#musicamondays #MUSICMONDAYS (9)

Welcome to the 9th installation of #musicamondays & #MUSICMONDAYS, which features music from around the world. Each song is selected to start your week off with a new energy and new country(ies) to explore! Go forth and do great things!

Hailing from Trinidad & Tobago, Angela Hunte and the Soca King Machel Montano

For more Soca, link here!

2014 in Books – A Year in Review

IMG-20150129-00190At the start of every year, I have to look back on my year in books. In 2014, somehow I managed to move to Africa, get married, start a PhD program, start a new job, and read 49 books. Three books shy of my goal and still satisfied with myself, I have to tell you which works were worth reading and which I should have spared myself the life minutes.

I started the year off strong with Jose Luandina Vieira‘s The Real LIfe of Domingos Xavier, the English translation of the 1978 A Vida Verdadeira de Domingos XavierThis story of the kidnapping and disappearance of Domingos Xavier unravels the experiences of every day Angolans during the fight for independence. Confronting marxism and modes of resistance, as well as the slow development of the MPLA in the face of continued Portuguese domination, the book is a solid read. In its original version it is credited with authentic local vernacular, a credit to the author – Angolan of Portuguese origin. By February, I was re-reading a book which made a significant impact on me when I first read it back in 2009. Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad is an exploration of the collaborations of African and Asian origin people and ideas. In this global, historical review, Prashad investigates untold stories of interactions that pre-date European colonial intervention, as well as modern-day relationships of resistance. It’s a really powerful text and an easy read for those interested in world history that doesn’t center on White history. Rather than focusing on the cultural clashes, he focuses on cohesion – showing how much more of the latter there have been.

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The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Then I struck literary gold in March when I read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. The book is long as hell, but it’s pretty interesting. I have to be honest and say that I really couldn’t keep track of the three generations of Dumas men here. The revelation that the person who inspired the classics of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was actually a Black man of Haitian birth shouldn’t be all that shocking. I was most interested, however, in the changing racial and social landscape of France – a country that is notorious for pretending to be colorblind and for proclaiming that racism doesn’t exist there.  The real value was reading of how powerful Blacks could ascend in 18th century France and how their equity slowly evaporated with time.

Then I spent the summer months reading some unrelated texts that were interesting in their own right, but more for professional or pleasure reading. I read Stanley McChristal’s My Share of the Task: A Memoir to understand better the man whose 2 decade long career was dethroned by an expose that only covered 2 weeks of his life. Then I read Pearl Cleage’s Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs which is really just a collection of diary entries by the author, thespian, feminist, educator & activist. It’s pretty funny.

I hit a dud in July with Amanda Kovattana‘s Diamonds in my Pocket, about a Thai-English woman who revisits the tensions of her biracial childhood. Her English mother and her Thai father meet, mate and marry, but their views never really seem to match. The premise sounds more interesting than the book actually reads.

Shiva Naipul’s North of South: An African Journey really helped me settle in to my new African life and to commit to my exploration of Asians in southern Africa. This author, the now deceased younger brother of V.S. Naipul, travels from Trinidad to Africa in search of very little other than experience. What comes off as a Brown backpacker’s tale from Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia of the 70’s continues to ring true for me here in Mozambique today. Some people seem to virulently dislike this travel journal and to critique the man who wrote it. It rings pretty true to me, so I’m not sure what that says about me. He definitely cut out all the paternalistic positivity, a la “we are the world” sentiment, people expect to hear from those who come to Africa. Unlike people who seem to dislike the book, he clearly didn’t come to (1) help the people *side eye*, (2) find himself *double side eye*, and/or (3) seek a backdrop for adventure *eye roll completely.* So…it is what it is. Every time I get in a car, I can only think of his words describing how Africans either drive “dangerously slow or dangerously fast.” So true, Shiva.

The week before my wedding, I laughed like hell reading Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, but I don’t think it’s politically correct to say you like anything about the man right now. Too soon for praise, maybe? Moving on…

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The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1964)

Then I latched on to fellow Barnard alum Jane Allen Petrick’s Hidden in Plain Sight, a text about people of color in Norman Rockwell‘s paintings. She searches to find Rockwell subjects to understand just who these people were who were incorporated so subtly into his Americana classics. Clearly, the book is a labor of love, not necessary a wealth of information. But, the topic is interesting and Petrick’s appreciation of the human connection between Rockwell & the people he paid to pose really shines through.

