Local Lives 17

Tribe at 10
An update on the occasion of their tenth anniversary to my 2009 story on the Carnival band Tribe, published in the Trinidad Guardian on March 03, 2014. The PDF of this published story is here.

Ten years is a long time for any business. For one that caters to thousands of people at a time, it’s a challenge that few will ever face.
Marry that experience with the world’s fussiest customers, the masqueraders who choose a premium, all-inclusive band with heavily decorated costumes for their Carnival experience and the mix is potentially explosive.

The band’s story in that time is a publicly acknowledged success story of satisfied customers, colourful presentations and feathers aplenty, but it’s also a less well-known narrative of a family and friends who shared a common dream and goal to create the Carnival they wanted to experience, a comfortable, secure space where all the party potential of the festival could be fully explored.

The story began in the big party band Poison, with a section that proved successful and a run that lasted four years.
Monique and Lana Nobrega built a faithful following with their designs and commitment to the happiness of their masqueraders and supported by a family and good friends that would become the backbone of the business now known as Tribe, began a journey that now finds them overseeing a popular events management company that produces three major parties during the season, a major J’Ouvert band in Red Ants, the local Miss Universe franchise and two bands, Tribe and Bliss which leverage the powerful engine of production that the team has refined year by year.

Lana and Monique are now part of a team that includes Dean Ackin, Dwayne Nobrega, Alan Lee, Melissa James and Gerard Ramirez, but friends and family populate the management teams that actually execute the work, making for an unusually harmonious response to even the most demanding of pressures.

Ackin promises that the next ten years will find Tribe becoming “more entrenched in the event management, entertainment and Carnival industries.”
But that’s typical of the bandleader.
He will always talk about keeping a “focus on innovation and breaking new ground through product and service differentiation.”

But look at the man. Really look at him, and you’ll see the devilish smile that betrays just how much fun he’s having and the joy of working with people who feel exactly the same way.

A very personal light

A very personal light
by Mark Lyndersay
An update to my 2006 story on the Singh family in Local Lives 05, published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 06, 2013. The PDF of this published story is here.

Just two decades ago, the Hindu festival of Divali had almost totally disappeared from St James. Despite a large Hindu population, there were just a few homes that lit some deyas and one installation at the Harvard roundabout. It seemed like the St James community had become too worldly for the festival.

That was when Bheem Singh, who loved the festival and its spiritual resonance, took the traditional lighting ceremony out of the temple just a few blocks down the street from his home.
Singh celebrated it the event in the temple for fifty years, but he wanted to put it front and centre in the community, beginning a tradition of a public lighting of deyas on the street right in front of his home on Ethel Street that continued for 16 years.

It’s been five years since the Singh family patriarch passed away at 74. His funeral, in one of those quirks of a multi-racial, multi-faith nation, was celebrated in the local Catholic church.
It was a loss that hit the family hard. His infectious enthusiasm for the festival had been the driving force behind the annual event, which gets no official support from the government or any social agency.

“We don’t ask anyone for anything,” said family spokesman Dereck Singh, “but nobody comes along to offer anything either.”
That’s a little surprising, because quite apart from their lavish annual presentation of deyas supported by elaborately bent bamboo art, the family is known for their spectacular spread of food, a sumptious assortment of curried vegetables served with tasty, crisp paratha roti.

There may not be much money available for the annual celebration, but there’s no shortage of commitment to making it happen.
“Whatever little we have, we make it do,” said Dereck Singh, one of the late Bheem Singh’s sons.
That resolve was sorely tested this year. Of Bheem Singh’s seven children, two passed away in the last year, Fedora in late 2012 and Gerald in April 2013. For the first time since 1997, the Singh family seriously considered not celebrating Divali on Ethel Street.

