January 31, 2006
The title, Dance the Guns to Silence is taken from one of Saro-Wiwa’s own poems, ‘Dance’. The anthology has a Foreword written by Ken Wiwa and editorial advisory from the renowned Malawian poet, now living in exile in Britain, Jack Mapanje.
Dance the Guns to Silence is an anthology of strong, thoughtful, poems of tribute, ranging from words of social consciousness to hard hitting images and moving stories.
Dance the Guns to Silence: 100 Poems Inspired by Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Edited by: Nii Ayikwei Parkes & Kadija George
For more information, visit this site: http://www.remembersarowiwa.com/poetry.htm
January 30, 2006
I was nineteen years old when Breaklight was given to me by Sonia Jones, a friend of mine, who wrote, “I hope that reading these will bring you joy.” Twenty-eight years later, they still do.
By Andrew Salkey
Should you ask me where I come from, I must talk
with broken things,
with fairly painful utensils, with great beasts turned to dust as often
as not and my afflicted heart.
-- Pablo Neruda
The skin of sand and gravel in the cities and countryside
shivered, because it had been, for far too long, pierced
by the quick chainsaw slashes of juddering Sherman tanks,
by the vulturous generals in mufti and a secret police
in snugly-fitting disguises, with a northern licence to act;
and so they all did, as the republic retched in disgust.
The hunched workers and spavined peasants duly endured
their grapnel shoulder-yokes and staggering fatigue,
until their lives were caught on snags of dread and despair.
Where were the blossoms of expected rosy times and ideals?
Where, the halcyon nest of hush that soothes spiky anguish?
Where, the salvation signs across the prophetic Andean sky?
Now that the years of trampling and butchery have withdrawn
their highly polished jackboots and accurate meat-hooks,
and the new vote has cut the abundant waste of citizens,
the cannas and marigolds will blaze, street by street,
and branch and brandish freedom, fiercely, Victor,
all the way down the ribbon of your southern landscape.
Source: Originally published in the September/ October 1993 issue of Boston Review
Writing and Poetry
January 28, 2006
Here's the link: http://ia300011.us.archive.org/3/items/Miami_Mambo_1/MiamiMamboconRubyPerez.mp3
January 27, 2006
Here is the interview: http://ia300037.us.archive.org/1/items/GeoffreyPhilpInterviewwithArielGonzalez/interview_with_ariel_mp3.mp3
Books & Reading
January 24, 2006
The poem was originally published in hurricane center (1998).
"yu bet yu life," the drawsy touter say,
dunzai tight in him fist, "that likkle mare
cyaan stan up to my stallion, the mighty saga boy!"
so i put my money where my mouth was, an stare
him down, "my girl's a thoroughbred. i feel it in me soul."
match him dollar fa dollar wid me rent money an buy the ticket.
but i wasn't staying at the roadside off course to get it
from a radio announcer who doant know filly from foal.
i lef de bwai sweating like a jackass, him partner a groan,
leg lock tighter than a jockey in the stirrup,
riding the beast, from starting post to the finish line,
galloping so hard, him waist ready to pop.
race start. saga boy have blinders, a mane of black hair,
and my girl, a one year old maiden, wasn't looking
too bad herself as they turn into the shoulder
two furlongs to go, and my girl in front, but picking
up the rear, saga boy coming on fast,
with me holding on, like love, to me battered stub.
saga boy and my girl so close, saddle start to rub,
saga boy and my girl, neck and neck, dead heat,
saga boy on top of my girl with a furlong to go;
i beggin, "lawd, mek it done," and start think instead
i shoulda bet even a dollar with my girl to show.
photo finish; the bleachers went wild. saga boy in by a head.
January 23, 2006
Give thanks to Maria and Jean- Marie of www.poesiedumonde.com for translating the poem; Glenford John and Rosie Gordon Wallace of The Diaspora Vibe Gallery for allowing me to use the graphic, Coconut Palm.
One Love, every time.
Writing and Poetry
Poems in French
I was sixteen and in love with my own “Anna” and Walcott’s poems described the kind of life that I wanted to have. And it didn’t help that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was one of the assigned readings for our Cambridge exams.
I remember going to Sangster’s (it used to be in front of Welcome Grocery, Standpipe) and passing the old woman (she always checked if the boys were going to the back of the store to read Playboy) to buy a copy of Another Life with four week’s worth of lunch money I had saved. (This may explain many things.)
I went back to my home in Mona Heights and began reading on my own verandah, “Darkness soft as amnesia furred the slope” and looking up at Long Mountain and across to “Anna’s” home.
Another Life’s description of the landscape that I inhabited--the possibility that it could be captured in words--came at a time of growing nationalism in Jamaica when Bob Marley and Michael Manley held our teenage imaginations. It was a great time to be alive.
As I move deeper into middle-age, Walcott’s lines still haunt me:
And I answer, Anna,
twenty years after,
a man lives half of life,
the second half is memory,
the first half, hesitation
for what should have happened
but could not, or
what happened with other
when it should not.
Give thanks, Derek Walcott. The original poetic massive.
(An earlier version of this post was published with Maud Newton: "You'll never forget your First Book"
January 22, 2006
I normally don't blog on Sundays, but Mikey Jiggs has produced a video/documentary about Malachi Smith that's worth noting. Here's the website: http://www.reggaeconcepts.com/pages/7/index.htm
It's about two minutes long. As they say in North Miami Beach, mazel tov!
January 21, 2006
The poem was originally published in Florida Bound (1995).
Man, mek me tell yu dat was a fete!
Riddim was wile, an de dawta dem a grine,
de idren dem a smoke de sweetes lamb's bret
straight from St. Ann, de bes colly we cud fine.
Security did tight, yu cudn even see a rachet,
fa de local top ranking stan up broad by de gate
till one fool-fool rumhead decide fe chuck a yute,
Bwai, me neva see one man eat so much bullet.
