Stories from Trinidad

Stories from Trinidad

Written By:

Gerd De Wilde (The Wild)


November 14, 2014

1. What about Trinidad?

„What about Trinidad?” my friend Edo Bouman asked.

„I don’t know, what about it?” I answered.

I was planning my yearly digging-trip-dressed-up-as-holiday. For years I have wanted to go to Madagascar. Amazing unique nature, some strange music I been wanting to know more about and the fact that island had had a proper vinyl pressing plant and somebody had unearthed a massive stock of utterly rare 78s had spawned my interest in the African island even more. Trinidad, on the other hand, had never really captivated my interest, musically or otherwise.

Some quick searches taught me that it was tiny, tropical and just off the coast of Venezuela. Besides calypso I didn’t have a clue what to expect of it musically. Edo and I discussed the pros and cons of both islands and in the end I figured it might even be more adventurous to go somewhere where I didn’t have a clue at all about how it would turn out. Tickets were bought: „hey ho let’s go”!

After some inquiring it turned out, some people we knew had been there. Marthy Couman, a Dutch digger, seller and connoisseur of all kinds of outsider rock, oriental music and garage had been there a decade before for a day or two and came back with a very pleasant amount of records, his conclusion: records all over the place but don’t bother to find any reggae or ska. Ziad aka Blue Flamingo, another Dutchmen, 78 collector and compiler had been there to try to find calypso 78s and his entire trip had provided him with only a handful. Mixed feelings.

As a preparation I tried to find some interesting literature about the island or it’s (musical) history. It turned out there was an absolute abundance of academic publications to be found about Trinidad and it’s musical history. As part of the Caribbean Trinidad has a rich, complex and unique past. A true melting pot of cultures, influences and a stronghold for post colonial thinking. Eric Williams’ „From Columbus To Casto - A history of the Caribbean” and „Music from behind the Bridge” by Shannon Dudley (about steel band culture) provided an interesting mental preparation before plunging into the Caribbean.

2. Soca Music

Upon arrival Trinidad or better it’s capital Port Of Spain didn’t seem abundant with „tropical swag”, the main square in the grip of Kentucky Fried Chicken, fashion outlets or pizza joints. The area around Mas camp where we had rented an apartment seemed perhaps a bit dull even, big roads’n plenty cars, oh well, this was the capital after all. We took an evening to settle in and about 12 hours to let the vinyl fever get to a boiling point…and transform us into hunters. With our sharpened feverish senses and experiences in remote parts of this planet and different terrains Edo and I knew how to trace, trap and haul in large vinyl preys. Even though it is not something I am particularly proud of (pursuing material goods) and the process itself is more something like a struggle filled with moral, economic and humane considerations, „the fever” creates a one-track-mind: first we trace and trap then we think about how to deal with it.

In three days we had local cell phones, placed adds in the paper, put up adds in the streets, located all the record stores in Port Of Spain and spoken to dozens of people in the street, cab drivers and everybody that seemed vaguely „musical”. Phone calls started to come in and we organized them in location, size and style of the collections people called us about. Besides the „material end goal” of our endeavor it was a tremendous vehicle for meeting people, long talks and discussions about our freshly acquired knowledge (the books we were reading, the music and artists we were discovering) and the exploration of different areas, housing situations and hospitality of the Trinidadians. The trip became an adventure.

One of our first contacts was Nelson. A hard to pinpoint character but funky, party loving, although this, we soon discovered, seemed to be a national trait, and a tad „dirty” (the implicit sexual references) could apply. Nelson had also worked as a studio engineer in the famous Semp studios. His massive 4 wheel drive drove us to his house where we spent an awesome evening sipping from his 20 liter (!) rum bottle, listening to his records (discovering the Wilson Le Gendre’s Soca Music `45 that literally made me jump up half a meter after hearing the first bars - and instantly made me want to reissue it). That night we learned what „liming” was all about. Trinidad’s favorite pass time, to me, has the best word to describe it „liming”: a mixture of socializing, drinking, partying, getting together, perhaps some dancing but overall feeling happy and sharing the moment.

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3. Orisha

The next three weeks we would Lime like we never limed before. On top of that the island was particularly well accommodated to host liming sessions. Even the most remote spots had huge sound systems, barbecues and an abundance of liquor. The world famous Trinidad carnival seemed to be but an expression of the much vaster underlying everyday cathartic hubris in Trinidad. In Europe hangovers, guilt and agenda’s would activate our Christian abstinence, but here, on holiday…

The next week we started visiting the different collections, while finding new contacts and traveling through the island. With one million inhabitants word also spread very fast and soon people started to know about us. We met or interviewed Carl Beaver Henderson, Winsford Devine, David Beresford (Semp records), Michael Boothman, Joey Lewis and Joey Lewis Jr., legendary radio Dj Daddy Scratch, Christine Tanker (Andre Tanker’s daughter) we saw performances by Black Stalin, Joey Lewis and Michael Boothman, played pan, and got involved in an afro Caribbean trance ceremony somewhere in the tropical forest of Trinidad, a particularly moving afternoon where a woman (possessed by a sea god) inflicted possessions on a number of the people who were attending the ceremony.

In the search for a copy shop to make photocopies of our „vinyl wanted” posters I had come across a small bookshop in a gallery in Port Of Spain. It was stuffed with „conscious literature”, books about African religion, beads and incense. I started going through the shelves and started talking with the owner a particularly radiant black woman. I asked if Orisha was still actively practiced and where. She told that there would be a rather rare „festival” coming up somewhere in the mountains north of Port Of Spain. I took down the details and we planned the trip, it sounded awesome even though we had no idea what it would be like. When we headed down a week later we drove about an hour to get there and eventually continuing with the car on a dirt road, my idea of festival” started to take a different turn. This wasn’t gonna be a mass event with hamburger stalls. For a moment we thought we had even mistaken location or date, about 40 people were there and we slowly and kind of insecurely approached. There was no anonymous blending here.

