Fire Down Below – Afterthoughts
by Marina Salandy-Brown
Finding anyone in the audience at the Studio at the Festival Theatre at 1pm on a Tuesday at the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival is a miracle when there are at least a few hundred other events to attend. So, as I led my panellists into the theatre nearly full of smiling faces the chill of the distinctly non-tropical Edinburgh day fell from my bones.
Bringing up the rear, behind Lorna Goodison, Roshini Kempadoo and Jacob Ross were three gentlemen, one smartly dressed all in white to belie his sobriquet of Black Sage, another - Tobago Crusoe - dressed like a “fancy man”, the “stingy brim” hat on his head marking him out as something of a West Indian old-timer of a certain style and vintage. The third – Short Pants - was dressed in customary un-matching tweeds and woollen cap, his signature attire even in our steamy island home of Trinidad, just 11 degrees off the equator.
These three gentlemen were there to introduce extemporaneous calypso to Edinburgh. Extempo, as it is popularly known in Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of calypso and steelband, is a witty, of-the-moment genre of calypso that pokes fun at the nonsense of life and man. It can also be a little risqué, so that when Back Sage lyrically proposed marriage to the beautiful young woman sitting in the front row next to a man whom the Sage had dared, after a measured musical stanza, to surmise was probably too old to be her husband he was safely in the tradition of Extempo.
Lorna Goodison, poet laureate of Jamaica and the first woman to enjoy the honour, was also completely in her groove, expressing many ideas in the wide-roaming conversation, in verse. “As I get older I am becoming my mother”, may resonate with many of us but Goodison was quoting from her 1986 collection in a conversation about the predominance of the female narrative in Caribbean literature and society and particularly in her own work. Goodison, political and sharp, always impresses me that while she deals with the heroism of ordinary Caribbean women she is never strident. A lifetime of using poetry as an antidote for life’s challenges means she had a line for every issue that came up for discussion.
The Spirit of ’47 was the making of peace, but post-WWII ravages were the norm for Caribbean people who soon had to deal with decolonisation and nation building. That opus is still underway. At times it has been extremely violent, nearly always messy, as Jacob Ross knows, having been actively involved in the bloody Grenada revolution as director of culture. He, like so many of the most talented and clever, had to leave to make a home elsewhere but migration has always been part of Caribbean life, occasioning questions of citizenship and identity that continue to buzz, continually providing fodder for new enquiry by younger thinkers and artists such as Roshini Kempadoo who argued that the whole thing is put into new perspective by digital technology and the social media revolution. Selfies are not vain innocence: “See we here” means I am telling you who I am, and I changing the status quo.
That sounds good to me. It is what Edinburgh is about and what always makes the EIF so very special even 70 years on. We were delighted to take part. Big thanks to the British Council, “sans humanité”, as the calypsonians would have us sing in chorus.
Marina Salandy-Brown is the founder and director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival. She curated and chaired Fire Down Below in the Spirited Voices programme, part of British Council’s Spirit of ’47 seventieth anniversary celebrations.
Special Extempo Performance
To mark the 70th anniversary of Edinbrugh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council, calypsonian musicians Short Pants and Black Sage, both former Extempo champions, were accompanied on guitar by former Extempo master Tobago Crusoe for a special performance as part of the Fire Down Below event. You can listen to it by clicking on the Soundcloud file below.