Then I read some really shitty e-books, because they were free. So, steer clear of Motherhoodwinked (though for someone battling infertility, this may have some therapeutic value), The Path To Passive Income (I should have known when the author was “U, Val”), and Heather Graham’s blog series Why I Love New Orleans. Don’t bother…

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Then just before Thanksgiving I honed in on South African writing with Nadine Gordimer‘s novel The House Gun and the biography of fellow Witsie Robert Sobukwe (Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better) by Benjamin Pogrund. Both were longer than necessary, though for vastly different reasons. Confronting violence and privilege in South Africa from vastly different angles, these two books are authored by and about writer-activists. Honestly, the back to back reading was a bit more valuable to me than each individually. I’ll spare you the summary, because I think you should read them yourselves.

I’ve already reviewed the trifecta of the year (V.S. Naipul, Ngozi Adichie, and James Weldon Johnson) in my recent blog post on code switching. So, I won’t revisit these.

And the book that left the greatest impression is a book I was very reluctant to read for a very long time. Emma Donoughue’s Room had been sitting in my house for years before I got the courage to read it and I’m so happy that I did. This novel is the story of a 5-year-old boy who has grown up living in one room, because he is the child of a kidnapping & rape victim. Held hostage his whole life, he doesn’t understand his captivity and struggles to cope once released. Heartwarming, gut wrenching, amusing and frighteningly light – this book is an amazing piece of fiction. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves someone.

P1050740I expect that this year will be filled with books for my research, so I’m preparing for less fiction and more history. More Indians and Mozambicans and east African and southern African themes. I’m finally dropping the goal down to 40 books, so I can avoid the inclination to read crappy ebooks to hit a target. I’m going to save my life minutes for real stories that matter and for texts that have value.

Cheers to a more value dense 2015, filled with really awesome bookmarks!

The editorial value of code switching?

When I first picked up Americanah over a year ago, I put it back down after page 10. It was yet another African turning on Black Americans by pretending to both know and despise Black America. When my book club picked it last month, I was more curious this time around. As a Black American in Africa, maybe I wanted to find hints for how to navigate the reverse world. Alas, I found no hints. And I really didn’t find many bursts of wisdom, just a strong  sense that Ngozi was telling us all that where we are from is truly where we belong – no matter how many lives we wreck in the going and coming. I disagree with that sense (which may be more strongly felt because I absolutely disagree with extramarital affairs). But, when I picked up Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man, I realized that becoming what you aren’t to become who you think you deserve to be is a timeless human challenge.

The 1912 book by James Weldon Johnson focuses on a mulatto who spends his whole life wondering which color is more advantageous to him – Black or White. When it is in his best interest, he code switches. He plays that part and lives that side of life’s dream, until it no longer becomes the winning card. He trades all that Blackness has to offer, by using remnants of Black music to make a living entertaining Whites all over the world. He eventually marries a White woman who, after some shock and horror, accepts that he is of Black heritage. While I was pretty disgusted with the book’s content, it took me back to an America that’s only 100 years gone from today. It was an America where the popularity of the Cotton Club co-existed with the highest rates of lynching of Black men in history.

It brought me back to the counterintuitive-ness of today, where similar extremes seem to be so ever-present. Where our Black president ground-breakingly declares immigration reform and gives us December 26th off AND a laundry list of young Black males are gunned down with impunity by police. There is no ‘but’ here… this is not abnormal and this is not an aberration. These things co-exist and make code-switching both necessary and useless. Our times have always been odd. And that oddity has always made me seek the shores of elsewhere, where the odd isn’t for lack of giving a damn about another person’s life. But, it’s deeper. It’s older.

Difference and hatred can be a colonial and aristocratic being. That being is a being I understand. I can see how centuries of human chattel and land grab combine to create indivisible barriers between people. And I can also see how those who experience it in vastly different places can be brought together by the similarity of that experience. So, when I grabbed Half A Life, by V.S. Naipul, it was finally a text I could understand. The code switching Indian who traveled the world reinventing himself to escape his farce of a family, finds himself in a new country. This unnamed place must be the country in which I reside today. He speaks of living someone else’s life – the life of his wife who was born in what is clearly Mozambique. Their initial attraction was born out of recognizing the code-switching in one another and finding relief in no longer having to pretend. Better yet, they don’t even feel the burden of admitting which parts of themselves are lies – old and new. This brings them together and it is what tears them apart decades later. One day he wakes up and feels that he hasn’t really been living a life of his choosing. But, if not his, then whose?

These three texts brought me full circle to wondering what wandering is all about. Has my life been a long tale of serial code switching – becoming someone who everyone believes you already are? And if so, why? For me, it’s about finding a place where I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. There are situations of discomfort that we can tolerate and others that we can’t. I’ve never been able to tolerate code switching close to home. It’s why I don’t take photographs of New York City and very rarely, if ever, in my hometown. It’s why I don’t stop cursing when I go work. It’s why I wore a kurta in India for all of 5 times in 2 years.  Take me far, far away from what matters to me and I’ll be whomever I must, but get within 10 feet of something that matters to me and I must be myself. It is an automatic and involuntary reality.

