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Calabash, The Third Day
I have been writing this final entry on Calabash for four days. Having returned to South Carolina to finish teaching my short semester course, “Love African American Style”, a close look at romantic black fiction, I have had to fit in the bits and pieces of the final day of the Bash between everything I have to do. It has been good to think about the festival, about what it all means, but mostly, I write this to complete the circle.
So, we are on day three of the festival. It all begins early in the morning…
It is overcast and cool on Sunday mornin–the air is moisture heavy and the almond trees outside are beating hard against the windows–the wind is up. From my bed I can calculate the speed of the clouds by the quick moments of bright sunlight followed by the deep sensual gloom. This is a good Sunday morning to stay in bed, to wrap up and to listen to the ocean. But the festival is still going on. There is still a full day to come. I step out onto the concrete patio of our apartment–five steps forward and will be under the edges of the tent. The chairs are still in order though a few seem to have been scattered around the outskirts of the tent area. Some of the boys who have helped to keep the tent area tidy and orderly are already working on the rows. I go back inside. My son is still asleep–he has had a long day. So have I. My calves ache from all the walking around.
I am trying to find the rhythm of the last two days–the rhythm that will get things moving in my body for the last leg of the festival. Outside, I can hear the voices of children singing hymns in one of the roadside churches that litter the beach road. Early arrivers have started to stroll casually into the festival grounds, some of them securing their seats for the day’s events.
The first reading will start at 10:00 AM. Four people will read passages from V.S. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur* *a book we are celebrating this year for its fiftieth anniversary. By the time I have had breakfast and made my way to the top of the stage, the seats in the front quadrant are already full. Normally, Sunday morning is a slow morning, but this morning it is clear that people have planned to stay for the entire three days. I introduce the readers, and they come to the podium, one after the other, and read the passages with skill and a sense of pleasure in the artistry of V.S. Naipaul. First, Cindy Breakspeare, a musician and a woman perhaps best known for her love affair with Bob Marley, reads. She is followed by one of the leading business men in Jamaica, Peter Bunting, who has been kind to the festival through sponsorship. After he has read, Barry Chevannes, a brilliant scholar on Rastafarianism and one of the key cultural leaders and intellectuals on the island, reads. Finally, Pat Ramsey, the principal of the newest university in Jamaica, UTECH, a woman who is a serious art lover and collector and who is the epitome of sophistication and charm, reads. You are reminded of just how gifted a writer Naipaul is, and mostly how human and hopeful he was when he wrote his first three novels. The cynicism would come later, or perhaps it was under the surface.
By the time the reading is finished, and by the time the readers have lined up on stage for their wonderful reception, the tent is packed. The seats are taken up all the way back. This is unusual for a Sunday morning at Calabash, but it is a beautiful thing to see. The schedule is going to be quite busy today. At some point, Colin and I are going to have to change clothes so we can be at least remotely well-dressed for the official announcement of the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It should be clear by this that my Calabash attire is quite informal, I would normally wear sandals, but my old pair would break on Saturday evening I am now wearing a pair of sneakers, khaki shorts and a Calabash t-shirt. It is my standard uniform for the festival.
I introduce the next set of writers, and I do so with great relish. Three writers will read that I admire a great deal. They are all poets with distinct voices and the mix of such a grouping is always wonderful to hear. I first met Gabeba Baderoon last October when we both read at Poetry International in London. She is a South African who now teaches in Pennsylvania. Her poems are delicately crafted things, studies in the way the ordinary can be thick with meaning. Her voice is soft, sometimes so low that you have to reach to hear. But she manages this quality with the skill of someone who knows just where to position her voice as she reads. Large black curls framing her finely boned face, she reads poems about family, about home, about fear and about love. She knows she has the audience fully engaged, and she seems grateful for this interaction. It is a beautiful moment and there is a rich response to her work when she has finished. Terrance Hayes then takes the stage. He is a tall handsome black man who dominates the stage without the slightest effort. His poems are sharply witty and can be raw in their ability to reach into what might be in other hands sentimental. Terrance Hayes sometimes resists the tendency of people to want to read autobiographical poems that could be mistaken for confessional work. The work he reads here is a very deft mix of his experimental poems, his work that plays gladly with language, and those poems that have a narrative bent. The audience speaks back to him, clapping after each poem and cheering loudly for him when he makes his way off the stage at the end. I have seen Terrance read on many occasions, and he always manages to read some quite new work. It is a good and bold habit and he does this here at Calabash. Many people would write me afterwards to tell me how powerful his reading was. When the crowd stops shouting, Kendel Hippolyte, spouting his coiled locks takes the stage.
