“Yet so many of the stories that I write, that we all write, are my mother’s stories. Only recently did I fully realize this: that through years of listening to my mother’s stories of her life, I have absorbed not only the stories themselves, but something of the manner in which she spoke, something of the urgency that involves the knowledge that her stories- like her life- must be recorded.” Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
After reading this essay, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, I thought of my own mother obviously, and her stories she told me and my siblings. I remember how much it irritated me, since it was the same stories I’ve heard from the womb. But now, as I reflect on the stories that I’ve written, I’m reminded of those times she’d sit with us, and tell us about her life, like we were her recorder, documenting those times that were missed. I can’t help but see my mother staring back at me from my pages.
All my life, I’ve tried not to be like her, my mother. I’ve avoided experiences I believed would lead to one of her tragic endings. How sadly ironic, that the stories I was trying to forget are the stories that I’ve been unconsciously writing, that I can’t ignore because they make up who I am.
Walker also spoke about the lengths her mother took to transform their, shabby, home into something special, unique and warm, and how this act was her mother’s way of expressing herself. It was a manifestation of her mother’s love: planting an ambitious garden. It was, also, a reflection of her mother’s artistic abilities. This has opened my eyes to my own mother’s ambitious gardening.
When I was a kid, I never considered what my mother did in our home as a manifestation of her artistic abilities, mainly because it wasn’t something people celebrated, valued or respected. It was taken for granted, and considered something that women are expected to do. There wasn’t anything special about keeping a home, and raising five children. Now, as I’m older, I regret that I never recognized and appreciated my mother’s ambitious gardening.
She knew how to make, and keep things beautiful, my mother. Even when she didn’t have the correct tools, she invented her own tools, and her own style which made everything even more special. She had the eye.
I miss her so much. And words can’t bring her back. Nothing can imagine her back, or how much I miss her, my mother (My Imaginary Margin). Especially since she can no longer share in my revelations. Selfish, yes. Even now, when she’s dead.
I can’t remember exactly when I stopped celebrating Christmas, especially since it was such a huge deal for my mother. She’d go the extra mile, staying up all hours of the night on Christmas Eve, redecorating with new curtains and bed sheets. The smell of freshly painted steps, and polished furniture swelled throughout the house, giving an exciting sense of newness, of home.
And of course the food, the food that was made with my mother’s hands, seasoned with all her love: baked fish, chicken, and stewed pork, macaroni pie, ham, callaloo and beans, and avocado salad; gingerbread, sweet bread, fruit cake, carrot cake, punch de creme (a Caribbean punch made of cream) and sorrel (a Caribbean drink made from the buds of the sorrel plant that grows in the Caribbean) that is boiled with ginger, and then sweetened with sugar, or if you like wine or rum. Hmm, yum. The cooking was insane. As a child, the kitchen was a garden of wondrous smells and deliciousness.
Mother is my substance, whose love I suckle upon
absent of thought to what she is.
Mother is my substance, whose skin is young as mine
even as waters sweeping along oceans and rivers
glowing brownish illuminations as the sun.
Mother is my substance whose personality
I mistakenly guise as funny, and foreign to mine
I’ve noticed in fact, the tendencies to hold my head like mother
my rear end suddenly resembles the roundness of her bountiful rump
and I’ve recently discovered a colony of moles on my neck like mother’s.
My laugh has changed as well into her scandalous octaves
which made you join in with joyous glee
I am reminded everyday of her presence and her legacy.
My mother, my substance, my ambivalent substance.
Last week, I released a single off my first album, Quarrel. The album is a tribute to my mother and brother whom have passed. The track released, Deep Cry, was particularly written for my mother. When she died I didn’t have words for what I was feeling, which was mostly a gamut of confusion, great sadness, an unbearable feeling of guilt, and an urgency to understand why? The only way I could express/communicate what was happening was through sound…
I still remember everything… I remember what I was wearing: a green striped button down shirt, tan khaki pants, and light brown leather shoes. I was sitting in my cubicle at work reading/responding to emails… At 1pm, I received the call on my work phone. I didn’t understand… I still do not completely understand… Because it was impossible. Still impossible! I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had to get up. I had to go outside because everything was closing in on me. I remember what outside smelt like… Fresh like flowers… The gentle chill in the air was clean… But I couldn’t understand what was happening, what had happened – the impossible had happened. My mind kept playing the sound of your voice… It was alive and real! I can feel it! Impossible! The thing which still burns the most is our last conversation. We said regretful things to each other. You were always blunt, but I’ve always been aware of your enormous heart, as it is one of my many blessings from you! Your friends told us about the day this photo was taken… They said you treated yourself, spent the day pampering yourself, went and had your photo taken… It feels so good knowing this, and seeing your joy shine! Rest in Power
You can stream and download Deep Cry at my bandcamp page:
I know I’ve not been on here for quite some time… But, the good news is I’m coming out with my first album, which I’m super excited about. I worked with some amazing artist! Also, there’s a lot of steelpan! Woot! Anyway, I thought this article I originally wrote for Tom Tom magazine is a great starting point for this direction I’m heading. Here’s to things to come!
