Monday, July 17, 2006

Hot, Hot, Hot or The Modern Day Minstrel Show

Being a musician has its funny moments.

Like every other musician in the world, I have had to play all kinds of gigs to survive (pay bills, eat, etc.).
Like every other musician on the planet, I have played every musician's nightmare gig; weddings!
Being a Caribbean musician means having certain experiences that only we can relate to.

One such phenomenon is that we would always be asked by the party planner if we could wear "something islandy". Islandy? is that even a word?
Every party planner has the same request; for the band to look like fun.

We already had the steel pans and congas.
"Can you guys wear a flowery shirt?"
We island musicians call these gigs the; "white pants & island shirt" gigs.
I have played thousands of these gigs!
I always dutifully wore the costume that helps provide comfort to our hosts.
This reminds them of their vacation in the sunny Caribbean.

Of course, their Caribbean is very different from mine.
My Caribbean is about going home to mom & dad and brother, etc.
My Caribbean isn't based upon a ‘hedonism tour’ and pina coladas.
My Caribbean is about getting away from them and their world, their television, their food, their clock, their stress, their jobs and their bosses.
For two weeks or ten days they are our best friends, they are happy to be in my Caribbean, happy to waited upon by such ‘polite, warm and friendly people'.

Just like the travel brochure had said they would be!
Then they go home where they truly run things.
For two weeks or ten days I deal with family issues, our flexible Caribbean clock, more family issues and our gentle way of living each day.
Though my Caribbean is as imperfect as the rest of this world, I understand it and its inhabitants.
In my Caribbean I am free, even though I can not quantify what this 'freedom’ is but I can feel it.

Surely, my Caribbean has changed drastically from that of my childhood but no matter how many American restaurants or shopping malls are built, we resist some part of their world. Yes, the older people do lament how the Caribbean's youth is becoming slack and unruly. But their remains an innocence in the eyes that is captured in every one of the photos that I've taken when I'm home.
There is something profound that remains unchanged in my people. It's there, in my photographs, when I return from the island. A true smile, the kind of smile that I’ve rarely ever seen in this country. It is a smile that continues to resist becoming totally like them.

The Caribbean smiles that I capture with my camera are very unlike the smiles that we island musicians show to the drunken party goers. We were always safely hidden behind our ‘polite, warm and friendly’ travel brochure smiles. Grin and bear it, Caribbean style. Many of these gigs were an endurance test to see if I could make it through the obstacle course of human interaction that is flawed by others perceived racial stereotypes.

The song we always played at the end of every gig was; “Hot, Hot, Hot” by Arrow.
Americans always break into a drunken conga line at some point in this song, almost as if on cue.
For me this song always signaled the merciless end to another minstrel show that I had endured for the sake of survival. The smiles on our ‘polite, warm and friendly’ faces meant we could leave your world now.

Thanks for the check.


  1. That was some good reading. Thanks man!

  2. Onyeka10:26 AM

    NICE! You basically said it all so.. NICE!

  3. Anonymous9:10 PM

    Very good post. I really agree with what you wrote about the condescending attitude that some North Americans associate with the Caribbean and elsewhere. I've experienced this a few times also and it is quite irritating.
    Having said that though, don't you think sometimes we ourselves encourage this line of thinking? We give them an image of tropical paradises where everything is perfect and it's not surprise that they link us with stereotypical images of the Caribbean as a huge beach resort/ tourist paradise rather than real nations where people live,work,prosper and suffer as with any other.

  4. Anonymous6:22 PM

    Played in trio with Wags McDonald for six years. Great player, sadly missed. How many "Caribbean themed gigs" turned out to be luaus? How many times were we asked to play "a calypso like Yellow Bird?" Thanks for the check, indeed.

  5. I am very happy that this post from so long ago (2006) still resonates and provokes conscious thoughts from my brethren. I can tell from all of your thoughtful comments that you all identify strongly with the reality expressed. Thank you for keeping this discussion alive. Yes, I am Carib-centric and proud of it! :)