Monday, May 31, 2010

Post-Calabash Glow: Vintage 10

Jack Sprat's at Jake's, last evening after the Bash ended

Calabash 2010 was magical. For those of us who came from Kingston it was like a huge lung purifying the putrid air of the preceding week. Attendance was surprisingly good, probably because most people wanted to escape the pressure cooker the city had become.

Lion in Winter, Wole Soyinka...

Bereft of my usual techie Calabashmates who all decided to take a break this year, and staying at less than Lyric-al lodgings, I was apprehensive about how this tenth staging of Calabash would treat me. I needn't have worried, it turned out to be the best one i can remember attending in a long time. The programme was tight and well-put together and the quality of the writers more even than in previous years.

The organizers seemed determined not to mention the turbulent times the country had just been through but of course individual authors felt no such compunction and on Friday evening Diana Macaulay read out a 'non-poem' called Open Mouths she had produced in response to the blood-letting in Tivoli.


on the other side of the barricades
well thinking Jamaicans listen to radios
as they do when the open mouth of a hurricane threatens
waiting for bulletins
will the storm turn away this time?

the city is tense
the city is in lock down
the travel advisories are issued
the airport road is open for now
the open mouths on the verandahs are silenced by seclusion

Diana Macaulay

Banton, one of my Calabash companions this year, had actually been shot at downtown by the armed forces who saw him peeping out from the Red Stripe Brewery where Roktowa is located. He had never been to Treasure Beach he said, could he come along? He proved to be invaluable, regaling us with stories about the different, wondrously named snappers (fish) to be found at Greenwich Farm. The God Bless Snapper, so called because 'you see which part Jesus finger print one side a him' and the Dogfeet Snapper which you steam 'coz im gummy, you don't fry dat fish deh.' He also told us about a band of 'robber police' called Four the Hard Way who used to terrorize the residents of various downtown communities.

Liming at Jack Sprat's w Kim-Marie and Banton

My Calabash 2010 crew--Hubert Neal Jr and Banton. All the photos
in this post, save the very first one which i took, are by Hubert Neal.

Back to Calabash proper, Wole Soyinka was asked by Paul Holdengräber why he had once compared Kingston to Lagos. Had he noticed the mini-insurrection in Kingston organized to welcome him? Soyinka talked about his association with Sheila Graham's Area Youth Foundation among other things and the arbitrary mapping of Africa by Europeans saying sardonically "What white people have put together let no black man put asunder."

He recited several poems including "Your logic frightens me, Mandela" a few excerpts from which i present below.

"...Not for you the olive branch that sprouts
Gun muzzles, barbed-wire garlands, tangled thorns
To wreathe the brows of black, unwilling Christs.

"Your patience grows inhuman, Mandela.
Do you grow food? Do you make friends
Of mice and lizards? Measure the growth of grass
For time’s unhurried pace?
Are you now the crossword puzzle expert?
Chess? Ah, no! Subversion lurks among
Chess pieces. Structured clash of black and white,
Equal ranged and paced? An equal board? No!
Not on Robben Island. Checkers? Bad to worse.
That game has no respect for class or king-serf
Ordered universe. So, scrabble?

"Tell me Mandela,
That guard, is he your prisoner?"

Soyinka also talked about the 'Ogun element' saying he didn't believe in 'good' and 'evil' beings; everyone has a bit of the Ogun element in them; Ogun is a protagonist who uses violence when necessary. Soyinka was a closet glutton for peace he said, but not a pacifist.

Lean and elegant, with his white mane and sonorous voice, Wole Soyinka was probably the highlight of Calabash 2010.

Another highlight was the reading from The Last Enchantment by Neville Dawes, father of Kwame Dawes the Programme Director of Calabash. Winston “Bello” Black launched the reading by gesturing towards the recent warfare in the country when he said, "We are in a new Jamaica where there are no born JLPs or born PNPs, we are all born Jamaicans." Leonie Forbes followed with a sparkling reading, her acting abilities allowing her to inhabit the various voices with aplomb. Minister of Agriculture Christopher Tufton started his segment by saying that on behalf of himself and "Peter Bunting, the only other parliamentarian brave enough to be here today: We promise to do better." Bunting is the General Secretary of the Opposition Party. Surprisingly Tufton was also very good at animating the voice of Anansi and the entire reading was quite memorable.

Regrettably I missed many of the poets; poet Sudeep Sen, who was flown in from Delhi, was nervous about following in the wake of the hugely popular Billy Collins but held his own, with his "brand of simplicity and unfussy, musical words" to quote William Abbott.

Sudeep Sen and moi

Alas, I also missed the live performance by Freddie McGregor and Etanna the first night, as well as Russell Banks and
Sharon Olds' readings which i heard were excellent. I did however manage to catch the huge non-clash between Colin Channer and Mutabaruka on Saturday night, a musical healing that truly rubbed the pain of the previous week away. It was astonishing how many of the songs both Muta and Colin played really 'spoke' to the bloodletting in Kingston of the week before.

