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CALABASH 08—IMAGINE—Festival Dispatches
Calabash 2008 – Sunday May 25th
Calabash Sunday manages, somehow, to become something of a church service. Of course, the entire festival is about the word, and the spoken word and the received and given word and people at the festival like to talk about spirit and vibe and heart and such the like. But Sunday is Sunday and it is hard to shake the feel of Sunday morning in Jamaica. Early in the morning, in the silence before the sound system kicks into gear in the tent area, you can hear choruses and hymns carrying over the acacia bushes and zinc roofed houses—the rituals of prayer and grace. Some Calabashers want to have a real service at the festival on Sunday. They pull me aside each year, and pitch this ecumenical service for all who will come. I suspect it could happen, but I realize also that in the throes of the festival, I can only think that it would be another brilliant idea to be managed. And we have many brilliant ideas. We don’t try all of them. We simply can’t. But the suggestions will always come. These are not to be seen as criticisms. They are the gestures of those who see the festival as their own and they would like to see it embrace something of their own image. I think, though, that there is so much open beach at Treasure Beach, and praying people do not need the stamp of Calabash to make something happen. Calabashers have been known to turn a simple gathering at the beach into a service to music and dance, or a service to political discussion, or an improvised outdoor hotel, and much else.
By ten o’clock, the tent is only half full. By ten twenty, it is three quarters full. And the morning will begin with the celebration of the work of poet and novelist. Claude McKay. As we have done for the past five years, Calabash this year will feature a classic Caribbean work. This year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of McKay’s Banana Bottom. McKay left Jamaica as a young man in 1912, and never returned. He lived in Europe and the US and became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A few months ago, I drove with a small crew of camera man, nurse and HIV/AIDS activist deep into the hills of Clarendon to visit the Claude McKay high School while working on a project that would culminate in a long article and a beautiful website (www.livehopelove.com). The island was soaking wet during that time, and the Clarendon hills were chaotically green and thick with bursting foliage. I imagined McKay growing up in these hills and it made sense to me that no matter how long McKay stayed away from Jamaica, the landscape would continue to hold his imagination captive. Banana Bottom, it turns out, is as much about the landscape of rural Jamaica at the turn of the last century, as it is about the spiritual contradictions of Jamaican life.
The readings are preceded by the voice of McKay reading his signature poem, “If We Must Die”. The rural flatness of tone and pitch is unmistakable as he reads the poem. It is a hauntingly lovely introduction to some of the best such readings we have had at Calabash this far. Actress, Denise Hunt reads first. She introduces us to Bita the female protagonist in the work—the girl who was raped, and who would spend the rest of the novel trying to assert her commitment to the rural Jamaican values and beliefs despite the pressure of her British education and her indebtedness to missionaries. Denis Hunt is a talented actress who reads with confidence and clarity. She is followed by a veteran of stage and film, Lloyd Reckord. What he does with a long stretch of dramatic preaching from a deeply disturbed and disturbing minister who has not patience with the customs and rites of the rural Africans is quite remarkable. He is then followed by Barbara Gloudon, a playwright, media celebrity and stalwarts in the arts. After she ends her reading, Eddie Baugh, a professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies, and former orator for that school, a title and role that is quite British and one that I have come to miss here in the US where arbitrary individuals are given the task of reading off the names of graduates or making important ceremonial announces at public events. Baugh is a practiced reader. His years as an actor in his youth, serve him well here, but mostly it is the voice. It is engaging and draws the listener in.
The book store tells me after that they were successful in moving quite a number of copies of Banana Bottom. This is the whole point of the exercise. As I tell the audience, I am quite sure that when the classic authors write their works, they were not writing them for some undergraduate class to read and pore over. They wrote them to be read, enjoyed and reread. This is precisely what we have been trying to do at Calabash, to wrest the business of reading and appreciating literature from the clutches of “education” and return it to the realm of “entertainment”. A tad populist, and perhaps quixotic, but it seems to be working quite well. The instinct seems just right.
After a short break, the gathering crowd has grown significantly. There is some anticipation. First there will be an Open Mic session, the last of this year’s festival. And secondly, there will be music with Ibo Cooper, Steven Golding, Seretse Small, and Wayne Armond, our usual Calabash “ Acoustic Ensemble”. But this time, the crew will be joined by Bob Andy whose song book is to be featured at this year’s festival. In the past we have celebrated the song books of artists who have passed: Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, or who could not be present, Bunny Wailer. This year, Bob Andy agreed to come and perform and so there is great excitement to hear these largely “unplugged” versions of some of his most famous songs.
There is much to anticipate yes, but before all of that, four poets are about to read, and this reading will end up being one of the most dynamic events for the entire weekend. The poets are Aracelis Girmay, a poet of Eritrean heritage who now lives and writes in the US; Jackie Kay, a black Scottish poet and fiction writer who has a significant reputation in the UK; Kei Miller, a Jamaican novelist and poet who, at the age of twenty –eight has already published four titles; and Greg Pardlo, an African American poet who debut collection just won the Honickmann Award. It is a formidable line up, and as I introduce them, I realize that this is the poetry reading I have wanted to hear.
Aracelis Grimay’s natural voice could be called soft, but when she faces a poem, something happens to that voice—it seems to carry a largeness of emotion and presence that reminds you of her experience as a poet who has been working on the circuit for several years as she has honed her poems collected in her critically acclaimed first book Teeth. Grimay writes about important things, about ideas of place, about political questions, about the body, and in her final poem she turns a riddle into an elegant anthem about acceptance and love. It is a stunning performance by her, and when she reveals the answer to the riddle, and then embarks on a chant full of music and meaning, the audience applauds in mid-poem, and the allows her to carry them to that shared place of emotional sublimation that poetry can achieve.
