Jean-Léon Destiné, Haitian Dancer and Choreographer, Dies at 94

In the following New York Times article, Margalit Fox reports on the passing of renowned Haitian dancer and choregrapher, Jean-Léon Destiné.

Jean-Léon Destiné, a Haitian dancer and choreographer who brought his country’s traditional music and dance to concert stages around the world, died on Jan. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Considered the father of Haitian professional dance, Mr. Destiné first came to international attention in the 1940s and remained prominent for decades afterward.

As a dancer, he performed well into old age. In 2003, reviewing a program at Symphony Space in New York in which he appeared, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Destiné’s number stopped the show. She added, “He looked agile and nuanced, mesmerizing in a bent-legged solo.”

As a choreographer, he directed own ensemble, which came to be known as the Destiné Afro-Haitian Dance Company.

The company, which presented work from throughout the Caribbean, was devoted in particular to dances from Haiti. Accompanied by vibrant drumming — Mr. Destiné collaborated for many years with the distinguished Haitian drummer Alphonse Cimber — these dances were often infused with elements of voodoo tradition.

As reviewers noted, Mr. Destiné and company could dance, to all appearances, as if possessed.

Much of Mr. Destiné’s work also functioned as commentary on Haiti’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. In “Slave Dance,” a solo piece he choreographed and performed, the dancer begins in bondage only to emerge, in astonished joy, a free man.

In “Bal Champêtre” (“Country Ball”), among the most famous works choreographed by Mr. Destiné, the foppish customs of Haiti’s French colonists are satirized through sly subervsions of a Baroque minuet.

In the United States, Mr. Destiné was seen on Broadway; at the New York City Opera, where in 1949 he was a featured dancer in the world premiere of William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island,” set in Haiti; and, as a performer and teacher, with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. He also taught at New York University and elsewhere.

Jean-Léon Destiné was born on March 26, 1918, in Saint-Marc, Haiti, to a middle-class family: his father was a local government official, his mother a seamstress. After his parents divorced when he was a boy, he moved with his mother to the capital, Port-au-Prince, where they lived in reduced circumstances.

From a very early age, Jean-Léon was captivated by Haitian music and drumming. As a youth, he learned traditional dance by attending the religious rituals and other celebrations of which it had long been an integral part. He also sang in the folkloric ensemble directed by Lina Mathon Blanchet, a prominent Haitian musician.

In the 1940s, the young Mr. Destiné received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study printing and journalism in the United States. After taking classes at Howard University in Washington, he moved to New York, where he learned to operate and maintain linotype machines, then used to cast type for printing newspapers other publications.

Mr. Destiné, who eventually became an American citizen, also continued dancing. In the late ’40s he spent several years with the company of Katherine Dunham, considered the matriarch of black dance in the United States.

With Ms. Dunham’s company, he danced on Broadway in the revue “Bal Negre” at the Belasco Theater in 1946.

Returning to Haiti for a time in the late ’40s, Mr. Destiné founded a national dance company there at the behest of the Haitian government. By the early ’50s he had established his own company in New York.

Mr. Destiné’s survivors include three sons, Gérard, Ernest and Carlo, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For the original article: Jean-Léon Destiné, Haitian Dancer and Choreographer, Dies at 94 – NYTimes.com.

Calypsonian Penguin takes final bow

The Calypso Fraternity and all Carnival music aficionados and enthusiasts moan the passing of Sedley Joseph, who made tremendous contributions to the art-form, as composer, performer, teacher, and past president of the calypsonians’ organization. The following Trinidad Guardian article, written by Raphael John-Lall, pays homage to this stalwart.

Veteran calypsonian Seadley Joseph, who performed under the name Penguin was a “giant” in the calypso art form says fellow calypsonian Leroy Calliste, known also as Black Stalin. “We lost a giant in calypso music, we also lost a friend,” Stalin said by telephone yesterday.

Joseph, 70, brother of former national security minister Martin Joseph, and a former president of Trinidad Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO), passed away yesterday morning after a prolonged illness. He won the Road March title in 1982 with the song A Deputy Essential. He won the Calypso Crown in 1984 with We Living in Jail and Sorf Man. One of his other hits was Look de Devil dey.

Stalin said Joseph will be missed by the calypso fraternity and by the entire country. “He will be missed. His contribution to the artform is too much to even mention,” he said.  Stalin said the younger generation of calypsonians and future generations who get into the calypso genre have a lot to learn from him.

