Tag Archives: Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books

Joanne Hillhouse’s Iconic Stance through Her Works By Valerie Knowles Combie

I don’t appear to have shared this here; so I’m sharing. It’s a paper on my books delivered at the 2017 Antigua Conference and published in the 2018 Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books by Professor Valerie Combie of the University of the Virgin Islands. With thanks to her for the attention to my works (not just my books but some of my poetry and short fiction as well), here are some excerpts. Go to my jhohadli blog to read the whole thing.

joanne at mount tabor“Who is Joanne Hillhouse?  How does she fit into Antigua’s literary scene?  Perhaps I should rephrase that question and ask: How does she fit into the Caribbean literary scene?  I may even expand that question and ask: How does Joanne Hillhouse fit into the world’s literary landscape?

Hillhouse’s inherent and perpetual theme embodies the landscape of Antigua and Barbuda, which includes movement of many sorts—actual literal movement, existential movement, and the resulting consequences of those movements. Under the umbrella of those movements lie the following themes that expand and grow and manifest themselves as the tentacles of the proverbial octopus:

1. Culture and tradition
2. Family relationships and identity
3. Rite of passage
4. Youth empowerment
5. Migration
6. Community involvement/Trust
7. Environmental concerns
8. Loss and grief/Healing and restoration.

Hillhouse’s pen documents the cultural tapestries of a society that is evolving and simultaneously experiencing the concomitant issues relating to change that are associated with evolution.  But can change accommodate the old as well as the new?  Must change include the annihilation of tried and true traditions, practices that have stood the test of time and have reaped rich dividends for our community?  I think Hillhouse’s message resounds in the depth of our consciousness:  Know yourself; be content with your circumstances, and hold on to your tradition, your history, and your culture while being open to those of others.  We can only enrich our lives as we add to them.  Changing them completely can be disastrous.  We are traveling a path that manifests the results of our practices, which may reap unfavorable results where our children/descendants may be devoid of their history, their cultural trappings on which they can rely, and lose all sense of self-worth.  Our children need a firm foundation, which only we can give.  Hillhouse’s message is a clarion call for introspection and a determined effort to value our traditions and ourselves.  In her poem, “An Ode to the Pan Man,” Hillhouse lauds the commitment of the pan man to the music that only he knows  can “mek man cry, man” (TCW 17).”

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, Musical Youth and With Grace). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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Just don’t call it Painterly…

This is a review I wrote for the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, 2016 edition (to see my review of the Review, check Blogger on Books). To order copies of the Review or to subscribe email Paget_Henry@Brown.edu

I reproduce my review here. While you can excerpt and link with credit, it is not to be copied, pasted, published, or in any way used without my permission.


(a review)
By Joanne C. Hillhouse

“Sometimes,” writes Mali Olatunji, in this book, appropriately dedicated to his elders, “even I have great difficulties in deciphering the pictorial or symbolic philosophy of some of my ‘Woodist Jumbie’ photographs” and this reader can’t help nodding in agreement and relief. Because the book is confounding at times, though I must say never boring or, for that matter, frustrating. How could it be with the artistry of the master artist, as he is described throughout by co-author Paget Henry, and the guidance of a sage such as Henry, de-constructing the images throughout? But the personality of the book is sometimes a perplexing mix – is it coffee table art book for the art-lite appreciator, a philosophical journey in image, a technical work with appeal to fellow photographers and aficionados; it is at times all these. The effect is that sometimes the commentary gets in the way of simple appreciation of the work, sometimes it leaves the reader feeling lost especially when what’s seen and what’s explained are at odds, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary in bringing clarity to the artist’s vision and helping the reader make key connections. And so where does this fit, this book: among other art books? among instructional photography books? among philosophical tomes? or within easy reach in the section for pretty picture books? The challenge is that it doesn’t sit easily on any of these shelves – a marketing challenge to be sure. But marketing is not my business here. So I’ll talk perhaps about the things I find most interesting about this book.

The images I appreciate for their essential beauty. The philosophy that underpins them, this intriguing sense of an artist grappling with both an idea and a new technical language to speak it, is also interesting to me. And I absolutely love the Antiguan-ness of it – that it is fine, fine art that acknowledges the existence of the jumbie of African-Antiguan/Caribbean lore, defiantly inserts them into privileged spots usually occupied by the deities of Western mythology – Jesus in Da Vinci’s Last Supper for instance.
This book is significant on several levels. Consider, for instance, that the visionaries behind it – Olatunji and Henry – come from a small island in the Caribbean; and have both distinguished themselves as immigrants in that country so many hold on a pedestal, America, where Henry is head of Africana studies at Ivy-league university, Brown, and where Olatunji, though rooted in his African-livity, photographed and learned from the masters of western art for decades as the fine arts photographer at the Museum of Modern Art. I mention this not in a look at them aren’t they special way, but because I want to underscore that they then took all acquired there, and mixed it in with the ingredients that made them here, in Antigua, where folks had no choice but to be creative and inventive to make life. By so doing, they’ve brought that distinctive brew, articulated it as well as such a thing can be articulated, and offered it back to Antigua, though sadly an Antigua now more pre-occupied with looking out than looking within and celebrating its own creativity.

And so it is with some bitterness that Olatunji says in the book, “It is beyond doubt that contemporary Antiguans and Barbudans have already shifted from their African-Antiguan Distinctiveness to the adaptation of outside cultures. Our contemporary generation is fast becoming completely ‘follow-fashioned’…” And if that is so, it is good that this book exists as another record not of our folk history – as do books like Monica Matthews’ Journeycakes and Keithlyn and Fernando (and Papa Sammy) Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour – but as the articulation of a philosophy informed by home, Africa; nourished by the imagination, by the act of re-inventing ourselves here in Antigua; and which somehow also wouldn’t exist without some Western instruction as well.

This book is unique for these reasons, and for being daring enough to stare down the mockery of even acknowledging the existence of jumbie much less the audacity to build a visual and spiritual philosophy around them. To suggest that they are more than just the boogie man, to posit that they are instead the non-corporeal essence of our ancestors still with us, still looking on on things, still formulating opinions on things, still watching, still guiding, still seeing. Their opinions and feelings on the things they see, certainly as the photographer sees it, is communicated with the careful selection and application of grains of wood (and sometimes leaves). This is not just for-so. As, per the photographer’s own acknowledgement, given the belief that jumbies live/d in trees, this idea of their vision taking on a woodiness makes perfect sense. It’s one story any way, and he backs it up with striking and convincing imagery.


“Image 33: Nelson’s Dockyard 2” P. 55, The Art of Mali Olatunji: Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.

I’ll talk here about some of my favourites.

There’s the cover image of the jambull/john bull, a fearsome creature we didn’t have to imagine as children as he was always part of the Carnival, charging the crowds, barely kept in check by the whip man, scrounging for the pennies thrown – a confusing narrative even now into adulthood. Recently when I posted a picture of late artist E. T. Henry’s impression of a John Bull on my facebook page (facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse), it got an origins conversation going, and no two theories were the same. Was the John Bull a stand in for ‘Great Britain’ per one narrative, was it a satirical character from the English imagination, or was it per the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda’s newsletter, which prompted the post, a masked African witch doctor being tended by the ‘Cattle Tender’? Olatunji’s image – which I remember first spotting many years ago, likely my introduction to the artist’s aesthetic, in the lobby of the Royal Antiguan Hotel – elevates the be-horned character to god like status as he hovers over the city at night. And I think that projection is intentional, the positioning suggesting that he has the freedom to move at will and to see all. There is no ‘cattle tender’ or bakkra in sight.

