Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the eighth instalment.
As the project hurtled towards its conclusion, the already packed schedule steps up a notch. In addition to evaluations, paperwork and the planning of the Poetry Under the Stars gig that will take place at the Mariposa on the night, we also have to film and record the participants’ poems that they’ve written as part of the project. The blogs that I have tried to diligently write each day (made it to number 5) have become a series of notes and meanderings that I will have to type up at a later date. There’s also the small matter of another school gig to attend.
It’s yet another early start, and the always dependable Ariana shows up to take us to the school before she heads off to work, so we take the drive down the road and onto the highway in the dark.
The conversations that take place in the cars every time we’ve made this journey have been wide-ranging, with subjects ranging from: How many classic stand-the-test-of-time albums has UK grime produced? to Is the British secret service anything like the James Bond films? and the perennial Why the hell is there a billboard advertising paternal DNA testing on the main highway?
But by far my favourite are the conversations that unearth something odd or quirky about Trinidad culture or tradition. On this particular morning, Ariana told us about some aspects of Trinidadian folklore. She tells us about the Duppies, phantom stragglers who wander lost at night, who are confounded by the sprinkling of salt around a house or doorway, because they feel impelled to count the individual grains. And then she tells us about the Douens, the souls of unbaptised children whom died in childbirth, doomed to forever walk the earth. Their faces are blank, featureless, and their feet are turned backwards. They roam through the forests and hang about near rivers. Near places very similar to the one in which we’ve been staying, funnily enough.
“Every night I’ve had to make the drive in the dark by myself, I’ve expected to see one,” she tells us.
The school we’re visiting today is the South East Port of Spain Secondary school. After escaping the stop-start chug of the Macoya highway, we arrive at the school gates. Straight away it’s clear that this is a different set-up to what we’ve experienced previously. All of the schools we have visited have had visible, uniformed security at the entrance/exit, but in this instance, the security is backed by wire fences and big rolling gate topped with barbed-wire. It would take a tank to break in here. The actual school buildings resemble the rectangular concrete high-rises that are dotted around UK housing estates, with class-rooms where the apartments would usually be. The kids are like all the other school-children in Trinidad, smartly attired in matching uniforms, clean white trainers for the girls, clean black trainers for the lads.
There’s a buzz in the air, and the kids whizz about, getting fruit and juice for their breakfasts while I try to limber-up inconspicuously in the car-park (among the many other things I’ve learned this week, the importance of posture is one of them). Eventually the bell rings, and we all file into the assembly hall for the performance. The kids stand assembled while we set up on stage (they stand through the entire assembly too), patiently waiting for us to set up, and then it’s on with the show. Today’s show is being hosted and presented by Idrees and Derron, both of whom are also participants in the workshops. They are both on the older end of the spectrum of the participants, on their way to their mid-twenties, but even at this relatively young age, they are seasoned performers, veterans and champions of the slam-scene that dominates the Trinidad spoken word circuit.
Although they both come across as quite serious, stoic guys when you first meet them, as you get to know them, another side becomes available, and seeing them performing here in front of the kids is a bit of a revelation. Idrees starts things off with a clapping exercise to wake the kids up. Idrees is a deep, deep bloke, a man of faith whose poetry grapples with the kind of unflinchingly soul-searching questions that many of us spend our lives trying to avoid. But in contrast to the measured countenance, he also possesses a gift for expression that can be deployed to great comedic effect (he also has a great knack for accents and voices; by the end of the week he had the Hull twang down. It was uncanny). Within minutes, he had the whole crowd in the palm of his hand, ready for him to deliver his first poem.
Derron is very much a political speaker, his fierce machine-gun delivery and heartfelt pleas taking a hatchet to the headlines of the papers that shriek about murder and corruption. This is a man driven by quest for justice, and a need to highlight injustice. But here, in this context, he delivers a really funny piece about his first girlfriend, and how he learned to respect women, with easy-going warmth that has most of the girls in the audience swooning. It’s a revelation, and it heartens me no end to learn that these guys will be undertaking a 44 date tour of schools after we leave.
It’s my turn, so I get up and do the whole ‘Err Nerr’ shtick again, and once again I’m blown away by the way in which its received
After the gig is over, it turns out to be a two-birds-with-one-stone situation, because both Idrees and Derron want to film their poems in and around this area, and Marcus, who also performed at the assembly, wants to do his just around the corner. We retrieve the equipment from the car and leave it parked at the school, and then we head on out.
Turns out we’re filming Derron’s poem on one of the corners of Nelson Street, which runs parallel to the school, and which also happens to be one of the most dangerous districts in Trinidad. Crime and violence are a way of life here. Jean Claude comes over to me while Debo and Pip are setting up the equipment to shoot and record. “See those two?” he asks, pointing over to a couple of onlookers who have popped up to see what we’re up to. “They’re look-outs. This is a bad, bad place.”
Jean Claude is one of the hardest-working people I’ve met, but he’s also one of the most laid-back. Seeing him on edge like this is disconcerting, to say the least.
