Reflections from the Heart of Waitukubuli…

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Cover of “Verses from atop the Mountain”… Photo by author. (c)

When I started making plans to have my fourth book, Verses from atop the Mountain, published, I thought of a number of individuals whom I wanted to ask to write the Foreword. I wanted someone whom I could identify with as a villager from St. Joseph and one who was aware of the literary road I had travelled to this point.

Forewords to my previous books had been written by Alwin Bully, Lenox Honeychurch, and Edward “King Shakey” James, so I decided it would be a good idea to add a new voice to my work and I believed it would be great to have that new perspective on my work. I have worked with Alwin, Lennox and Shakey in various aspects of my past publications and I wanted a new voice.

After careful consideration, I finally decided upon Ted Serrant; a young man from my home village, St. Joseph, Dominica. I knew Ted growing up and I also had the opportunity to have him as a student during my short stint as a teacher at the St. Joseph Government School. However, I did not get the opportunity to have him as a student at the St. Mary’s Academy where I later taught, since he went to the Dominica Grammar School. I wonder what that would have been like!!! Ted was a very challenging student back then and as an inexperienced teacher stepping into the classroom, I had to muster all the skills I could to do a good job and, yes, to sound, “smart and educated.” I was dedicating Verses from atop the Mountain, to the children of St. Joseph and I felt Ted represented most of the children that I had in mind.

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A view of Senjo sitting on the fringes of the Caribbean Sea… Photoby author (c)

I also recognized the role Ted, who just recently attained his Ph. D from the University of Pittsburgh, had begun to play in the field of education in Dominica and also because he, of humble beginnings, had surmounted many odds and had now become a great example to the young people of St. Joseph. I saw in him one that the young people could emulate and know that with determination, their goals are attainable especially in an era when good role models are difficult to find.

I contacted Ted and I was extremely pleased when he agreed to write the Foreword. I sent him a copy of the manuscript and waited as I worked feverishly on getting my second full-length book of poetry ready. When Ted sent the write-up, I realized I had made a good choice. Not because what he wrote pleased me, (that was good) but because of the way he “painted” the collection of poems. I felt pleased that one of my own: a past student; neighbor, villager and community minded person, had worked with me and my small team that included Lionel Leslie, Kalinago Woryi and Ophelia Olivaccé-Marie, in putting together what I hope will be a well-received publication. The journey was proceeding well!

 

This is what Ted wrote:

Lotka’s law posits that most people will write one article or one book in their lifetime. This, I believe, is Giftus’ fourth anthology of poems. Giftus has defied the odds. He has been defying the odds for a long time. I know! He taught me years ago. I congratulate you on a provoking piece of work, and thank you for inviting me to present the foreword for this anthology. I am honored that the teacher can turn it over to his student.

Verses From Atop The Mountain signals a proclamation; a call; a cry. This proclamation is symbolized both by the verses and the location from which they are proclaimed. The mountains, therefore, are metaphors for heights attained and the universality of the messages embedded in these verses. They are also symbolic of Giftus’ mountainous island origin and the land that remains almost like an unsettled bargain in these verses. “The Migrant Song” captures that unsettled existence derived from residence in an adopted homeland. Much of the work in this anthology, then, comes from lived experiences and a persistent banter between what is and what used to be, what is left behind and what one now contends with. In “The Land Beckons Me,” he finds solace and the assurance that he is not a castaway confirming the temporariness of the migrant tension between the homeland and the adopted homeland.

The work is a “literary hopscotch” (and I mean it in a flattering way,) of themes that addresses love, nature, reality, expectations, dreams and ambitions lined with hope and restoration: “The Sun Rises Tomorrow;” “The Morning Awakens.” This hopscotching, to me, is the art of a multifaceted artist, and Giftus is multifaceted. He is painter, writer, and poet. This book bears this out as he weaves together pieces on the spring, fall and the snow; things that are transient and yet in “Ode to a Tree Stump,” he finds not just death, decay, and a break from the past, but endurance of that past. With its roots buried deeply, the stump remains as a lasting memory of its legacy. For him, the more things change the more they remain the same. That sentiment comes through in his serious treatises on politics and freedom, two of the things that vex us most.

