A Tale of the Magical Calabash

imagesOnce upon a time, three friends, Colin, Kwame and Justine, set out looking for treasure.  Not quite.  They weren’t children playing in the sand.  They were adults who understood that treasure isn’t something you just find.  It’s what you create.  And they certainly knew about creativity:  Colin Channer, the novelist; Kwame Dawes, the poet; and Justine Henzell, the producer of events from scratch.

So they conjured up this international literary festival and set it in an improbable location, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.  It would add a whole new dimension to Brand Jamaica!  They named the festival ‘Calabash’.  And they invited the world and his wife to attend.  Mateys were welcome too.  And admission was free.  Whosoever willed could come.

photos_1But why this quirky name?  Well, the festival was going to be held at Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach.  But that’s not a single beach.  It’s a string  of fishing villages: Billy’s Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Great Pedro Bay and, yes, Calabash Bay.    Colin chose the name to honour the location of the festival.  And calabash also suggests creativity.  As we say, turning our hand to make fashion.

res1_07aThe hardy calabash, from both the tree and the vine, is very versatile.  It has several practical and artistic uses.  In many cultures of the world, the hollowed-out gourd is a water vessel.   And musical instruments are also created with calabash.  For both the sitar from India and the kora from West Africa, calabash is used as a resonator.  So the multi-functional calabash is a brilliant image for a homegrown literary festival that includes musical performance.

‘GLOBALICIOUS’
The twelfth staging of the Calabash International Literary Festival, a month ago, was dubbed ‘globalicious’ by Kwame Dawes, the programmer for the event.  And it certainly was both global and delicious.  The calabash was full to the brim and running over with both literary and musical delicacies.

Calabash2014Logo-300x256The writers came from twelve countries:  Antigua, Barbados, Belarus, England, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Scotland and the USA.  And the musical performers were from Haiti, Jamaica, the UK and the USA.

For me, the most engaging writer/reader was Jamaica Kincaid.   She “shell down di place”, as one of my friends put it.  We’re now so attuned to the culture of the gun that excellence in all spheres of life is celebrated with a gun salute – whether verbal or literal.  A real pity!  Blame it on the military and all those Hollywood movies that big up gun violence.

boutique-hotel-Jakes-Hotel-Villas-and-Spa-St.-Eli-1-8-3-2-thumbA very close second was Salman Rushdie who turned out to be quite different from what I expected.  He was very cool; not at all stuck up.  As another of my wicked friends said, “nothing like a fatwa to keep you real”.  After the festival, I stayed on for a few days at Jake’s.  And the young man who carried my bags announced with quite a flourish that Salman Rushdie had stayed in that very cottage.  I must admit I felt like a groupie.

ngugi_wa_thiongoThen I was so looking forward to hearing Nguigi wa Thiong’o read.  He’s one of the stalwarts of the anti-colonial war on the African continent. Unfortunately, his daughter, Wanjiku, stole the show.  Literally.  She read for forty-five minutes, instead of her allotted twenty.  And her brother Mukoma read for thirty minutes.  So the Big Man had to be cut off soon after he began.  And it was such a powerful story he’d started to tell about coming home from boarding school to find that his village had disappeared.

OPEN MIKE, MAIN STAGE

 One of the highlights of the festival always is the Open Mike.  There are so many entertaining surprises.  Like the farmer and fisherman whose stage name is “The Incredible Steel”!  He rode 48 miles on his bicycle from Jerusalem, Santa Cruz to perform his poem, “The Voice”, in tribute to Tessanne Chin.  He got a standing ovation.  Then there was the cosmetologist, Venise Samuels, who performed a brilliant poem about unconscionable taxation.  So much talent!

Treasure Beach Sc_bc_TreasureB28The only disappointing aspect of Calabash is the lack of comfortable accommodations.  Of course, there’s very little the organisers of the festival can do about that.  After all, Treasure Beach, is a fishing village.  But some of the people in the rental business have rather grand names for very basic lodgings.  ‘Villa’ is a most pretentious word for a small four-bedroom house.  And there are ‘resorts’ that bear absolutely no resemblance to their upscale namesakes.  All you can say in their favour is that they are a last resort if you absolutely can’t find anywhere else to stay.

calabash-2007-stageBut all you really need for Calabash is a place to crash.  If you try to keep up with the programme, you would go non-stop from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next day!  And even if there are not too many villas and resorts in the fishing village, there is always the sea.  It’s a magnificent backdrop for the main stage.  I can’t imagine that there’s any literary festival anywhere on Earth that has a better setting.  It’s all in the magical calabash.

 

Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.

‘I Have Outlived My Penis’

Ralph Thompson on the Calabash stage

That’s the far-from-flaccid opening line of the poem Ralph Thompson performed on the open mike at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held two weekends ago in Treasure Beach. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with all sorts of literary delicacies. And some delightfully indelicate offerings as well.