The closing performance/reinterpretion by the Calabash Musical Ensemble (Wayne Armond, Seretse Small, Stevie Golding and others) of Marley's album Uprising released thirty years ago was also exceptional, with the words to songs like 'We no know how we and dem ago work it out' this out or 'WE...CAN MAKE IT WORK' seeming eerily of the moment.

Calabash 2010 rocked, it really did. This literary festival provides a neat model for similar ventures that could showcase the best that Jamaica has to offer. Congratulations are due to Colin Channer, Justine Henzell and Kwame Dawes. May a thousand Calabashes bloom.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Don of a New Era Part 2: The Gideon continues

Sign in Barbados

Well, the Gideon (local slang for Armageddon) continues. Last night it seemed as if things in Kingston had simmered down but this morning i checked into Twitter to hear that the armed forces were lobbing grenades and perhaps bombs at a house in E. Kirkland Heights, a very upscale neighbourhood in Red Hills, Kingston. “The template of violence in jamaica has changed ova d las week. Its now an insurgency with all the relevant weaponry” tweeted one of the people i follow. “I wanna see the police deny this one. Grenades an bombs are the new weapon of choice for the state now.”

No idea whether the Police suspect that Dudus is holed up in there or some other Don. Things unravelled very quickly. On May 17th Prime Minister Bruce Golding addressed the nation saying apologetically that he was finally giving the go-ahead for the signing of the papers to extradite Dudus to the US, something he had resisted for 9 months. To many of us it was clear that the US had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; pressure from the local media, business and other interest groups had also mounted in the weeks leading up to this astonishing about-face.

As i said before Dudus’ lawyer Tom Tavares-Finson was furious. He would take the matter to court the next day he said but the following day we heard that he had removed himself from the team representing Dudus due to conflict of interest issues; issues however that had always existed. All I can say is, do not use this as an excuse to slaughter innocents in Tivoli, an angry Finson was heard saying in interview after interview on radio and tv. His words would prove prophetic.

The day after Golding’s speech it was announced that a warrant had been issued for Dudus’s arrest. That would have been on May 18th. The rest of the week was tense with everyone expecting the Police and Army to invade Tivoli at any minute but the armed forces seemed unusually tolerant, waiting patiently for Dudus to turn himself in. Actually they were waiting till the weekend of the 21st, a long weekend with the 24th being a holiday in Jamaica--Labour Day--to make their move.

On the 23rd a number of colleagues and i were at the airport waiting to catch a flight to Barbados to attend the Caribbean Studies’ Association's 35th annual conference presciently titled “The Everyday Occurrence of Violence in the Cultural Life of the Caribbean” when i saw a tweet saying that shots were being fired in the vicinity of Tivoli. It’s going down i said to one of my colleagues, a leading Jamaican criminologist, the war is beginning.

I wouldn’t say so he said calmly, assuring us that his information was that Dudus was willing to turn himself in to the US authorities and was expected to do so any minute now. Well, that turned out to be misinformation of the highest quality. By the time we reached Barbados we heard that a state of emergency had been imposed and I’ve literally been glued to Twitter and online media ever since.

In fact I’m happy to report that my tweets were actually picked up by the New York Times blog The Lede in an article called Following Jamaica’s State of Emergency Online. Channel 4 in London contacted me to see if i could write a piece for them on Dudus which i did. My comments appeared in their story Jamaica death toll rises as unrest continues.

Here is an excerpt from it:

Dudus has been an extraordinary provider for the inhabitants of Tivoli.

What makes him exceptional is that he has also managed to forge coalitions between gangs across party lines and across the country when needed because of the respect he commands. His reach extends beyond his immediate community across all kinds of borders and is a testament to his abilities as an astute leader.

Had he been legit and able to run for election he would have probably created a modern, efficient Jamaica the likes of which have yet to be seen, but of course one where personal freedoms may have been more circumscribed than they are today.

The problem is his links to the underworld do not permit the state to continue the tacit alliance with him and others like him that have persisted to this day.

The question is how do you take the milk out of the coffee once the two have been mixed. That is the predicament Jamaica finds itself in.

Meanwhile the Gideon continues and while many of us would like to comfort ourselves by thinking that this is a necessary bloodletting, a purge of the criminal elements in society, the truth is otherwise. Discriminating between criminals and law-abiding citizens is not as easy as we think particularly for the Police force, members of which are known to wield their ‘license to kill’ with wanton disregard. i received a heartbreaking message from a friend about the execution of a young man she personally knew, by the police, a story which was reported in the media under the headline “Cops kill three men in Back Bush.”