“Apart from his involvement in the music he was also involved on the business side of things and the youths today can learn from how he did things,” he said. President of TUCO, Lutalo Masimba, also known as Brother Resistance, described Joseph’s his death a “great loss.”

“His death is a loss to the music of the world and to T&T as a nation. He was a gifted composer and in my opinion did not get his just due. He was one of the few people who won the Calypso Monarch and Road March,” he said. He said  Joseph’s contribution to TUCO was invaluable.

“What he did for the organisation was important. He pointed TUCO in a progressive direction and it was an honour to work with him,” he said. Winston Anthony Bailey, also known as the Mighty Shadow, was shocked by the news and told the T&T Guardian it was the first time he was hearing of his death but said he did “great work.”

“I knew at one time he was sick. We all have to leave this life at some time, but he did work and made his contribution to the art form,” he said. He added that the younger generation, if they listen to Joseph’s lyrics, might be able to learn something. “This generation if they listen to his melody and humour in his calypsoes could learn something,” he said.

For the original article: Calypsonian Penguin takes final bow | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

Wire Bender – One of a dying breed

 The following article was written by Zahra Gordon and published in the Trinidad Guardian, Jan. 15, 2013.

Quammie’s skills are in demand in New York, where he makes costumes for the annual Labour Day Carnival.

Arnim Quammie learned most of his wire bending skills on his own. According to the 66-year-old craftsman who began his mas making career at the tender age of nine, “If you wanted to play mas in those days you had to make your own costume. The bands would have samples but if you wanted to play you had to make your own mas.”

Quammie “born and grow” in St James where he was also involved in the steelband movement. “Older fellas would guide you along the way in some aspects, but most of what I know come from lots of trial and error. It had plenty times when people laugh at my headpiece because it was so ugly but I didn’t care.

“I wanted to play my mas,” he said in an interview yesterday.

By the time Quammie was 17, he designed and constructed a section in a band. Since then, Quammie has worked with numerous bands. Currently based with the band Belmont Original Style Sailors (aka De Boss), Quammie also works on king and queen costumes for both adults and children. In the late 1990s and early 2000s Quammie would also travel to the US annually for the New York Labour Day parade to work with the mas band Burrokeets.

He notes that the wire bending is a dying trade, however, and lamented that the young people whom he once taught were no longer interested in the craft.

“Most people are doing plastic moulding nowadays because they can’t do wire work anymore. Some of the wire benders are dead or aged and the government has no programmes at YTEPP or anywhere to teach young people these things.”

Quammie feels that the loss of interest in wire bending will result in further loss of this culture. “In time to come what you would be seeing for Carnival is more of what we seeing now which is bra and panties because people in T&T don’t appreciate the art of wire bending.”

For the original article: One of a dying breed | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

Charlie’s Calypso City, the Caribbean Cheers of Brooklyn

The following John Leland article was published in NYTimes.com, Jan. 3, 2013.

SINCE Rawlston Charles opened Charlie’s Calypso City, on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in July 1972, the store has been a hub for Brooklyn’s Caribbean community, reinventing itself for each era.

n the 1970s, when calypso records were hard to find, the store was a go-to source for sounds straight out of Port of Spain, Trinidad. In the 1980s, when Mr. Charles, 66, opened a recording studio and record company upstairs, it was a magnet not just for calypso performers, but also for rappers like Whodini and the Fat Boys.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, as the borough’s island population grew, the record store expanded and became an essential part of the annual West Indian American Day Parade in Crown Heights, holding a party to start the Labor Day weekend.

And in our own fallen times, when record stores are heading toward obsolescence?

“It’s like the neighborhood Cheers,” said Tammy Hall, 53, lingering in the store on a recent Friday night, along with about a dozen other longtime regulars — drinking wine or soda; eating rice and peas, barbecue chicken or spicy cow’s feet; shouting around a television that played a Nets game.

Ms. Hall’s partner, Norris Thompson, 57, has been going to Charlie’s for 40 years, since he and his friend John Evelyn, now 60, were the store’s first sales clerks. Neither still works there, but chances are this is where they will be on a Friday night, talking about sports, music, Caribbean politics, American politics and nothing in particular. “This is the mecca of everything right here,” said Michael Greaves, a board member of the annual parade. “The ladies treat us like kings. And you couldn’t find a better guy than Charlie to hang out with. He tolerates us.”