Jackie Kay, at first, seems to be waiting for the applause after Grimay to fade out—as if she wants Aracelis to enjoy the full appreciation of the audience. But when that fades out, she is still sitting there, her face alight with a smile and a look that makes me panic slightly. “Does she know she needs to go up without another announcement?” I ask myself. She still sits there. Then she looks to the sound “booth” area. I try to signal her. Finally she bounds up to the stage and stands there grinning. “I thought there would be music. There is usually music between the readers,” she laughs. And she is right. Colin had instated this year, some interesting track to be played between each reader. He used Dennis Brown’s. “Here I come” to introduce Derek Walcott, for instance. It is quite brilliant. But somehow, between poets here, the music does not kick on. Kay, though, is only slightly disappointed. She leaps into action. She announces why Calabash has been such a transformative time for her, she is full of amusing stories, self-deprecating, and yet tender stories that let you know right away that you are going to enjoy this Scottish woman who was adopted by a white family as a child, whose parents were Nigerian and Scottish. Kay’s poems are tough-minded, they look boldly into experience and yet manage to arrive at some hope and some sense of possibility. She takes us to Nigeria, to Scotland, and finally, she ends with a poem written at Treasure Beach after a long boat ride up Black River. It is a beautiful poem, and its immediacy turns it into something of a tour de force. The audience eats it up, and well we should.
Kei Miller, a young poet and novelist follows her. His wry remark, “I would have to follow, Jackie Kay,” turns out to be something of a personal challenge. He understands his audience. Kei Miller is now studying and teaching in Scotland, and in the space of a few years has already produced four books that have received strong critical attention. His poems are rooted in Jamaica, and they enjoin narrative that is not pedestrian. Instead, he is able to find brilliant ironies in moments, and he is able to find these epiphanies of thought and emotion that never seem false. Miller has been churched in the cadence of charisma and Pentecostal fire, and he manages to bring that same rhythm and appreciation of the sacred moment to his reading. At the end of it all, his is a celebration of the people sitting before him, and it is clear that they appreciate what he is doing. When he banters about living in “farrin”, we all laugh at the familiarity of nostalgia.
It is clear that this reading has surprised a number of people. There is something electric in the air and I watch the faces of people. They are smiling with something like amazement at their good fortune to be in this moment here by the sea. I know already that after the reading and for the rest of the evening and for days to come people will be talking about this reading.
When Greg Pardlo, a cool African American poet comes on stage as the anchor, he can be forgiven for feeling a little pressure. And the audience knows this. They are supportive and applaud him as he begins to read his poems. These complex poems that draw on history, on the music and culture of the African American experience and that generate an unabashed intellectual quality come out of him. He reads very new poems to the audience, and then takes us to the poems that sparkle in his new collection of poems. In these poems he introduces us to family and to memory. The poems are tender and thoughtful. The audience is quiet, but it is clear that they are fully engaged with this work.
I jump on stage when Greg Pardlo is done and call the names of the four poets aloud. There is something intoxicatingly giddy about watching people applaud at a good mix, a good slate, a good moment. It is clear to me that these poets will move some books today.
After an open mic session that keeps people under the tent—one whose highlight is something of an ode to the vagina by a woman, everyone knows that the Festival is drawing to a close. John DaCosta arranges the stage for the musicians. For the first time during this whole event, we are not sure where the next ‘act” is. The musicians must be somewhere together, but we don’t know. I ask John if he is ready. He says he is. I make a few announcement to kill time, and in that hiatus, the three guitars, Steven Golding, Wayne Armond and Seretse Small make their way on stage and begin to get wires plugged in and monitors working. Ibo Cooper is supposed to be on stage with his keyboard, but when the performance begins he is not there as yet. Bob Andy, a tall elegant Rastaman dressed in full white, steps on stage. Bob Andy is a true veteran—one of the great songwriters of reggae’s roots era. He is pleased with the arrangement—a chance to perform his songs so they can be heard as songs, so that the lyrics can be understood fully, so he can talk, and talk, and talk about the songs, about what he values and about what is important to him. He begins by declaring himself a Rastaman, and he explains that everything he does flows out of that fundamental truth—that he is a Rastaman. This ensemble of musicians is always impressive. Seretse Small is an amazingly gifted guitarist whose speed and tasteful understanding of moment are truly brilliant. Wayne Armond and Steve Golding don’t flash like Small does, but they offer sweet licks and rhythm and their vocals are never hurried, never precious, always just right. When Ibo Cooper joins with his keyboard, he brings a bottom end to things, but the whole sound is kept back, kept a low-level—it is about the words. Bob Andy’s free ranging conversation with the audience is filled with digressions and improvisations. The band jams quietly behind him prodding him into song and then out of song. It is a study in musicianship and friendship.
The set ends with the audience standing to dance old rock steady numbers. A woman with one leg hops on stage and executes some amazing moves. Colin and a Calabash regular jump on stage to do some “leg” work, as well. This is the last hurrah before we all stand, bow our heads and pray for safe travels back to wherever we have come from. Overhead, clouds have gathered and it seems like we will have some rain. The timing is impeccable.
V.S.Napaul recently said at the Hay Festival in Wales that literary festivals are awful events. He complained that there is hardly any good literature at them largely because there is no good literature being written today. He also pointed out that the people at the festival were all ugly. As I watch the crowd start to thin at Calabash, I realize that Naipaul could not make such a claim at Calabash. The literature is good, and even if his peculiar self-serving subjectivity would lead him to quibble about that matter, one thing he couldn’t quibble about is this: the people who come to Calabash are beautiful, beautiful, people. Perhaps Naipaul should try Calabash next year.