There’s the Slapping Hands image which has a whole back story, a story some of us grew up hearing about a girl who opened a book she shouldn’t have after being told not to. There’s even a related calypso – penned by the late great Marcus Christopher and sung by Eugene ‘Canary’ Henry all the way to the crown in 1960. In the Olatunji image we see several ghostly hands coming at the subject, whose eyes are wide in undisguised horror. Who knows what the real story behind this bit of local lore is – though Glen Toussaint does a good job of chronicling it at his blog Dat Bwoi for Jackie  as part of his series on regional folklore of the, shall we say, superstitious variety. As with these things, even his version leaves question marks: “Some say that she was going insane, slapping herself, others claimed it was in fact a Jumbie attacking her. Whatever it was, the hand prints on her face were clear enough…” And whatever it was Olatunji’s Slapping Hands does as good a job of capturing it visually as anyone could. What strikes me as I consider this image and Glen’s accounting is, no modern Antiguan would perhaps admit to believing in much less seeing a jumbie…but they’re not prepared to discount the possibility… for fear of vexing the very jumbie they’re not prepared to declare they actually believe exists.

Olatunji, of course, shows his hand i.e. declares his belief, with this book. It’s a bold move.

Olatunji is not a fan, I think it’s fair to say, of the term used throughout by Henry – “painterly photography” – but it’s hard to describe another of my favourite images, Eyeing the Groundswell, as anything but. It is a beautiful image and the strokes laid by the bark overlaying the beach scene has the brain instinctively categorizing it as a painting rather than a picture. It is not something documented – as people tend to think of photographs – but something conceived; the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting (though of course, within that conceit is the dismissal of photography as something innately outside the realm of the imagination, artistry, painting, and perhaps that implied dismissal of the fact that he’s contemplating shutter speeds and depth of field rather than oils and brush strokes is what vexes Olatunji). Olatunji attempts to address this tension when Henry gives him the last word in the book. He writes, that paintings are a “referent” of the artist’s inner self while photographs are “light-reflected creations from a surface or a state being”. That being the case, he must conclude, but only sort of, that his images lie somewhere in between. His images, he writes, are “self-referential” but with “layers of multiple objective realities” and something quite different, and intuitive, as a result.

This particular image, beyond its prettiness, gets the Henry treatment, a breakdown re the creative and technical process of creating it, a documentation of the artist’s intent, and the analyst’s interpretive treatment. If you’re interested in such things, you can study the picture with this information as context, or you could simply appreciate the innate beauty of it, the hyper-sharpness of the colours, the storminess of the skies, the stillness of the beach below; and that would be enough.

The warm tones of “Graceful interfold of beachness” are also appealing in a way that has nothing to do with the brain and everything to do with the soul. But ever there to feed the brain, Henry explains again about the selection of the bark, what appealed about it, and the effects of the overlay. And you’ll agree, I think, that there is a Van Gogh-esque quality to the way the lines curve their way down the length of the image.

The entire beach series boasts a natural beauty, an alluring fluidity in the swirl of the bark, and a sense of nostalgia for moments of nature either uninterrupted or in harmony with the humans who come to her. Through Deconstructed Beach-ness, Dogging the Groundswells, Nascent Salt, Barbuda, and Sea Bathers, there is not a resort in sight, and so nostalgia is stirred by the sense of something lost.

In the two-picture Barbuda Conch Blues series, we get first a straight-up documentary image, a relatively mild interaction between nature and commercial activity with the return of fish boats to the beach. Then, the same image, as seen through the woodist eye of the jumbie, and you’ll find yourself wondering as you peer through the image of shadows and light, and shadows within the light, what’s jumbie’s view of what he’s seen. For my money, s/he seems troubled – maybe due to the fact that the men returned with no catch, a tid bit shared by Henry which, along with the turmoil surrounding resort development plans on the sister island, yes, is impacting my reading of this image. Is nature withholding her bounty or has she been overused? Is the environmental commentary deliberate or mere projection? This image interests me as it raises questions in my mind.

The book hits a sweet spot in terms of both text and images with the series that follows, the focus on the Anglican Cathedral, Big Church in the local vernacular, a conflicting symbol with historical and religious implications for Antigua and on a more personal level, as broken down by Henry, for Olatunji. The first image shows the church within context of the city, on the hill, dominant, towering over everything; the second image, Easter Sunday, in black and white shot from within the church garden/graveyard as people pour out in their Easter Sunday best, is almost idyllic – both are documents rather than straight up commentary, the jumbie has not weighed in as yet. That changes, the next five images showing a progressively tumultuous relationship between the viewer, the jumbie, the departed, likely African, soul, and this symbol of English and Western and Christian dominance. It is an uneasy relationship and the swirl and heaviness of the chosen barks, the way they shadow and settle like a cataract over the scene by the time we get to the last of these images, Entombed, underscore this. There is no denying the contrast Henry points out between the picturesque, relatively speaking, beach scenes, and these images awash with critical intent:

“Unmistakable is the tension from his boyhood between a deeply felt African spirituality that had been devalued and negated by an imperial Christianity. In this series, the colonized African strikes back through the vision of the Jumbie at the colonizer on the terrain of religion. The particular intensity of these images makes it quite clear how strongly our master artist has experienced and lived this conflict.”

I have to agree.

And it’s at this point, I think that it hit me that as much as these images are supposed to be the world through the jumbie’s eye, it’s actually the world through the jumbie’s eye as interpreted and sometimes influenced by the artist – if this were a book I was writing, the jumbie would be a character in that book, with a certain amount of agency/independence of its own but filtered through my understanding and shaping of that perspective. It was for me a pivotal turning point in terms of my reading of this book. What I was reading/seeing was a story as told to the artist by the jumbie as shown to me by the artist and interpreted for me, to some degree, by his co-author. It was if not a work of fiction, a work of creative non-fiction, and all the more interesting because of it.

The Slave Dungeon one of the non-woodist images sprinkled throughout the book had me thinking of my first meeting with Olatunji – not a great beginning for us – and my introduction to this site which found its way into my novel Oh Gad! It’s at Orange Valley and (like the baobob on the Freemansville main road where national hero King Court/Prince Klaas and his fellow rebels would meet to plot) should, in my view, be as protected and revered as the British fortifications. The dungeon is a place where you can feel the pained and longsuffering and enduring spirit of our ancestors, it is a place where their jumbie lives, or so I posited in my reporting on the site back when and my interpretation of it in my novel. What is the photographer and his co-author’s intent in placing it here? Well, Henry explains that this image which continues the photographer’s encounter with colonialism should have had a companion image as others in the series will, but the jumbie version of the image “has deteriorated”. Now, I want nothing so much as to see it.

I suspect the jumbie’s response to it was strong, stronger than society’s lukewarm, ambivalent response, relative to the sites of British memory, e.g. Nelson’s Dockyard.

In this section, I am particularly drawn to investigate the Papa VC image wherein the esteemed and yet all too humanly flawed Father of the Nation in grey tones overlaid with gold-hued bark and the suggestion of ghostly faces within his peripheral makes for a formidable presence. Love him or hate him, there’s a solidity to him in Antigua and Barbuda’s understanding of itself as a nation and in Olatunji’s interpretation of him through the jumbie’s eye. “The woodist brushes in this photograph are indeed quite historic and reflect Olatunji’s appreciation and admiration of the early Bird,” Henry writes, while at the same time commenting on the late leader’s polarizing effect and Olatunji’s later ambivalence.