We wrap up and make our way to the second location, which is on the roof of a local building. As nerve-wracking and tense as it is, I feel as though it’s vital for me to be here at this moment. It was always important for me to treat this journey for what it was, a cultural exchange. Despite my loud shirts and ready-to-burn pale skin, I didn’t want to be seen as being all ‘Brits-On-Tour’; chugging beers, quaffing rum and stumbling to the next party spot, that kind of carry on. To be fair, it was never going to be about that, due to the full-on schedule and the very nature of the project, but deep down I had major fears about my authenticity, that my being here was somehow a gimmick, born out of the uncanny alignment that is Hull getting City of Culture this year, and me just happening to have a reasonably long track record of slinging words about in Hull. There was no doubting that a lot of my insecurities sprang from the deep-well marked: ‘Hull mentality’, that mysterious reservoir of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy that runs as deep as the Humber. But here on Nelson Street – surrounded by people whom genuinely cared about my safety, but also wanted to share the actual, physical source of the pain that drove them to write – something inside me clicked, and my petty hang-ups evaporated and dissipated in the Caribbean heat.
The roof-top where Idrees recorded his film gave us a 360 panoramic view of Nelson Street and the surrounding area. With its oddly pretty run-down wooden tenements, painted green and shielded by white plantation shutters. With its corrugated iron-stalls hawking coconuts and water. With its crumbling concrete buildings. This little flat patch of chaos, looking out to the indifferent hug of the Northern Range mountains.
The classic signs were there: the all-day bars, the gambling parlours, the rum-shops. But being on the roof-top, shut off from the street via a chained iron gate, the tension dropped slightly, and we giggled and larked about like school-kids. While Idrees was recording with Pip and Debo, Jean Claude, Marcus, Denika and Derron found an area of the roof where a lip jutted out from behind the wall, meaning that from inside the confines of the roof, it was possible to make it look like you could jump clean off the roof. They hastily put together the idea for a video. Jean Claude filmed Derron as he sat on the wall. Off-camera, Marcus can be heard saying: “Don’t do it. I’m sure you’ll start getting more gigs soon. Don’t listen to them, your spoken word career is really taking off.”
Derron says something along the lines of: “It’s no use, I can’t take it anymore,” and then he appears to roll off the roof and we all scream.
To the uninformed the clip looks truly terrifying, like the last will and testament of a doomed man, but to us it was hilarious, and laughed until our sides hurt when we watched it back.
Marcus was the last to be filmed, and the original plan was to film him down Charlotte Street, just a block or so away from Nelson Street, but a world away in terms of activity. The nearest analogue I can think of is Holderness Road, and I mean that as no disrespect to either party. Charlotte Street is shopping district, lined with multitudes of shops and stalls, the kind of place you go to when you want to ‘ger on rerd for a bargain’ (I swear I will never use Hullisms again after this project). It’s a vibrant busy place, the swarm and chatter sound tracked by the massive sound-systems that serve as storefronts for DVDs and music.
It’s at this point that I must mention ‘Full Extreme’ by Ultimate Rejects. If there’s one song that came to define my time in Trinidad, it’s this one, simply for the fact that I heard it most, in the clubs, on the streets, blaring from car stereos as they past. For better or for worse, it’s a bit of an anthem in Trinidad at the moment, as evidenced by the fact that it often will be played two or three times within a single night in a club.
People often make the mistake of assuming that reggae is the national music of Trinidad and Tobago, and while it is very popular, the national music of Trinidad and Tobago is soca, closely followed (and sometimes incorporating) by parang music, which is a little like folk music. Like most musical styles and genres, soca is a hybrid, incorporating elements of soul and funk like reggae, but also really taking its cue from calypso. Big booming brass stabs and horn sections, with fast up-tempo Indian influenced percussion. Modern soca has increasingly mechanised the style into a more electronic form of music, using sequenced drums and synth-lines to provide the big stabs. It’s unashamed party music, designed to get people up and moving, something it’s very successful at. Seriously, if you’re feeling down in the dumps, put ‘Full Extreme’ on at top-volume and crack open a beer. I defy you not to wiggle something.
Anyway, between the competing sound-systems and the general noise of the market, it quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to get a decent recording of Marcus performing his piece to camera. The idea behind Marcus’ piece was one of motion, the general public rushing by while huge decisions were being made for them. Eventually, we settled on the bus-station as the place to shoot, as we were unsure whether security would be unhappy with us shooting it.
Marcus took a seat on the curb, and Pip began rolling. I’ve mentioned Marcus before, but what I didn’t mention was just how talented and focused this guy is. Not yet twenty, yet able to write, rehearse and perform a poem within a day, and able to perform it to camera without making any mistakes. It was a powerful piece of writing as well. Constrained by the remit of creating a short poem for the film, Marcus managed to condense his epic worldview into a short, white-hot piece of rhetoric. A diatribe against the cold, unfeeling wheels of big business as they crush the dreams and opportunities of the average man.
He was so on point that he managed to finish seconds before the security arrived to move us on.
We had the big gig on the night at the Mariposa to get ready for, so Pip and Debo packed up the equipment and we headed back to the car. It was only lunch-time but there was still so much to do.
On the way back, we passed the South East Secondary school. A group of kids had congregated on a balcony overlooking Nelson Street, peering over the side at us. As we got closer I looked up at them and waved. They waved back, and then in unison, they pointed at me and said together: “Er ner, it’s Jer.”