“People kept coming and asking if we were going to do it,” said Marjorie Singh, Bheem’s wife and the mother of a household that plays host all day long to eight grandchildren and a stream of friends and extended family.
Mrs Singh, blind in one eye and with impaired vision in the other did not, on Divali night, join the celebrants in Ethel Street or begin the event with the short religious ceremony at the shrine to Mother Lakshmi that’s always been a part of the Singh celebration.

But her presence was there nonetheless; her decisions about the placement of tables and flowers and the preparation of food were a constant part of the event’s planning.
For Divali 2013, the Singh family worked at the celebration with a determination that seemed like nothing less than a decision to face down the family’s sense of loss and the bleakness of that grief by ensuring that the light they had become known for continued to blaze.

“It in we blood,” said Dereck Singh, as he surveyed the bustle of preparation on the street on Divali morning.
“My father teach us that all the time. He loved it...he loved it unto death.”

The Man from Patna

The man from Patna
by Mark Lyndersay
The sidebar piece for the update on my 2006 story on the Singh family in Local Lives 05, published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 06, 2013. The PDF of this published story is here.

Twenty years ago, Patna Village, a became a popular and unlikely must-see destination for Divali and Christmas celebrations when an explosion of creative bamboo bending took root in the community.
One of the men who was responsible for that project was David Kanhai and for the last few years, he’s been bending bamboo for the Singh family at Ethel Street.

“I do it with them because of the sacrifice,” Kanhai says. “This event is different and that’s what attracted me.
David Kanhai won the first national bamboo bending competition, but soon dropped out of the competition, dissatisfied with what he perceived as politics at play in the event.

He’s been building bamboo sculptures for displaying lit deyas for three decades now, and his work process is a mix of the practical and the ethereal.
He picks the bamboo trunks carefully, starting with the most mature pieces, which have the strength to support his more complex designs.

“Too much of the bamboo this year is green,” he grumbles as he cuts and trims the stalks into long narrow strips before bending them this way and that.
He seems to be sketching the shapes in his mind with the cuttings before committing them to completion with deft ties of fine galvanize wire.

For the Singhs in 2013 he built a striking cobra, a stolid elephant, a rocket ship and scales of justice among other supports for the hundreds of deyas that would be lit on Divali night, the pinpricks of light outlining the shapes he designed.

“I like to build things of all kinds,” Kanhai says, “not just Hindu symbolism. It gives people of other religions a chance to embrace the event and to participate.”

Local Lives 16

The men who cheer at goats
The text for a story about Sonny Murray, racing goat breeder, published in the T&T Guardian on April 09, 2013.
By Mark Lyndersay
View an expanded gallery of
images from this photo essay here and download a PDF of the published Guardian story here.

Sonny Murray first got involved with goat racing in Tobago when he was just eight years old. The sport was already well established, beginning in 1925 when the people of Tobago decided that they wanted their own races, ones that didn’t require expensive horses to run.

Murray, 65, has been around long enough to see the sport mature from humble beginnings on Chance Street, move to Rosehill, where rails were built out of bamboo and swamp wood. The races are now run at several multipurpose facilities on the island.

He has served as a president of the island’s Goat Racing Committee and continues to raise four goats for racing, one of which he’s lost to pregnancy.
“Once they have a litter, you can’t race them anymore,” Murray said. “The blood loss, you see. They never run the same way again.”

Except for that, goats run according to performance, not by gender, with three classifications, A, B, C1 and C2, introduced in 1979, which govern the groupings for races. It’s an equality that isn’t accorded to jockeys, and the small number of female riders are relegated to their own women’s only races.

For all the years he’s been a breeder and organiser of goat racing, Murray has never been a jockey.
“I couldn’t run,” he explained, “them goat fast.”
It is, on first blush, a goofy looking sport. Goats don’t care about lanes, and the riders run alongside, and most often behind their wilful charges. The goats will sometimes dig in their heels on their way to the starting gate, refusing to obey the jockeys, glaring back at them with baleful intensity.