This anthology traverses the human emotion as well: From an elusive love to solitude, nightmare, cowardice, and death—his mom’s. Then almost in a ‘tantalizing soliloquy,’ he asked, “For whom does the church bell toll?” Despite the hopscotching, Giftus returns again and again to the theme of his beloved land and community, a microcosm of the returning nature of West Indian migration. In the end he reckons that we all are cut form the same cloth. Simply, this anthology is all of us, reflects all of us and speaks to all of us from the mountaintop. Listen!

 

Ted D. Serrant, PhD
Senior Fellow
Rise Institute
Washington, DC

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Drifting with Stein!

 

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Stein Henry-Author

calypso driftCalypso-wow! I just finished reading another book in my Dominican writers collection-Calypso Drift. I was riveted to his narrative-if I may call it so-by one of Dominica’s intellectuals, great speaker, radio personality, quiet at times, yet very gifted and knowledgeable-Steinberg Henry.

Calypso Drift stands out as one of a kind in Dominica’s literary circles. Stein Henry has written or compiled a thesis of Dominica’s calypso: The writers, singers, events, topics and situations, the hidden messages, double messages, the history and growth of calypso in Dominica, albeit from 1962, Slasher and “Honourable Frank Baron.”.

Stein has been able to look at the numerous calypsoes; calypsonians who sang them; but more specifically, at the writers who have penned these calypsoes and who serve as the moral or social policemen in Dominica, highlighting the ills, joys, and difficulties of our society.

I find this book a very impressive one as Stein dissects the many calypsoes that, throughout the years, have hit the airwaves and have been performed in venues such as tents or, different stages on the way to the national finals. He has done a wonderful job in marrying the art form to situations within Dominica and the role that calypsoes have played and continue to play in bringing those situations to light whether political, religious, sexual, ethical, moral or immoral.

As I read through the chapters, or segments, as Stein referred to them, I could hear that unique voice of his relating the story so eloquently, like he always does, bringing the book to life and bringing back or resurrecting, I dare say, some of the calypsoes that were once “masterpieces,” but now buried somewhere or packed in a cabinet gathering dust or on tapes crumbling with time.

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Lord Tokyo-Tennis Shoe Scandal

With magnificent flow, Earl Ettiene’s artistic images also bring the book to life: the end of each of the fourteen segments which make up Calypso Drift is marked by festive images. Those paintings feature Bellaire dancers, carnival revelers, singers, Dominica’s national wear and its traditional musical instruments. Those images can cause a drift even in their stillness!

Interspaced with a few humorous words, phrases or statements and his references to the words “calypso” and “drift,” this book transported me to the various venues in Roseau, Newtown and Goodwill where the competitions — eliminations, quarters, semis and finals, as well as events at the tents were held. There, the aspirants and the seasoned campaigners tried to weave their musical magic and artistry towards winning the coveted calypso crown.

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King Dice- 2014

At a time when the only drift I seem to be familiar with in North America is snow drift, it was a heartwarming, educational, historical drift with Stein. No, I was not drifting in the wind like a loose kite, but I was tethered to his delivery on something or a bit of our history and cultural heritage, that we, as Dominicans, seem to cast aside on Ash Wednesday. I personally got a lesson in the theatrics of calypso–the little tactful battles between writers and singers; singers and singers and the crowd involvement in all of this.

I applaud him for the research he did in compiling this book and all the work he has put into this to take us along a journey with him as he drifted from Krazy Coconuts, to Harlem to Windsor Park and the Grammar School grounds. He showed us the creativity and craftiness of those who penned the calypsoes especially Pat Aaron, Tim Durand, Freddie Mendes (May he rest in peace,) Karessa, Patrick John-yes, the former Prime Minister, Gina Letang and Ian Jackson.

And, it was not only about calypso and the calypsonians. Stein drifted to the Carnival Queen events; the numerous shows held to coincide with carnival, and all that circle around this great calypso spectacle. His view through wide angled lens of his mental camera, focused on all participants in these events who hailed, not only from Roseau, but from country…yes. We are no longer “country bookies.”