Carnival is perhaps the most photographed Caribbean tableau, after beaches and sunsets, but Olatunji, ever the iconoclast, has but one Carnival image here, the revelers largely obscured save for peeks of colour, this obscuring perhaps reflecting Olatunji’s disenchantment with the festival that was once an artist’s dreamscape and is now basically, even Carnival lovers like myself have to agree, an over-priced, all-inclusive, alcohol-laden, commercially-hijacked party – with music still too sweet to resist.
And so, Henry writes, “This decline in the cultural creativity and significance of Carnival Olatunji sees as part of the larger crisis of post-colonial governance resulting from gaps in the leadership practices of our governing political and cultural elites.” And yet, as the writer reports, Olatunji recalled being delighted by this particular Carnival display, underscoring this section’s theme of ambivalence – he loves it, he loves it not, he loves it, he loves it not…

There is no ambivalence, however, about the Antigua Sugar Factory, a site of sugar production, and by extension occupation of Black lives back in the day. The factory is decayed and overlaid with a bark so thick and cracked the decay is magnified, and is, paradoxically, almost a thing of beauty. The past is being petrified.

Among the New York images, some of the most striking for me are Fire Beyond Brooklyn Bridge, with the placement of the wood approximating a sun flare backlighting one of the city’s more iconic images; City Hall, in which the seat of government is murky looking, hinting perhaps at the corruption and stasis that so often infects politics making it ineffectual; Petrification at Harlem, which rather than seeming frozen to me, has the effect of waves that for me calls to mind the name of another image in the book Antigua a-wash-way. Let’s see what Henry has to say about these images and how his insights gel with or prove ‘wrong’ my interpretation. Hmmm, bridge on fire, more “incendiary” than my interpretation; city hall rendered “stony, obstructed, and inaccessible”, yes, I can see that – I did not, however, see the “ghostly appearance … (of the woman) …walking away… with very uncertain results or unclear answers” until Henry, as guide on this journey, pointed her out; but I might have to agree to disagree with him that the water in the black and white Harlem image appears frozen though I can agree that it speaks to tension between nature and the urban landscape of the most (debatably) famous and infamous city in the world.

These New York images are great talk pieces, great for discussion, because of that, because they are so widely open to interpretation, because there’s a darkness to so many of them, e.g. A Shadowed Pathway in which the jumbie may or not be seeing a shadow of himself – but that’s just one interpretation.

Sometimes, every now and again, the woodiness is naturally occurring such as in View from My Harlem window, a beautiful picture of a New York street as seen through the leaves of a tree on what seems to be a quiet morning in Fall or, another favourite, the award winning Solitude in Fall, in which the trees line up in the distance in an image defined by its lines and mood; but more often they are chosen and imposed by the photographer to reshape the image into something otherworldly such as Central Park Strollers, a jigsaw of an image, or Mah in which a Twin Towers-like pairing of images is enswirled in the rich reddish-gold bark representing the mother of one of Olatunji’s friends. The latter is one of those images that makes a strong case for the description Henry favours “painterly photography”. He shares an anecdote in which the film developer, when Olatunji went to collect his images, “insisted to the end that this was a painting that had been photographed”, leading to the conclusion that “Mah is a very good example of the multiple ways in which Olatunji’s works are seen by different viewers, and thus also of the kinds of heated exchanges that they can produce.”

You will marvel at Olatunji’s mastery of his art form through simply beautiful vistas like Moments til Moonrise, and through images like A Jumbie at Moma in which the artist’s Antigua crashes in to the ‘hallowed’ spaces of Western high art, wherein we’re not seeing through the eyes of the jumbie but are observing the jumbie, a ghostly apparition, in this space. And if there’s any doubt that Olatunji is not an opportunistic photographer but is very deliberate about his images, you have only to read Henry break down of how this image came to be:

“To get the shadow of the man that represents the Jumbie, Olatunji found a very cooperative subject. The group standing in the corner was much larger before the photograph was tken. As some were departing, Olatunji asked this man to be a part of his photograph, but did not tell him that he would be providing this all-important shadow….Hanging on the wall to the left is, of course Picasso’s famous ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. This is the painting that has in its upper right hand corner the much discussed lady whose face reflects the iinfluences of the masks of the Fang people of Gabon.” None of this is accidental – up to and including the decision to locate this jumbie in a space occupied by one of the masters’ works, a work in particular that references Africa, which the Antiguan-born artist claims as his spiritual home from his style of dress to the name he owns.

Looking at Snow Play in Prospect Park, I think back to an earlier image, Labour Day at Fort James, and see intentionally or not an appreciation in the photographer if not the jumbie for the carefree joy and abandon of youth. The photographer was, of course, doing other things with this image, technical things that the writer admits went over his head, but whatever it is it makes for a beautiful winter wonderland in which there is a noticeable interplay of light and shadow on the snow.

Broadway, Times Square, these are all covered, literally under the jumbie’s gaze but it’s the second image of Brooklyn Bridge, in which the fire has burned out, the colour of the wood like fading embers or the warm tones of sunset over the scene. The post script to this chapter is the photographer’s cheeky meeting of London and New York in which he lays a scene from one space space over a moment from the other, to prove his mastery of his medium and his control over his narrative.


“Image 69: A Tree Grows in Broadway” from The Art of Mali Olatunji Painterly Photography from Antigua and Barbuda by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry.

It is clear that Olatunji felt fired up on landing in England, the one-time ‘Mother’ of so much of the world including his homeland Antigua. The beauty of the parks clearly captivating him and the jumbie gazes on them almost affectionately, appreciative of the way nature resists being pushed out by industry – unlike New York where he lived for many years. The iconic sites are there Nelson’s Statue, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, River Thames (a beautiful image), Big Ben all blocked by the swirling, cracked, jaundiced and jaded eye of the jumbie. One of the more interesting series centres on Big Ben, on the artist’s effort to rob Big Ben of its bigness, it’s iconicity, its arrogant demand that the world run on its time – and if you’re thinking Big Ben is a stand-in for Mother England herself and the jumbie working her voodoo via the photographer’s hand is all of Africa’s displaced children, I would venture you’re not far off. That’s certainly my read of it as the artist progressively ages the image, so that it seems to decay and whither to stillness under the jumbie’s gaze. Of the final image, Big Ben stopped, Henry writes, “It has been largely silenced as decay has turned to petrification – a deadening that has encased Big Ben in photographic stone…(calling) to mind the complete erasure of the cathedral in our Big Church series.” This is one of those moments where the presence of Henry as guide is critical in making key connections – because here is one of those moments that this book is more than just a pretty coffee table book, more than just a technical exploration for photographers interested in a new technique, a moment where the book is, in fact, decisive, emphatic commentary on the African experience in relation to England and, more broadly, Western powers. Politics is at play here in many ways, in the case of this series notably in the commentary implicit in the images of parliament darkened by bark as though covered in smog and in the protests which declare ‘Capitalism isn’t working’ which meet with the jumbie’s and the photographer’s approval. On a purely aesthetic note, Big Ben stopped and in fact the series of three of the iconic clock is among the more beautiful and, sorry, Mali, painterly images in the book.

We return to Antigua with the jumbie, with the photographer, and their spirit is not at ease – evident in the flow of wood grain over the image of the Holy Family Catholic cathedral and Mount St. John Medical Centre in Downward Flow of Spirituality and Health, the dark and foreboding shadow over shadow of The Ship of State, in the roughness of the bark over the harbor view in Storm of Corruption – no ambivalence there. Jumbie and photographer are angry and that anger turns in on itself to depression and despair as they look at the ships in the harbor, for instance – the kind of thing that makes those invested in cruise tourism’s debatable offerings salivate – and see instead of beauty the Encroaching on the Environment and Pollution!