Code switching is a survival tool, not a way of life. It isn’t sustainable over the long-term. In fact, over the long-term, it is parasitic. It eats away at the soul, casting doubt and promoting amnesia. What being in Mozambique has brought me is an undying sense of self. So far from what I know, I find the familiar in me – even when I am not looking for it. The routines come back. The fish and grits on weekends. And the soul music on Saturdays. They say you can run, but you can’t hide. I disagree. I think that’s only true if who you’re running from is you.

From others, you can live a series of lifetimes playing the part that curries the most favor.

Whether it be a Nigerian woman in 2013, an African-American man in 1912, or an Indo-Trinidadian in 2001, great writers seem to cling to that conundrum. They do more than explore it, they dissect it – as if trying write an obituary for someone who they met a lifetime ago and only now realize that they’ve never really known.

 

Teaching to the Choir

Takiyah Gray is a Brown University alum, who is currently an elementary school teacher in Vietnam. With her Trinidadian passport in tow, she treks the world in search of good eats, teaching opportunities, and sane couch surfers. She is a talented dancer and yogini, whose Trini roots keep her near tropical beaches as frequently as possible. Existabovethenoise.com readers may remember her as the friend I was staying with in Thailand back in January – check out the My Thai post.

We’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto. Sure, there are still roosters crowing at all hours of the day. Yes, there are street vendors hawking their wares—from fly-flecked pork innards to hanging pieces of chewy, salted squid, to the ever present random assortment of locks of various shapes and sizes. But this is Vietnam, and the people here sure do not like to smile at the odd looking stranger.

Some people think that the best moments of life unfold when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone. In her latest book, Committed, a mere $2.50 per Xeroxed copy in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, Elizabeth Gilbert agrees. She says that “I had ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture, it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule.” For better or worse, I have been happily toeing that uncomfortable line for much of my existence, ever since my mother decided to bring me from Trinidad to America at the age of 2. Maybe this initial trip is what sealed my future as a world traveler, because since then, I’ve been crafty and fortunate enough to peak into life in countries like Sweden, Brazil, and Spain. (I say crafty, because anyone that knows me KNOWS that there had to be an ulterior motive to joining the glee club back in high school– clearly it was the summer trip to France). Not surprisingly though, nowhere has that discomfort been more present than here in South East Asia. Here, I am a complete foreigner, and boy do I stand out. In this part of the world, it’s not just my language that pegs me as different, but my height, my skin tone, everything that I’ve ever used to define myself. And believe you me, wherever I am the locals cannot wait to figure out what a tall black woman is doing in their country of size 4 shoes and K-pop idolizations. Though we in America are proud to have elected our first black president 4 years ago, many people on this side of the world are still incredulous that Americans can look like me. Add to this the fact that I still retain my Trinidadian citizenship and people are all the more confused. I, myself, pause to figure out which country I will say I am from today—do I go for the mildly puzzled look when I say that I am from the US or the completely dumbfounded look as I try to explain about where the Caribbean is?

No one needed this geography lesson more than a woman I recently interviewed with. Now, as a visitor in South East Asia, I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a teacher. It’s a downright privilege when my peers and I can travel, work and realize a standard of living that is generally higher than most of the population around us (simply because we speak English and carry TEFL degrees). My year of living in a beachside house on a Thai island was made possible by precisely these things. But they aren’t always enough, and apparently, having made the move to Vietnam, I was starting at square one all over again.

At this particular interview, I quickly learned that I was missing — what in the Dominican Republic they call — “buena aparencia.” Instead of a normal interview, where the trained and professional interviewer and skilled and eager interviewee go back and forth about the school, expectations and relevant work experience, I spent the entire time trying to prove that no, Trinidad and Tobago was NOT a country in South Africa (?!) and that YES I grew up with English as my first language. The interview ended with a cold, “If you are short-listed for a position, I’ll let you know in a few months.” The entire “interview” lasted a grueling 10 minutes. I had spent more time that morning trying to figure out an updo for my twists! Never before had I been in such a hostile interview environment. Later that night I spent many hours plotting the exact flavor of the very pointed email that would say thanks but no thanks, up yours, and oh yeah, I’ve attached a world atlas for your convenience.

