During the four-and-one-half years of Cuban hegemony in Grenada, I often had cause to cross a country road from my house on the Pointe Salines peninsula to the Headquarters of the DGI (Directorio General de Intelegencia) to complain about the noise. Would they please turn down the altavoz or speaker system beaming Castro’s speeches at the empty West Indian countryside? The furious squawks of the Cuban dictator, aimlessly amplified into the velvety dark, seemed an apt symbol of communism’s folly and failure, for even the Cuban workers didn’t listen, being so hard-worked they bunked down early; but it was interfering with our Mozart. Besides, the medical students who rented rooms nearby couldn’t study against such sound. I led a delegation of them to the DGI house.
We were met with cautious courtesy and made our pitch. For a moment I couldn’t help comparing the cleanshaven, short-haired Cuban intelligence men with the hirsute hoboes I had seen leading student demonstrations in the 1960’s in America. Senor dell’Osa told us that his Cubans (to each group of whom an agent was attached) were enjoying a cultural evening, una noche cultural. If so, I reflected, they were doing it to snores, to be heard coming from the barracks huts about. In the event, it seemed neither advisable nor possible to arrest His Master’s Voice, and we departed, the students disconsolate, myself the richer for a new translation.
For the term cultural seems to be communist code for yet another Orwellian opposite, meaning anticultural, since propaganda can never be art. It can supply art with a pabulum of sorts, as in the best of Eisenstein, but that director’s pathetic last years under Zhdanov’s cultural commissarship could be calculated to turn even a Candide into an “agent of the opposition.” Thus in Grenada, an island without art, una noche cultural had to make do. Still and all, I confess to surprise at the crudity of the Cubans in this respect. After all, Cuba pretends to some cultural sophistication. Castro’s friends include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the man who dismissed the agonized Vietnamese boat people as so many “currency smugglers” before receiving his Nobel Prize for literature; Cuba also boasts some good guitar music, some rotten painting, and worse ballet under the aegis of the ageless Alicia Alonso, another intimate of Castro’s, called “The Menopauseless Giselle” by Juan Blanc. Perhaps what Cuba sent us Grenadians down in the way of culture indicated their estimate of our intelligence.
Looking back on his life in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul reflects: “Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeling; there could be none. There was no profound anti-imperialist feeling.” There was none in Grenada until Maurice Bishop tried to manufacture it after his “coop de tat” of 1979. We in the Windwards are much too porous for the usual Marxist ideological disinformation to have any meaning at all. “Nothing was created in the West Indies,” writes V.S. Naipaul. If culture is identity, we lack it, and thank God. It is conceivable that the internal diversity of a typical Windward Island (including Indians, Chinese, Syrians) saved the sanity of Grenada during the years of the New Jewel regime, as Bishop thundered away: “In the context of the cultural revolution, I want to emphasize three main points—the spreading of the socialist ideology, the wiping out of illiteracy and the building of a new patriotic and revolutionary-democratic intelligentsia.” To follow the book, he had to come up with some sort of local cultural palingenesis. Frankly, he couldn’t get close. He even gave up on the rallies when only 10 children turned up for one.
Grenada has no folk art, like Haiti. It has no theater and one cinema (nonstop kung fu). This is part of the pleasure of such places. Having lived at close quarters with New York intellectuals, I personally treasure their absence as one of the delights of life in the islands. Somehow we have to get by without Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, Duran Duran, the Harvey Milk homosexual High School, and journals devoted to black lesbians. After the murder of Bishop, his Ministers, and pregnant mistress, a shoot-on-sight curfew was established during which our single radio station played almost nothing but reggae. Surely that is indigenous?
It is to Jamaica. Reggae—a contraction of ragged and everyday—was launched as a national anthem of Rastafarianism when Haile Selassie I was crowned on November 30th, 1930, Ras Tafari, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Marcus Garvey’s second Christ and first black Messiah (St. Augustine was of course a black). Reggae came out of Ska and, before that, Mento (homemade drums, reeds, so forth). Despite its political braggadocio and commercial success in the hands of publicity seekers like Ansel Collins and Bob Marley (who died of lung cancer brought on by chain-smoking reefers), reggae cannot be called music.
It is a sort of audible itch, one that makes it impossible for anyone in the vicinity to get any sleep. With its steady sequence of Messiahs, each presuming to be Moses and/or John the Baptist (Marcus Garvey, Leonard Howell, Claudius Henry, two of whom were convicted of fraud), Rastafarianism would scarcely exist had it not received such starry-eyed academic attention and respect. This is particularly the case in Britain now, where Rastafarianism is institutionalized, seriously taught in schools, one Bajan teacher there, Maureen Stone, calling it “the only really indigenous religion, faith and sect in the Caribbean.” I wonder. The other day I gave a Rastaman a ride in Grenada. He was the real McCoy or, should I say, Dreadlock, red of eye and reeking of ganja. I asked him what he thought of the brutal treatment of Haile Selassie’s now-elderly daughters, penned in a small room outside Addis Ababa without toilet facilities, one dying of cancer.
He had not the slightest idea who Haile Selassie was, the progenitor of his creed, God Himself in human form (though also said to be descended from Solomon and Sheba). My rider should have been pining to repair to the paradise of Ethiopia, for, according to the creed (as published by the University of the West Indies), “Jamaica is literally Hell for the black man, just as Ethiopia is literally heaven.”