It is not a happy ending though Henry attempts to make it so with the inclusion of images that for the most part don’t fit the woodist aesthetic, images which he said represent hope – portraits of artists. One of those artists and the only one of four portraits seen through the jumbie’s eye is the one of me, shot in New York, reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy.

I’ve stared for long minutes at this image, trying to understand what the jumbie sees when she looks at me because though the image is positioned to represent hope, the dappled grain has an odd effect – where there might be hope, but also uncertainty and concern. The other woodist images in this section are of Olatunji’s son at play, and the jumbie does seem hopeful looking on this image, and the master artist in prayerful pose, and though his face seems at rest the swirl of textures around him suggest he is not quite at peace – and given the images that have come before, who can blame him. It is also at odds with the sense those of us who think of Olatunji less as the fall on your knees in prayer type and more of the get up and fight type. If it were a story being told, this would seem a bit of a pat ending – which is not intended as a swipe against the writer, who does a good job throughout of bringing context to the work – but of the underlying tension between the spirit of the artist and the ordering of the writer.

But the artist gets the last word, re-focussing the reader on his intent – and it is here that we get a deeper sense of the technical innovation and philosophical searching guiding this work; his respect for his elders and for the unseen, for his culture and his people, for process, for intentionality – moving beyond taking pictures to making pictures. And reading this section one can’t help thinking what a shame it is that he is not being used in some way here in Antigua and Barbuda to teach master classes in photography, yes, but also in so many of the concepts the book explores, which can perhaps be summed up as who are we – who we be. It is a soul searching sort of work. And perhaps it started as is suggested at one point as the artist tried to grapple with aging and death, with loss without losing hope; but it has evolved in to more than that – a documentary of a life, a commentary on space/s and history, and a probing at, yes, who we be.

Beautiful as the gallery is that follows, it could have, perhaps should have, ended with this final word from the artist. But since the gallery is there can I just end by commenting on the beauty in stolen slice of life moments like Boys at Sea, still life images like sugar apple and pupa, and additional woodist works like Autumn in Connecticut – a series that leaves a lasting image of a master artist, the master well earned, in full command of the language of his art and in the crafting of it.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and forthcoming With Grace). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

All images are from The Art of Mali Olatunji and are the artist’s copyright; do not re-use in any way without permission.


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Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books 2013 Launched

I usually attend the launch of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books. I missed it this year. But just to let you know, the Review should now be available. I’m mad that it still hasn’t reviewed Oh Gad! as yet (Oh Gad! came out in 2012 and I had my fingers crossed for some coverage in summer 2012 but they had the all poetry edition featuring Antiguan and Barbudan female poets. It was a good read as noted here.) This year, still nothing but editor (and friend) Paget Henry assures me that I’ll make the next cycle. I live in hope. Meantime here’s what you’ll find:

Table of Contents 6

Editor’s Note


UWI Address: Receiving an Honorary Doctorate
by Kortright Davis

Kortright Davis’ Emancipation Still Comin
by Patrick Lewis

Church Music in Our Nation Since Independence: Are We made Like Jesus?
by George Roberts

Kortright Davis and Caribbean Emancipatory Theology: A Review Essay
by Paget Henry


Frederick Stiles Jewett: A Connecticut Poet and Newspaperman in Antigua
by Gregory Frohnsdorff

Through an Enlightened Lens? John Luffman’s View of Antigua in the 1780s
by Robert Glen

Antigua and the Antiguans: The Question of its Authorship
Edgar Lake

How He Kick She
by Radcliffe Robins


John Hewlett
Slave Ship
African-Antiguan –West Indian
It is Easy
Cool Out

Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Shadows in the Name
The Difficult Archangel: On the Poetry of Wilson Harris

Edgar Lake
To Gary
Footprints of Pastures

Marcus Jeffers
Island Boy
Go James
Living Ain’t Easy When You Are Black and Breezy
City Lights
Eddie is on it
Brother Roland


The First Guitar: A Review of The Ground by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Amir Jaima

Caliban’s Reason and African Traditional Reasoning
Patricia Agupusi

Kincaid’s and Danticat’s Stages of Loss and Grief
by Leara Rhodes

Henry’s Bird: Political Philosophy, Political Economy and Late Modern Leadership
by Neil Roberts

Paget Henry’s Shouldering Antigua and Barbuda: The Life of V.C. Bird
by Jessica Byron

The launch programme includes presentations by Antigua and Barbuda Studies Association member Mali Olatunji, pannist Chekiyah Martin, UWI Open Campus Head Ian Benn, Henry, and poet Marcus Jeffers. It was scheduled for August 8th 2013 at the UWI Open Campus Antigua and Barbuda.

The2013 edition is the sixth edition of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, the only collection producing scholarly research and reviews related exclusively to our literature and history.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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Filed under A & B Lit News Plus, A & B WRITINGS

Antiguan and Barbudan literary works reviewed

As I come across reviews or dig through archived reviews, I’ll add them – first to last, and not necessarily in the order they were written. Been finding so many, I had to tie off this list and continue the series in other posts (use the search feature to find them).

Tameka Jarvis-George’s film, Dinner, based on her poem of the same name and directed by Christopher Hodge of Cinque Productions premiered in 2011 at the Reggae Film Festival in Jamaica, where it received the following review:

“Featuring an attractive pair of lovebirds, Dinner is a sweetly poetic and vivid 12-minute verse-to-screen clip from an Antiguan writer/director with an appealing, if slightly provocative, voice. It’s a small film with a big heart that explores intimate love, employing a slyly clever approach – cloaked in the guise of meal preparation. While getting dinner ready a radiant young lady (played by Jervis-George, who also provides a lyrical voice-over) is surprised by the early arrival home of her virile Rastafarian man, and before you can say ‘Come and get it’ a dining of a totally different variety plays out on-screen. Shot in vibrant hues by a surprisingly steady camera, Dinner is romp that ends all too quickly, but it was tastefully delightful while it lasted. B”


The Devil’s Bridge is an evocative work that will establish itself as another classic of the Caribbean and particularly Antiguan writing. It walks confidently, making its own path somewhere between Jamaica Kincaid and Wilson Harris. Because of its powerful visionary and ego-transcending achievements, this work will be compared to Harris’s Palace of the Peacock and Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John.”

Professor Paget Henry,
Sociology & Africana Studies
Brown University


Just came across this mention of my Boy from Willow Bend at Behind the Marog Kingdom listing it alongside Flying with Icarus by Curdella Forbes and the Legend of St. Ann’s Flood by Debbie Jacob as “useful stories for discussion” in getting Caribben boys to deal with their feelings. That’s kinda cool. It’s also listed as recommended books for boys here.


“The beauty, economy and precision of Kincaid’s prose transports even the most curmudgeonly and aloof reader into the abject state of gushy fandom.” – Saidiya Hartman, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia university, introducing Jamaica Kincaid for a reading.


Re Unburnable

“John expertly weaves history and fiction into an integral narrative that takes the reader on a fascinating journey where instincts, magic, intuition and, above all, love are the real protagonists.” – from this blog.

“UNBURNABLE is good, if not great. It is a magnificent attempt on a very large theme: recognizing and releasing the sins of the fathers (in this case, mothers, in a matriarchal society) to embrace one’s own destiny.” – from this blog.

“Marie-Elena John graciously takes you inside the history and lives of the people in Dominica. You will visist the island’s original Carib people, who discovered Columbus when he arrived in 1493. Yes, be careful because you may actually learn something by reading this novel. Don’t worry. Marie-Elena weaves a wonderful tale that will also feed some of your thirst for sex and action, while simultaneously increasing your knowledge of Africa and the Caribbean.” – from this blog.

“The diversity of the African diaspora is often overlooked in modern African American literature, and this page-turner fills in some gaps.” – from Booklist, found here.

