian Bishop at the Christmas Bazaar by Signature 2000, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh 3.0 beginning at the Hotel Normandie on December 08.
Potential buyers will see in her new work an enthusiasm for colour and textures expressed using beads made of glass, acrylic and wood along with fabric and ribbons.

“I have to be conscious of the weight of the work when I’m done” she admits with a hearty laugh. “I’m also thinking a lot more about whether someone will wear the piece.”
During Carifesta in Suriname she met the husband and wife team behind Atelier Doré ( whose work in silver rekindled her desire to work with metals again.

Rostant is keen to get behind a jeweler’s bench again, but works steadily at her dream on a restored Singer sewing machine which doubles as a work bench for her current works.
She’s working in a humble atelier of her own, a cozy space poised above her small living room in a Cascade apartment, the single bulb burning down on the polished, weathered wood as she deftly twists metal filaments and fashions cascading fingers of beads into organic shapes that she hopes will be just the right accessory for a customer.

Visitors to the Signature Christmas bazaar can expect vivid colours and delightful textures from Elize Rostant’s new collection as well as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of early work from a promising new jewelry designer.
“I want to produce work that really expresses me,” Rostant says, “work that’s lasting in the world. This collection will be for the woman who has style and wants to make a bold statement with her accessories.”

Curious about how this photograph got made? There's a photoblog about it

Bitter Seeds Review

Growing pains
A review of Bitter Seeds by Mark Lyndersay, originally published in the T&T Guardian on November 12, 2013
Ram Krishna Kopulwar and his bullocks in a still from Micha X Peled’s Bitter Seeds.

Micha X Peled’s documentary film, Bitter Seeds is a grim polemic, but unlike such issue-driven fare, this is a surprisingly watchable film with a strong, compassionate heart, calm reasoning and at its core, the guts to acknowledge that the problem isn’t as simple as American industrial imperialism.

Director Peled found Telung Takil; a village at the heart of India in the region of Vidarbha which the documentarian posits is ground zero in a epidemic of farmer suicides occasioned by the shame of poverty.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Manjusha Ambarwar, a sharp witted young woman whose father, Ramdas, is identified as the first farmer to end his life after realising that he could never escape the mountain of debt into which he had inexorably slid.

Then we meet Ram Krishna Kopulwar, a sad-eyed farmer who doggedly ploughs his three acres of land with two bullocks. The man and his two animals guiding a single blade through earth that seems indifferent to their efforts.
Ambarwar is keen to become a journalist, not a favored job option for a young woman in rural India.
Kopulwar's beautiful daughter, Sawpna, is being groomed for the preferred role that of a wife to a suitable husband.

The key players are quickly set in place, set against the harsh beauty of the largely undeveloped landscape of this part of India and the essential conflict of their aspirations and the unyielding reality of their circumstances quickly springs into sharp relief.

Peled’s basic thesis in this film is in harmony with his other documentaries on the consequences of globalisation on communities; Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue.
The villain in Bitter Seeds is the multinational chemical giant, Monsanto, whose genetically engineered seeds have commanded the market, sold under license as Jai BT and many other attractive brand names dressed in colourful packaging adorned with photographs of flourishing cotton blossoms.

In Peled’s film, the genetically modified cotton seeds from Monsanto are not delivering the returns that farmers hope for and farmers using the product are experiencing higher than normal crop failure rates.
Ram Krishna Kopulwar already has a loan from the local bank and now must turn to a money lender for the money to pay for the seeds for his next crop.

Monsanto’s BT seeds are not self-regenerating and must be bought for each crop seeding, contributing to the accelerating cycle of debt.
Monsanto’s representatives, though notably not anyone from the company itself, dispute this. From the salesmen to the local company creating the seeds under license from Monsanto, they point instead to poor financial management by farmers and an inability to manage the demands of the new seeds.

In the film, Vandana Shiva, an appealingly passionate environmental activist, argues that industrial agriculture doesn’t translate well to the smaller acreages of India’s cotton farmers. Industrial agriculture, she says, is a business of subsidy and engineered processes, neither of which are available to small scale Indian farmers.

BT cotton, the film notes, requires more water and fertilizer, which must be applied on a very specific schedule. But most of the farmers of Vidarbha have no irrigation and depend on the rains.
In a particularly moving moment in the film, Ram Krishna Kopulwar plays host to three men who have brought their son to formally meet Sawpna with a view to arranging a match.

Kopulwar sits uneasily as the three generations of men detail their demands for a dowry. It’s a price that he is unable to pay and tells them so with a smile that’s a heartbreaking mask of shame and helplessness.
It’s not hard to see how a man put in a position of such absolute humiliation might consider ending a life without any apparent hope.

The film claims that a farmer kills himself in India every thirty minutes. The sheer number and scale of the deaths is undisputed. More than a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide in the country over the last decade and a half, but while the film struggles admirably to skewer Monsanto, it isn’t clear that the company’s seeds are the only reason for the staggering suicide rate.

Indeed Nature, the respected science journal, while frowning generally on genetically modified seed stock,
disputes the essential theory of the film as part of its evaluation of the scientific manipulation of plant regeneration.

What’s particularly troubling about the situation outlined by Bitter Seeds is the way that GM seeds appear to have completely taken over as the only resource for farmers in India.
Traditional cotton seed stocks, which could be fertilised by cow dung and not expensive chemical regimens while providing fresh seeds for the next crop have disappeared from the shelves of agriculture suppliers.

Kopulwar’s crop falls prey to a mealy bug infestion after being saved by a last minute shower of rain, and he loses half his crop. His three acres of land will remain in the hands of the money lender for another season after he makes a payment his original loan.

After months of work, he can barely meet his debt to the bank, can’t pay the moneylender and has no hope of arranging a match for his daughter. Micha Peled’s film wrestles mightily with all the elements that India brings to bear on his chosen subjects, but it ultimately fails to offer a persuasive conclusion.

Suicide rates in India were increasing before Monsanto introduced its controversial GM seed strains to the market and small crop farmers, scraping by on the lower end of the economy, are particularly vulnerable to the social and financial forces that are pressuring the poor and financially marginal in that country.

Manjusha Ambarwar publishes her first piece of writing for the local agriculture focused paper, winning herself some closure for her father’s death, and perhaps a shot at a career that allows her to chart her own destiny.
We leave Ram Krishna Kopulwar where we found him, walking stoically across a freshly ploughed field, still resolutely determined to wring a solution to his problems from earth that’s equally resolved to fight him all the way.

And India remains India, a beautiful, absolute land of sudden hard rains and dry crumbling earth, of deep spirituality and devotion and hard divisions of class and knowledge into which the unprepared stumble and sometimes, never return.

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