I forget what I was googling for when the cover of Jan Carew’s Black Midas popped up. Suddenly, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance between the cover image and the iconic photograph (the only photo I’ve ever seen, dated 1942 according to the archives of the Museum of Antigua) of Antigua’s own John ‘Quarkoo’ Thomas, singer of benna*, 1920s through the 1940s, the precursor to our unique brand of calypso. I was so convinced for a minute that the late Antiguan bennasonian was somehow a model for the cover by the late Guyanese writer that I distracted myself trying to track down more info on the cover. All I was able to turn up was that it was an updated cover of the classic work and was painted by Carew himself. My google-fu had failed me. But were my eyes also deceiving me? If someone knows more about the inspiration or model for the Carew painting/cover, I’m sure they’ll let me know. Either way, an opportunity to share two classics should never be passed up. So below are Quarkoo and Black Midas.
*Benna “is said to be derived from a song-dance, steeped in African rhythm, that the slaves brought to the plantations from Africa. …The benna provided the slaves with a voice and a means of expression. Benna or Ditti is a type of one verse repetitive song – the original folk-style of calypso. The banjo with no musical variations accompanied it. Benna appears to be peculiar to Antigua and Jamaica. Around the 1940’s and 50’s it referred to all secular or non-church music. …’Quarkoo’ was Antigua’s street crier and his lyrics were nearly synonymous with benna, though his style was purely his own.. He sold small items and his printed songs through the streets of St. John’s, as he announced sales or events, everything that radio does today. He not only advertised for a small fee, but he entertained as well – singing folk songs and Benna. …He was fearless, full of satire, often relating the latest gossip, he even landed himself in jail for slander!” – Museum of Antigua and Barbuda
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