Mr. Charles, a native of Tobago, started the store largely because he couldn’t find the calypso records that had been a vital part of his youth. At the time, he said, Fulton Street was a forbidding place. As the neighborhood improved, he watched his children thrive: his daughter Tina Charles, shown in posters and newspaper clippings on the store’s walls, was the most valuable player in the W.N.B.A. last year, and his son, Rawlston Charles Jr., plays basketball in Europe.

But the store is not the business that it once was. Young people rarely enter, he said, and even older customers are scarce. A nearby mainstay, Birdel’s Records, which had been in business since 1944, closed in 2011, done in by the same forces now eating away at Charlie’s. If he did not own the building, he said, it would be hard to keep going.

For now, though, he still has Friday nights. The crowd here might be intimidating to strangers: Sometimes people are yelling at the television; sometimes they are hitting on percussion instruments called irons, modeled on automobile brake hubs.

But for the regulars, it is a place beyond commerce — a necessary destination for visiting musicians, a place where there are chairs waiting and arguments to be joined. “When we want to see someone, we say, ‘Come by Charlie’s,’ ” said Kenny Alexander, 66. “It’s like my second home.”

The music thumped, the Nets won, the food and wine were still going strong. The secret? Mr. Charles, dressed in a natty gray jacket, looked over at his friends.

“Hard work, perseverance; believe in yourself and just stay because of the love you have for it,” he said, adding, “I’m not making a whole bunch of money, but I’m O.K.; I can survive.”

It was the last get-together of the year, and a warm and caloric tiding for the new one about to begin.

For the original article: Charlie’s Calypso City, the Caribbean Cheers of Brooklyn – NYTimes.com.

New Year’s Traditions in Suriname

The following report appears in Repeating Islands, Jan. 2, 2013.

Many thanks to Peter Jordens for the translation from the original “Owru yari wasi geen Marrontraditie” by Audry Wajwakana (De Ware Tijd). This post explains some of Suriname’s year-end and New Year’s traditions. Jordens provides clarification for key points.

On the last day of the calendar year, people in Suriname will put all worries aside and look forward to the new year with confidence. In keeping with (Afro-)Surinamese tradition, on this day hundreds of people go to Elly Purperhart on Independence Square for their annual swit watra wasi [sweet water cleanse].

[Swit watra consists of water to which aromatic liquids, herbs and flowers have been added. People either receive the swit watra from a gourd to wash their hands, arms, neck and face on the spot or take a bottle home for washing or bathing. In this way they enter the new year in a clean(sed) manner.]

Anthropologist Solomon Emanuels from the Santigron Maroon village says that this tradition diverges from Maroon culture, in which the ritual cleanse is not performed on New Year’s Eve. “Such rituals are performed one week before Christmas. This enables the individuals or families who live in discord with one another to settle their disputes before the holidays,” Emanuels explains. These rituals are also a way of bidding the old year farewell. “But because of integration into Surinamese society, you will get Maroons who do a wasi on Independence Square. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not the tradition among Maroons.” There are specific Maroon rituals to welcome the new year. In the first week of the new year, a family member makes a libation to the gods and the ancestors in their Gaado oso [place of sacrifice]. This is accompanied by singing and people also bring rum and pangi [traditional cloth used as a wrap].

An important part of denyung yari [New Year] among the Maroons is the kromanti dance. Kromanti is the god of nature who consists of the elements water, fire and air. The dance is performed in the kromanti oso [place of worship], with much dancing and singing. “Some people may enter into a trance, allowing their body to be taken over by Kromanti who reveals whether they behaved well of badly last year and who instructs them to improve their habits in the new year. During this ritual predictions may also be made.”

According to Emanuels, more rituals used to be performed around New Year’s, but because of the changing times and integration into Suriname’s multi-cultural society, these have been lost. “Some Maroon communities do not even maintain their Gaado oso.” Emanuels says that this is an indication that society is changing and that the importance of religion is declining.

For the original article (in Dutch), see http://www.dwtonline.com/de-ware-tijd/2012/12/31/owru-yari-wasi-geen-marrontraditie

See also: New Year’s Traditions in Suriname « Repeating Islands.