Maurice Bishop’s flirtation with our Rastas was most instructive. At the start he wooed them. In the days following his 1979 coup they were all over St. George’s, directing traffic and openly smoking pot. But they deserted him as he became establishment, refusing to join his rag-tag-and-bobtail army. Eventually, Jewel turned into Babylon and Rastas started knocking off Bishop’s soldiers in the north. At this point he rounded up 300 of them and set them to work under the gun on Hope Vale estate. It is clear they would have ended up like the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua. Indeed, Jamaican Rastas taken to Cuba for terrorist training were required to shear off their locks first.
Still, the half-Ghanian, half- Scottish ex-policeman, and now British MP, Paul Boateng, has lauded Rastafarianism on the BBC as a faith filled with peace, love, and the rest. GLC (Greater London Council) schools teach Jamaican Rasta as a language, with ludicrous results. There have been cases of West Indian parents in Britain sending their children back to school in the islands, in order to obtain more disciplined instruction. Most Grenadians make strict and pious parents. To dredge the gutters for drug addicts and thieves and hold the result up as something called Black Culture is the height of condescension. We do not adulate the lowest elements of our northern cities as White Culture.
If, in America, Rastafarianism continues to épater ambitious assistant professors, in politics it takes us into the jungle, to the racial insanity of Hitler. God is black and chose the black race. For their presumption to the contrary, the Jews have been well punished. The Pope is head of the Ku Klux Klan. Una noche cultural of this sort of thing must be enough to send anyone round the bend, without benefit of “de weed.” Blackness becomes an. instrument for mental suicide, a caricature of a delirium, a brew into which anything may be stirred. As the late Shiva Naipaul put it, “There is no church; there are no scriptures; there is no ordained leadership. Each Rastafarian has his own version of the thing. You become a Rastaman by declaring yourself to be such.”
But to be so permanently impermanent is scarcely to exist. Marcus Garvey no longer does so, yet is constantly recreated by the likes of Boateng. All Garvey’s absurd disasters with his Black Star Line for repatriating Jamaicans to Africa, his fantasies of a Negro Empire, were forgotten in 1965 when his remains were reverently disinterred and returned from England to Jamaica. To many he remains a holy hero. So does Maurice Bishop. He tried to get Grenadian schools to adopt a curriculum of reggae, African basketweaving. Reader’s Digest anthropology, and hair-braiding, basing our culture on the new version of the three R’s—Reggae, Rasta, and Revolution, This is what every parent in the real world of the islands hopes will not be taught their children.
What, finally, of calypso? It is Trinidadian, as narcissistic reggae is Jamaican, though the most famous calypsonian of all. Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), was born in Grenada, as was “Boogsie” Sharp, the world’s number one steel pannist. V.S. Naipaul tells us that “the calypso is a purely local form.”
Maybe so, but its monody still cannot be called music. Most calypsos sound the same. However, they are verbal and partake of topical social satire, none of which seems to last very long. The University of the West Indies’ ongoing “Calypso Research Project” has never, so far as I know, answered the charge of ephemerality in the form, being chiefly concerned with internal debates such as whether East Indians influenced calypso (a loud No!) or whether the lyrics are prejudicial to women (a loud Yes!).
When he seized power. Bishop asked Sparrow, who like Antigua’s King Short-Shirt can be counted on to be routinely revolutionary, for a calypso, and got one—Gairy, Dead or Alive, virtually a plea for extradition of the previous Prime Minister from America. It was played a lot over our radio station, but where is it now? I have never succeeded in acquiring a plate or tape of it anywhere. In a few years’ time, Trinidadians will be asking who Gairy was. Great satire is universal.
Then, Sparrow being too notoriously extra-insular. Bishop organized an indigenous pro-Jewel calypso from our own Flying Turkey, a PRA (People’s Revolutionary Army) officer. Turkey’s calypso provided a sense of immediacy:
People want to hear you come out in defense of the Revolution, people want to hear you come out and rage hostility upon Reagan and American interventionist attitudes. . . . “The Lion” from Carriacou, he came out and he blaze imperialism.
So Turkey concluded his lyrics with the refrain:
Let them come, let them come.
We will bury them in the sea.
Schoolchildren in Grenada were made to chant this. (It even got airtime over WBAI-FM in America.) But when “they” came, and were not buried in the sea by the PRA, another Grenadian produced a calypso incorporating these lines, mocking them and blessing America. Yet another which went the rounds after intervention was called (for some reason) Guadalajara; it derided Cubans who claimed to have to come to Grenada merely to kill cockroaches. When President Reagan spoke at our Queen’s Park on February 20th, 1986, to a rapturously applauding crowd of nearly half the island, he was greeted by a calypso from Scaramouche which mimicked the rat-rat-rat of firing and the “music” of the intervention. Time called it “the country’s most popular ballad.” I’m afraid not. I doubt if many remembered it or if you could buy any of these songs anywhere today. Art is not as fugitive as this.
BeeWee culture is social rather than aesthetic. Jewel’s call for Negritude, Africanity, whatever, passed us by. But the Naipauls are correct. There is a void in the islands. For recluses like myself, fleeing what Matthew Arnold’s scholar gypsy called “this strange disease of modern life / With its sick hurry, its divided aims,” this is a very great plus. But to lack a strong graphic culture, as inherited by, say, China or Mexico, is to be extremely vulnerable to television as a replacement for thought. The first dishes are dotting the islands. The first television program 1 saw in Grenada (apart from video cassettes) was an American newscast. Its principal subjects were the proliferation of AIDS, excessive fat in chickens, and a black riot in South Africa which the locals sitting along the bar beside me assumed to be taking place in the United States. Kicking and screaming, we are finally being dragged into the global village.