What probably began as a parody of the moneyed pretensions of horse racing now gets taken quite seriously. There are just a few rules, and the two that spectators need to be aware of are that jockeys run barefoot and must be attached to their animals at the finish line.

The barefoot riders, attached to the goats by a regulation length nine-foot rope, chase the goats during the 100 metre run. Their job is to keep the goats roughly on the track to finish the race while keeping pace with the animals.
Murray alternates his two riders who will, altogether, run 15 races at each event, each man running a 100 metre race flat out every time.

The athletes flex their muscles before each of their races, limbering up for the challenge of keeping up with their goat. Murray supplies his riders with a fine silk shirt for their run.
“It’s a festival,” he said, “we want people to look the part.”

The big event for the Easter goat and crab racing season is run at Buccoo on the Tuesday after the end of the long weekend, adding an unofficial half-day to the vacation for the serious goat racing connoisseur, but a well attended, though smaller race event takes place at Mt Pleasant on Easter Monday. This year a night race was added to the calendar on Easter Friday night

Local Lives 15

Hanging out in the Yard of Music
An expanded version of the text for the Phase II story published in the Sunday Guardian on February 10, 2013.
By Mark Lyndersay
View an expanded gallery of
images from this photo essay here and download a PDF of the published Guardian story here.

The sun is dimming on the horizon and there are disjointed tinkles of tenors and rumblings of bass drums in the Woodbrook panyard of Phase II.

It’s hours after practice was supposed to formally begin on my first day photographing the band, and I’m still to make the time zone adjustment between intent and reality that’s part of the way that Phase II gets their work done.

Dr Pat Bishop famously took ownership of calypsonian Shadow’s brilliant line, “I belong to the House of Music,” first for an exhibit of her art, and finally as a commitment to her work.
This then is the yard of that house, a relaxed, familial space that’s as much a community as it is an extended family where music is also at the centre of its every existence.

The music is created in sections before it’s assembled and rehearsed by its arranger and composer Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and his drill lieutenants.
First, the music is played at half speed, the senior musicians listening for misplaced or laggardly notes. This isn’t what casual pan fans come to the yard to hear, but if you’re patient can imagine the piece even in these component parts.

This odd little hollow at the dead-end of Hamilton Street is where Phase II has been putting together the chords that have become the defining music of an age since 1972, when six young men decided, with all the arrogance of their years, that they knew better than their elders in Starlift and struck out on their own.

The men, boys really, were Barry Howard, Rawle Mitchell, Andy Phillip, Selwyn Tarradath, Noel Seon and Sharpe, all of whom had been pursuing their own parallel dream in Starlift, often doubling back after band practice to do their own thing on the pans after everyone else had packed up to go home.

They found a home in a little clearing in overgrown bamboo and bush on the street, across the road from the home of one of their number, Selwyn Tarradath.
The original plan was to pursue fusion music, working with traditional musicians and creating their own songs created for the pan.

Part of that plan worked out, and not in the way that they imagined.
Starlift would spawn two other bands, 3rd World and Huggins Pandemonium, an all-girl band sponsored by the distributor that would often be supplemented by Starlift players.

Eventually, more of those players along with other Starlift players would drift into the compelling sphere of Phase II drawn by the musical explorations that the band encouraged and pushed away by the cussedness of the old school pannists of Starlift.
“There was a lot of ill will with the band leaving Starlift,” band manager Errol Skerritt explained, “but there was a lot of goodwill in the community."

"As more pannists dropped by, it seemed possible to field a side that could go to Panorama in 1973, where they played Sparrow's Mas in May, the first and last time that they would play a traditional calypso in competition.

In 1984, they played I Music, the first in a four-decade-long run of original compositions by Sharpe (in 1994 and 1995 the band played Ray Holman compositions), daring arrangements and sometimes controversial appearances at Panorama that have made Phase II one of the most discussed bands in the history of pan.