“Underlying the music Africans brought to the New World was the principle that music must help people live. Without being less aesthetic, this is a very functional approach, whereby music is made to give people strength when they are weak; it must lift their spirits when they are down. With music people can celebrate the joys of life, and indeed music is itself one of life’s greatest pleasures, yet it must also connect people with their ancestors in the land of the dead, and summon the deities from the heavens above. Most importantly, music must strengthen the bonds between people because only with and through others we become fully human.” –The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg.24.
I grew up surrounded by music. For most of my formative years, I lived seconds away from a steelband orchestra panyard. I remember being so excited when the Christmas season began, because it not only meant the sound of Parang, but also the beginning preparations for Carnival. It is during this season the steelpan orchestras choose their calypso song anthem, and begin rehearsing for the largest steelband competition in the world: Panorama!
My little self would stay up late, trying to feign away sleep at my window, listening to my village’s steelpan orchestra rehearse, which was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood. My brother who is a couple years older, he was allowed to play and be in the panyard. I suppose it was because of his intimate relationship with something as beautiful as the steelpan which initially made me wonder why I could not be involved in such magic. I mean, we were a part of the same magic we created for our parents when we sang together with our other siblings; when we put on our own talent shows on evenings. Break dancing, believing we were a version of Michael Jackson. So, from a very young age, my curiosity was sparked. This spark helped in my obsessive love of the steelpan.
I fell in love with the tenor pan. I fell in love with its circular, shiny chromed mystery, which to me represented, genius. I would stare at my brother’s tenor pan, completely mesmerized by what I probably did not understand at that time was the instrument’s aesthetics. The sound of the steelpan possessed me. Enough so, given any opportunity, I stole my brother’s sticks, and tried to play the calypso song our village’s steelpan orchestra chose for their ten minute Panorama reinterpretation. I did not care how much noise; how many bad notes I played trying to capture the arrangement, or how many times my brother swore he was going to kill me for touching his pan. I could not resist the pan’s hypnotic allure.
I began running away to the panyard. I possibly annoyed the orchestra’s captain with my fantasy, that I was a crackshot. When actually, I was out tuning the various pans which were left unattended. I was unaware there was a touch; a difference between beating and playing the pan. A grace.
The captain started me off on the Grundig (Double Guitar). It was both exciting and difficult learning how to play, because not only does the pan want of the player to understand rhythm, but the rhythm has to be strummed, in synced with the melodies. The touch has to be even, precise, on both pans. The physical hand coordination must execute equal independence, like harmonious ambidexterity.
The captain, satisfied that the mystery of balancing the physical motion of this hand dance for the Grundig‘s sound held my attention, told me if I learned how to play it well, then I could move onto my desired pan: the shiny chrome tenor. The lead pan in the orchestra. Nothing, absolutely nothing seemed more important, as everything meant being a part of this complete brilliance.
Though I did not have the words for it, being in the panyard meant something beyond the zeal I felt. I’d goggle at the crackshots – the steelpan prodigies, the steelpan god geniuses – in complete awe, because they knew something far beyond my obsession and shared love of the instrument. Yes, even though they were possessed as I, their lives surrounded living and breathing for this period in Trinidad and Tobago’s celebratory uproar for freedom. They lived for carving the arrangement into their hearts; for the united dance of going into battle with their fellow pannist. I wanted to be like them.
“[Clive (legendary steelband arranger] Bradley himself said that Carnival is a healing time for us, it is a golden link that runs through everybody, it is a connector for all of us, and he used the music to reflect his relationship to the band and the community.”The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 228.
My parents became concerned about my presence at the panyard. Although my brother and I are close in age, there were not many young girls, and very few women pannist in the orchestra. With a playership which can exceed eighty members, the beginner age for a steelband orchestra’s pannist can be as early as a six year old to however old a pannist wants to hold on their sticks and play. This in itself, the wide diversity of ages, symbolizes the unison nature of the steelband culture. It also made me wonder why I could not join.