Two long small houses, a big high shelter all surrounded by lush tropical forest made the scene. People were sitting around the shelter at tables. Upon entrance we saw a fairly outraged or ecstatic woman being accompanied by two other women into one of the small houses. We were welcomed and invited to take our shoes off and follow to a small and muddy grass field in which a 10 m high totem pole was placed. We joined hands with the people around us and an older woman in a white dress started chanting and teaching the chants to those present. We joined the chanting as good as we managed, after about half an hour when the walking around barefoot in the muddy grass, chanting and holding hands started to become a bit of a drag a young woman in an impeccable white dress with bloodshed and wide-open eyes walked in the group. A fairly intimidating presence that first observed and then started talking, whispering or mumbling into the ears of those present. A sea god had taken control of her (we learned after) and she now started transferring information, lessons or warnings to the community. She told me I should stop grieving about a lost one and I had no clue what she was talking about.

When everybody was „informed”, the strength of her trance started to fade and the procession moved from the field to the shelter where song and dance continued and everybody was invited to share and express their talents. Awful singing or dreadful percussion displays by children were enthusiastically and lovingly encouraged. When they turned to me and asked what I wanted to share I replied that I had absolutely no singing talent (which is true) but that I could play some percussion or perform some capoeira moves - they were both lovingly and enthusiastically encouraged…After a while more percussion started to come in and I actually saw several people „fall” into trance and start to turn and twitch on the ground, it all felt surprisingly natural as if this was just another day at „the church”. All of a sudden I became aware of a strong warm ball of energy that „climbed up” from between my legs and went straight up through my body and by the time it was at my chest (it all went quite fast really) I realized that „it was going to take hold of me” - that it was the energy that put people in a trance, I kind of froze up and remember thinking „no, no, no, I’m not ready for this”. It went as it came and I kind of quickly realized that it was a shame I hadn’t „surrendered to it”.

It was an unusual afternoon that ended in a communal meal, the fact of being a total outsider to this was tempered by the fact that our presence was never questioned only welcomed and also that even though Orisha is an old religion on the island, the community that practices it is not big. We could sense that many of the participants were also apprentices. The entire afternoon didn’t feel like a solid routine, many people were also struggling with the chanting or in taking the next step of the ritual. Nevertheless Orisha religion in Trinidad is one of the fastest growing nowadays.

4. Calypso spirit

Finding people in Trinidad was very easy, everybody seemed to know each other or at least they were able to pinpoint you to the right direction or person. It became bizarrely apparent when one day we wanted to visit Winsford „The Joker” Devine. The Joker is a legendary calypso writer that had penned quite a number of the hits that propelled The Mighty Sparrow into stardom and all in all is responsible for some 600 calypso lyrics. We were struggling to think of what to bring as a present. Edo and I started considering our options in the street when a vendor of one of the stalls approached us and asked what we were looking for. And we explained we needed something for somebody we didn’t know, he asked us who we were going to visit he simply replied: „ooh Winsford, well he’s a grape guy you know, you need to bring him grapes”. Although it seemed like a handy sales trick we didn’t question for a second that he was joking. This random street vendor knew that Winsford Devine likes grapes. We were baffled and delighted at the same time. It was simple but telling example of the tightly woven social fabric of a small Island community.

Devine, a true Trinidad legend and his house was filled with numerous decorations, prizes and other trophies…but besides all the honors he never really got any financial reward for his songwriting efforts. He was the true man in the shadow. Often he wasn’t credited for his songs and rarely received any money from copyrights, it’s something he got to be bitter about but that and a series of strokes never really got him down. He took us up to his creative room and even though he had difficulties with talking and walking Devine was still composing. Always reflecting about unconventional themes (he was currently working on some UFO lyrics) angles and jokes. It was an honor to see the pleasure and inventiveness at work of the man that had singlehandedly propelled calypso culture over several decades.

I found the same drive with Carl Beaver Henderson. Henderson is another legend and credited as one of the people responsible for the creation of Soca, a genre that took the Caribbean by storm. It originated when they tried to fuse Indian music with Caribbean music. Henderson had managed the royalties from his numerous hits or productions quite well and he now showed me his brand new studio, which was just about to be finished. A state of the art affair where „Beaver” was scheming on yet another new genre: a mixture of Euro dance and Caribbean music, something his gut feeling told him that it was going to be gold once again! I didn’t quite feel it but then Euro house is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

All in all the month in Trinidad was quite amazing and the willingness to jump in the deep and discover the music of a place I didn’t quite knew and had never tempted me before was very much worth it. We took some amazing music home and whenever I feel the need to relax I remember my Trinidadian liming lessons, play a calypso tune and all is good and sweet once again.

The Wild has been Dj'ing for over 14 years. As a digger he has traveled some remote parts of the globe to unearth rare and beautiful music: from Korea to Trinidad, from Brazil to Indonesia. Some of that music is now being released on his micro label Out There Records, which produces small press, hand made, high quality musical pearls. He is also part of the Finders Keepers / B Music collective for which he does research He has also collaborated with Jazzman records for licensing and research. Besides these activities he has run a 10 year radioshow on and now has a radio show on the national radio Fm Brussels. He is the booker of Bonnefooi, one of Brussels' most vibrant music venues.

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