I ran in to Barbara Mason this week. Does that name ring a bell? Barbara Mason was the steelband coordinator at the Culture Department of Antigua and Barbuda for a period that intersected with some of my most active reporting on culture and the arts. So we interacted a fair amount and I bore witness in my reporting to her pushing pan in the schools, drawing talent into the Culture Department in terms of pan resource people and young people with potential – initiatives like the national youth pan orchestra and even an attempt at a national pan orchestra (as I remember it) happened on her watch. Talking to her briefly as we passed in the street, me looking the harassed writer, I’m sure, and Barbara looking content in her retirement, I couldn’t help thinking about how much of an example she is of how valuable it is to have a motivated advocate for an artistic discipline on the inside of state institutions like the Culture Department (I wonder often who is advocating on the inside for the literary arts and come up empty as far as an answer is concerned). I’ve never worked at the Culture Department so I can’t speak to the ins and outs but I know when I was reporting Barbara was doing the work; in addition to her development role, pushing pan in to the media spotlight however she could. As I was always hungry to cover culture and the arts, it’s hard to remember who called who more but we were in touch a lot back then. She was doing this when pan was at an all time low, and look how vibrant pan is today and how many young people are involved. There are lots of factors – props to programmes like Gemonites School of Pan, and the schools of pan that followed, and Gemonites Moods of Pan – especially its 5 Alive competition; props to Le Chateau d’Or for all of the young people it has trained over the years; hell, props to the longest uninterrupted pan orchestra in the world, Hell’s Gate, for being uninterrupted when it might have been easier to go do something else. But Barbara was an advocate when pan needed it and, as I said to her when I saw her, when I see the seed bearing fruit as it is today (pan after a drought having over these last several years regained its place of prominence in the Carnival), I know this is partly because of Barbara Mason’s labour. So props to her; people need to be given their roses when they do the work.
This brings me to another person, someone, like Barbara, I knew only through the work they did in culture and the arts. I was surprised to learn of the recent passing of Jerome Bleau (1947-2018), former head of the Antigua Calypsonians’ Association, though I am told that he had been ill for some time. Bleau was active as well in the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Committee which annually holds programmes to keep the journalist and commentator’s legacy alive and salute those who are emblematic of that legacy. When I reached out to a member of the LTHMC for confirmation of Bleau’s death, he responded, “our friend, our comrade and our historian in all things political, social and cultural, Jerome was also our go-to person for topical events – local, regional and international. He has left a massive void, and he will be painfully missed.”
My own interactions with Bleau are defined by two projects. He asked me to speak at a Calypso Association conference back in 2007 (an activity he described as only one of his planned activities “to preserve the craft” (of calypso)) and, obviously, I said, why me. I didn’t see myself as a speaker, talker, thought leader, commentator, none of that (still don’t, really) – I was a writer (still am). Any calypsonian in the room could have been forgiven for thinking…huh? But Bleau thought (and managed to convince me) that I could have something to say as a writer that might be useful in a forum of calypsonians and calypso enthusiasts. They might beg to differ but (though calypso had always been a point of reference for me in life and on the page) preparing for that talk challenged me to assess my relationship with calypso and how the calypso of my youth helped shape my voice as a writer. What I did was literary analysis of some calypsos. As I remember in the Q & A, there was more interest in the panelists who’d talked about judging and I could happily retreat in to the background. But what I wrote then was refined in to an article (What Calypso Taught Me About Writing) I subsequently published several times and calypsos have become a part of the creative writing workshops I facilitate. I have to credit Bleau with opening that door. Bleau also hired me to oversee production of the Calypso Association’s 50th anniversary magazine – an arts-driven project that I both enjoyed and learned from (which for the freelancer is really the best of all worlds). He was the kind of ‘boss’ who served as an invaluable resource/guide given his clear vision for the publication and deep knowledge of the history of the art form (given his age and love of the art form, but also his scholarship related to the art form, having formerly written for publications like Calypso Talk), but who also signed off on my vision for the project and let me do my thing. I don’t know what battles there may have been behind the scenes – Bleau being my point of contact – but he never let me feel like he didn’t have my back. I have shared some of the articles I wrote for that publication on this site – articles on Calypso Jim, Calypso Joe, Bottle, Franco, King Zacari, Scorpion, the Monarch King Short Shirt, Swallow, King Onyan, Ivena etc. The Calypso pages on this site – notably the Songwriters Data Base and Lyrics Data Base may not have existed without my involvement in that project – it wasn’t the only factor to be sure, but I believe it was a factor (one domino knocking over the other). The Calypso Association commemorative magazine wasn’t my first magazine project of this type and it wouldn’t be my last but it was a growth opportunity. I’m sorry that my memorializing of Bleau strikes such a personal note but I don’t have a lot else to go on (and those long ago projects notwithstanding, we didn’t have a lot of interaction) – but the conference and the magazine speaks to stewardship of an artform with an eye on development and recording of the legacy of said art form. Props to him for that. And RIP.
This site is primarily about the literary arts but engages with all the arts and has from time to time memorialized the people who helped to build our art and culture (e.g. Roland Prince, Franco, Marcus Christopher, Latumba, and others) – giving virtual roses, where we can, to those who have passed and those still with us.
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, Musical Youth, With Grace, Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, and Oh Gad! ). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page Jhohadli or like me on Facebook. Help me spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.