Rigor mortis of the penis is not exactly the kind of stiffness the average Jamaican man advertises. Most men who can’t stand firmly on their third leg tend to cunningly conceal that fact. By the time the deceit is uncovered, it’s usually too late for the disappointed partner to withdraw strategically. Some pretense at resuscitation must be made, however futile.

But, of course, Ralph is no ordinary man. He’s a poet. And he’s licensed to form the fool. The poet often wears a mask and speaks out of both sides of the mouth. You can’t assume that he or she is speaking autobiographically. No self-respecting Jamaican man, poet or not, would publicly declare, especially in front of a huge audience, that he, personally, is suffering from penile failure. Fun is fun and joke is joke. A confession of that delicate nature would definitely be taking a limp joke too far.

No lead in the pencil

My suspicion that Ralph was putting us on was confirmed when one of his friends (who must remain nameless) gleefully told me that it was he who had given Ralph that potent opening line. That may be true. But Ralph turned the single sentence into a witty poem. His punchline was deadly: writing had become a substitute for sex. The penis as pencil – with or without lead! Retooling becomes high art.

Willie Nelson

As it turns out, the confession of the death of the member is a clear case of ‘thief from thief, Massa God laugh’. A quick Google search revealed that the joke is a Willie Nelson original:

My nookie days are over

My pilot light is out

What used to be my sex appeal

Is now my waterspout.

With a name like Willie, Nelson must have taken firm measures all his life to ensure that his namesake remained lively. But, alas, not all ends come good. So even if it’s only tongue in cheek, inevitably it’s time for true confession. All the same, Nelson’s willie cannot be taken at face value. Like Ralph’s, it seems to be just lying low, waiting to spring poetically to life.

‘Di world no level’

What’s good for the poet should be good for the DJ too. But ‘jackass seh di world no level’. And it’s true. Every ‘chune’ a DJ chants is interpreted as a literal statement of fact by dim-witted cynics. Unlike the poet, the DJ is not allowed to wear a mask and play roles. So Buju Banton sings a humorous song about sending a driver to ‘drop this arizona round a Albamarle’. And it becomes a true confession of the artiste’s involvement in drug trafficking!

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding, the driver whose licence has now been revoked, chose to ride the ‘riddim’ of Buju’s hit. It became a very popular Jamaica Labour Party campaign song. Nobody in the party seemed to be bothered by the song’s ‘criminal’ message. Driver was taken for what it was: a clever song about the trade in ganja, a widely used recreational drug. Admittedly, for Rastafari, ganja is ‘creational’, infusing them with divine energy.

Peter Tosh, like many reggae artistes such as Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer who have been imprisoned for possession of ganja, made a lifelong plea for decriminalisation:

Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it

Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.

So you’ve got to legalise it,

And don’t criticise it

Legalise it, yeah, yeah,

And I will advertise it.

Cala-Clash

The high point of the Calabash festival for me was hearing Ronnie Kasrils reflect on his extremely risky work as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1960. In his memoir, Armed and Dangerous, published in 1993, he writes about what it meant for him, as a white South African, to participate in the freedom struggles of black people. He also wrote a biography of his wife, Eleanor, who shared his lifelong commitment to social justice. He called it The Unlikely Secret Agent.

Kasrils also talked about the role of reggae artistes like Peter Tosh in chanting down apartheid. We sometimes forget the global impact of our artistes who are often dismissed at home as mere criminals.

That’s precisely why Justine Henzell, who has inherited the film-making genes of her father, Perry, is producing a documentary for Jamaica 50 in which she includes coverage of reggae across the world, in the spirit of the iconic movie The Harder They Come.

Admiral

It was the Jamaican High Commission in South Africa that put Justine in touch with the hugely popular selector, Admiral, whose African Storm sound system plays every Thursday in Soweto. He was invited to clash with a local Treasure Beach selector, Andrew, at Cala-Clash  which is always a big hit at the literary festival.  ‘Admiral mash up di place.’  The week after Calabash, he was a guest selector at Stone Love.

This really is a small world. Kwame Dawes went to a conference in South Africa where he met Ronnie Kasrils. He was completely absorbed by the life story of this remarkable man. When Ronnie heard of Kwame’s Jamaican roots, he told him that his son, Andy, had been invited to Jamaica for a literary festival.  It was Admiral. Kwame immediately invited Ronnie to come as well.

Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London and discovered reggae through his Jamaican friends. In 1987, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the ANC liberation army ‘MK’ in Angola. On his return to South Africa, he started a dancehall show on the Voice of Soweto community radio and has not looked back. By the time I got around to buying Ronnie’s book on his wife, he’d left the festival. So I asked Admiral to sign it for me. He was most amused when I explained the meaning of our proverb, ‘If you can’t catch Kwaku, yu catch him shirt.’