By Raffique Shah
September 07, 2020
Early morning Independence Day. I switch on the television, remembering that there would be no military parade this year, thanks to Covid-19, the Great Destroyer. So what is there to watch? On CNC3, I catch the last few words of the Prime Minister—rerun of an interview he’d done with Natalee Ligoure a few days ago. Then the host excitedly introduces 2020 Panorama champions, Desperadoes—their winning performance on Carnival Saturday night.
I can digest good pan music anytime, day or night, morning or evening, so I watch with interest this video that I have seen and listened to several times since the band from The Hill executed it. Now, however, I see the performance through lens tainted with the bile from dumb race talk that erupted in the country for the general election, a political staple for those whose shallow minds are consumed with hatred for fellow-human beings of different ethnicities to theirs, such that they see only the lowest common denominators that link us, never the highest common factors that bind us.
As the band launches into Nailah Blackman’s rendition of “More Sokah”, the amply-endowed singer, clad in a colourful, body-hugging outfit, waves the Despers flag. She crosses and re-crosses paths with the white-suited, taj-topped arranger/conductor Carlton ‘Zanda’ Alexander, looking every centimeter a statuesque Muslim emperor, willing the band’s players to deliver the performance of their lives. As the musicians drill into the music, caressing the notes now, then hammering them to the delight of Emperor Zanda, his taj sitting tight on his swaying head, Nailah and another flag-woman go wild. Fans in the Savannah-this was pre-Covid, if you can remember those days-are entranced by the pulsating music.
I cast a critical eye on what I am seeing and hearing: a proud Muslim man conducting a band whose name is synonymous with one of the oft-notorious urban districts in this crime-ridden country; 120-plus musicians mesmerised by their own music that silence the drums and assorted weapons of war that otherwise haunt their daily lives in Laventille; the flag-women, symbolising their sisters across the country, wave the flags of abandon and gender-liberation.
I smile, shake my head: only in Trinidad! I mutter. Really, where else will you see such planned-but-seemingly-spontaneous-human-combustion that permeates the souls of the masses? Political and social scientists postulate that Carnival serves as a safety valve that allows people to “blow steam” for a month or so, hence hardly ever reaching the tipping point of explosion or revolution. It’s more complex than that, I think. This mix of religions, races, cultures, colours, is very Trinidadian, coming from people who are from different parts of the world, thrown together ages ago by the demands of capitalism, held in check for centuries by the tentacles of colonialism and neo-colonialism that followed independence. But these people have always resisted the shackles that enslaved them, literally, in the case of the Africans, mentally in others.
Their cultural expressions, one of the few identifying marks they defined for themselves and changed as they saw fit, evolved into an array of rhythms, melodies, lyrics, tastes, colours-and so many more products of their imaginations, their creativity. In so many instances, there have been explosions of their joint imaginations and creativity that bordered on sheer genius. These came in the forms of designs, particularly clothing and costumes, music, with the emphasis on pan music, but not restricted to pan, culinary creations that straddle foods, beverages, delicacies and more.
Sadly, we have failed to recognize our own creativity, the genius that resides in our people. Worse, because of the primitive instincts that continue to shackle so many among us, we do not capitalize on them. Watching that Despers performance last Monday morning, my mind ran on the multitude of opportunities this country has lost in music. One hundred years after some ex-slaves invented pan, we have failed to exploit the only musical instrument created and developed in the 20th Century. We should own the biggest pan factories in the world that would bring us millions, maybe billions of dollars.
All we do is talk pan, Panorama, and recognize the instrument only at Carnival time. We should be exporting factory-perfected steel-pans, pan-tuners, pan innovators yet we talk about diversifying the economy.
In my ruminations, I thought too, of unrecognized super-talent that goes abegging. How many people, decision makers among them, have bought or even listened to CDs by our ace pannists? How many people in this country have ever listened to the incomparable Mungal Patasar and Pantar or the sheer genius of the late Andre Tanker or Boogsie Sharpe?
I guess we are too busy examining the texture of people’s hair and the colour of their skin, to observe opportunities for enhancing the economy and uplifting the society.