One of the men was well-known to my friend and no criminal. Here is part of the heartbreaking message i received from her this morning:

"Picked up one of my neighbours on the road only to hear that Ian Gordon, a sweet young dread who ran a little "venue" in Irish Town square was killed by the police. Hard to believe he would be involved in anything - he would always ask me if I had dominos, or other games, that I could give him because he liked to have lots of games for people coming to his place. On Sundays I would sometimes take him down to town and he always said he was going to visit his 2 daughters. He had a lovely girlfriend, also a dread, and it was a joke in Irish Town how they were always together. Anyway I'm sure this Observer story of how he died is accurate, and this is probably happening to young men all over Kingston. Very depressing. "

It turns out also that the early morning raid on Red Hills i mentioned earlier was in pursuit of Dudus who was believed to be holed up in a house there. In the process of flushing him out the armed forces have killed another innocent man, Keith Clarke, the brother of former minister Claude Clarke, who lived nearby, by mistake.

Mr. Seaga, former Prime Minister is also concerned about the safety of the residents of Tivoli Gardens, his former constituents and has broken his silence. I conducted an interview with him in January this year in which i asked him about his relationship with Dudus and the fact that he had once placed him at the top of a list of wanted men that he provided the Police with in 1994. I'll post relevant portions of the interview later.

Time doesn’t permit for me to write much more right now. I’m still at the conference in Barbados but will end with two lighthearted takes on what is a truly dread situation back home, (to use Jamaican parlance).

The photo posted at the top of this blog is actually a piece of graffiti seen in Barbados on the day the armed forces went into Tivoli Gardens in pursuit of Christopher Lloyd Coke--Dudus. The blog that carried it said “This sign was seen today (Monday May 24 Bank Holiday) on the left-hand side of Collymore Rock Road going towards Wildey from Bridgetown.” Dudus's reach clearly extends beyond Jamaican shores.

And of course Jamaicans being Jamaican still have a mordant sense of humour. The following dance poster was making the rounds on email and facebook.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bradygate continued...

Update: Today was the most unsettling exciting day in the last decade or so. Around 3 pm started to hear rumours that 'war' was going to break out because the Prime Minister was going to announce that the extradition proceedings agaist 'Dudus' Coke were going forward. A feeling of panic began to spread and there was a stampede to get out of downtown where the rumours started circulating around 11 in the morning. By mid-afternoon everyone was on the road trying to reach a safe place. Top 10 ways to get home quickly proclaimed a blog...

The most interesting thing was that the US Embassy sent out an announcement saying a talk it had planned to hold at the Institute of Jamaica tomorrow was being postponed. I found the title of the talk interesting. It was called “Congress and the President: An Invitation to Conflict” and should have been delivered by one Don Baker. hmmmmmmmm. Doesn't Bruce own a bakery?

At the appointed hour Bruce Golding addressed the nation looking suitably contrite and apologizing profusely. Then he announced that the Attorney General was going to sign the relevant papers so that the extradition could proceed. Dudus' lawyer, Tom Tavares-Finson was reputed to be livid with anger; he would defend his client in court he said.

More on the runnings tomorrow.
Time for bed now...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bradygate...The Don of a New Era, Part 1

Mr Golding has now admitted to parliament that he authorised the hiring of a law firm to lobby senior US State Department officials on Mr Coke's behalf Photo: AFP/GETTY (Daily Telegraph UK)

Las May, Daily Gleaner, 15 May 2010 (our cartoonists are world class)

I feel it for Bruce Golding
. Who could have predicted the woes that would befall his first two years as Crime Minister, er, oh, LOL, i mean Prime Minister. I know what his wife Lorna means when she says we must read between the lines because he isn't free to disclose everything. My first reaction when i heard that he had admitted sanctioning the Manatt, Phelps 'initiative' from the get-go was that someone or something had forced his hand. Only something far worse staring him in the face could have made owning up to having played fast and loose with the truth seem like the better alternative.

And i feel it for him because this turn of events has nothing to do with him personally, or the Jamaica Labour Party for that matter. It's just the way the cookie crumbles in countries that are well on their way to being narco-democracies. I'm amazed at the amount of moral indignation being directed at the PM by members of the media. C'mon! It's not a matter of morality is it? It's a matter of how to decriminalize a country. Not easily done. The Colombians might have a tip or two and the Haitians. Forget about decriminalizing ganja or gay-ness, this is an entire country that has been hijacked by criminality. How is a government to cope?

Granted the PM could have handled the entire matter differently from the beginning. But he was playing by the old rules like all politicians have done so far. And he's been jerked to reality by the powers-that-be. This is a power struggle. That's what we have to realize. And to win this power struggle we need the new, the young, the strong and the able...because only they know how to negotiate the new rules that are now in effect. Alas, our criminals too are world-class and internationally competitive.

In the meantime a spurious facebook page purporting to be that of Dudus Coke is making the rounds in cyberspace. It's a no holds barred version so if you're under 15 or an Ayatollah or a member of Jamaica's Moral Majority you might want to make a hasty switch to a less profane website.

Finally, take a look at National Dish by Michael 'Flyn' Elliott below. As a painted image it pretty much captures our predicament as a society. And for a variety of innovative takes or interpretations of the state we're in you must visit the National Gallery's Young Talent V which opened today. It is an exciting show that signals the resurgence of the visual art scene here. Here is a link to my photos from the opening.

National Dish by Michael 'Flyn' Elliott