art in all its forms

art in all its forms

11/18/14

The politics of Jab Molassie

Roger Roberts as Jab Molassie








IN AN INTERVIEW in 1978, Trinidadian novelist Samuel Selvon set out a conflict he faced in his work. For him, there was a tension between the use of standard English and the everyday language of conversations, the vernacular.

"I still have this problem of having to think consciously of what I am going to say and how to phrase what I want to express," Selvon said. "I grew up in Trinidad speaking the way Trinidadians talk. And that remained with me throughout all my years living abroad. I find that if you were a Trinidadian and I was talking to you, perhaps I could slip into the dialect form." He felt strongly that dialect is to be presented in standard English, not written phonetically.

"I feel this jars on the readers' eyes and it makes any dialect form so much more difficult to understand," Selvon said. He was not the only writer to have this view. Other novelists have taken a similar stance, such as Merle Hodge in "Crick Crack, Monkey".

The tensions set out by Selvon are reflected in "Jab Molassie", a work of opera which seeks to immerse its audience in a Trinidadian scenario using language which, though poetic, remains in dialect, with the added complication of being in rhyming couplets.

"Jab Molassie" follows Starboy as he gives up something precious to him for the sake of material gain. It is a story set in Laventille written by an American, Caitlyn Kamminga, who grew up in New Orleans and moved here from her last posts at Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Kamminga has clearly bent over backwards to replicate authentic Trini dialect. At the same time, she has kept the language in formal rhyming couplets. This is an unusual blend which some audience members took a while to adjust too. Others, though had no problems. I felt what was being communicated was clear enough. However, some restraint would have been beneficial. In everyday language, Trinidadians slip in and out of standard English. Therefore, the approach to the dialogue should be more multi-faceted. The text gains if it does not stick pedantically to the vernacular at each and every line. This is the balance which Selvon thought he found in his novel, "The Lonely Londoners".

That said, the tensions in the language of "Jab Molassie" did not overly harm my experience of it. Perhaps this was because the medium of opera comes with an expectation that things are not going to be natural. Persons entering an opera - when they do actually enter to consider the art - do so with certain expectations, bracing for a peculiar experience. Opera is difficult. In the first place, most are in foreign languages. Also, they can sometimes seem highly-mannered, stilted. As lush and beautiful as some productions are, modern audiences can feel alienated by the formality of the language used. Yet, this same formality is what draws others.

The tension of the language of "Jab Molassie" does not detract from the work because we are already within a heavily stylised realm. In a weird way, the unrealistic nature of the dialogue enriches the sense of another world being created and the ideas raised within it. The language mimics the political themes within the story. For the use of our dialect is not just an attempt at realism. It becomes an assertion of identity. It demands the audience come to grips with it. It shows that it has a place in the high art of opera. As imperfect as it is formulated, the language paints a vivid picture of who we are.

What "Jab Molassie" represents is never expressed. We understand it is about material gain. But we are left to project other possibilities such as: party politics; crime, violence and gangsterism; power; gender; self-representation; nationalism versus individualism; addiction, drugs and booze; love or all of the above. There is a strong social sub-text. The production is about the different things that lure young people. The common thread is temptation. The Jab is the devil himself.



At one stage, Starboy trades his precious violin for a magic book which gives him whatever he wants. But it is suggested this comes at a price. It is notable that a book is the taboo object which seduces and turns Starboy to possible oblivion. Is this a critique of knowledge? Of book-sense as opposed to commonsense?

An interesting aspect of "Jab Molassie" is the decision taken to have both female and male embodiments of characters. So the narrator, the Corporal, is split into two roles played by a female and male actor. So too the titular Jab. Also, at the run at the Little Carib Theatre, Woodbrook, from November 6 to November 9, the orchestra was placed onstage. While there are space constraints at Little Carib, I wonder how things might have worked with the orchestra amid the audience?