“Strong writing and interesting supporting characters should keep readers occupied through the end.” – from Publishers Weekly, found here.


Re Considering Venus

“An interesting thing about Considering Venus is that Lesley’s sexuality is never defined. It’s just love between two women–with no barriers.

Isaac has written a lovely book, with just the right fusion of prose and poetry make it a joy to read.” – this from Sistahs on the Shelf in 2008.


Encouraging review (September 2011) of unFRAMED, a play by Antiguan born, American based Iyaba Ibo Mandingo:

“Artist and performer Iyaba Ibo Mandingo is undeniably talented. Though he describes himself “as a painter and
a poet,” in unFRAMED, Mandingo also demonstrates his abilities as a singer, dancer, performance artist, standup
comedian and storyteller…Visually, unFRAMED is a treat. Mandingo’s painting is colorful and expressive, and lighting designer Nicholas Houfek does an excellent job enhancing the various emotions that Mandingo conveys throughout his story. UnFRAMED is also very funny at times, especially in a sequence in which Mandingo makes light of his own name. Best of all, unFRAMED is worthwhile because it shares a different perspective on America, one that stands in stark contrast to most people’s naïve notion of a land of equality and opportunity.”


Life as Josephine comments on Dancing Nude in the Moonlight:

“There is no way an Antiguan or an individual who lives on the island cannot relate to this story. The island is too small and the story too concise to be shortsighted. As a returning national, I found it answered many questions as to the cultural dynamics of present day Antigua.”


Amos Morrill’s children’s book Augusta and Elliott received some positive feedback from readers and reviewers, such as:

“…there is much on the page to delight the eye, both in color and in content. The
text is simple but the message to children (and their parents) is clear: help
save our oceans.” – Charlotte Vale-Allen @ Amazon.com

“This simple storybook is filled with colorful drawings to tell the tale. Without harping on negativity, the fish throw a party to drum up support and start implementing change…This would be a great gift for anyone with kids. Amos would love to know that future generations will be more conscious of the fragile nature of our ecosystems and our need to minimize human impact.” – Kimberley Jordan-Allen


“…it’s often thought that there  was next to no literature produced in the Caribbean until the mid-20th century.  It makes Frieda Cassin one of the region’s first recorded woman writers, and it makes her novel the first such book to be published in Antigua. But much more interesting than these historical details is the novel itself,  a distinctly dark and disturbing look at West Indian society…

There is much that is bad about this book. The dialogue is at times excruciating,  and the familiar clichés of Caribbean life rather trying. But, as an insight into some of the phobias surrounding small-island society a century  or so ago, it is fascinating. And what makes it all the more bizarre is that  this dark indictment of a racist and neurotic world was written by a respectable  lady who was probably a pillar of that very society.” – Caribbean Beat review, in its November-December 2003 issue, of Freida Cassin’s With Silent Tread.


A mixed review of Althea Prince’s Loving this Man from January magazine begins:

“Toronto author Althea Prince writes with such sensuality and grace that it creates a heady spell, drawing the reader into the center of the story. If only this were all a novelist needed to do, Loving This Man would have been a triumph. The fact that the novel does not come together as a satisfying read is connected to technical things like structure and voice, and even deeper underpinnings such as intent.”

Do you agree? Read the book, read the rest of the revew here and decide for yourself.


From my own review in Volume 3 Number 1 Summer 2010 edition of The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, of Althea Prince’s body of work:

“By writing not only plentiful but plenty-plenty of who we are beyond skin and bones and the condition that landed us here, by rebelling with polite but persistent resolve against the hegemony that would box us in, by writing with heart and hardiness, with poetry and compassion, by nudging writers like myself to trust what we intuit, Prince continues to be an example to Antiguan writers yet becoming.”

Full review Althea Prince Writing What She Intuits by Joanne C. Hillhouse.


Just found this fleeting but delightful reference by Jamaican Helen Williams to Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird, referencing a reading of the book to a grade four class:

“This delightful story, with its rhythmic prose and adequate repetition, is adapted from a tale from ‘The Ila-speaking peoples from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)’ by Edwin Smith and Andrew Dale, (1920). The bold illustrations could be seen by the children at the back of the class. (Thanks to Pam Witte for sending me this book.) Several children asked me to read the story again…”


Referencing the writings of Althea Romeo-Mark:

“The gusting, twisting, reaching complexity of Romeo-Mark’s poetry and narrative matches the twisting, gusting complexity of her thought. And yet, the poems and narratives are not insistently complex. The rhythm and the ideas are both simple and matter of fact. Romeo-Mark’s wit is neatly carried by a direct cadence and where enjambment occurs; she states her case plausibly, clearly developing a seamless organization without falling into monotony.” – Review of If Only the Dust would Settle, P. 341 – 342, The Caribbean Writer Volume 25, 2011

“The voice of African-American writing” –  Poetry@Suite101, 2011

“This book is also interesting…for the insight it offers to the immigrant experience.” – Daily Observer, 2010

“Romeo-Mark’s knack for connecting the inner and outer world, shifting easily between moods, and making connections across time and space, coupled with vivid imagery, make this a thoroughly engaging read.” – customer review, Amazon.com, 2010

and this review of her earlier work:

“The relationship between Romeo-Mark and the persona in her poems is complex. The poet seems to maintain a psychic distance from her persona. The voice in her poetry describes the ironies of the human experience in the Caribbean, North America, and West Africa.” – Vincent O. Cooper, JSTOR, 1994


Cris on Facebook on Considering Venus:

“If D. Gisele Isaac wrote “jiggy poo poo” on a piece of paper, I’d want to read it. She
has one of those writing styles that just draws you in and wraps you up in the
flow of her words. I felt like the characters in the book were real people that I could actually
bump into if I went down to the road in the supermarket. Now lemme tell you
bout the book: Considering Venus explores the lives of a heterosexual widow, who finds herself
falling in love, and teetering into a relationship with an old school friend
who just happens to be a lesbian female. The pair undergo the typical battles of a new “same sex” relationship
as the story unfolds. Now I have two BIG problems with this book. Number one: the book actually had
an ending, I wanted to stay in Cass and Lesley’ lives forever (no homo lol) and


Cris also said about Floree Williams’ Through the Window, also on Facebook:

“I really enjoyed this book. What I loved most about it was the author’sability to get you to ‘see’ the characters, and the places the
characters in the book went.”


Finally, her reader-review of my book Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (yep, on Facebook) said, among other things:

“What stood out to me the most was that Joanne managed to “flesh out” such real characters and spin such a realistic story line into such a small book.”  Thanks, Cris.


See a short write-up on Tameka Jarvis-George’s Unexpected at 365Antigua.com. Excerpt:

“‘Unexpected’ is a poignant, true-to-life tale that reflects a Caribbean-inspired ‘voice’ but is easily transferable and relatable to other cultures.”


Came across this old(ish) write up of young writer (and Wadadli Pen alumna) Rilys Adams’ first spoken word CD, Laid Bare. Excerpt:

“Her poetry is timely and captures the urgency to preserve the culture that is  left, to uplift the nation, and savour memories with loved ones.”