The band now works on a seasonal basis with 160 pannists, with 35 of them forming the professional core of the band.
At one time, many of those pannists came from within the Woodbrook community, but that’s no longer the case.
“Woodbrook is no longer a community,” lamented Skerrit.

Over the years, the band’s striking arrangements and Sharpe’s personal commitment to powerful and individualistic playing attracted musicians like Nappy Mayers and Richard Bailey to the panyard to listen and to participate.

Until this year, the band hosted an annual jazz fusion event on the Wednesday two weeks before Carnival that attracted musicians to take part in jams with the most skilful players in the band. That didn’t happen this year, but it’s something that the band hopes to return to the musical calendar soon.

In 1984, when Skerritt joined the band, there was no electricity, no running water, no bathroom facilities and Tarradath’s mother was the emergency resource for all these services.
“I remember coming into her living room and watching her look at television. The band was playing thunderously, things were shaking on the shelves and she was sitting there, stoically looking at her show,” Skerritt recalled.
“The things that people have done for this band...”

In 1986 Errol Skerritt was appointed the band’s manager, taking over from founding manager Peter Aleong. One of his first missions was replacing the band’s instruments, which they played for the first time on the Savannah stage in 1987, performing This Feeling Nice, for which they won their first Panorama title.

This year they arrived at the Queen’s Park Savannah stage to play More Love, one of dozens of Sharpe compositions the band has played over the years and emerged in first place with 273 points, a single point ahead of longtime rival Exodus.

The band must manage its instruments carefully now, a sharp contrast to the carefree days of 1986, when a tenor pan, tuned, cost an average of $900. In 2013 that cost has jumped to $5,000 and the premium pans, once left out to the elements are now stored in air-conditioned shipping containers. Skerrit cannot afford to replace all the band’s instruments anymore and pans are chromed not for style, but for longevity.

Even with a sponsor, Petrotrin, with whom the band has had an irregular relationship since 1999, there are significant cost challenges to maintaining the band’s distinctly low-key presence, a huddling of used shipping containers, a shed and some ageing bleachers the only stake that the band has put down in Hamilton Street in 41 years.

It’s a space now in the shadow of the towering presence of One Woodbrook Place, whose air-conditioning cooling towers continuously sprinkle the panyard with a fine mist of water spray when the wind shifts.
Wayne Rajnauth, who provides transport for the band’s movements to the Savannah and back, describes the cost of maintaining a large steelband succinctly.
“When I make the trip with the rostrum alone that’s a million by itself.”

Soon after he tells me this, the truck in front makes a sharp turn up to the Savannah and a pan rolls off the racks and hits the road with a sharp, ringing crash. Rajnauth brakes and we watch the pan roll across the road with a drunken wobble toward a young woman who watches it in shock.

As it arcs toward the drain, she steps forward and stops it, looking up with questioning eyes at the cabin of the truck we’re in. Rajnauth barks orders to his loading men and the pan is quickly scooped up.

Since Ray Holman’s Pan on the Move in 1972, much has changed for pan music. Far fewer traditional calyxsonians are creating songs for the steelband and the notion of bands coming to Panorama with their own compositions has become commonplace, but Sharpe’s adventurous arrangements and Phase II’s independent spirit keep it just one step apart from its competitors.

Early on Carnival Sunday Morning, three hours after midnight and eight hours after the competition began, Petrotrin Phase II rolled its pans onto the Queen’s Park Savannah stage to perform its final arrangement of Len “Boogsie” Sharpe’s collaboration with Black Stalin, More Love.
The band emerged winner of the competition, scoring 283 points, five ahead of Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars.

In addition to adding unpublished material to the story that appeared in the Sunday Guardian, this story also corrects an error in fact about the composer of Mas in May and the year I Music was first performed.

Phase II wins
1987 - This feeling Nice
1988 - Woman is boss
2005 - Trini gone wild
2006 - This one’s for you Bradley
2008 - Musical vengeance
2013 - More love
The band has placed second in the competition 11 times.
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