Thursday 22 September 2011

The Music of East Port of Spain

An amazing subculture emerged in Port of Spain, in fact east Port of Spain, by the 1870s. It was significant because it contained the rootstock from which the Afro-Franco cultural matrix emerged into what we now call ‘born creole’. This heterogeneous assortment of people more or less covered the intermingling of that flotsam and jetsam of Trinidad’s Caribbean experience who had endedup here by the time of the British conquest in 1797. Despite attempts by the authorities, they had continued to preserve a fluid, free-wheeling lifestyle that contained the extremes of excessive religious piety and the working of obeah, drunken debauchery and the brave and ferocious activity of the stickfight.
In terms of syncretic movements, it was unique. From a social point of view, the people who lived on the eastern fringes of Port of Spain and across the dry river into the hills of Laventille and Belmont established a culture from shich calypso, Trinidad’s version of Carnival and later steelband was born. This culture was known as ‘diametre’ or jamette society (beyond the diameter of polite society).
Panders, ponces, pimps and prostitutes, chantwels, stickmen and dandies, kalinda drummers, men who played beast and devil, bats on roller skates and on bicycles, shago priestesses, seer men andmoco jumbies, real ligahoos, raconteurs and macos, comperes and macomers, and the gentlemen who comprised the Long John Cigar Smoking Club of Almond Wlak - their names were Congo Jack and Petit Belle Lilly, Alice Sugar, Massy Milly, Ocean Lizzy and Sybil Steel, Cutaway Rimbeau, Gumbo Gleaza, Gumbo Lili, Darling Dan, Zandolee, Ojuba the Slave, Boboloops Spit In The Sea, and Mahal Who Drove An Invisible Car. Music was everywhere, violins, guitars, cuatros, bandols, mandolins, maracas and drums.
African musical forms were maintained. Remembered from pre-emancipation days, they blossomed in the rich milieu of ‘behind the bridge’. Congo, sung in Patois, was dance music for weddings and christenings by people of Congolese descent, played on three drums and sung with a chorus. There were Rada hymns: chants, drums with sticks, iron, chac chacs, chatwel and chorus. It was the music for ceremonies of Rada (Dahomey) cult groups, a vehicle for the invocation of saints and induction of spirit possession. Shango blossomed, with its items associated with the imminence of particular dieties. Music for the rites of the cult groups of Yoruba origin was heard, including hymns, litanies and invocations.
On the other hand, east Port of Spain at times echoed with French choral singing, with the harmony of French folk and traditional ‘chansons de Noël’, Christmas cantatas. It was music for the house, polite music for visiting, not only at Christmas time.
On occasion, fandangoes were performed in the neighbourhood, rich traditional Spanish music, with its competitive and repetitive singing, accompanied by triple cuatroes, bandols, guitars and chac chacs.
Dancing was for pleasure. People knew how to do reels and jigs, but also bongo, veiquoix, chaties, limbo and the belé. Music was for festivals or crisis, and sometimes, music was associated with sacrifice to the ancestral spirits.
The traveller C.W. Day records his visit to a ‘yard’ where dances were held. He marvelled at the young men who stood transfixed for hours, torches held high in their hands, as the dancers reeled and tumbled to the hypnotic rhythm of dozens of drums way into the night.
The land over the dry river, known as Piccadilly, was called Grand Jardin. Further north was Mango Rose and even further north was Belle Eau Road, also known as Shapotie. The central area from Argyle Street to St. Paul Street was called Sorzanoville and later Gros Rouge. In those days, there was only one bridge across the dry river at Cadiz Road.
During the 1850s, many Africans rescued by British war ships from Portuguese slavers on the high seas (Portugal had not yet abolished slavery) were ‘freed’ in Port of Spain. Many of these made their homes in the wooded hillsides of Laventille and Belmont to the extent that this area was to be known for a time as ‘Free Town’ or ‘Yoruba Town’. Disbanded veterans from the West India Regiments came to live there, e.g. Sgt. Zampty who married Black Warner’s daughter and got a lane in Belmont named for him on Black Warner’s land.
Papa Nanee was a diviner from Dahomey. He owned land in Belmont Valley Road and maintained a Rada religious and ceremonial yard for many generations with great purity. It was here where up to the 1950s water percussion could still be heard - the eerie sound of calabash halves, floating upside down in a basin of water and hit with sticks.
Lacu Harp and Lacu Pebwa were famous stickfighting yards (Laku is patois for ‘la court’ - the yard). Arnim ‘Mitto’ Sampson, known as Strongman, recounts in an article by Andrew Pearse and published in the Caribbean Quarterly, Volume 4, Nos. 3 and 4 of 1958:
“The drums would beat and canboulay stickmen sing
‘Djab se yo neg,
mé Die se nom-la bla,
Bamboula, Bamboula’
Roucou John fought the invincible Tiny Satan at Laku Pebwa (Breadfruit Tree Yard) in 1875. Tiny Satan caught him six consecutive blows and smashed his skull in. Yet, Roucou stood up. When he finally fell to the ground shortly before he died, he was still mumbling ‘‘Djab se yo neg, mé Die se nom-la bla..’
The use of this theme was condemned by the famous mulatto barrister, Mr. Maxwell Phillip. In his opinion it stigmatised the negro race atrociously, the words meaning:
The devil is a negro,
but God is a white man,
bamboula, bamboula.
The majority of the leading batonniers of the time refused to cooperate with Phillip, saying that when they sand ‘Djab se yo neg’ they were possessed by satanic spirits which made them feel nothing; they could walk into battle and meet sticks, stones, conch shells and even daggers..”
Behind the bridge in those days produced, just as it does now, some of this country’s most colourful characters and bizarre indicents.
When Hannibal the Mulatto died in jail, his last words were directed at his great rival Zandoli. “Zandoli,” he murmured, “why you ain’t find your hole?”
His death in 1873 was just as stormy as his life. Annie Coals and Myrtle the Turtle fought over his grave, and later his body was dug up and ghouls carried away his head and shroud, leaving the rotten carcass at the side of the grave. A vast crowd gathered in Lapeyrouse cemetery, led by Bodicea, the female chantwell and famous jamette, who had taken of her drew, waved it like a flag and sang:
“Congo Jack vole tet la Hannibal
U vole la mo, gade bakanal”
(Congo Jack steal Hannibal’s head
You steal from the dead, look bacchanal.)
Cedric le Blanc, the white calypsonian, later sang of the incident:
“Bodicea first and then Petite Belle
The Devil waiting for them in Hell.”

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