We kotch de bwai pon a speaka, an call him girlfren,
she search him till she fine de gole ring inna him ves
an shub him dung a dutty, figet him like de res.
Now das when de dance look like it was gwane en,
den we put on sum oldies, an leggo de bass,
fa yu cyaan cum a dance widdout a gun inna yu wais
January 19, 2006
Part Two of “A New Year’s Fable”
A new year, whether one subscribes to the Gregorian, Chinese, or Mayan calendar, offers the possibility of embracing fresh possibilities. Whether we have the courage and discipline to manifest the new possibilities is another matter. The unacknowledged poet laureate of Black America, Maya Angelou, has said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently.” This lack of courage is one of the challenges that Benjamin, the protagonist in “A Fable for the New Year,” faces. If Benjamin is to gain the freedom that he desires, then he will have to muster the courage to confront Sycorax (his African past), Ivan (political exploitation), Fitzie (commercial exploitation), Brownie (hedonism and expediency), and Winston (conformity). It is confrontation to gain a sense of wholeness and the obstacles in his path are the very people who in a healthy society should be the ones who should be promoting his well being.
Instead, Benjamin’s growth into psychological wholeness is hampered by the Fitzie, Brownie, Winston, and Ivan (elders with La Verdian society), so that the curative worldview of Sycorax cannot be imparted to him. It is through Sycorax (I am indebted to the metaphorical reasoning of Kamau Brathwaite) and the belief system that she imparts (I am equally indebted to the analytical reasoning of Dr Paget Henry via Leonard “Tim" Hector) that he is able to realize his happiness.
Sycorax is the archetypal black mother at the root of the Caribbean/African Diaspora. She feeds and sustains the music, art, literature, and arts of the region and like Maya Angelou, she has not been recognized for her importance within the culture. Yet, it is only by absorbing the lessons of Sycorax that Benjamin is able to extricate himself from the moribund, exploitative system into which he was born.
It is interesting to note that Benjamin has been taught to fear and despise Sycorax for all his life because she represents the polar opposite of Sinojo’s patriarchal, colonialist system that is supported by Fitzie, Brownie, Winston, and Ivan. Sycorax is a nurturing figure whereas Sinojo’s system is an exploitative system that can only be overcome by Sycorax’s worldview.
And what is Sycorax’s worldview?
“They taught him about the Supreme Being, Olorun, how Olorun planted an okra, an individual divine spark inside all humans, and how these related to his ego or sunsum as they called it and his body or honan. They also taught him about the loas or gods who guided over their affairs and the egum or ancestors which is what he was to become after he learned and taught others how to make instruments, drums they called them, from the hides of animals and dead trees.”
For the Yoruba people (from whom most of us in the
With the advent of slavery and the experience of the Diaspora/exile, Olorun was effectively banished from the apex of African/Caribbean Diasporic experience, and a cultural/religious void was created. In other words, the worldview fractured (in relation to the complete Sycoraxian worldview) and what remained was a universe filled with duppies, jumbies, rolling calves , evil spirits and systems that transformed Benjamin and the village people of La Verde, into objects that could bought, sold, or bartered. This is the worldview of many people of the
How does Benjamin overcome Sinojo’s system? He learns about his okra (his divine spark). This is similar to the advice that the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, gave his students at Sarah Lawrence, “Follow your bliss.” So, what if, like Benjamin, for the new year we begin to find our okras and encourage our children to do the same instead of pursuing the same old doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, and security guard routine that we’ve grown up with? Not that there is anything wrong with these professions. Not if they are your okra. We can’t all be makers of drums. But what about the many people who like Winston who have gone into professions for either the money or security—have become involved in work that is not their okra? They usually end up hating their work. They are in The Wasteland of T.S. Eliot. They are living inauthentic lives because they have not found their okra. Brownie and Winston are prime examples of people who have not found their okra. Brownie, who realizes the emptiness of the Sinojo system, escapes into hedonism because he sees himself as powerless and drinks himself blind. He tries to get Benjamin to do the same. Winston also sees himself in a similar vein. But notice also that it is Winston who tries to stop Benjamin when he tries to make a run for the forest. He doesn’t know what he wants, and he will block those who try to seek their own happiness. How many Winstons and Brownies do we have in our lives and culture because of our failure to use our imaginations positively and creatively?
Of course, the a priori assumption is that our lives have meaning or a purpose. Modernism and the scientific advances have created a kind of cognitive dissonance in our minds and within our culture. For on the on hand, we organize our lives in day, weeks and years, balance our checkbooks and perform hundreds of other tasks that yield results according to our intentions. Yet, on the other hand, we are taught that life appeared in the universe and continues in the universe because of random molecules bumping into each other. I am not arguing either the Intelligent Design for evolution debate here. What I am arguing for is the realization that on a personal, familial, and cultural level, an intentional purpose, if only for the welfare and continuation of a family and a culture, needs to be part of a worldview that is transmitted to the next generation. Surely that will be an improvement over the current worldview that conveys to us through folk tales, sayings, and aphorisms about the world: “Cockroach don’t belong in fowl fight” (There is a truth there about minding one’s own business, but how many times due to expediency have we not fought for a moral issue? How many times have we called ourselves cockroaches or used similar epithets such as “ole neyga” and “nigger” to deflate our self esteem and then react violently when others use the same word. We are a strange people) Many of our so-called traditions that we inculcate into our children (beat them if them hard ears) perpetuate the worldview that we are victims/consumers (objects) of slavery, colonialism, etc. and not active creators within our families and culture. We can choose to be conscious creator or merely go “along with the flow” and be an unconscious creator. The choice is ours.
