By Jean Hervé Charles
I told the editor of Caribbean News Now I am taking a hiatus for several weeks out of my weekly column to concentrate on adding the last touch to my book on a sustainable vision to create a rich, prosperous and independent Haiti. But two events happened this week that make me come out of my hibernation, albeit in the heat of summer.
One was the celebration on 27th July 2018 of the 70th anniversary of the big band, Septentrional of Haiti and, second, the passing of the renowned Trinidadian social critic and famous writer V.S. Naipaul at the age of 85 on 12th August 2018.
I am 72 years old. I grew up in the shadow of Septentrional; I am who I am because of the orchestra Septentrional and its alter ego companion Tropicana. Bon vivant, fine danseurs, vagabonds, with the joy of life, expecting to remain young at 92 because I often dance and celebrate with Septentrional and Tropicana.
Participating in a dance ball with Septentrional or Tropicana is a catharsis for the body and for the soul. The sweet and velvet rhythm of the compas music brings you to another time, where men were gallant and women sexy to their bone. The enchanting moment of dancing their music creates a catharsis that transforms any stress into a nirvana that prolongs for days until the next dance.
Later in life, around my 30s, while in the School of Social Work, I have discovered in one of the book stores on Broadway, New York, around Columbia University, Naipaul’s book “The Bend in the River”, I was hooked. I dreamed since of exploring the same complex reality of the life of the immigrant trying to reach his zenith while being held back by the load of baggage of the ancestral life.
Septentrional, along with its companion Tropicana, is not well known in the English Caribbean, while Naipaul is unknown in Haiti. I thought I would reflect on this dichotomy and offer the reader the opportunity to reflect and propose an encompassing Caribbean that will be enriched by the teaching of VS Naipaul as well as by the music of Septentrional and Tropicana. As such, a network of sharing of literary and musical genius would render the Caribbean a true germ of nature.
In Haiti, where the institutions live only the passing of the rose, Septentrional has survived the vicissitudes of the dictatorial life as well as the deception of democracy to renew its crew and set itself in the musical panorama for another septennial. The orchestra was the brainchild of the maestro Ulrick Pierre Louis, who died a decade ago.
Septentrional benefited at the very beginning of the goodwill of the Cape Haitian elite bourgeoisie that made the band its preferred instrument. Septentrional, unlike Tropicana, which is today 55 years old, did not suffer the scorn of the intelligentsia of the city. It rode with the adulation of its fans enjoying decades of success until a large portion of the elite of Haiti left the homeland to take refuge in New York, Montreal or Paris to avoid prison and other inflicting pain by the militia of the Duvalier regimes.
Tropicana was the band of the masses; it suffered the difficult 70s and 80s with an easier time to rise up to the top becoming the darling of the entire republic, including its Diaspora. There was a healthy competition between the two bands that helped each one to try to overcome the other in popularity and in bookings.
That competition has died down today; at the celebration of Tropicana’s 55th birthday on August 15, 2018, Septentrional played together with its rival. The fact of today is both bands are major institutions in their own right. They are surviving in confidence towards the future as the old star players who died are replaced by a younger crew who adopted the discipline, the scholarship and the excellence to produce old and new music with the same virtuosity.
The politicians present at the anniversary dance promised to work together for a better Haiti and for a better city of Cape Haitian, the hometown of both bands. May the Caribbean and the world take notice: a united Haiti will produce results that defy the present oddity of the western civilization.
Yet neither Septentrional nor Tropicana is known or called upon to play in the greater Caribbean area. The same phenomenon is repeated in Haiti for one of the greatest writers of all times in the Western World – V.S. Naipaul is not known in Haiti. He may be, after William Shakespeare, according to Thoreaux, one of the greatest writers in the English language of all times.
Naipaul was more than a fine writer, his accounts while he went meandering throughout the world represent the best story telling after Euripides on the mores of people, of nations and of civilizations.
