Sunday 17th December, 2006

Simon Lee
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Notting like a Caribbean Christmas

So we hit a home stretch of sorts, just a week and change till Christmas. I wish the next few months were unfolding for me in Trinidad. In my San Jose de Oruna days and the preceding Kalay Village days, this was always a special time of year for me.

The first half of December meant the annual pilgrimage up the islands to Martinique for a ten-days of jazz or international guitar festival. This was an early Christmas present or rather a series of surprises and familiar gifts.

Reunions with my Martnik partners and the boys from Odessa Club—all two of us; night concerts in shimmering Fort-de-France or in the grounds of old rum distilleries; after-concert receptions for artistes and media held in old colonial habitations, where the mahogany tables groaned under the weight of French Creole delicacies and the Neissen Rhum flowed freely.

The chic capital of the French Antilles was always an ideal place to go shopping for gifts. If you were too broke to hit the Parisian-style boutiques, the narrow streets were thronged with vendors selling an assortment of kitsch watches and costume jewelry, and the best and worst of Taiwanese kids’ toys you knew wouldn’t survive until Boxing Day but would elicit the broadest of smiles come Christmas morning.

If I was flush enough, I’d put aside a whole morning to browse through the fabric stores, mulling over yards of bright madras to buy a length sufficient to make me two New Year’s shirts. And then lunch in the covered market amid the aromas of fresh spices and tropical blooms.

There would be trips up north to St Pierre, which until Mt Pelee blew its stack in 1902 and wiped out the entire population of 40,000 (bar the drunk Syparis who’d been locked up for customary disorderliness the night before) rivalled Havana for culture, style and nightlife.

In the 1880s and ’90s when New Orleans was rocking to rag and the beginnings of jazz, St Pierre was jazzing to the beguine, so who’s to say jazz didn’t begin in the Caribbean? I used to walk the bare streets of this fabled ghost town, listening to the strains of long gone clarinets, the syncopation of the ka drums, which had soaked into the scorched stones along with the bones of the incinerated.

There would be trips down south to St Anne, at the southern tip of the Island of Flowers, for one of my favourite concerts in the Caribbean: a freeko held in the tiny village square overlooking the warm waves.

On stage you might find the West Indies Jazz Band, or Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabete. The square would fill with dancing figures: old men pulled from their seats at the zinc-topped bar tables by bele rhythms or ancestral beats to which their blood was still attuned; the youthful Creole avant-garde fresh in from studies at the Sorbonne or the Film School at Columbia, New York, all wild locks and West African print pants.

It would always rain at some point at this concert; a fine slanting drizzle ideal for cooling dance-heated bodies and, if it really poured, there was the porch of the church in which to shelter while the music swept across the square and out to sea heading for le Diament, an outcrop of rock the British captured at one point, renaming it HMS Diamond.

And because this was Christmas season, wherever you went in the night there would be the strains of the Chantez Noel, communal Creole carol singing to the accompaniment of drums and percussion.

Even for a total infidel like this Jewish Creole, it was impossible not to soak up l’esprit de Noel. I’d spend the last of my change on decorations—the kind you just couldn’t get in Trinidad and hit Piarco several pounds heavier than when I’d flown out and with bags bursting with gifts.

Arriving in Trinidad in mid-December has to be magic: the mounting frenzy of redecorating; the rounds of pre-Christmas fetes; the roadside parang and the continuous query, “How yuh Christmas coming?”

And what I love the best was the certain knowledge that the fete now start and could only go on growing, through Christmas, into Boxing Day and the delirium of Carnival season. Boy, them Trinis know how to celebrate life, living and the sheer luxury of it all.

So you’ll forgive a little detachment here, as Yule in the Big Fug just doesn’t cut it. And while allyoh waylaying yuhself come New Year’s, I’ll be heading back to the plantation of a college to which I’m indentured.

Can you believe it?

For now I’ll forget I’m due in the classroom come January 2. To help with my forgetfulness, I have a special present arriving live and direct from Washington Caroni. Miss Rachel, my eldest daughter, better known in these parts as the Hindu Princess, will be landing at Gatwick around the same time you might be reading this column. In which case, share some of our Trini family joy and Merry ho ho Christmas to you all.

I hope she walk wit me rum.

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