Sycorax teaches Benjamin to be a conscious creator and that his life has a purpose within the community. Benjamin adapts what he had learned from Sycorax to his life. Benjamin, because he was not born in the forest, must find a middle ground between the village and the palace. What Sycorax grants Benjamin is the knowledge that he has a right to exist and that his intentions are blessed and upheld by her. This is what a living, functioning healthy family or culture does—it supports the dreams and the integrity of its sons and daughters. Under Sycorax’s influence, Benjamin grows to know that he is a valued member of his culture. Benjamin also becomes a maker/creator (and not merely a consumer) and passes on his knowledge to the next generation. What if those of us with a little talent really began to promote talent and to teach what we know to those coming after us instead of pulling up the ladder and closing off opportunity for the next generation? Under Sycorax’s guidance, Benjamin changes from seeing the universe hostile and uninviting to a generative and nurturing place. Or as the Rastaman would say, Benjamin learns the true meaning of I and I-- one of the most original theological concepts in Western thought because it simultaneously recognizes oneness with divinity and the diversity of Incarnation.
There is a direct co-relation here. It’s personal and it has to do with the creation of the fable. Whether one is a Christian or not, Yoruba or not, the influence of Rastafari on the
This is how I know.
January 16, 2006
I was particularly interested in fleshing out my thoughts in the area of using intuition versus knowledge, for it has taken me a long time to figure out when, where, and how to use my intuition rather than relying on what I had learned through acculturation and schooling. As an artist who has spent most of his life in educational institutions (our modern patrons), I’ve realized the relative values of intuition, knowledge, and artistic freedom while appreciating the necessity of earning a living.
Growing up in Jamaica and being of African and Scottish descent (according to the reports of two American journalists who were sent to Jamaica to write about Apprenticeship (1834-1838), Special Magistrate Philp was one on the worst judges and slaveholders due to his frequent intoxication), I refused to believe that all white people were evil and that all black people were brutish ignoramuses (“A Far Cry From Africa” by Derek Walcott). It went against my experience. I had Black, white, Chinese, and East Indian friends who were as foolish as I was and some who were way smarter that I would ever be. This is why the Caribbean remains an interesting space because we’ve been exposed to European, African, and Asian influences and so far, we’ve had to figure out how to live and love (A Morning at the Office by Edgar Mittelholzer) without resorting to ethnic cleansing. Skin color did not necessarily imply a certain political stance. For example, some of the blackest people I’ve known, still support the British colonialism and some of the whitest people I’ve known would strangle Queen Elizabeth if they had a chance. And vice versa. As far the so-called brown people were concerned, the same rule applied: you had to know the person instead of relying on stereotypes.
Nowhere was this skill put to test than during my years at Jamaica College where I also learned the difference between intuition and knowledge. For as long as I’ve known myself, I’ve relied on my intuition, but it took me along time to realize when, where and how to use this gift and my grades suffered as a result of my ignorance (you have to study, not intuit math, son). Studying increases one’s knowledge base. With intuition, one gains an experience of a truth. Both faculties are necessary in education. Studying gives one a factual basis for writing about slavery; intuition gives the writer a feel for the era. But to trust one’s intuition is to rely on the validity of personal experience—what you know in your gut instead of what you believe from books or acculturation. What you know to be true instead of what you have been told is true. Of course, sometimes what you feel to be true isn’t necessarily so (No, Victoria, the Earth does not revolve around the Sun) or what you’ve been taught (Black people _____ Fill in the blanks with any part of The Bell Curve) sometimes doesn’t match with experience.
Again, the evil of racism rears its pernicious head. By it’s very nature, racism asks the question, who are you to be saying that your experiences are more important than all the knowledge in these books? What do you know? Who are you? Racism challenges one’s right to exist. Intuition challenges points of view that are not dictated by what “everybody knows”.
This is why a liberal arts education (contrary to what the bean counters who are always reminding us of the mythical bottom line) is so important. In order to grasp the meaning of a poem, the reader (once s/he has understood the factual elements) must rely on his/her intuition. In my experience, any written appreciation of a poem (unless it is way off base: Derek Walcott writes about Martians) that can be backed up with quotations from the text, will usually be given a passing grade for content. In other words, to write coherently about a poem (that may have many themes not easily grasped from a denotative reading) forces one to have an opinion—the process of becoming an individual. It takes a real person to speak up for the intangible.
Unfortunately, many educational institutions are more interested in providing more soulless workers for the marketplace rather than educating citizens who are interested in expanding their human potential. Many artists have reacted instinctively against the coercion and brainwashing once they have escaped: “The Wall” by Pink Floyd; “You Can’t Blame the Youth” by Peter Tosh; “Dan is the Man in the Van” by The Mighty Sparrow.
Yet, an intuitive experience will only be handled in a limited way if an artist has a limited knowledge base. For example, hip-hop is destined to remain limited to rhyming couplets unless the rappers learn how to incorporate character the way Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen did in their music. The knowledge base of Dylan and Springsteen led to a greater understanding of their craft. One of the easiest ways to gain a broader knowledge base is by staying in school and by contributing to their fine, glossy journals.
Unfortunately many of these journals are more interested in a promoting a particular ism (Deconstructionism—“Deforestation” according to George Lamming) than in an experience of art. For example, I am more interested in the relationships between the characters in Edwidge Danticat’s, The Dew Breaker, or the experiences of Nathan Zukerman and Coleman Silk in Phillip Roth’s, The Human Stain, than in any particular political themes that these books seem to imply. I am not saying that these issues and themes are not important. I'm saying, as writer I’m more interested in the characters than in politics. (Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize address points out the essential difference between artists and politicians). Many of these journals that have become more interested in espousing political points of view, base their selections on very narrow considerations. A real experience in a short story comes along and they don’t know what to do. It’s like the punch line to the old joke, Who are you going to believe me (the voice of authority) or your lying eyes (individual experience)..Sadly, many editors go with what they believe rather than what they know. The sad part is that they perpetuate soulless poems and stories (purely for economic gain) rather than opening up themselves and their readers to vivifying experiences. They teach only what they’ve read in books rather than what they’ve known from experience.
