By Dr Kim Johnson
“Like drinking from a fire hose.” That is how Culture Minister Lincoln Douglas described CARIFESTA XI. And, perhaps not in the way intended, he was correct. You ended up unsatisfied amidst plenty, because it was so disorganized.
Dr Kim Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Academy for Arts, Letters and Public Affairs at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. He was the 2011 Humanities laureate of the Anthony Sabga Awards for Caribbean Excellence. His documentary film Learning to Look about the experience of deafness premiered at the Trinidad Film Festival in 2011. He has published widely on the history and culture of the region. His books include The Fragrance of Gold: Trinidad in the Age of Discovery; Renegades; If Yuh Iron Good You Is King – Steelband Stories; Descendants of the Dragon; The Illustrated Story of Pan, and Tin Pan To TASPO: Origins of the steelband in Trinidad 1939 -1951. He has forthcoming Jahaji Tempo: Indian music in Trinidad and Constructing in Men’s Minds: 50 Years of UNESCO in T&T. His ongoing work includes scriptwriting and co-producing the film PAN! A Modern Odyssey (see: www.pan.tt), as well as spin-off documentaries on pan in India, Nigeria and Japan, and a documentary on Caribbean Percussive Traditions.
Daily schedules of shows, their venues and times changed by the hour. After a one-hour trip to see Maroon culture in New Amsterdam you discover it’s been cancelled. “Suriname night” finished an hour early, so a late arrival got little.
You had to abandon yourself to luck and chance: go somewhere and hope something is about to happen that will be interesting.
I never saw what I’d looked for: Maroon woodwork, for instance; I didn’t hear what I’d listened for: Javanese gamelan music. But other things emerged that were sometimes marvelous: the Belizean National Dance Theatre (Picture 1), the all-female Maroon group Naks Makeda. There were even secret events, such as the presentation for producers and booking agents, where our lovely Nalini Akal performed a titillating belly dance.
The country booths, art exhibition and literary displays were found at the suburban Grand Cultural Market. There Darren Chee Wah demonstrated how Trinis could turn even painting into extempo by creating a bright, cheerful mural in a few hours (Picture 2). There were the culinary exhibitions – i.e. food stalls. There were two stages, one at the front and the other at the back of the large compound they alternated in facilitating groups to deafen you with modern pop or traditional music.
Which was when, no one could predict. So maybe that’s where I might have heard my gamelan. Instead I only encountered raucous soca or soca-like noise-making, and ritual stuff like tassa and chutney.
I guess age does not endear you to such frenzy, but it does warm you to the more mature charms of Paramaribo, the city and her people, for which I remain eternally grateful to CARIFESTA.
Tramping sweatily around under her clear, blue sweltering sky I encountered a city of wood that was as delicate and intricate as lace.
Some of it was new, spectacularly so in the case of the Catholic Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, standing nearly 150 feet tall, it is the biggest wooden structure in the Western hemisphere (Picture 3).
A Jewish theatre symbolically converted into a Catholic church in 1826, it was rebuilt as a cathedral in 1882. Crumbling and termite-ridden by the 21st century, restoration began in 2007 and completed in 2010.
The building is lovely on the outside, but only when I chanced damnation one afternoon to peep inside after I’d heard jazz seeping out of the edifice did I feel that combination of wonder and fear known as awe.
Every fleur-de-lis (Pictures 4 and 5), every station of the cross, all the columns, every intricate detail, everything except the floor was worked with an almost medieval artistry but in wood (Picture 6).
The main body of a Christian cathedral is meant to symbolize a ship – “nave” is Latin for ship – which bears worshippers through life’s storms, and in St Peter and St Paul the symbol feels very real. While the outside is painted yellow and lilac, inside the nave remain in the warm tones of unvarnished timber, which perfumes the edifice. Here you are edified through all your senses, as in other great cathedrals, Notre Dame in Paris, St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican or Westminster Abbey in London, the glory of God.
Actually, I think it’s the glory of a people, because much of Paramaribo shows the same sensitivity to beauty and taste in every block of wood (Picture 7). In the city centre many, perhaps most official buildings are old, wooden two- or three-storied structures. These black-and white public buildings are less Dutch than New Orleans in their look, their ornate fretwork and overhanging balconies that provide shade from the sun and shelter from the rain (Pictures 8 and 9).
Some were downright ramshackle (Pictures 10 and 11). The Ministry of Justice was so dilapidated it had to be draped in cloth for Carifesta (Picture 12). But most of these in good, workable condition and some quite pristine.
This was not “restoration” but rather everyday “renewal”, not preservation for museum display but life itself. Because Paramaribo was a living city, with dwelling houses a short walk away from downtown. My home, Guesthouse Twenty4, was a five-minute walk from the cathedral. Another five minutes beyond was the lively Zeus and Zoe guesthouse and bar, my second home (Picture 13).
Even that awful sign of modern times: the burglar bars, showed imagination almost to the point of beauty (Picture 14).
The people certainly were beautiful. There were mulatto and Chinese people as we know, and white foreigners, but black people had silky-smooth, jet black skin that we seldom see. There are seven Maroon nations in Suriname, slaves who fought for and won their freedom, and thus remained racially and culturally closer to Africa than in the rest of the Caribbean. There were Indians like ours but there were also Indonesians, whose broad, flat faces, high-cheekbones and full lips gave the women a sensuousness that could almost make a grown man weep.
Also, they were slim. Teenagers were skinny, as yet uninfected by wealth, although that was hovering on the horizon: you could see it in the suburbs, where rich people were building super-sized, ugly, air-conned boxes of concrete, steel and glass, much like ours.
Still, Par’bo was like T&T half-century ago. People lived more or less harmoniously next to one another without mixing. There were newspapers in several ethnic languages: Chinese, Hindi, Javanese. When I visited the Chinese market I was the only non-Chinese in that crowded, bustling piece of old Canton. This country has much to show me about myself, I thought, and I left unsatisfied and vowing to return one day, unencumbered by offspring, so I could revel in her charms more fully.
Originally published by the Trinidad Guardian. Republished with permission.