Though this show is entitled "Jab Molassie", it's all about Starboy and his coming of age. We are absorbed by this. However, I felt the production was too short. I wanted to know more about Starboy and understand the context within which he operated. While there are merits to a short, breezy production, the fallout is the development of conflict. We do not really see the price Starboy pays for his decision and thereby must project our own ideas of the worth of his salvation at the climax.

The strongest aspect of the production is its music which cannot be faulted. Dominque Le Gendre's score is incredible. Her contribution to Caribbean culture I fear is not properly understood. Her work is powerfully stamped by her unique aesthetic. Ironically that aesthetic is a cosmopolitan, Caribbean one, which has been described as creole, meaning it is hard to pin down. The tonal qualities of her music, the precarious balance between play, darkness and ambiguous lyricism, her unabashed passion for vintage Caribbean melody and form and for infusing these elements within an avant garde sensibility make for true magic. Because of the music and the skill of the actors, "Jab Molassie" achieves the sublime. It mesmerises with its sections about love, then grips you in terror.

The production design was also beautiful, with stock light projections chosen by Benny Gomes and director Patricia Cumper suggesting the hills of Laventille in a manner reminiscent of Braque.

The performance at the Little Carib Theatre made me wonder where Nickolai Salcedo has been before all this. Yes, a bandleader, yes a painter. But here he is intriguing, mercurial. You wonder what is next. Roger Roberts, of 3canal fame, and soprano Natalia Dopwell were perfectly cast as Jab Molassie, embodying menace. That said, I sometimes wished both characters had more shades of complexity.
The narrating Corporal was a highlight, played by Wendell Manwarren and Germaine Wilson. Of Starboy, the Corporal remarks: "That boy clever, but he ain't smart!" and, later, "He got everything, /Tout Bagai! / Everything he want / The book provides. / But he startin' to feel / Empty inside." Overall, this production, an adaptation of Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale", was better than the original.


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- from Newsday, November 18, 2014

10/20/14

‘I fell in love with Trinidad’




ONE DAY, it all clicked. Miquel Galofré was at his grandmother’s house at Sabadell, a small city 30-minutes from Barcelona, Spain. He was listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Still Life”. He was 12-years old.

“I was a neglected child, my parents were too young and they had problems,” he says. “I had to handle a lot when I wasn’t ready for it. So the world was not a nice place for me at that time. I cried a lot in my bed.”

“But things got better when, as a teenager I discovered music and films. The click was a Rolling Stones cassette when I was 12. And now I use all the feelings I have experienced in my life, in film,” the film director and editor says.

Galofré’s description of his own childhood evokes scenes from his most recent film, “Art Connect”. That film, which features children coming to terms with their problems through music, dance and painting, was awarded Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature Film at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) in September. It also took home the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary Film.

“With ‘Art Connect’ I basically wanted to do two things,” Galofré says. “I wanted to help a group of teenagers from Laventille to be happier. And I wanted to show in a film that this kind of program does work and they should be done in every school.”

Like the titles of his other films (“Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?”, “Hit Me With Music”, and “Songs of Redemption”) suggest, Galofré is a filmmaker interested in music and the uplifting potential of film. Whether set in a Jamaican prison or the Success Laventille Secondary School, he tells deftly-edited, immaculately-paced stories that weave several elements but ultimately  – no matter how dark the subject-matter – end up blossoming into lyrical outpourings of love.

“A film should hit you and give you energy!” the director says. “You should come out the cinema feeling able to do anything, with a smile in your face and in a rush to make your dreams come true. Like a good song, it should make you stand up and move, with a big smile.”

***

Miquel Galofré was born on June 1, 1970.

“I was conceived in Ibiza, the small, beautiful Spanish island known for crazy parties and drugs,” he says. “And I was born nine months later in Barcelona, Spain.” He is reluctant to talk in detail about his parents, but says, “I didn’t grow up with them and I was a very sad child, feeling guilty for all the dramas, fights, abuse and alcoholism that were around me.”