So, I’ve tried to strike a balance between freedom, economics, intuition and knowledge. No one or no single discipline has all the answers. Artists, teachers, politicians and even bean counters are all interested in living a good life. How the good life is achieved and what the good life means is a balancing act that can only be answered one life at a time.
The poem is from Florida Bound.
It is wanting to hear the lisp
of the sea, curled on the tongues of passersby.
It is wanting to smell the wind, heavy
with rain, wrap itself in the skirts of trees.
It is wanting to see the sun slide
down banana leaves into the thighs of a valley.
It is wanting to taste beads of tamarind
that drip from terraced hillsides.
It is wanting to feel the pulp of star-apple,
its dark flesh, moist between my hands.
It is, it is wanting you.
poetry of the sea
January 12, 2006
Once upon a time, there lived a young man named Benjamin who grew up on the island of La Verde in the Caribbean. According to the legends, the island was named La Verde because a lost explorer was once shipwrecked on the island, and when he went back to his motherland, he could not remember where he had been because he had a big bump on his forehead. He could, however, recall the tall mountains, lush fields, deep rivers, and forests, so in the tongue of his motherland, he called the island, La Verde.
At least that’s how the so-called descendants of the lost explorer tell it when they gather every New Year to admire the statue of the lost explorer with his right hand covering the bump on his head, and his left hand pointing to what he must have thought was the East. The statue had been commissioned by General Sinojo or as he preferred to be called King Sinojo who had ruled the island it seemed forever. Even the one toothed rumheads and minstrels, who waste their weekends in the bars, could not think of a time when King Sinojo did not rule the island.
King Sinojo was beloved by many of his people and with good reason He had, as the legends said, grown up in the hills and as soon as he joined the army went from Private Sinojo to Captain Sinojo, Colonel Sinojo, Lieutenant Sinojo, General Sinojo, and as he later preferred to be called, King Sinojo of La Verde. Because he had risen through the ranks and knew so much about the island, his name was interwoven into the history of the islands. His most ardent admirers claimed he could do know wrong and anything he said or did was for the benefit of the people of La Verde. Anyone who said differently was a branded a traitor and no friend of La Verde. In fact, many of the rumheads and minstrels on the island had been arrested by the police for spreading the propaganda that Sinojo was born in the village--an urban legend and a baseless, boldface lie that many of the teachers, professors and journalists insisted was not true. Anyone, except rumheads and minstrels, found repeating this falsehood was subject to forty lashes, imprisonment, stoning, and sometimes death for insulting the great King Sinojo.
So, in some cases, it was good to be a rumhead or minstrel. Nothing good was expected of you and you wouldn’t get licks for nothing. The decent people of La Verde, however, who lived in adoration of his name, defended King Sinojo for his benevolence. For without King Sinojo, they claimed, the island would have descended into chaos and barbarism like they have in Africa. And if there was one thing that all the decent people of La Verde were sure of, they were not Africans.
In defending King Sinojo they pointed to many of his laws that divided the land into the palaces in the mountains, the houses in the village, and the still untouched and virgin forests. One of King Sinojo’s leading supporters, the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Tourism, and Justice, Julian Sinojo, who won an award every year for his service above and beyond the call of duty for promoting and defending the welfare of La Verde, repeated constantly in his New Year’s address that it was not his father’s fault that the island had fallen into degeneracy, and if the current state of affairs could be blamed on anyone, then surely the blame should be placed on the shoulder of Sycorax, the obeah woman and her band of wild haired hooligans with whom she consorted in the forbidden zone of the forests, making noise on the skins of animals, a practice that was strictly outlawed by King Sinojo.
It was always that part that got the rumheads and minstrels, who had nicknamed the island “La Verdad” for reasons that had nothing to do with the legends, into a stir—if they could stir anything beyond their rum and Coke. The biggest rumhead and minstrel on the island and also a known womanizer, Oscar “Appleton” Brown aka “Brownie” would usually stumble of his stool at this point, thrust his finger in the air and slur.
“You tell me, you tell me if this make any sense. How it is that if you born in the palace everything you do is good, and if you live in the village everything you do is bad? Hmmm? Hmmm! And, peradventure, you live in the palace and you do something that is bad, it is always good. But if you live in the village and you do the same thing, it is always bad. Or if you are from the village and do something good, it is always bad and then they beat you for thinking you could do something good. Tell me, tell me.”
And some night when he was really feeling the spirits, he would stand on the stool, open his shirt, hold his hand over his chest, and ask:
“Answer, answer me this. Why is it if you are from the palace, you could even murder someone and nothing happen to you, but if you are from the village and you look hard at someone from the palace, the police pull you over (how they know this?) and arrest you for staring with intent or for the intention to stare with intent. What is that? Village dwellers are born criminals? How is it that the police can just arrest me because I was born in the village? Answer me this, hmmmm? Hmmmm!”
No one really listened to Brownie for after this speech he would usually order another rum, straight up, and begin to bawl about how the love of his life, the only woman he ever loved, the first woman he ever loved, left him and had become a mistress for one of King Sinojo’s sons.
Brownie was an embarrassment, but a local entrepreneur and minibus operator, Delroy “Fitzie” McKenzie, seizing on Brownie's theatrical movements would run a minibus filled with tourists from the North to catch Brownie in action. Brownie would oblige because Fitzie and the owner of the bar, Willie “The Man with the Plan” Sinclair, that Brownie frequented, had made a deal to keep him permanently under his waters despite the fact that he had now developed diabetes.
“F-F-Fitzie, doctor say they might have to chop off Brownie foot if him keep on drinking.”
“Just shub the stool under him foot and go on. Brownie is a now a tourist attraction. As long as him don’t lose him mouth we all right.”