Search Antigua has been making its pick of essential Summer reads. On its non fiction list, you’ll find Keithlyn Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour (“a book every Antiguan should read”) and Symbol of Courage, and Monica Matthews’ Journeycakes. On its fiction list, you’ll find Marie Elena John’s Unburnable (“a suspense novel with many twists, turns and secrets”), my (i.e. Joanne C. Hillhouse’s) Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (“a nice, light, summer read for the romantics”), and Tameka Jarvis-George’s Unexpected (which “will have you curled up on the couch for a while”). Teen picks include my Boy from Willow Bend, Akilah Jardine’s Living Life the Way I Love It and Marisha’s Drama, Marcel Marshall’s All that Glitters, and Floree Williams’ Through the Window (“a great read for older teens and young adults”); while on the kids’ list are A Day at the Beach (“beautiful illustrations and the charming story of two children’s day at the
beach”) by writer Calesia Thibou and illustrator Gail M. Nelson, Floree Williams’ Pink Teacups and Blue Dresses, and Rachel Collis’ Emerald Isle of Adventure.


What did the late critic Tim Hector think of Dorbrene O’Marde?… Just came across this review of the latter’s last play (to date) This World Spin One Way…and it’s full of high praise indeed:

“Dobrene O’Marde is a valuable asset in a community with few valuable
assets. That is why this article was extended beyond the limits of a mere
review, proving that without the artistic integrity of the likes of Dobrene
O’Marde all dialogue is silenced, and we have only the tiresome monologue of

“…Let me say at once, that “This World Spins One Way” is Dobrene’s best written play, and probably the best play written by an Antiguan.”


A great resource for reviews of Antiguan and Barbudan books is The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books edited by Brown University Professor Dr. Paget Henry. The 2011 issue includes reviews of the late Dr. Charles Ephraim’s The Pathology of Eurocentrism (“a major work of Africana existensial philosophy andBlack existentialism” – Lewis R. Gordon); Emily Spencer Knight’s Growing up in All Saints Village, Antigua: The 1940s – the late 1960s (“history written in a personal style” – Bernadette Farquhar); Leon H. Matthias’ The Boy from Popeshead, Theodore Archibald’s The Winding Path to America, Hewlester A. Samuel Sr.’s The Birth of the Village of Liberta, Antigua, and Joy Lawrence’s Bethesda and Christian Hill: Our History and Culture (collectively described as “…a goldmine for those who want to learn about the culture and cultural practices of each period” – Susan Lowes); and Paget Henry’s Shouldering Antigua and Barbuda: The Life of V. C. Bird (“an enlightening narrative of the leadership style and philosophy of Bird…” – George K. Danns). I’m delighted that it also includes a review of my own Boy from Willow Bend by the esteemed Columbia University Assistant Professor and daughter of the Antiguan and Barbudan soil, Natasha Lightfoot:

“For its thoughtful rendering of complex issues such as
gender, class, migration and death, for the swiftness of Hillhouse’s prose, and
especially for the captivating personality with which she endows the title
character, readers will be instantly drawn to this narrative.

“Hillhouse has crafted a story that adult and young readers
alike can enjoy, that truly captures the spirit of Antigua’s recent past.”


Online review of  Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (“an honest depiction of attitudes toward cultural mixing and interracial dating”)…love the name of this blog, btw: lifeasjosephine.


U.S. (specifically Rawsistaz’s) review of The Boy from Willow Bend reposted by 365Antigua.com: three out of five stars, the reviewer had some struggles with the language but liked the descriptions (“I could picture myself walking down the dirt roads looking at the willow trees or listening to the street musicians as I walked down the street”).


Jamaican children’s author Diane Brown’s review of Antiguan S. E. James’ Tragedy on Emerald Island

“The descriptions of the eruptions beginning, the ash, the fright of not knowing
at first what it is, what was actually happening, and then once reality dawned,
the fear of what would happen next, grabbed me. I was sitting ‘scrunched up’ in
my bed (which is where I read) with fright.”

and other books for older readers.


Reader comments on Floree Williams’ Through the Window can be found at the book’s Facebook page including:

“beautiful novel ” (Eric Jerome Dickey, author)

“The storyline was good, albeit one that …is not uncommon, however the characters and the way they unfolded during the telling of the story was indeed interesting.” (Marcella Andre, media personality)


Unburnable, Marie Elena John’s book attracted wide acclaim and a Hurston Wright nomination. Follow this link and this to see what other critics have to say about the Antiguan authors debut novel. Here’s a teaser:

“wondrously intelligent” (Chimamanda Adichie)

“electrifying” (Essence)

“compelling” (Booklist)


“Vibrant and powerful” are two of the words that have been used to describe Women of Antigua’s When a Woman Moans first staged in 2010 as a successor to its stagings of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was co-scripted and directed by Zahra Airall and Linisa George of August Rush Productions w/input from Marcella Andre, Carel Hodge, Floree Williams, Greschen Edwards, Melissa Elliott, and me (your Wadadli Pen blogger/coordinator Joanne C. Hillhouse) in 2010 with the addition in 2011 of pieces by Tameka Jarvis-George, Salma Crump, Brenda Lee Browne, and Elaine Spires. Here’s what they had to say about the 2010 production over at 365 Antigua and see what audience members said at the When A Woman Moans group page on Facebook.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.


Filed under A & B WRITINGS

Feeling the GHETTO VIBES (from the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, 2011)

This is an article I (Joanne C. Hillhouse) did for the 2011 issue of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, edited by Professor Paget Henry of Brown University. The Review is published annually, and the article discusses the songs of one of Antigua and Barbuda’s calypso greats, Short Shirt; specifically his Ghetto Vibes album. PLEASE DO NOT REPOST WITHOUT THE AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.



“I am going to start with a song from what should be named the GREATEST CALYPSO ALBUM ever, GHETTO VIBES by Sir McClean Emmanuel – King Short Shirt. The song asks questions that humanity doesn’t have the answers for as yet. WHEN. He should have been named one of the top 5 calypsonians of the 20th century.” – Poster with the moniker CaribArts in a 2010 thread (OECS SOCA CLASH: VINCYLAND (WINDWARD) vs. ANTIGUA (LEEWARD)) at http://www.islandmix.com


By Joanne C. Hillhouse

Short Shirt’s Ghetto Vibes is one of my favourite albums of all time; not one of my favourite Calypso albums, not one of my favourite Antiguan albums, just one of my top five favourites period.

Incidentally, it came out in 1976 as a record on vinyl; before cassettes, CDs, downloadable music. I would have been all of three years old at the time, so obviously I couldn’t have had a first-hand experience of it; except it feels like I did, because I grew up singing, dancing to, and dramatizing Short Shirt calypsos – My Pledge, Press On, Lamentations, Star Black – and felt them deep in my soul long before the lyrics would begin to unravel themselves for me. That unraveling is still taking place. I didn’t purchase Ghetto Vibes until its re-issue on CD in the 00’s. By then, I’d purchased the Monarch’s Social Commentaries CD which included many of my favourites, several of which – Power and Authority, Inspite of All, When – can be found on the Ghetto Vibes CD. But a single download or even a Greatest Hits CD by the best of the best – think Bob, Aretha, Prince, Sparrow – can’t compare with a complete and artfully conceptualized full album, CD, whatever you want to call it – think The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Alannis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, Tanya Stephens’ Gangsta Blues, or my favourite soundtrack, The Harder They Come. Though I would have appreciated the inclusion of comprehensive liner notes complete with album credits – the lack of which is a shortcoming of many local, often independently produced, albums – owning the actual Ghetto Vibes CD remains a unique and mind blowing experience.

Did I mention I love this CD? Let me count the ways.

There’s the infectious joy of Tourist Leggo where the storyteller engages in that time worn Caribbean pastime of watching white people dancing, dancing badly. Sure, ‘tourist’ is not synonymous with ‘white people’, but let’s be honest that’s exactly what this “pretty little yankee tourist…from Halifax” is. And if we’re being honest, we’ve watched other ‘yankee’ tourists mangle the w’ine, all the while wondering if they’re dancing to the rhythm or the words. In Tourist Leggo, we find one such,

“…jumping without timing… in the steelband, dancing in the sun,”

with determined abandon.


“She blood run cold every time she hear a pan roll,



‘Cold’ is ‘Hot’ here in the way that ‘bad’ is ‘good’ and ‘sick’ is ‘delightful’ and ‘wicked’ is ‘so, so good’. So snicker if you want, but she’s having a better time than you, wall flower. Of course, you could join in, as the storyteller has, his ‘mockery’ all in good fun. The song, tonally, then doesn’t feel mean-spirited. Rather, it emerges as a celebration of the Carnival spirit, the spirit of the J’ouvert, which if you’ve ever been – to the J’ouvert, or Last Lap, or a Burning Flames Lions jam – is as seductive as the song suggests, bringing people – whatever race or cultural origin – together for the most fun this side of sex. 


“…the girl said to me, ‘Shorty, what a glorious symphony

The music seems to fill you with rage

And make you feel like you on a stage.’”


It’s a strong opener, Tourist Leggo.

The music, from the first note, is joyful and buoyant and Short Shirt’s pre-emptive bellow lays the foundation for a rousing good time, while the superior ability of the lyricist is reflected in the tightly woven storytelling amidst the bacchanal.

The first few lines set the scene like the opening frames of a film:


J’ouvert Morning.

Just as the band start parading.

Ah in Scot’s Row, jamming tight with a Leggo.”


Setting, place, time, characters in a few deceptively simple opening bars; and it bubbles over from there: “the place well hot and the music sweet” – leading to “insane” behavior – including, on occasion, a little “romance with a man”. Sorry, I had to go there; because isn’t one of the beauties of especially vintage calypso the little tease, the way they edge right up to the line? And isn’t Tourist Leggo one of the best examples of that?

The bellow that portends Vivian Richards, meanwhile, sounds more like a lion’s roar accompanied, as it is, by the aggressive beat, exuberance, and boastful stance that suffuses this song, echoing the spirit, reinforcing the larger than life mythology of its title subject. It’s very hip hop in that sense, and with respect to the name checking. And the chorus is a sing-a-long worthy of any cricket fan:

“No bowler holds a terror for Vivian Richards!”


It captures well the excitement of the game and of Richards’ technical ability, as well as the David v. Goliath rivalry between England and her former colonies – David armed this time around with more than a little caterpuller.

“England, here they come

This hunk of a man

This classical player and his fellow Antiguan

Andy Roberts wreaking havoc once again in your country

Vivian Richards wrecking bowlers boundary after boundary

Watch the score board ticking on

When Vivian batting, the machine must run

And people applauding for runs like bread

And another splendid Richards century again



Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles wrote in Spirit of Dominance, “Viv did not walk onto the cricket field in search of himself. Neither did he discover his consciousness within the context of sporting contests. He was sent in to do battle by villagers, not only those in Antigua, but all those from little places in this diaspora; people who have been hurling missiles at the Columbus project since it crashed into their history five hundred years and ten million lives ago…he was determined to tilt the scales, even if marginally and temporarily, in favour of those whose view of the world is from the bottom up.”

I’d argued in an original draft of this article that the song, focused on the particulars of the game, only hinted at the larger socio-historical impact of those runs and Richards’ role in the decolonization process. I’ve felt compelled to rethink that point in light of my first reader’s comment that having been there, caught up in the experiences that the song chronicles, the glory of all it suggested was deeply felt. She would have been 15 when this album came out. So perhaps age is a hindrance here with respect to my original critical assessment, and the larger meaning was in fact well communicated and deeply understood without having to be sledge-hammered home like a Tyler Perry film. Simply put, he who feels it knows it, and they knew it.

For those of us who came after, it is fiery, anthemic and enjoyable, and a record of the exploits of both Richards and compatriot Andy Roberts on the pitch at a time when it was rare to see a Leeward Islander on the Windies team – especially two with so many tools in their arsenal. In that, it serves one of calypsos functions in speaking for its times and celebrating the heroes of the folk – not unlike the third song, the syncopated (“who/tell you/to/mess with Harmo”) Hands off Harmonites in which the Point resident goes to bat for the area steel band, no doubt reflecting the sentiments of the people of that area, that Harmonites was robbed in the ‘75 Panorama finals.

“…something went wrong with the judging

Harmonites wouldn’t place so bad

Halcyon was first

Supa Stars second

Rising Sun was third

And Hell’s Gate fourth, I heard

But when it came to Harmonites,

they couldn’t find a place that night

slip them right down the ladder

second to last…”


A seemingly personal (and community) gripe, the song is significant as a chronicle of the lives, and particularly the injustices felt, by the people; not unlike Ivena’s Old Road Fight in the 00’s which I’ve always felt is the best record, better than the news coverage even, of the uproar surrounding the controversial Carlisle Bay development project. Like Tourist Leggo, Hands off Harmonites is also significant in capturing the spirit of Carnival; in this case in particular, the “pan rhapsody, flow, de tempo, and rhythm” of the only musical invention of the 20th century, the steel pan.

Interestingly, this pan ditty proves a natural segue to the CD’s larger issues, the concern reflected in the title, Ghetto Vibes, and perhaps the second biggest reason – after the quality of the lyricism – that I love it so much. See, as a child of Ottos, I, too, am a child of the ghetto and deeply aware of its concerns over victimization whether driven by class, economics, or politics. And in this song about the steel pan, vilified in its youth, the concerns of working class Antiguans begin to be spelled out.  

“Just because they wouldn’t stand the exploitation

That you dishing out to the pan man

You want to stifle the sweetest band in the land

It seems the policy

Of those in authority

Is to crush anyone

Who dare to oppose their might.”


Man against the (political) machine, a battle understood all too well by those in life’s ghetto who experience firsthand the victimization and, conversely, the defiance of spirit in the face of it, that begin to take centre stage on the CD.

But it’s up to songs like Power and Authority and Nobody Go Run Me – easily my favourites on the album, especially the latter – to really drive those issues home.

Before we get to them though, there’s one more seemingly lighter topic – after J’ouvert, cricket, steel band music – and that is ‘love’ in the ‘boy lusts after girl’ track No Promises.

The recurring sub-theme of ‘madness’ of the spirit – “I walk de whole ah de beach and I search like a crazy man but the only thing I found was shell and sand” – is there, lust/love proving just as maddening as the infectious music (in Tourist Leggo), and certainly as much a part of life in the ghetto, as anywhere.

While not dealing overtly with the concerns of the ghetto, the song does interweave the experience of the economic immigrant (the kinds of indignities chronicled in H. Akia Gore’s Garrote: The Illusion of Social Equality and Political Justice in the United States Virgin Islands):

“You catch me in St. Thomas

Darling, that was really mas

You and you Cruzan man

Had me dodging Immigration

For two whole weeks a cool off

Sleeping in boxes and trash cans all about…”


But this song, frankly, doesn’t hypodermic its way into my blood like Nobody Go Run Me, which I still feel in my heart and soul on my worst days, and which I’ve said before I see as the other side of the coin of a favoured literary classic – Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners – the latter dealing with the experiences of those who left, Short Shirt (and his writers) dealing with the sorrows of those who stayed.

“Night and day ah catching hell

People think I doing well

Just because I sing a few calypso

But that is my misery

Calypso don’t make money

And most of them don’t know

That I have my axe to grind

Just like any other man

Existing in poverty

And this giant ghetto land

But I intend to hang on

Tell them, tell them for me

No dice

I ain’t gonna eat lice

I ain’t gonna grow old sitting in the cold

Not me…”


Sorry for the extensive quote – but I relate to those lines on a deep in my belly level – and not just because I’m a walking around definition of struggling writer, twin to the struggling calypsonian, but because like the calypsonian I readily acknowledge that life is far from easy on this 108 square mile rock where my navel string is buried, but it is home. In that sense, it’s as much a love letter to Antigua as it is a lament about the fortunes of the poor and underrepresented.