Galofré, 44, traces his passion for art, generally, to that moment when he was 12 at his grandmother's house listening to "Still Life".

"When the riff of the guitar of the first song ("Under My Thumb") started, my life changed for ever," he says. "That energy woke up everything in me! I got goosebumps, tears welled in my eyes. I had a burning need to jump and a strong wish to live!" He also recalls the impact of a favorite toy.

“My grandpa had some Super-8 cameras and that was my favourite toy ever,” he says. “Unlike other kids, I didn’t enjoy cartoons, fantasy, or kid’s games but I always loved to look at the world through the lens. To this day, I think I use cameras as a tool to find beauty in the world. And I started very young. At 12, I started editing with Betamax videotapes and I never stopped.”

By the time he was eighteen, he was seeking work and found the job that cemented his passion.
“I saw an ad on TV,” Galofré says. “They were asking for home videos for a contest. I sent more than 100 and they called me, not to participate in the contest, but to work with them in the TV company. Working on TV I learned a lot. I was there more than 20 years doing all kinds of stuff.” One of his tasks was to film and edit the castings/auditions of people trying to get into the Spanish versions of American Idol or Big Brother.

“The videos were very successful and people always told me that I made them get emotional and cry,” Galofré recalls. Eventually, he decided to study film. But the experience in television was teaching him things faster.

“There is no better school than that,” he says. Television took him all over the world. By his count, he’s been to 26 countries. Then, in 2010, he came to Trinidad.

***

"I would say I came to Trinidad following my dream of making films and also trying to know who I am," Galofré says. His first time in Trinidad was to attend screenings of one of his films, "Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?", at the TTFF. The film had screened previously at studiofilmclub (run by painters Peter Doig and Che Lovelace) and was well-received.

"I came for a week and I fell in love with Trinidad," Galofré says. "Trinidad has something that makes me feel at home, it's such a unique place. It took a while to understand it and it has not been always easy at all."

The filmmaker continues, "I meet a cool guy called Alex Smailes, a photographer who is today my friend, who asked me if I wanted to make a documentary in Trinidad with him. I said yes. And after 6 months I was living here ready to film." Though a trailer was produced for "Mike Men of Trinidad" (you can find it on YouTube), the film has to date not been completed due to a lack of funding. But Galofré remains undaunted.

"I feel I still have some important stuff to film here," he says. "I have my company here, called Trinidad and Tobago Rocks! (which has a Facebook page, search for "TandTrocks").

Despite the ups and downs, the affair has lasted unusually long by Galofré's standards.

"I have traveled a lot, filming in more than 26 countries but I've never stayed for more than 2 months abroad, I always came back home to edit," he says. "But the same feeling I had when the plane landed in Barcelona I have it every time the plane land in Piarco.  Home." But he adds, "Then the immigration officers usually remind me that I'm not home!"

Galofré says he has two film projects due next: one a documentary and the other a narrative feature film, both in Trinidad. The documentary is based in the book “Wishing for Wings” by Debbie Jacob.

"What she does is amazing," he says of the book. "Instead of complaining about how bad crime is, she seeks to understanding why a kid becomes a criminal. I want to do the film about this to reach more people, people who don’t read books. Films are the new books. A country needs good books, good music, good art and good films. They write the history." Of the local film industry, Galofré says more needs to be done.

"It’s so young but the potential is huge," he says. "It has to happen. Trinidad is such a unique place: the mix, the contrast, the culture, social, political, cultural. There is so much stuff. Something has to be done and it’s urgent. The success of the TTFF shows there is space for other kinds of movies in Trinidad. To be honest, if nothing changes, I’m about to give up with filming here." To film students, or anyone thinking of becoming a filmmaker, Galofré does not mince words.

"The reality is that it’s very difficult to work in film," he says. "Make sure it’s your passion. Make sure you love it bad, bad, bad. You will have to put in a lot of effort. And ultimately, what is needed to become a filmmaker is not taught in any school in the world. Only life and a lot of work can give you the skills. You have to learn who you are, what you have to say, how to build a story, how to handle a crew, how keep people’s interest, how to touch them. But all is possible."