“S-S-Suppose him go blind?”
“Hope is only one eye. Then, we can dress him up as a pirate or like the lost explorer.”
“You, you think King Sinojo will like that?”
“You think him care. As long as it bring in the tourist dollar, everything is cool cool.”
“W-What if him dead?”
“Then we bring in one of him son, and if none of them don’t have him talent, then we have a look-alike contest every Friday night. The tourist will love it. We might even make them join in.”
“Y-You, you think they will.”
“Man, tourist don’t care.”
And Fitzie was right. All the tourists wanted was a good show and although many of the things that Brownie said were true, it was usually passed off as, “That’s how we do it down here in La Verde,” or “That’s how they do it in the islands . They are such a carefree bunch of people.”
For as long as, the rum was flowing and the tourists could get their clothes, shoes and everything else with the stamp, Made in La Verde, where unions were outlawed and goods made cheaply, then they were going to do anything to change the situation.
Not that King Sinojo or his sons would have allowed any change to occur. For along with his laws that forbade entrance to the forests (or the bush as the rumheads and minstrels called it) there were other sub-laws and customs that did not allow anyone from the palace to move to the village. No one from the village, except if you were a cleaning woman, could enter the palaces.
The only exception was Sycorax who it seemed could go any where at any time of the day or even the night, when most decent people had locked up their houses out of fear of duppies, jumbies, rolling calves, and the bandits who plundered the village and occasional palace. Word had it though if they were caught plundering a palace they were shamed and killed. According to the newspapers, the palaces were safe from crime and were never plundered. The rumheads and minstrels said palaces were plundered, but they were never plundered without King Sinojo's approval. Which didn't make any sense. Because why would King Sinojo want to harm anyone, especially those who were so close to him up in the hills? The rumheads and minstrels were wrong and as seriously deranged as Sycorax and her tribe.
One thing was certain, even the bandits were afraid of Sycorax and her obeah and they did not envy her freedom. If there was one thing that united the people of La Verde, palace dwellers, village dwellers and bandits—except for the rumheads and minstrels—it was their universal hatred and fear of Sycorax.
So, anyone, other than Sycorax, who was caught breaking this or any other law, was shamed, beaten, and sometimes stoned to death. And depending on the crime, you could be shamed, beaten, and then stoned, and shamed again by having your dead body photographed for all the newspapers and television to see, so that your family would be shamed again. No one was exactly sure which laws could bring about some of these terrible results because the rules kept changing, and no one wanted to find out because then they could be arrested for treason, branded a terrorist, and thrown in jail for even daring to think such a thing. So everyone did as they were told. For King Sinojo made life simple for everyone.
Palace dwellers knew they were palace dwellers, village dwellers knew they were village dwellers, rumheads and minstrels knew they were rumheads and minstrels. Palace people kept with palace people, village dwellers kept with village dwellers, and rumheads and minstrels kept with rumheads and minstrels. There was never any confusion about anything because everybody knew what was what, where they and everybody else came from and that was that. No questions.
Even the most ardent tourists who at first came to the island because as they often said, “Their conscience would allow them to live in the North while the people of La Verde suffered,” soon after living there a while moved from the village to the palaces or retired to the rum bar with Brownie.
So, everyone was happy. Everyone, but Benjamin. Now, it wasn’t like Benjamin, who was from the village, wanted to live in the palaces. He liked working the village with his machete and clearing the land to plant corn. He liked most of the people from the village because they always seemed more genuine—except for the ones who secretly wanted to go to the palace and would kill their brothers and sisters to go the palace. And these traitors were allowed to live on the outskirts of the palaces. No one understood why King Sinojo allowed this, but who would question the wisdom or the laws of King Sinojo, except Brownie, who rumor had it was going to be offered a recording deal, for Brownie’s Smash Hits. Brownie had become a star because Northerners had recognized him.
“Look how long I been suffering,” said Brownie. “Begging for a work. But these people of La Verde cyaan make up their own mind about what is good and what is bad. Worse if you come from La Verde they scorn you like you is mongoose pickney. But see it dey now! Tourists, foreign investors, and now King Sinojo say me great, so it must go so!”
The cover of Brownie’s Smash Hits would feature Brownie, who had given up his trademark straw hat for dreadlocks, with a spliff in his left hand, a rum and Coke in his right hand, and iron chains around his feet. He would be surrounded by half naked La Verde women with big breasts, wearing Daisy Dukes and black stockings, and one would be sticking her tongue in his ear. Of course, Brownie being Brownie would be smiling into the camera with his gold teeth while baring his chest to reveal the gold chins around his neck
There was even talk of a movie, Brownie’s Last Chance, which was going to star Samuel L. Jackson as middle aged Brownie or Morgan Freeman as Brownie in his later years. Brownie was going to be the consultant for the movie and had taken to wearing dark glasses when he gave his speeches surrounded by buxom women who tried to console him because he was still bawling about his lost love. But with a rum and Coke and a little consolation, Brownie was soon at ease.
Benjamin, unlike Brownie and the rest of the people of La Verde, was never at ease. This surprised many of his fellow islanders and a few tourists. For Benjamin was never hungry and was a handsome, well respected, young man. In fact, many of the women who cleaned the palaces wanted him to become their baby father, but he resisted, so in some circles it was said that Benjamin had a dull machete.
Brownie didn’t help matters either when he suggested that Benjamin didn’t have a dull machete, but maybe his machete cut both ways or it just didn’t cut in the way that most people wanted it to cut. One of the women who was listening to Brownie’s explanation, just chupsed and told him to “Walk off” and “What an old rumhead and minstrel know bout machete when him lose him file over twenty years ago?”
That hurt Brownie, who lifted the patch from his eye, and ordered another Appleton.