“Tell them I say

I was born in this land

I go die in this land

Nobody go run me

From where me come from”.


Of course, the counterpoint to that, as the very tone of the song suggests, is the people of the ghetto may come from here but here routinely rubs them the wrong way – denying them the opportunity to progress, to own, to dream; limiting them…and yet, they hang on.

“Me mumma must nyam

Me puppa must nyam

Me woman must nyam

Me picknee must nyam.”


The unspoken intimation is that the struggle for them to “nyam” (eat) of the fruits of Antigua’s bounty is just that, a struggle; making this a sentiment as much heartbreaking as it is inspiring and defiant. When I sing this though, the defiance is what dominates; long and short of it, this song inspires and delights me – and not just because of the snippet of his trademark “brrr” that Short Shirt throws in for his fans.

As for Power and Authority, which precedes Nobody Go Run Me on the CD, I’ve often complained that too many of today’s calypsos feel like an essay – dry and prosaic; but that’s probably an insult to essays, because I’ve read some very stirring ones, rich with poetry and pathos. Part of the genius of Short Shirt and his collaborators – including the masterful Shelly Tobitt – was how elegantly they strung meaningful words and ideas together all to a moving backbeat. Power and Authority is a good example of this.

It asserts – borrowing a bit from British historian Lord Acton circa 1887 – its thesis upfront:

“Power rules the world today

And power corrupts they say

And absolute power corrupts you absolutely”


Then it provides its premise:


“It can change a man who has a heart of gold

Make him cruel wicked

Self centred and cold”


Then it supports that premise with specific examples:


“They prostituting the island

To all and sundry

They peddling my people’s rights

Exploiting, oppressing, less freedom, more suffering…”


And as he chronicles the hardships, the narrative voice – never omniscient and distant – once again aligns himself with the ghetto people:

“…coal we can’t even buy

Murder the price too high

Malnutrition killing the children

While we the adults starving

Yet the price is rising without control

Young man begging bread by the side of the road

And the Chamber of Commerce in this land

I tell you they don’t give one damn

The more we try to economize the more cost o’ living rise.”


The personalization and specificity work well here to make this tale at once unique and universal, time specific and timeless, relatable still, so that the hook –  

“…when they have power and authority, they don’t give a damn about you or me…”

– could readily be taken up by sufferers in any impoverished community in the world at any time in history. Just ask the people feeling the brunt of the current down economy while politicians have their pissing contests and businesses guard their cash register passing on every cost to the consumer. The song clearly draws a line in the sand between the haves – who prosper no matter what, and the have-nots – who can’t seem to catch a break; not from the business class, not from the judges who lock them up for seeking a little herbal relief “while the social rich are free”, a reminder that economic deprivation is not the only hurdle for children of the ghetto.

And as he sings – stepping out on behalf of the people, speaking truth to power in a way calypso does so well –

“…think it over, my friend, think if over, again; think it over, don’t vex with me Shorty, I just singing as a see…”

– the ‘essay’ wraps up its argument.

When two songs down from Nobody Go Run Me and perhaps ideally switched in the track order with Inspite of All (I’ll explain why later) is perhaps the most universal of these songs; not generic, mind, but approaching the theme of discord in the world in a much broader fashion, using repetition, rhetoric and alternating rhyming lines as its main recurring devices.

“When, when will we learn to live together?

When, when will we learn to love each other?

When, when will we learn to trust our brother?

When, when will we live one for another?

When, when will mankind turn from their evil?

When, when will the children rise and shine?

When, when will crime violence and corruption?

When, when will they leave the hearts of mankind?

When, when will our dreams become utopia?

When, when will our sorrows cease to be?

When, when will the poor no longer hunger?

When, when will mankind be truly free?”


Contextually, the song works as a prayer, reminding this Catholic lifer vaguely of the structure of the prayers of intercession; so that punctuating this questioning we have the soul baring introspective direct plea to the Lord, a plea that emerges as a primal “screeeaam!” – an acknowledgment that the pain is almost too much to bear. In God’s presence, there is freedom finally to admit one’s weakness, how overwhelmed one is by circumstances.

And yet, the people of the ghetto, don’t live on their knees.

And this is one reason I think When could easily be reversed in the order with Inspite of All – the latter, a shift away from the woe to “just a glimpse, just a glimmer, just a gleam” of hope. It’s a weird kind of hope; a hope born of common circumstances and common purpose:

“The oppression we bear will forge us as one

Yet in spite of our hardship and misery

And poor economic condition

We must struggle on.”


It is a hope that comes with the reminder that “we, the people, ourselves” are more than the sum of our material condition, that “we, the people, ourselves” – not the politicians or big world forces – must choose our own destiny. Perhaps now more than ever we need the calypsonian to remind us of this. Because here the calypsonian assumes another persona – shifting from ‘mere’ storyteller to fellow sufferer to truth teller to, finally, prophet moving ahead of the pack and shining a path. He assumes the Moses like persona which defined politicians of the era and the time preceding it – Bird, Bustamante et al. And as he does so, it’s not hard to understand why politicians/the establishment feared calypsonians enough to ban, overtly or by exclusion, their very powerful voices. As Ghetto Vibes proves – or perhaps merely reinforces – these are not mere court jesters; they are Martin Luther King/Malcolm X, or so they seemed in moments like this, dreaming a dream and daring to speak it out loud.

“Rise, rise, rise, rise

People open up your eyes!”


An awake and alert electorate; is there anything more scary to a politician determined to keep his followers bathed in a sea of blue or red, and swallowing the pork whole? Well, for the time, perhaps the song’s anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, socialist undertones ran a close second.

But the calypsonian speaks directly to his people, talking past and around the politicians, as he issues the reminder that the politics of division is as self-defeating as the ‘divide and conquer’ policy that pitted ‘field slaves’ against ‘house slaves’ – never mind that they’re both slaves. Caribbean people – especially Caribbean working class people – live by their folk proverbs and the calypsonian borrows from one of these to drive home his message:

“The same stick licking the wild goat

The same stick licking the tame

Everybody drifting in the same boat

We all sinking just the same…”


Effectively, he’s telling them to forget the politicians and work in the interest of Antigua and Barbuda – and speaking of timeless, isn’t that message still relevant?

Book ending the well executed CD are two Carnival tunes, shifting the tone closer to what it was in the beginning, though, for the listener, with a greater sense of what this seeming revelry represents in the lives of the people; escape, freedom, expression…the intangibles of life so often denied them, reinforcing once and for all that they are souled beings with purpose and beauty, pride and hope. For there in the Carnival, in the Fantasy, they can elevate themselves and “dance dance dance dance” assured that with a little hug up and a little music “everything go be alright”; at least, for the moment.

It is this sense of journeying through the highs and lows, passions and circumstance, the vibrations (or Vibes) of ghetto life – its inner and outer rhythms – that make this CD so enduring. Well, that and Short Shirt’s assured and impassioned delivery track to track, and the relatable tenor of the writing – which borrows liberally from the local vernacular while demonstrating Shelley-like command of verse.

I’ve often said that with the limited exposure to Caribbean books in my youth, I learned a lot about writing from calypso. Well, Ghetto Vibes is a superior ‘text’, cover to cover, and I remain an eager student, turning the pages.


 Copyright Joanne C. Hillhouse. AGAIN, do NOT repost without permission.




Filed under A & B WRITINGS