“My pan sticks. Look at them. I was proud of my pan sticks. The Ministry of Culture should teach that to people. Our sticks should be cherished. We shouldn’t be knocking up the pan any more. I lost a lot of friends. You couldn’t be seen with a pan stick: ‘You in a panyard?’ Of course you play piano or guitar. People looked at you in this scornful way, even though you had the cream of the crop next to you playing pan, doctors and lawyers. I was first female member of Renegades 16 years ago, on nine-bass… It’s as though you now become the music. If your spirit not in the music, you can’t perform…”The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 256.
The panyard was considered a predominantly male space. A space born out of poverty, branded as criminal, possibly even labelled uncivilized in its early days. While that stigma was shifting during my brother and I’s youth, the attitudes surrounding the panyard – where the steelpan lived – was still viewed as one where safety and the ideas surrounding privilege was open-ended for boys and men. The image of the panyard was regarded as unsafe and was not an activity deemed proper for a lady. The irony of this dynamic’s then unspoken stigma of criminality and respectability, which haunted the instrument, is that it made the steelpan inaccessible to everyone who shared in this struggle for freedom.
“[The steelpan] limed outdoors and was wild. The piano sat indoors and was respectable. Piano lessons were part of a decent girl’s cultural finishing. It combined a classical “culture”, the discipline of practice, and domestic entertainment. For males it was different. In the US the piano had a wild streak in the saloons, where men created ragtime, boogie woogie, jazz and rock-and-roll, but in Trinidad young men beat drums and invented pan.” The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 248.
What cannot be ignored in the discourse surrounding this gender dynamic is its concurrence with the rise of feminism, and the history of the United States. As they are deeply influential, but at the same time of the shared similarities of exclusion, it is completely different for black women and girls in Trinidad & Tobago. There must be the allowances for when the United States was no longer a British colony, but the country itself was participating in slavery and the slave trade; to the abolition of slavery; when segregation began; to the civil rights movement, to the rise of Black Panther, the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude Movements… These periods all connect together, and played a significant role in the dialectical discourse of transatlantic feminism. “[The 1970’s] Black Power allowed women active if not leadership roles, and it infected everything. Grassroots women joined steelbands as never before.”The Illustrated Story of Pan, pg. 254.
The lacking of historical presence of women and girls in the panyard is rooted in the creation of the steelpan itself. A history which is tied to and intersects with absenteeism slavery and classism, or in more contemporary terms: respectability. In the various forms of the steelpan’s inception, it was not even viewed as an instrument. The first steelpan orchestras were not even considered orchestras. Whilst it was celebrated during its early development in the 1950s, it was in the form of earnest political agendas. Prior to the seventies, it was not even thought of as an artform, as culture. During the 1930’s, the activity itself of playing the steelpan signified criminal, vagabond, hooligan.
“Daisy James’ younger sister wasn’t allowed to enter a private school… because word got out that her brothers were in Casablanca [steelband]. What would have happened if it was known that Daisy was in the band too? … when Daisy was six in 1944 she secretly played with [her brother’s] pan at home… [Daisy’s brother] had to sneak her out because their mother was against even the boys being in a steelband… however, until Eric Williams, who was hero-worshipped by Daisy’s parents, came to power in 1956 and his government endorsed the steelband. Steelband, initially a rage among teenage boys, was not in schools before the 1970s… In 1965 (The Nation, January 1, 1965 p.7) Eric Williams [Trinidad & Tobago’s first Trinbagonian Prime Minister] exhorted, [`]Let us catch them, as we are doing now in cricket… The schools would require some funds for the provision of the necessary instruments. But if this can be associated with the spread of musical instruction in the schools… we will thereby taking a powerful step in the direction of giving our native talent a professional foundation. [´] Yet only in 1972 did pan enter the education system…”The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pgs. 233 & 237.