***


Miquel Galofré’s favorite films

“The Bicycle Thief” (1948, Vittorio De Sica), “8½” (1963, Federico Fellini), “Taxi Driver” (1976, Martin Scorsese), “Buffalo ‘66” (1998, Vincent Gallo), “Old Boy” (2003, Park Chan-wook), “Pulp Fiction” (1994, Quentin Tarantino), “In the Mood for Love” (2000, Kar Wai Wong), “Funny Games” (1997, Michael Haneke), “Head-On” (2004, Fatih Akin), “3-Iron” (2004, Kim Ki-duk), “Uzak” (2002, Nuri Bilge Ceylan), “Short Cuts” (1993, Robert Altman), “Tarnation” (2003, Jonathan Caouette), “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001, John Cameron Mitchell), “Night on Earth” (1991, Jim Jarmusch), “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005, Amanda July), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982, Steven Spielberg), “The Shining” (1980, Stanley Kubrick).

***

-from Newsday, October 20, 2014.


10/13/14

The mirror has two faces


























THE MIRROR has an ornate, gold frame. It stands onstage, as if floating, suspended solely by the movements of the dancer. He props it up, lifts it, hides behind it, and at one point is almost guillotined by it. The audience is made privy to a series of private moments: we all gaze at a person in front of a mirror, obsessed with self or with something refracted in its hard surface. He dabs white powder all over his face continually and, seeking perfection, tests his image anew in the face of his true, glass lover.

This is Dave Williams’ incredible, monstrous work of choreography, entitled ‘Older’, which was shown at the Coco Dance Festival on October 4 and October 5 at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. We may argue that the piece is about the relationship between self and self-image over time; a rendering of Narcissus. Or it may be about relationships with others, how they always reflect something about ourselves. Perhaps as we get older we get wiser. Or equally we stay the same, make the same mistakes, play the same tricks of self-delusion and, well, it all just gets old.

The greatness of this piece is how it achieves what the best choreography does. It uses simple tools to create complex, dynamic effects. For instance, throughout the performance the audience is at times able to glimpse into the mirror and see what is being reflected. We see the dancer, in garish black spectacles that look like aviation goggles. Sometimes, in the dark of Queen’s Hall, we see only blackness: the type of deep blackness only a mirror can provide. But then, when the mirror moves, there is blinding light. Williams plays with its reflection, throwing it like a scrutinising beam all over the audience and elsewhere.

The effect is thrilling. We think of the powder on teenagers’ chests; Mr Sandman; Carnival sailors shouting: yuh can’t play mas if yuh fraid powder. We understand the vocabulary of this piece and we are compelled to follow to the bitter end when Jhené Aiko’s pop single ‘The Worst’ fades and we then hear a poem speaking of the nature of aging, how it turns bodies that once seduced into transparencies. We understand, at this point, the absurdity of all of Narcissus’ machinations with his mirror, coming as they do in the face of the inevitable fade-out of death. The dancer ends his piece with the mirror on the floor, prostrate after being licked. He walks back into the darkness.

Williams has, over the years, cemented his position as a necromancer. His best pieces – like “Waiting” and “Roasted Swan” – derive their power, in part, from their physical challenge. Here, the challenge was how to sustain the relationship between the body and the mirror in an interesting and intelligent way.

Williams makes it look so effortless. He’s not only older, he is certainly wiser. We are left wanting more and, notwithstanding its achievement, I wonder if this piece is complete. But finished or not, its images stay in our minds.

In an interview with Newsday Williams said he was inspired by fragments of questions surrounding the process of aging, mindful that the careers of most dancers in times past were limited by age.

“It’s a short life span,” Williams says. “Ballet dancers are lucky if they make it to 35.”

The dancer continues, “I wanted to do something that I was interested in.

“Because I have been dancing for 29 years and aging, I’ve noted how the body raises pretty immediate questions and situations. Aging was something that I was interested in. Nobody tells you what to expect. When I was child, 50 was an old person. The idea of aging gracefully, what does that mean in the current era?” He states ‘Older’ is an excerpt from a longer piece which will be shown on November 17 and November 18 at another show at Queen’s Hall, put on by the Noble Douglas Dance Company.

Other highlights at the Coco festival included Sonja Dumas’ ‘Walk the Talk’, an intelligent and beautifully structured take on stereotypes and how people – particularly women – are judged by how they walk. A similar feminist cord was found in ‘Farm Girls’, Sharifa Hodge’s piece which sees the limiting tropes applied to women in calypso and soca re-appropriated by the women onstage in a way that overcomes. ‘Hidden Curriculum’ by Deliece Knights had a similar intent, though wider scope, with intervals that voice specific thematic concerns about gender, power and discrimination in society. These threads were also woven into Akazuru’s ‘The Elemental \I. Hail for Stones’, which saw a procession and protest outside of Queen’s Hall, with rope being tied to the building’s pillars. ‘NeoIndigenA’ was a raw and audacious piece which was incredibly effective, provoking thought about the indigenous populations and their fate. ‘Beyond Words’ was a promising video. All of it was part of a programme which featured many other gems which shined in the dark.

*

- from Newsday October 13, 2014

9/21/14

Only connect

Art Connect

SINCE, as one student featured in the documentary Art Connect states, art is a picture of life, this film stands on its own as a sublime work.

Ostensibly about a social intervention programme for a group of students in Laventille, the work turns out to be an acute observation of contemporary social conditions in Trinidad and Tobago. It's insights are sometimes subtle and understated: telling of absent parents, emotional violence, the impact of drugs and crime on communities, mental and emotional turmoil, communal prejudices. But also, refreshingly, it sings of the redemptive possibilities of love, trust and beauty. Though there is tension and danger, all hope is not lost.

We follow the group of students of the Success Laventille School as they participate in a series of projects and challenges marshaled by artists in different mediums. But we also hear them tell their own stories about their lives, through a series of unforgettable interviews conducted by the filmmakers (including Janine Fung). And, most memorably, we are gifted with footage filmed by the students themselves using point-of-view cameras. We learn of their conditions, hear of their family problems, see where they live and what they eat, what chores they do, whom they interact with and account to.

"What's one of the happiest days of your life?" a student is asked.

"I don't have one," the child answers.

"What about a happy moment?"

"One of the happy moments was when I found out I got into this programme but I don't really have happy moments," states the girl. At another stage the girl says, "I actually feel nervous when I hear... gunshots because I don't know if my brother picked up one or my dad."

Another student states, "I feel that I cannot talk and I don't know why."

Sadly, these students could be in any school anywhere in the country. They articulate universal anxieties, as well as peculiar problems which communities are today dealing with. The film, which premiered in the first week of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, gives voice to open secrets, and in this way, does a kind of justice, asserting dignity and grace. It has deservedly attracted sold-out screenings. Trinidadians have been yearning to see themselves.

This is an assured documentary whose craft is concealed but whose achievement cannot be overstated. Here are several different narratives which unfold through the use of the point of view footage; the interviews; pop music; supplemental footage and the mediums of song, dance and painting. That all these elements fuse effortlessly is to the credit of director and editor Miquel Galofré, who has steadily cemented his status as an exciting and talented chronicler of this region through a series of bravura films.

Galofré is a multiple-award-winning filmmaker born in Barcelona and based in Trinidad and Tobago. His “Jamaican trilogy” of documentaries - including Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast? and Hit Me With Music - won several prizes. His eye for pacing, his exquisite judgment on the use of music as well as the restraint of his cinematographer (Fung) means this does not feel like a gimmick, nor does it come across as a sterile social experiment. Instead, it feels real.

On the music, I found that the film provided an interesting glimpse of how popular music - foreign and local - functions in our lives. Through music, and art generally, we do ultimately come together no matter how unique our circumstances. As EM Forster once extolled, "only connect".


*

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Miquel Galofré's website.




Find or make your space

Alice Yard


TRY to summarise all of the different events that have taken place at Alice Yard over the last eight years and you are bound to run into trouble.

The space is small, you might not notice it from Roberts Street, Woodbrook. Just a stone’s throw away from the swings and see-saws of the Augustus Williams Park, it could be any other house on the street were it not for that small green sign on its black wall. But in a sense that’s fitting: this is a place where people come to play. It’s home.

But make no mistake about the scale of its importance. Alice Yard is an arts space - call it contemporary if you must - administered and curated by architect Sean Leonard, artist Christopher Cozier, and writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin.

I can recall many events there: start with dancer Dave Williams’ performance of Waiting, a show he put on over several nights in which he danced on moko stilts in a small white room with a glass door. Or maybe Adam Williams drawings hanging on a curtain rack, or Jaime Lee Loy and Nikolai Noel becoming living installations: sitting in the exhibition space drawing the audience. One night, Akuzuru ripped open a vein (not literally, thank goodness) and marched from the Yard to the park outside, wearing a white costume, reminiscent of a mutant Miss Havisham or maybe Bronte’s Madbertha, breaking things, haunting the streets of Port-of-Spain.

The Yard, which last week marked its eighth anniversary, has a regional outlook, emphasizing the need to reverse and question the colonial and historical boundaries that have kept small islands that dot the sea apart. Since 2008, there have been artists and writers in residence. Bahamian Heino Schmid has shown incredible collage/video work. There was an amazing exhibition of photography called Shot in Kingston. Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson read with Valzhyna Mort.

The space has also hosted bands. Start with 12 the Band and consider the list on Alice Yard’s website (aliceyard.blogspot.com): 3Canal; Cabezon; Gyazette; jointpop; Orange Sky and you scratch the surface.

Earlier this year, Alice Yard hosted an experimental reading or poetry and prose as part of an ongoing collaboration called Douen Islands, of which I am a part. After that event, Laughlin noted how the space has had a “can do” approach. “Find or make your space” he said.

“Alice Yard has hosted roughly three hundred public events,” Laughlin said. “We’ve hosted nearly three dozen artists, curators, and other creative practitioners. Our guests have included world-famous names who would make a splash in any metropolitan city, but often we’ve been most motivated and inspired by new, young artists, musicians, and writers near the start of their careers, who challenge us to respond to their energy and ideas.”

Laughlin continued, “This has all happened in a simple backyard in Woodbrook which we and our collaborators have re-imagined over and over again — the space continues to surprise us. And it has all happened with no paid staff and very minimal funding, raised from our modest resources and efforts.”

“Instead we’ve imagined the biggest things we can make happen with what we do have. It’s a modus operandi of improvisation, and an attitude of possibility,” Laughlin, who is also editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, said. This is a key thing to observe.

If art is an inevitable part of the human condition; if it functions to give pleasure, or to enact catharsis or is, as David Forster Wallace stated, “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other”, then its value is not mercenary or static. It is invaluable in a true sense. Any forum that allows that kind of dialogue to grow must, like Alice Yard, be free.

While we may desire more institutionalised forms of this dialogue: while we wish more of state or other organs, that is not the end of the matter. Alice Yard demonstrates the power of simply saying yes to art, and acting, with true volition and free will. It is as boundless as the imagination.

Imagine if we said yes like this more often, if we built spaces upon spaces for the mind, heart and society as a whole to exist, to flourish. Imagine, then act.

*

From Sunday Newsday, September 21, 2014.
Alice Yard website

7/15/14

In search of Dylan Thomas


"It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill. And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.  
"But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:
"All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem...."

***
READ my Zocalo Poets website post on the Dylan Thomas centenary, and a trip to his home-town, Laugharne, here.   

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