Kendel is from St. Lucia, a gifted playwright and committed cultural worker with very tough ideas about the poem and about this art. He is aware that time is short now as we are falling a little behind, so he starts to read. His voice explodes on the stage, strong, modulated, passionate. When he reads the beautiful “Antoinette’s Boogey” I am so grateful as this is one of my favorite poems* *a beautiful prayer rooted in the aesthetics of reggae. It is such a gem and he manages to have the audience mutter in support as Antoinette declares that she could use one of those evenings of dance in the reggae dancehall, when the dancehall is a holy place.
I hurry to my room to change for the formal announcement of the winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. As a strong breeze plays havoc with the plastic chairs on the stage, speeches are made by the Commonwealth Foundation director, Mark Collins, the chair of the judges, and Australian supreme court judge, Nicholas Hasluck and Colin Channer. They are joined by Aloun Assamba, Minister of Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, who is representing the Prime Minister of Jamaica.
She announces the winners, and the audience cheers the winners as if they have been gambling on who will win. D.Y. Bechard wins the First Book Prize and Lloyd Jones wins the overall book price. They both give endearing and witty speeches.
I can feel the fatigue seeping into my body now as I realize that everything has gone brilliantly and that we are coming close to the end of the event.
Walking through the audience after the reading, it is hard to tell that in a few hours, the festival will be over. The audience starts to gear up for the Open Mic–a long line of hopefuls are now trying to convince Marlon James to have them on stage. I chuckle wickedly to myself, because I know he is fielding a lot of complaints and having to deal with the very serious Open Mic folk. The time is short and it will be impossible for everyone who wants to read to do so. I can hear the poets performing while I change and try to get my poem together for the tribute to Perry Henzell that is to come. I am happy with the piece, but it is now six sections long and impossibly long for a full reading. But I will read two sections. I know what sections I will read. Colin will then read his tribute to Perry, “Fade to Black”. It is going to be good.
The final event of the festival is always the performance of a band that we have now come to call the Calabash Acoustic Ensemble. It is made up of some stalwart reggae musicians who have had a significant impact on the direction of reggae music over the years: Steven Golding, Wayne Armond, and Sereste Small are all there again this year. Billy Mystic, a regular, had to be away this year, but Ibo Cooper who was with us some years ago, has joined the band along with Ritchie McDonald on an acoustic bass that have added to the core group. They are on stage while Colin and I do the tribute to Perry. I read to movements of a long eight art poem for Perry. The first begins with a journey to Treasure Beach:
TREASURE BEACH, ST. ELIZABETH
For Perry Henzell
After Montego Bay’s deep muggy gloom,
the congestion of tourists, the air dense
with rain; after the slow dallying along
the potholed street, the navigation over
a flooded highway, we enter the impossible
greens of the mountains, our bodies
learning the language of heat, the sway
of a car moving in stammers against
the straggly roadside—just when it seems
that the sky will settle darkly over us
we clear the hill near Bluefields,
take a sharp corner towards the south
and find ourselves aware of the sudden
oppression of a blue sky—everything
is basic as the dead cow on the street,
a ritual of car tires, pieces of board,
cardboard and debris around its legs
jutting out grotesquely, and its pelt
softly brown with bloat—like a warning
of how easily we live and die
on this island. There is a poem
in the goats grazing by the roadside,
the casual bodies of two girls
balanced on a tiny bicycle
skirting the roadway, their eyes
wild with laughing—Treasure Beach
is not far off now, and the driver
is moving at a quick pace, as if
he now knows the road like a dream
he has rehearsed—the rush into
the softer shoulders, the quick gear down
to meet the corners, and Treasure Beach
with its acacia trees, its drought hardy trees
and the bright orange of its dirt
is not far off now. I can smell
the dry sea salt and dust already.
I know I will meet you there, a man
in white, his thinning body swallowed up
by the oversized cotton shirt, the flag
of his loose trousers, his hair a wispy
whiteness blowing in the wind, his eyes
waiting to pierce, the remnants
of a dashing movie-star looker
now frayed at the edges by cancer—
he is vanishing into the haze of the day,
a white man finding himself consumed
by an island that has seeded his body—this is how
the artist understands home, this is how
a poet must die, this is how we must
return to ourselves, to our lovers
to our ancient cottages, this is how
we know home, when we know
where we must die, and who will meet
us along the way. Treasure Beach
is here now, and I have come to find
Perry, though he has long left the dry
rainless plain for somewhere tender.
Colin’s poem that climaxes the tribute, is a moving account of Perry reaching the Gates of Heaven and being stopped for being agnostic. He proceeds to make his case for being allowed in to Jesus, and soon a whole line up of great revolutionaries and artists are there to speak on his behalf. He is finally supported by the poor, the disenfranchised, all black people who will vouch for this old white man, descendant of the plantocracy of Jamaica. It is a plaintive and amusing account and one that makes sense. Colin reads with characteristic power–the music of his language as palpable as ever. Henzell gave us The Harder They Come, a beautiful film about black people making a life for themselves under tough conditions; but the film is not about suffering, per se–it is very reggae in that it celebrates the hope, the energy, the aspirations and the genius of the main characters. Colin’s poem rises to a climactic moment when he begins to chant the old Rasta hymn, “No Dark inna Zion” I join him and we make it through a verse before leaving the stage.
The Calabash Acoustic Ensemble then kicks into gear. They embark of an hour-long performance of the music from Bob Marley’s Exodus and Third World’s Ninety Six Degrees in the Shade; both albums celebrating their thirty year anniversary. With witty banter, stunning arrangements as they segue from song to song, the vibe is powerful, touching and really spiritual. Cindy Breakspeare comes on stage to sing “Turn Your Lights Down Low” and Rita Marley, who is in the audience, is acknowledged as the band cheats a bit and plays a few strains of “No Woman Nuh Cry”.There is a scandal built into the moment–a kind of gossip in this appearance of the wife and the mistress–but you realize that this is not the first time something like this has happened, and somehow there is no awkwardness–it is all in the spirit of the festival that the celebration can continue. The men on stage take us through classic reggae song after reggae song. Sereste Small is an amazing guitarist and his virtuoso turns form an beautiful counter-balance to the calm grounded skill of the other guitarist and Ibo Cooper’s keyboards.
I live for this part of the festival. I live for the reggae sound flowing over the audience, for the care that these men have taken to arrange the songs in fresh and innovative ways, for the gift that they give to us in their art and in the joy they clearly feel about being on this stage. It is impossible to miss the brilliance of some of these song lyrics when rendered in this way. The music becomes as much a part of the festival of words as anything that has gone before. Indeed, the fact of this musical performance at Calabash exemplifies what Colin Channer and I have been working to demonstrate again and again in our writing and in what we have done with this festival. It is to show that reggae music, for its artistry, its models of business acumen, its pattern of creating apprentices and training them to become stars, the international impact of a music that is totally local–all of these things give us a sense of purpose and focus that we need to do the work that we do. We will always have reggae at Calabash as a reminder to us of what can be achieved with the arts in this little island.
The tent is still full. We all know that things are going to end after this ovation. Still everyone wants to wait until it is all over. Colin Channer goes on stage to thank the musicians, and then he carries out our ritual of seven years–he invites Miss June, the aunt of Justine Henzell, a devout Christian woman, to take the stage and offer a benediction. She slyly takes advantage of the opportunity to read a children’s poem she had wanted to read at the Open Mic. Then she asks us to bow our heads to pray. Her pray is simple, direct and embracing.
Then it is over. “Drive good, see you next year, one love,” I say, and people hug, and people laugh, and people congratulate the band, and people congratulate each other for being there. For the rest of the night I can feel my body slowly relaxing, draining of everything. It is a beautiful feeling. Another Calabash, and we are pleased, very pleased, indeed.