The impetus for the creation of the steelpan plays to an immediate reaction to a law. In response to the Canboulay Riots, former slaveholders banned the use of African drums by the ex-enslaved and their descendance. It was feared that, through drumming, the ex-enslaved were communicating to ignite revolts in the Caribbean. “The whites feared and loathed black music-making. The noise disturbed them. The drumming and dancing outraged both their musical tastes and their sense of propriety. They especially appalled Protestants, for whom the Sabbath was sacred and the African music satanic. Additionally, the whites were terrified of unsupervised slave gatherings. Indeed, in 1805 a drum dance carded for Christmas by the slaves of several plantations in Trinidad’s North-West Peninsula was brutally suppressed for fear of being a planned rebellion. But in 1882, the government introduced a “Music Bill” that made a police licence necessary to beat drums, tambours and shak-shaks from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., after which it was absolutely prohibited. Public outcry forced the government to withdraw the bill, but Ordinance 11 of 1883 was passed to make property-owners liable for “rogues and vagabonds” on their premises singing and dancing to drums. There were riots when the police tried to stop the drum dances, but gradually the African drum was excluded from Carnival.” The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pgs. 25, 32. Because of this ban (law) and destruction of all African drums, the ex-enslaved in Trinidad began beating the stems of bamboo trees. This practice, which was eventually outlawed as well, is known as Tamboo Bamboo.
‘“White French Creoles controlled Carnival in the Savannah. Before the war poor bands had bamboo tamboo. Middle-class people had orchestras on foot, complete with drums – 12 to 14 people with reliefs. Middle-class people on lorries had a trio sitting on the lorry hood. Those glorified to play on a lorry, you get to pick of women. We tried to get through side of the truck to pull their dresses. They said ‘We don’t play foot mas’.’ The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pg. 33
Many Trinbagonians still keep to this tradition of playing Tamboo Bamboo during the Carnival season, as its significance, as does Carnival, symbolizes the August 1st, 1838 declaration of emancipation of the enslaved in the twined island under one republic that is Trinidad and Tobago.
The playing of Tamboo Bamboo transcended into the Ping Pong, as discarded biscuit pans exported by Britain into the dependant colony was the derivative of the steelpan. Although the Ping Pong was integral in the Carnival celebration, the stigma of criminality persisted, as the island was still under British colonial rule. Even after emancipation, the governance of the island was one of absenteeism regulation which existed during slavery: the dominant population of black ex-enslaved and descendants of black ex-enslaved ruled by decrees, laws, religion, aesthetics, etc… from the outside.
It is not a coincidence that the evolution of the Ping Pong to the first steelpan – wider in octave range – coincided with the period of World War II. Amongst Trinidad and Tobago’s many natural resources, the most valued was the island’s oil resource. Because of the economic realities (which I won’t go into here) of World War II, British colonies like Trinidad and Tobago, with a geographical proximity to Europe and the United States, played an important role in the supply of petroleum. These colonies natural oil resource were used in the economic market as a point of control, a source of and as oil reserves. The steel barrels (drums) which were used to ship Trinidad’s oil to Europe and America, these oil barrels became an ingenious raw material for the steelpan musical inventors.
Still under an Victorian British rule of aestheticism, religion, philosophy of life, economical value, etc. – because Trinidad and Tobago gained independence in 1962 – it was undignified for a “lady” to play the pan. For women and girls’ involvement in a steelpan orchestra, outside of providing a yard where the pans can live and the steelpan men and boys can play, meant “vulgarity”, “looseness…” Most of the women who were a part of orchestras during pan’s early days and during World War II were not playing the instrument. Their roles were of flag women, which was originally done by men and/or boys; and in many cases women showed their support of the steelband movement by providing safe havens for the boys and men who played in bands. Thus, the underlying discouragement stemmed from both the stigma of criminality, Victorian idealism of respectability, and as well as the norms of sexism intersecting in this ridiculous organism.
“Women were vital from the outset. As heads of households many were in a position to give succour to the youths at a time when they most desperately needed it, because a steelband without a home quickly died. Such women were supporters, lovers, flag-wavers, sex objects, weapon-bearers or even fighters in the band but almost never pannist. Their role was just another aspect of the traditional sexual division of labour.”The Illustrated Story Of Pan, pg. 238
The criminality/respectability of the steelpan slowly shifted in the seventies through the nineties, and this may have been heavily influenced by Trinidad and Tobago’s public recognition of the steelpan as the country’s national instrument, dated August, 30th 1992, which may have been encouraged by the shift in imperial power from British to the United States, coinciding with the global recognition of the steelpan as the first, and only instrument created in the 20th century. The country’s middle class, mothers, radical movements such as the country’s vibrant trade unions; these groups involvement in the steelband movement helped shape the future longevity of the steelpan by cultivating the instrument into the education system which ultimately made it accessible to women and girls. With these shifts in power and ideals, the image of the steelpan began to change, and more women (although still disproportionate to men and boys) began to play.
This shift is most dramatically demonstrated in 2014, as women and girl pianist’s involvement were highlighted/documented in that year’s Panorama. I believe this initiative is related to the creeping rise of feminism in the Caribbean. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago appointed the country’s first woman Prime Minister, honorable Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in 2010, precursor by Jamaica’s honorable Portia Simpson Miller, in 2006.