Benjamin wondered what it would take to make him happy. And many times when Benjamin would see Sycorax disappear into the forests and he would hear the strange outlawed music played on the skins of animals, he would ask his best friend, Winston, about Sycorax and why she always seemed so happy.
“Sycorax happy? What? You mad, boy. Sycorax is a obeah woman who only know all kind of nastiness. Is that what you want, nastiness? For if is nastiness you want I know a cleaning girl who will do anything for you for a few shekels, so you don’t have to go to Sycorax and her kind of nastiness.”
“No, I just want to know why everyone is so afraid of her? I know some people go and visit her under the cover of dark.”
“Who tell you that?”
“I’ve seen it myself and they pretend they’ve never been to see her and then they go back to their house in the village or the palace.”
“People from the palace go to see her?”
“But never the king.”
“I’ve never seen him.”
“And you never will. The king is stronger than Sycorax obeah and he goes to church up in the palace every Sunday. That man talks to God.”
“I don’t know about that. I only want to know why if he is that powerful, why does he fear Sycorax so much.”
“Who say him afraid of her?”
“You only outlaw something if you fear it.”
“Or of it not good for you. Listen to the elders, Benjamin. They know what is good for us.”
“How do they know what is good for us?
“Science! You never know that King Sinojo is a scientist too.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Brownie told me.”
“Then it must be true.”
So, Benjamin never said or did anything for he always thought he was too young, ignorant or powerless to change anything. And although he never really had anything about which to complain, except pain and hard work which everyone,--especially Winston who hated working in the fields--grumbled about, he realized that there was something missing from his life. He just couldn’t figure out what it was. Something was missing. He didn’t know what it was. Whatever it was, wherever it was, he didn’t have it and he wanted to find it.
Benjamin tried to explain his feeling to Winston, who had started to call him “strange” and slept with a pillow behind his back, so Benjamin didn’t talk with him anymore. Benjamin kept everything to himself. But he knew he would have to find whatever was missing in his life. He would stake everything on finding the missing piece or he would die trying.
One day, however, while Benjamin was working in the village, he heard this strange, beautiful music coming from the forests, and he looked up. He wanted to follow the music, but he hesitated and felt weak and wounded.
“Winston, you hear that?”
“What, that noise?”
“No, it’s music, man.”
“Sounds like noise to me.”
Winston moved away from him--all the time facing him.
“I have to find out where it’s coming from.”
“If you go, Sinojo will shame you and kill you. Worse, he might kill and shame all of us.”
“I have to go.”
“For Sycorax’s nastiness, een. You like Sycorax nastiness.”
“Nastiness or liking nastiness has nothing to do with this. This is for me.”
For once in his life he wanted to feel strong. He could either keep on feeling weak or he could lose his life following the music and be strong. Benjamin wanted to be strong. He started for the forest.
“Murder! Murder! Benjamin going into the forest. Stop him!”
Winston tried to block him and screamed to alert the other village dwellers and the police.
The sentinels arrived quickly and tried to stop Benjamin, but he his held machete in the air.
“Don’t be afraid of him,” said one of the village dwellers. “My sister says he have a dull machete.”
“Try me and see for yourself.”
Benjamin turned away from them and began a fast walk, then a sprint, all the while carrying his machete, then an all out dash for the forest when he saw the police coming. He made it just in time inside the forest where the police could not follow him. The music seemed to get louder and louder and louder as he went into the bush.
The deeper he went, the more beautiful the music became until he came upon a clearing where he saw a group of bearded men with what looked like plaited hair playing on the skins of dead animals that had been stretched over the trunks of dead trees.
This is the Devil’s music, he thought. And he could hear the voice of all his Sunday school teachers, primary school teachers, professors, supervisors, radio and TV announcers-- that all congealed into the voice of the Minster of Defense, Justice and Tourism, Ivan Sinojo.
“Don’t listen to this Devil music boy, you will go mad and go to hell!”
He ignored all these voices for they now seemed like noise, but before he could get close to the players of music, they disappeared and he was left alone in the forest.
A deep gloom came over Benjamin and he felt alone as he had never felt before. Even before when he was out in the village, working long after everyone had gone home and looked up at the sky wondering what it was that was missing from his life, he had never felt as lost as this.
Benjamin became depressed when he realized he could not go back to the village because that work was now meaningless for him, and besides he would be arrested. But he couldn’t stay in the forest because nothing in his experience had taught him to live like this.
He sat down on a log and was about to start crying when he heard a voice.
“Don’t cry, Benjamin. Don’t cry.”
The voice startled him he turned around and raised his machete. It was Sycorax.
“What are you doing here?”
“I should be asking you that. I live here. You are the trespasser.”
“You live here?”
“Put down your machete, Benjamin. No one here is going to harm you. We are here to help you.”
“Help me? Why?”
“Because we love you.”
“Love me? You don’t know me.”
“Oh, I know you. I’ve known you for a long tome, almost an eternity.”
And the way she said eternity frightened Benjamin. He dropped his machete.
He was about to pick up the machete when Sycorax said to him.
“Let me tell you how I know you. What seems like noise and nonsense and a waste of time to your friends is music to your ears.”
“How do you know this?’
“It was my sons who played the music that got you to come here, deep in the forest to learn the things that you will need to live.”
“If you put down your machete and you ask kindly, I will teach you.”
Benjamin’s stomach grumbled for he hadn’t eaten in a long time.
Benjamin dropped his machete and Sycorax led him deep into the forest where he met her sons who taught him the secrets of the forest. They taught him about the Supreme Being, Olorun, how Olorun planted an okra, an individual divine spark inside all humans, and how these related to his ego or sunsum as they called it and his body or honan. They also taught him about the loas or gods who guided over their affairs and the egum or ancestors which is what he was to become after he learned and taught others how to make instruments, drums they called them, from the hides of animals and dead trees.
After many years, Benjamin became an excellent maker and player of music and became one of the lead drummers for the tribe. After one session late at night when the fire blazed and the wine made from fruits, herbs and berries of the forest flowed freely, Sycorax took Benjamin away from the company.
“I have one more secret to tell you.”
“I am your mother.”
“Who told you?”
“Figured it out myself.”
“You always were a bright boy. How?”
“None of the things that Sinojo and his deputies said would happen to me happened when I cam here. I wasn’t hurt or killed and I haven’t gone mad. Besides, I could feel and know it, so I know I’m not mad.”
“Wait till you go back and hear what they are saying about you in the village.”
“What? You want me to go back?”
“Why would you want me to do that? Don’t you love me? Don’t you want me to stay here with you?”
“You have to go back.”
“What about my brothers here? Will they go back with me?’
“They wouldn’t survive there. They were born in the forest. They don’t know how to handle a machete and only you have the courage to use the machete if necessary. Only you can go back to your brothers in the village and in the palace.”
“Yes, your brothers in the village and in the palace. For if you haven’t figured it out, Sinojo’s your father.”
If Sycorax hadn’t told him, he would have called her a liar. But Sycorax always spoke the truth.
“So, why haven’t you told them? Why do I have tell them.”
“They run away from me. They would never listen to that old black woman who works obeah and De Lawrence business. The ones who come to me only want me to take away crosses. They don’t come to me for advice. Only you know how to talk their language. You are different from the boys here in the forest. Growing up in the village and now coming here is different than growing up here and trying to fit into the village. Besides, Sinojo said if I try to tell them anything, they would be killed.”
“And you believe him?’
“A mother never takes chances with the lives of her children. I made him promise that whoever comes to me has my protection and he can’t touch them unless the person consents to be touched.”
“You mean I can do anything?”
“Not everything. But you have to figure out what you want to do and what you don’t want to do.”
“I can’t do it alone, Mama, Please come with me.”
“I am always with you Benjamin. Looking at you from a distance or watching over you. I am always beside you. But this is a journey you have to make on your own.
So, Benjamin kissed Sycorax, goodbye, waved to his brothers, and picked up the drum he had made and headed back to the village.
As soon as he stepped out of the forest, the voices came back to him, telling him how he was mad and how he was an outlaw. But he started beating his rum and walked into the village, expecting a hero’s welcome.
But the more he beat the drum to keep the voices away, the more the people ran. Mothers kept their daughters away from him and fathers kept their sons away from him.
“Why are you running away from me?”
But they couldn’t her him above the beating of the drum. Benjamin wandered through the village beating on the drum and hoping that someone would give him something to eat. No one volunteered. They shut the doors in his face.
Soon he found out that although we wasn’t a wanted man, anyone who helped him was subject to being shamed and no one had the courage to say, despite the fact that they had known him for years, that he was a good man.
Branded as a son of Sycorax, he couldn’t get any work even with the minstrels. They said his voice was too deep and they would not play with any bearded man who played on the skins of dead animals. Hungry and alone, he went to see Brownie.
“Brownie, you must can find a work for me. You re a big man in this village. If you can’t help me, no one can.”
But Brownie couldn’t or at least he wouldn’t. He sat on one stool and rested his stub of a leg on another stool.
“Pull up a stool and let me get you a drink, boy. Give up this Sycorax business and enjoy yourself.”
“No, thank you. Are you going to help me or not? You are a big man in this island. You should be able to help me!”
“If they find that I am even talking with you, I won’t get no more work or even rum here. The people want one kind of music, music with guitar and piano, not this boom boom thing you playing, man. What is that?’
“It’s a new music I don’t even have a name for it yet.”
“It must have a name, man How you going sell it if it don’t have a name?”
“I didn’t come here to sell anything. I came to play.”
“No wonder you starving. You have to sell, man.”
“I didn’t sell in the forest and I ate.”
“Well, bush and village are two different things and you better learn that fast. I will call Fitzie…”
“I want nothing to do with that man. He is a…”
“Don’t curse Fitzie. If it wasn’t for Fitzie, I would have anything. Fitzie is a good man who I would give my life for! You hear me. My life!”
“You may just have to.”
“What you mean by that?”
“You better mean nothing. Here, this is the address of my agent. Go see him, and let’s see if we can shave, you, name this music, and get you some money so you can eat.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Anything you name loses its power.”
“So, you can’t or won’t name the music?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“You is as stubborn as you mother.”
“You don’t have to go into the forest to figure that out. But who wants to go into the forest. There are kinder spirits here in this bar.”
Brownie handed Benjamin a card with his agent’s name and address in New York and a copy of his latest CD, Brownie Does Broadway.
Benjamin wandered through the island, but no one would help him, feed him, nor listen to him. Only at night when everyone was in bed and their windows locked up tight for fear of duppies, jumbies, bandits, and Sinojo's spies that the children, village and palace-born, under the pretence of going to parties came to listen to him for no one including Brownie, would teach them anything. They always dropped him a few coins so he could eat, and never tired of Benjamin’s stories of the forest. But when Benjamin asked a few if they wanted to go with him to the forest, they ran away quickly because they only wanted to hear about the forest, but never go there by themselves.
Still the crumbs kept Benjamin alive for a very long time. But barely alive and always hungry. Benjamin also realized that he was getting older and that soon he would have to take a wife and have children. But how could he marry and have children when all of Sinojo’s laws were designed to make him and all his children criminals or the sons and daughter of a criminal. And who would marry him?
Something had to be done and he was the only one who could do it.
So, three months before the New Year, Benjamin began beating his drum as loudly he could and it kept the people of the island awake all night. He kept pounding and pounding on his drum until the police came and arrested him for disturbing the peace. They took away his drum, but he kept singing his strange music in jail so that it disturbed the other inmates and they complained to the sheriff. Benjamin said he would not stop singing until he saw King Sinojo himself.
This went on for three weeks until Brownie came to visit him in the jail. He was accompanied by two of the female back up singers from Brownie Does Broadway, who pushed his wheelchair into the prison, and combed their long blond hair while Brownie regaled Benjamin about his latest exploits and warned him about his demands.
“This is trouble, boy. Who are you to demand to see King Sinojo?”
“The son of Sycorax.”
“Shhhhh, boy. You mad, boy? Why you want to see the King?”
“I just want to face him man to man.”
“Not possible. Just tell me what you want and I will get it for you.”
“Then, I can’t help you. “
“Didn’t figure that you could.”
“Girls, wheel me out of here. This boy really mad.”
The two girls wheeled Brownie out of the prison and he pulled out a tape recorder began singing lyrics for a brand new CD he was planning, Brownie Sings of Yesterday.
Benjamin kept singing at the top of his lungs all day and all night until three weeks before the New Year, the police came and took him to the palace of King Sinojo.
Benjamin was afraid, but he knew Sycorax was watching. He walked into the palace and was met by Ivan.
“I hear you been making a lot of noise about wanting to see my father.”
“Yes. I want to see him.”
“My father doesn’t see village dwellers.”
“So why did you bring me here then.”
“I wanted to see you for myself and ask you what you want.”
“I will only tell that to the King.”
“I speak for the king.”
“But you are not the king.”
“He listens to me.”
“Well, tell him to meet me tonight in the garden and I will tell him what I want.”
“And if he doesn’t come?”
“Then, I will continue singing and I will tell everyone in my song that the king is a coward.”
“Try me and see for yourself.”
And Benjamin walked out of the palace, out of the village and found a cotton tree beside the forest where he could see the hills, the village, the rivers, and the forest. He waited until midnight and although he was scared to meet the king, he got up from underneath the cotton tree at the stroke of midnight, and entered the garden.
“Who is that?”
“Benjamin, who are you?”
“Prove it to me.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to you. I am the King. And you are the son of that nasty woman, Sycorax.”
When he said that Benjamin was so enraged, he ran toward the voice and knocked whoever was standing in front of the voice. He caught the man who had been speaking by the throat and would not let him go.
“Kill him,” squealed the voice.
“If you touch me, I bruk him neck.”
No one touched Benjamin.
“What do you want?”
“I want to live in peace. I want to be able to come and go in peace. I want to be able to raise a family and live comfortably out beyond the village on a piece of land that I have found.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Then, I’m not letting go.”
The two men struggled and struggled until near the break of day, the voice finally squeaked.
“Okay, you win. Yes. You can have whatever you want, just let, me go.”
Benjamin released the man who quickly rose to his feet and began running back to the castle.
“Give that mad man whatever he wants!”
“You’re Ivan aren’t you? The King is dead.”
The man stopped and began walking back towards Benjamin.
“How did you know?”
“You just answered it for me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to tell everyone the truth about you, the King, Sycorax everything.”
“Go ahead everyone will say that you are as mad as the bearded men and that you are a son of Sycorax. You think that is something to be proud of.”
“You know we could set you up in the foothills.”
“Why would I want that?
“Then you really are mad. Go ahead. You will only be feared or hated. No one will listen to you. They only want to hear the voice of the king who speaks clearly and not in long parables.”
“It’s the only way the story can be told.”
“It’s the only way I know how to tell it.”
“Be my guest.”
Benjamin walked out of the palace and down the hill towards the village and he was singing a new song at the top of his lungs. He went to the police station where the officers had been ordered to give him back his instruments.
He began singing, “The King is dead”, but all he could her shouted back at him was “Long live the King” and they pelted him with stones and rotten mangoes until he was forced to leave the village.
As he reached the village limits, still singing, two policemen accosted him for playing on an instrument made from the skins of animals.
“On whose authority do you arrest me?”
“On the authority of the King!”
“I no longer recognize the authority of the King over me.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“It’s not who I think I am, it’s who I know I am, a son of Sycorax. The King is dead.”
“Terrorist!! Long live the king," they shouted and let him go.
And when he tried to sing to them, they turned up their I-pods to listen to Brownie’s Greatest Hits!
“Sooner or later we going kill you!” they screamed with the earplugs placed firmly in their ears.
“Try me. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Benjamin ignored them and just walked back out of the village and towards the cotton tree with the shouts of "Long Live the King,” ringing in his ears, but it didn’t bother him. He had his own song.
Benjamin found the cotton tree where he had found solace, built a house and married one of the dawtas from the village. They had many children and he taught them all he had learned from Sycorax and the time he had spent in the city and in the forest.
Some of his children went deep into the forest, some of them went into the village and some stayed with him. It didn’t matter. He loved them all.
And so one bright morning when the sun rose over the mountains and over the heads of the stalks of corn standing like proud soldiers to defend his home, Benjamin woke up early before the children came to learn how to make drums and how to play them. Standing underneath the cotton tree with a cup of mint tea in his hand, he watched the sun burn the dew off the leaves of the cotton tree, dance with the wind along the river into the valley, and then blessed his face, arms, chest, torso, legs and feet.
And for the first time in his life, Benjamin was at ease and free.
January 9, 2006
MiPO~Printe-chap: From the Back Room by John Korn
Best of Cafe' Cafe' 2005
January 7, 2006
I cannot imagine a Caribbean without these writers whose influence shaped modern Caribbean letters.
And all this by a man who had enough respect for his own work that he could promote the careeers of other writers and artists.
The Caribbean needs more Frank Collymores.
January 6, 2006
This is one of my favorites: http://www.candw.ag/~jardinea/fanflame.htm
Hector's essay on Dr. Paget Henry (along with Brathwaite's insights) fueled a short story, "A Fable for the New Year" and an essay that will soon be appearing in Jamaicansrus.com. Here is the link: Why is our literature so different? Why?”