Was I surprised that this level of ignorance could come from a fellow educator? The sad truth is no, not really. The fact is, before embarking on this journey almost 2 years ago, I had braced myself for many more scenarios like this one. Fortunately for me, Thailand never presented an issue, and I was able to find work without problems. Now that I’m in Vietnam, however, other brown-skinned expat friends, namely Filipino teachers who face similar prejudices, have warned me about this kind of overt racism. I’ve heard of many different ways to this overcome the issue, including lying about citizenship and leaving out the requisite photo that most schools ask for in their applications. What’s a girl to do?

For the most part, I realize that I travel to learn and to have others learn about me. So I put up with the stares, the odd looks, the oogly eyes, and the scores of parents with varying levels of discretion nudging their children as I go past, to make sure that they catch a glimpse of me. I spend the extra 10 minutes at the grocery stores, hunting out the soaps and lotions and deodorants that don’t have whitening ingredients in them. I choose the work environments where I know I will be treated with respect. I know many expats, mostly men, who are happy to make the permanent leap over to this side of the world. Me? I am grateful for the experience to observe these moments; at the end of it all, I’ll be glad to get back to my little corner of Kansas..erg…Boston.

Trinidad & Tobago: Mas not Mass

ImageWhere do I begin? For those who are not familiar with Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, the two days prior to Ash Wednesday people from all over the world come together to celebrate life in every sense of the word.  Starting from the 18th century, the French would have elaborate masquerade balls in Trinidad. Because the slaves were banned from such festivities, slaves would host their own mini-carnivals in their backyards. With the emancipation of slavery, these celebrations moved to the streets and since that time Trinidad Carnival is highly regarded as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Carnival season begins from Christmas onwards, with many cultural events leading up to the street parade where you “play mas” on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, including j’ouvert. J’ouvert kicks off carnival Monday with crowds of people dancing covered in mud, oil and paint in the streets in remembrance of the emancipation of slavery. The english translation of j’ouvert is I open and the tradition of oil, paint and mud stems from the slaves not wanting to be recognized in such activity by former slave masters. So, with the history out of the way, now let me tell you what really goes down (or at least what went down Feb 20-21 2012).

I am obliged to say that this was my very first Trinidadian Carnival experience. Though I have participated in other carnivals, including Toronto’s Caribana, Montreal’s Carifiesta, Notting Hill in London, Labour Day parade in New York and DC Carnival, there was absolutely, positively nothing like THIS carnival experience. With only 2 hrs of sleep on Sunday morning, I was ready to jump up for d’original breakfast fete. It was literally the crack of dawn and yes, where I was staying, roosters where actually crowing. By 6am there was a sea of brown, yellow, white, black people eating, limin’ (chillin), whinin’ and drinking like fish in the ocean of fete. There was no bacon, eggs, pancakes or coffee, but rather there was jerk chicken, roti, doubles, and liquor. I never saw anything like it. People of all ages, sizes, from all over the world were gyrating from left to right to soca and chutney music in sweet, sweet T&T. With women rollin’ their bumpers, tipsy, teasin’ and pleasin’ all the men responding and often “rising” to the challenge. Sun beating down, soaking wet with sweat and everyone’s “head nice.” And then when you felt like the whining was done, there was more soca to come and the fetin’ went on and on. It’s now midday and time to cool down by either heading to the beach or taking a quick nap before the “Lara fete.” Sunday night, again scores of people were looking grown and sexy (in sandals, of course) on the grounds of the infamous cricketer, Brian Lara. Tickets are always hard to come by, but I was ready to dance the night away until j’ouvert morning.

Thousands descended on the streets of Port of Spain to play with their respective J’ouvert bands. The alcohol was flowing, flags and rags were in the air with everyone getting on bad, covered in a mixture of oil, mud, and paint placed on their entire body by strangers in the early morning breeze. No time to be tired after 6 hrs of j’ouvert – time to get in costume to play mas in your band of choice or spectate and enjoy the show cause “It’s Carnival.” The energy was palpable as persons playin’ mas cross de stage in their elaborately designed, yet revealing, costumes – dancing as if their lives depended on it.  You could feel the beat of the drums from head to toe and there was a certain exhilaration in saying hi and bye to complete strangers with a common goal of having fun “chippin down de road” during the bacchanal. People say it’s a once in a lifetime experience, but I say it’s an annual one. There is no question where I will be next February. Like any good vacation, it is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Mas costumes start at $500 USD and inclusive fetes average between $100-200. Nonetheless, there are truly no words or pictures that can truly capture the spirit of Trinidad Carnival. So, I encourage you all to see it for yourself.

This month’s guest blogger is Charlisa Gibson. Bahamian by birth and well traveled by design, Charlie has lived in the US, the UK, Canada and the Caribbean. When she’s not wukkin up, she’s making the rounds – doing her medical residency in Washington, DC.  She is also Nafeesah’s birthday twin, which clearly indicates that she is some kinda woman… watch out now!