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Tasha P-Calypso Queen 2011

Calypso has grown from being something that the slaves sang; then regarded by some as something that viex neg sang, (just like we once viewed pan players), and today, like Stein says, everyone participates: Police officers, teachers, church men, ministers of government (Ian dog Las’), women (Tasha P-2011 Monarch, Tarina – 2007 First Runner-Up), radio personalities, high school kids…It is the medium through which we have been able to express our disgust, hate, love or appreciation, of whatever we are inclined to gripe, w(h)ine, sing praises about, not just to win the crown, but to make the voices of the people heard through them–de calypsonians.

As I read the book wanting to know what came in the next chapter, I felt a bit unhappy that those responsible have not been able to put a compilation of Dominica’s calypsoes on sale throughout the year. Is it government? Is it the Calypso Association? Is it Cultural Department? Or is it the musicians themselves? Why, I wonder?

This is ours and yet, unlike cadence-lypso, bouyon, reggae and the other music forms, our DJs, and those in a position to make these songs become part of our Dominican experience, send them to calypso cemetery-does this ring a note? “Mas in De cemetery?” I am of the opinion that this “one time and done” mentality has short-circuited the growth of our calypso at home and in the region.

As you read this book, and based on what I have heard, you realize or you are reminded, that there have been many great songs that calypsonians in Dominica–not Trinidad or St. Lucia or Barbados–in Dominica, have performed throughout the years, but now languishing somewhere, not played by our DJs who, surprisingly, spin songs of non-Dominicans…but, listen to this, the non-Dominicans, as Stein so well stated-DO NOT PLAY OURS!!! You catch my drift? I hope you do:

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Karessa 2015 Calyspso King

 

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King Shakey-1979

The songs like those from the late Spider (Shilo 1980); Picky (Dear Dragon 1977—Picky keeps going like the Eveready battery: He deserves a national honor for longevity in the art form); Ency (Consider Me 1985); Dice (Roll The Dice 2008/These Are The Days 2006); Tarina (Lifeline 2007); Shakey (Dayba Pou Dayba 1977); De Rabbit (Marry De Gir 1985); Lord Tokyo (Tennis Shoe Scandal 1970); Karessa (Pastor Rod 2009); Tronada (Dey Fraid 1982); Tasha P (Woman Time/Let The Children Be Children 2011); Daddy Chess (Destiny/Somebody Have To Pay 2001); Hunter (Typical Dominican 2007); Mighty Solo (Mas In De Cemetery & one of Dominica’s threepeat Kings in 1975, 76, 77); De Idol (Ilene)– (another threepeat King in 1964, 65, 66); Lord Breaker (IncomeTax Rebel 1967); De Brakes (Workers 2000/Keep The Candles Burning 1999); De Hurricane (Wounded Lion 2000/Utility Pressure 1990) and others, get us on the dance floor whenever they are played. However, unless the calypsonian has the means to record his song, it becomes just another calypso. Will we ever stop singing “Mas in de Cemetery?” or “Tennis Shoe Scandal?” I doubt. Why then, do we not have something that we can have as a memento? One that we can play anytime we want rather than wait for the DJ on the radio to play when he wants and also something that the visitor can take away with him after coming to Dominica for carnival or any time of the year.

Calypso is us. It is our way of saying what bothers us and others, though sometimes to the extreme. It is where the coward feels fearless; where the introvert becomes the Road March king making us all jump, whine or is it wine, as in “Pastor Wine?” Look trouble eh, with Dominica’s calypsonians!

Calypso Drift is a remarkable account of our history in song–our social commentary from our own pulpit; our own courtroom; our own roadside meeting as seen from the perspective of a quiet, yet deep thinking individual, who leads us by the hand lest we go adrift from calypso island. Calypso Drift is a book, or a story, or a history about Dominican calypso and all that encompasses it during carnival season. Anyone who is a carnival lover; anyone who is a calypso lover; anyone involved in any aspect of our island culture: art, music, story-telling, education; anyone who wants to have an insight, or breakdown, or post-mortem of Dominican calypso, should avail himself or herself with a copy. Using a bit of our local parlance…This is a zye ouvert (an eye opener)–jouvert, papa— into the calypso machinations in Dominica.

Stein, I know your dad must be proud of the job that you have done. So too, am I. Well done bro.

Calypso, mama! Calypso!

 

Hopscotch—Spotlight on Dominica’s Youth

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Hopscotch-Ophelia Olivacce’-Marie-Author

When Ophelia Olivacce’-Marie—Lady O, as I affectionately refer to her—reached out to me for some guidance about publishing a book, I did not have to think twice about helping her. Ophelia and I go back a long way; first when she was a teacher at the Convent High School, then as a co-worker at the Youth Development Division and co-producer of the Youth Radio Program, Search (the forerunner to Youth Vibes)- and then as a friend.

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Marcia Baptiste-Miss Dominica 2010

I know Ophelia as a singer—La Grande Dame de Chanson de la Caribe—not as a writer, but I did not think about questioning her. I believed, with her experience and knowledge, she was quite capable of writing on anything she wanted. She is smart, quick witted and very friendly and outgoing and I was sure she was capable of writing a book.

However, after reading through Hopscotch, I believe my perception was right. I read the book within a day because I was very enthralled by the profiles of the fifty young persons she highlighted. I wanted to stay in the moment, so to speak. It was very refreshing reading about what these young people have achieved through hard work, dedication, love of community and love of country. These are the people who will one day be our cultural, artistic, social, religious and political leaders and yes, there are many more, but these  in some way, have stood out and Ophelia has been impressed with what they’ve been doing.

Hopscotch is a refreshing look at what young Dominicans have been able to achieve in various aspects of life and with various challenges. It is a heartwarming collection of perseverance, faith, personal sacrifice, imagination and dedication of young people who each represent a number of young people like themselves, throughout Dominica. Yet, as young people they will need our guidance and role models and what better person to start with than others like themselves and undoubtedly, also Ophelia; a community minded individual. A national icon-I dare say who has been at the front, leading in all that’s good for this country from the time she’s been singing.

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Ian “Linton” St. Louis

It is said so many times that we highlight the bad sides of our youth, and yes it does happen, but I must give all the kudos to Ophelia for going out there and bringing the stories of young people to the fore; telling their story; sharing their hopes and dreams and aspirations; their highs and lows; their faith in what is good. Hopscotch is a symbol of hope for Dominica.

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Karessa-2015 Calypso King

As I read the book it brought back my own cry for something to be done about preserving the memory of those who have made sacrifices to elevate the cultural heritage of this country in all aspects. I would again like to see the responsible parties take the initiative and allow our famed historian, Dr. Lenox Honychurch to write a book for use in all our schools detailing the activities of some of the people that these young entrepreneurs; the young artistes and future leaders have noted as being their “heroes:” The people who helped lay the groundwork for them and assisted them along the way.

I thank and applaud Ophelia for taking that step in regard to our youth. She has done a splendid job and though I am sure that there are others just like those she profiled, it is a testimony of what our young people can achieve with guidance, faith in themselves and their abilities and the confidence to do the things they want. I hope the authorities will follow her lead and do the same for the elders who have blazed the trail for our young, dedicated and patriotic Dominicans.

Well done Lady-O.

Staying the Course

I was at an event recently, when a lady came over and engaged me in discussion about my artwork and books that were on display. She was very impressed with the quality of my work, but, before she left, she asked, “Where do you sell your work?” After telling her how I went about getting my work sold, she stated I was doing myself a disservice. She felt I needed to explore more lucrative venues, and events, if I have to be as successful as she thought I could be.

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Book by one of the Caribbean’s leading historians, Dr. Lennox Honychurch

This is a common theme at a number of events where my work is displayed and after a while, it becomes more of a motivating factor, to move beyond the level, that I am presently. At times too, it makes you ask yourself whether, what you’re doing, is a waste of time. It prompts you to ask yourself what else can be done to make such questions go away, not because you are offended, but because you realize that there are people who appreciate your work and the quality of work. How can you show them that you are interested in making a change or taking your work to another level?

I began writing poetry during my early years of high school in Dominica, and it was the appreciation by those who heard and read my work, that helped me move into the literary spotlight and become a household name. Individuals like Mrs. Phyllis Shand-Allfrey, Editor of the Star Newspaper, the late Marcel “D’jamala” Fontaine, Daniel “Papa Dee” Cauderion, Royston Ellis, and Alwin Bully..

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Island Sunset-Mero Beach

One of the highlights of my literary career, was lying in bed at my home in St. Joseph, many years ago, listening to the late Prime Minister, Hon. Mary Eugenia Charles, deliver her Independence Day message. To my greatest surprise I heard her mention my name and then she quoted lines from one of my poems “Towards A New Day,” from the collection, Words in the Quiet Moments. I was thrilled. The Prime Minister of our country had found it fit to use my poetry as she addressed the nation and the world. What an honor it was.

I dabbled with oil painting and photography before, and after, immigrating to the United States. However, I took them up seriously in 2009 while at home, and wanting to fill time, after having been laid off from my job, the year before. But, I had to deal with the disappointment expressed by my children, and my wife to some extent, who felt I had deprived them of my creativity all their lives. I thus had an added incentive to move on and dig deeper. I am pleased and proud that my daughter is now “stepping into the ring,” and beginning to display her own artistic talent on canvas.

However, being multi-talented, has been a good thing. I have been able to combine them all together when I paint or write or do photography. The knowledge of all three helps me “paint,” for lack of a better word, a clearer picture, when I put oil on canvas, write a poem or short story, or take a photograph. Not that I am an expert, far from that, but the little I know comes in handy. Many are surprised when they visit my booth at events and I tell them that all the paintings, photos and books, are my creation. “You did all this?” they would ask, sometimes, a bit bewildered, and doubtful, until they see my signature on the artwork and my name on the books.

The questions, queries, and words of fans, are rather encouraging. However, as an artist, I, like many of my fellow artists, who now reside, and create, outside of Dominica, face this challenge. I try to portray my art as close as possible to what I understand, cherish and can relate to, yet at the same time, be able to relay my message to the people whom I interact with on a daily basis, that is, besides fellow Dominicans.

Sometimes, the only opportunities we have, as artists, to showcase our work, are at cultural events which are far and few between, and even then, we get more compliments about what we do than selling what we do. Some say it is because our people have not been sensitized enough about Arts as some of us-the artists-expect. Usually, the artist has to make his own connection to attend the events rather than getting an invitation to participate. There is also the argument that it is also that we still, to this day, seem to believe that anything Dominican is inferior.

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Oil painting–The Freshwater Lake

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Oil painting by George “Georgi” Christian.

Dominica just celebrated its 36th year of Independence, and as an independent country, I have not seen a serious effort to harness and save the artistic creativity of our people. I already mentioned this on a previous blog so I won’t go into length on this. We have to devote a little more time at ensuring that the artistic creations whether in theatre, music, paintings, literature, get their rightful place in the annals of Dominica’s history. I have noted, just recently, that some individuals are asking questions as to the origins of certain folk/cultural songs. Is it because it did not matter at the time or we just pay lip service to the arts in our country and even when we go out? I am yet to understand why Dr. Lennox Honychurch, a noted Caribbean historian, has not been commissioned to write a History of the Island exclusively for use in ALL our schools. What are we waiting for?

If our own people do not show an appreciation for our talent and creative abilities (except at certain times of the year-Carnival and Independence,) then how do we expect others to exhibit that same love and appreciation for something that is foreign to them? How do we expect the artists, who spend time and effort at creating, to feel good about what they do. How do we expect them to feel appreciated for what they do, more specifically, upholding the culture of the island in many respects, when their work, is second-guessed, or they are seen as individuals trying to make money off our backs?

I am devoted to what I do. I have a love for what I do, not just to get paid for it (this is great) but because of what I gain emotionally, spiritually and mentally from engaging in the various art forms I have taken a liking to, and I am sure I am not alone. There are quite a number of us out in the “wilderness,” so to speak, honing our craft and being proud to do it: Among them; Christian George; Glenford John; Dave Wilson; Joszann St. John, Paula John, Steinberg Henry, Felix Augustine, Judge Irving Andre and Lola Louis; just to name a few.

So the struggle continues, notwithstanding. Frustrating? Yes. Rewarding? Yes. Enjoyable? Yes. But we need to ensure that our own are sensitive to what we do, not only for the complimentary word, but for accepting, not mediocrity, I should stress, but what is good. We have to debunk the saying “No prophet is wanted in his own country,” and say “All our prophets feel lost away from home.” meanwhile, I will surely stay the course!!!