Since my passion for the steelpan never died; wanting to play tenor in the orchestra still absorbed me at twelve. Knowing I was not going to stop running away to the panyard, my parents allowed me to join. I am really thankful they finally did; as I daydreamed about playing for our village. With a great sense of what may have been pride, I hungered for Panorama. Every chance I got, I continued to steal my brother’s sticks… I wanted to be like the brilliance that is the late artist Pat Bishop, and all pioneering rebel women steelband orchestra conductors. I wanted to be a crackshot. I wanted to play.
With lightning speed
ripping through infinity
I hear your clacking hooves
Your cursed truth
charging ivory horn
chasing your prophecy
Your heaving mist
attacks the air
Your feral mane
tremors in grace
I see your red demon eyes
ignite for the horizon
This was inspired by David Bowie’s ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore from his latest album Blackstar. Rest in power Mr. Bowie.
I have been trying not to feel for awhile now, especially when I got the news about my younger brother’s death. What is the use of feeling anything, when there is not anything that can explain why, and even if there was an explanation, it still will not prove to be comforting?
I have experienced this sort of loss before — the known inconceivable… I think now, I have become so use to not going to places where it hurts the most, I have been consciously mindful of stopping myself. Locking something too painful to deal with in a place where, maybe, I will never have to visit? This has made me even more bizarre and un-relatable…
I could not attend Jason’s burial. The only way I was connected to saying a final goodbye was by keeping in touch with my other siblings. It was incredibly disjointing — a complete disconnect, that continues to haunt me — even as I try my best to ignore it. In a way of bringing some semblance of letting go, I have been slowly writing… But, here, — in the process of writing, as its effectiveness as an aid, a form for closure — this form of a ritual I have continuously chosen for dealing with most things which disturbs me, even here, there is not any comfort, and it does not explain anything.
When the program for the burial arrived, I could not look at it. I knew if I stared for too long; looking for some understanding of why I will never see or hear Jason again, it will be a crippling devastation. A devastation where I was and am unsure of my return. I’ll have to contend with this unexplainable knowledge in this unsatisfying state, that he is dead and never coming back, and everything we experienced together is left in this space, this void where nothing moves, nothing grows, nothing reconnects…
I look at this program and its encapsulation of my little brother’s existence. I look at it with the same distance I have for everything that I can’t explain, and exhausted by the energy needed to get close enough.
These are the words I wrote for Jason:
Jason never asked permission for anything. Many times this arrogance was unnerving, and the question of, Who are you to have such an audacity?, would arise. I asked it throughout our childhood. I honestly believe, if he was ever asked this question, he’d simply reply with all smirks, “Well, I am Jason Errol Aalan McLeod.” I may have been the closest to experienced Jason’s budding arrogance, as I still remember when were kids, and he sold, unaware to me, my bike.
Even though Jason is two years younger, the dynamic of looking out and caretaking of a little sibling was reversed, he took care of me. He took care, wholeheartedly, in his support of my then unknowing aspirations and endeavours of becoming an artist. He was present for all of my first singing group’s rehearsals. Jason possibly is the first person whom saw and accepted my dabblings as potential, as he acted as the singing group’s business consultant and manager. At fifteen, he believed in me, when I did not recognize it.
Jason’s death is a tremendous weight on my heart, because even in our distance and the possibility of renewal of where we left off, there is now no longer a connection. An overwhelming void, which I cannot begin to understand and reconcile is where and what is… What comes close to any comfort about this realization, that I will never again see Jason’s mischievous, cocky smirk, is that he gave us an incredible gift of two amazing lives whom are Jayson Junior, and Israel. He also gave us thoughts which will continue to provoke our very existence. When he was nineteen, he taught, “You have to live your life not by others’ standards… When you choose on your terms, at least it is on you.” Love you Jason.
I think the hardest of all, and why I have chosen not to feel anything, is that this would open an infinitum grief hole. An infinitum grief hole in which I have no control.
What comes immediately to mind when I look at the below photo is, I have lost both of them. I remember when it was taken. It was Jason’s birthday. He and our mother were to spend the day together; just the two of them. He was so annoyed I was brought along. When the photos were developed, he tried to scratch my face out of them. If you look closely you can see the scratches. We were very young, so we lived for each other’s annoyance.
This next photo is of us, Jason and I, on our first day of a new school year. In spite of the many sibling disputes we naturally had, there were these moments: