Broken into a few parts due to length
Speaking of energies, there was an anticipation in the room. So for those who scoff at any notion of us engaging in meaningful thoughtful dialogue – who propagate notions of us not being a reading, thinking public (and that includes those of us who sometimes despair at the racachacaracachaca) – (we need to to) think again. There is a lot of noise a lot of the time, but there is also clearly a hunger for mental and spiritual food as filling as fungi and pepperpot – not just the national dish, also the hashtag of the TEDx talk, so interpreted by three artists; Edison Liburd, Sonali Andrews, and Maritza Martin.
If we were hungry, we got lots of food for thought and we were thoughtful and engaged as we ate it up, and then scraped the bottom of the pot for the brawta.
The image of the man and his ever-present guitar reinforced the idea of the calypsonian, certainly the calypsonian of yester-year as the quintessential singer-songwriter, the Bob Dylans and Joni Mitchells of our world, steeped musically in the folk-acoustic tradition and fired by the internal imperative to respond to the world around them, not merely entertain it. Calypso Joe spoke of the racial tensions making headlines from Africa to America to right here in Antigua back in the 1960s, inspiring his ‘We shall overcome’. Calypso Joe said that when young Joe realized he could write, “the struggles in those countries came to my mind, those are the first things that came to my pen.” He spoke about his mother, a mother to 10 of them, only partially educated but preaching the gospel of education as the way out of poverty- a dynamic with which this blogger can definitely relate as my mother was much the same, though she didn’t have 10 of us with which to contend. And so, bolstered by his mother’s influence, he sang “a tree begins from the root, so it’s your duty to nurture and train the youth.” He spoke of another song, again driven by the racial inequities defining the black experience, that came to him on waking one night – “it took me 20 minutes to write…because it was already in my subconscious.” And it took little prompting for us to sing or hum along – knowing the melody if not always the words as these songs have long been part of the narrative of our Antiguan-Barbudan lives. None more so than ‘A Nation to Build, A Country to Mould’, a celebration of our independence and at the same time a chastisement re the petty politics we allowed to divide us – a song, unfortunately, relevant to this day, 34 years on from when we first heard it.
I first came to know Lia as a Wadadli Pen finalist during my first year of launching that writing programme, but her family’s name, Nicholson, was well established in Antigua before then – as adventurers, historians, environmentalists, artists and artisans. Lia, a Yale graduate and current chair of the Environmental Awareness Group, continues in that fine tradition and had her local coming out as a thought-leader with her TEDx presentation on how creativity and innovation can help us combat the ravages of climate change which, as she pointed out, is already affecting us in ways we don’t even think about.
She began in an unlikely place, with the widdy widdy bush. Every Antiguan and Barbudan has heard about the widdy widdy bush, it is part of local lore, this weed that sustained our people during one of the longest national strikes in our history – so the legend goes, so Papa Bird said, and said, and said, on TV certainly during my childhood. It’s Antigua and Barbuda’s national weed (yes, that’s a thing!) but most of us couldn’t pick it out of a line up.
Lia opened with a shot of the widdy widdy and spoke about how it was an integral part of the earlier variations of the national dish –pepperpot, now made with mostly anything green. “We have a culture of innovation,” she reminded us. “We took a weed and turned it into a delicious meal.” And seriously how many times have we had to do that in our history, to, as we love to say, as our parents and their parents and their parents generations going back, “cut and contrive”. It was practically a national philosophy. How have we forgotten that?