I was fortunate to have a Trinidadian friend Eddy Harper with whom I visited the entire globe through the benefits of Club Med. Eddy was working for Club Med. He could bring a friend with him free of charge. And, as Naipaul, I have amassed a load of information about people and about nations that weekly I share with my readers through Caribbean News Now a la Euripides or a la Naipaul, as it is. Writing as a passion has become a second habit, insisting on telling the naked truth as it is, with safeguards that respect only the boundaries of excellence, congeniality and humanism.
Naipaul was born in Trinidad and Tobago of Hindu parents who were forced to migrate to the Caribbean by colonial England. He received a scholarship to continue his studies at Oxford, Great Britain, and that is where the young Naipaul started his magnificent career as a social critic who saw Oxford as a great plantation, the British people proud to be stupid.
As he travelled towards the world, Naipaul had more to say: about Africa, he found it without hope with its rulers, mainly former freedom fighters who insisted in remaining in power for life, sacrificing the future and the hope of their people on the altar of venality and facilitator of the dominion of the colonizers.
Of his homeland, Trinidad, Naipaul finds it insignificant. I visited Trinidad, some 30 years ago; I made the irreverent wish to God to send me to Trinidad when I die. I have found it the equivalent of heaven on earth. It has become today, purgatory or even hell on earth, due to corruption, insecurity, racial division and crass consumption.
Invited to teach at Wesleyan University, a college for women, Naipaul, was loved by a few but despised by many. He was a teacher who forced you to confront your own self and enjoy the passion of learning.
Of the black American, he opined they are only concerned about issues of race. The black Americans have nothing to say but to talk about blackness. Naipaul albeit of a dark skin, saw himself as a bearer of the universal civilization, neither black nor white, but someone who uses ambition, effort, responsibility, tolerance and rejects fanaticism to transcend the difficulty of life to become the best person that one can be.
He wrote some 30 books, amongst the best known are: Among the Believers, his trip to the Mecca exploring the world of the Musulmans, the Enigma of the Arrivals, Miguel Street, An Area of Darkness and In a Free State amongst others.
It would have been interesting to have Naipaul marry the theory with the practicum and engage in politics to become either a prime minister of Trinidad or foreign minister in England. The Caribbean or the entire planet would be a different and better world.
I foresee Naipaul and his teaching forcing the end of hypocrisy of the faux democracy in the islands, which send their best minds to London, Ontario or New York because of the spiritual and cultural poverty of the region.
The hypocrisy of the western countries such as England, France, and Germany that claim to welcome the migrants from their former colonies while paying low interest in their future and not going back to the roots seeking why they are leaving their homeland in the first place.
It would have been interesting to find out what Naipaul thought of Donald Trump and his policy of America First while giving a hard time to the migrants to come and reside in the United States. Naipaul was this fresh mind that, like Socrates, forces you to ask fundamental questions about your identity and your contribution to the universe.
Will the University of the West Indies or even Oxford or Harvard or Columbia dedicate a chair to the studies of the writing of Sir V.S. Naipaul, as he was knighted by the Queen of England, and holder of a Nobel Laureate!
I was blessed to be schooled by Naipaul through his books that I have copiously sought each time one came out instead of being enthused by new Nike tennis shoes or a new smartphone. I was also blessed to live in a world where Septentrional and Tropicana was around to teach me to enjoy life to the fullest as God has made us to be.
It says as such in Psalms 27.4: I am not a dour God who discourages pleasure, I delight in your enjoyment of everything that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable. Think on these things and my light in you will shine brighter day by day.
The moral of this essay is a call for a long life for Naipaul’s teaching and instruction, and long live Tropicana and Septentrional, may a critical mass of our society enrich themselves musically and intellectually through the genius of this passing giant and the virtuosity of those big bands that will endure the span of time to remain with us forever as stars in the Caribbean panorama!
The Caribbean will become then the best place on earth to live, educate children and receive visitors, who will have the privilege to enjoy, at least for a week, heaven on earth.