And then came President Obama, the Stone of Hope…

In October last year I was invited to the University of Miami to give a talk organized by Pat Saunders of the Department of English. They were launching their Caribbean art website and a whole series of activities had been planned around it. During my stay I was taken to the university bookstore where they had these beautifully packaged little dolls modelled on famous people such as Shakespeare, Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and others. There was an entire shelf full of Obama dolls and a shelf full of McKain dolls. It was then that I realized that Barack Obama was going to win the US Presidential election by a landslide for the Obama shelf only had a handful of dolls left while the McKain one was practically full. And this in Miami, stronghold of Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans.

The three of us scrambled for the few remaining Obama dolls and I managed to get my hands on one. Manufactured by Jailbreak Toys the Obama doll was advertised as “An action figure we can believe in.” Brilliant, I thought. That is certainly the image one has of Barack Obama, that he is someone who believes in action rather than rhetoric. And today he will assume the most powerful position in the world—the Presidency of the United States.

What a day, what a day as someone once sang. Never before have people all over the world felt as involved and interested in American politics. I remember being taken aback at the response of David Lublin, Professor in the Department of Government, School of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C. when I asked if he was surprised by the extent of the interest worldwide in this last American election. He basically said that considering the dominance of the United States in world affairs it wasn’t surprising at all (this was at one of those media discussions the US Embassy in Kingston kindly invites me to. Participating in them has greatly enhanced my experience of the election).

While Lublin’s statement is quite true, it made me wonder if the Americans didn’t fully realize how extraordinarily different it is this time. Lublin after all is a young, savvy, astute political scientist yet he didn’t seem to be aware of the unique interest this particular election had aroused worldwide. For instance American might and power has never made me take an interest in their political system before. Yet once Obama showed that he was a force to contend with I started to be interested; how far would this unusual candidate get? What would his tactics be? How long would the American political system tolerate this challenge from a political nonentity? I’m sure there were millions like me all over the world. And trust me Barack hasn’t let any of us down. And for a change neither has the United States, which has proved that its much vaunted democratic system of governance actually can and does work fairly. The Americans should be congratulated for that.

The following Facebook conversation sums up many of the hopes and doubts people all over the world are feeling as the United States installs its 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama.

January 19, 2009
Franka wonders if people realise that Barack can’t walk on water or cure the sick…

SB at 11:29am January 19
Valid point Franka-More than 7 in 10 Americans think that the Obama administration will be able to improve conditions for minorities and the poor , increase respect for the U.S. abroad, and improve education. In T&T I think a lot believe he is swearing in as the next Prime Minister of T&T

Franka at 11:31am January 19
Girl… the topic of today’s World Have Your Say programme is ‘Are people expecting too much from Barack Obama’… need I say more?

KR at 11:37am January 19
Reality will set in after Tuesday…Obama will do great things..but he cannot turn water into wine…or rum!!!!

Franka at 11:45am January 19
He needs to sort that rum thing out though.. water into rum. He wld win wid dat!

CC at 12:29pm January 19
all might be true….but he is the first glimmer of hope people have had for a long long time. can he walk on water…NO can he cure the sick…not likely with his own hands….but he can and has restored hope where hope did not exisit and HOPE can cure….belief can.
As a canadian, we hope our political administration could show this type of progression.

Franka at 12:38pm January 19
I know what you mean Chas, but from where I’m sitting, the mania is a bit much. I get a feeling of lots of people will be sorely disappointed when he has to do unpopular things.

CC at 12:46pm January 19
maybe….but why we don’t let the man start his new job first….

Cybele at 1:34pm January 19
I think part of the euphoria has to do with the fact that finally, you’re seeing some one who apparently has some integrity. That, to most people accustomed to brazenly corrupt or hopelessly lethargic alleged public servants is a huge breath of fresh air. There is no doubt in my mind the opposition and disappointment will come. After all, we are dealing with fickle humans, and fixing Bush’s mess will require tough, even harsh measures (LOL at Bush looking for absolution at this stage!). But I for one plan to give him a minute to sort himself: he deserves it and I believe my patience will be rewarded.

Amen to that! Only time will tell if President Obama will really prove to be a stone of hope carved out of the rock of despair that Martin Luther King talked about in his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Happy Inauguration everyone!

Kingston Logic

When Derek Walcott launched his insult-laced diatribe in verse against V.S. Naipaul at Calabash 08 you heard of it here first. As another blog noted, “The press was actually scooped on this story by a blogger in Kingston, Jamaica, Annie Paul.” There have been several other occasions when my readers have received advance or inside information about one thing or another from this blog.

For instance many of you would first have come across the latest Waterhouse musical wunderkid, Terry Lynn, right here on Active Voice. My good friend Peter Dean Rickards had been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lynn. I say ‘assaulting’ because PD had decided to use the graphic butchery of a pig to depict the predicament of youth from communities such as Waterhouse which the singer lyrically rhymed with ‘slaughterhouse’.

When I mentioned Terry Lynn’s The System back in August last year the music video hadn’t been completed or launched yet. Although its subject matter made me flinch I thought the video brilliant and showed it in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Museum of Art last November where it aroused a lot of interest. Since its release the video has been doing really well, becoming an underground favourite in several places outside Jamaica.

At year end Pitchfork Media — “the most popular independent-focused music publication online” selected THE SYSTEM by the Rickards Bros. as one of the top 40 videos of 2008. Spin Magazine deemed it one of the 20 Best Music Videos of 2008 ranking it at No.12 worldwide and saying “Sometimes really brutal imagery is necessary to express pure rage at unforgivable social injustices. Leave it to Lynn to lyrically elaborate.”

Dan Cairns of the Sunday Times, UK, declared Terry Lynn, one of the 10 hot new music acts for 2009 in his picks of this year’s “next big things” saying, “Terry Lynn Williams’s first album, Kingstonlogic 2.0, is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve heard in ages.With blues-infused folk, some doo-wop soul and electro synth-pop aplenty, there’ll be something for everybody.”

I’ve just previewed Terry Lynn’s new music video, Kingston Logic, by the Rickards Brothers (and others). It will blow the charts and make history. watch out for it! Using laborious animation techniques which stretched the process out way beyond what a normal video would have taken to finish the Rickards Bros have raised the bar of musical production considerably. The extra time and effort spent was well worth it; the video is a multi-faceted Kingston diamond combining crazy lyrics, a compelling electro beat, seriously creative imagery and razorsharp editing. I can’t wait to see where such a superlative, stylish vehicle will transport Lynn.

It’ll be a week before the video is publicly released and I can put it up here. But here’s The System for those with the stomach to watch it.

The middle and upper classes in Jamaica are whipping themselves into a moral frenzy over Daggering–the latest dance craze to sweep Kingston streets– screaming in the best tradition of the former slave-owning classes (Upper St. Andrew logic?) for the authorities to do something, anything, to curb the feverishly creative dancing masses (while themselves preparing for the thrusting gyrations of carnival; Eve Mann has a provocative blogpost about this, Soldering that is what young women want). Meanwhile Terry Lynn has given birth to a brand new paradigm with her debut album KingstonLogic 2.o.

2009 is going to be an exciting new year for Jamaican music! Remember–you heard it here first.

Playing with Fire

Contrary to what the title may suggest this post is not about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. While i was watching the fireworks at the Kingston waterfront on New Year’s Eve i found myself thinking how odd it was that in the individualistic West personal lighting of firecrackers is not permitted and legally proscribed whereas in countries such as India where community is prized above all bursting or lighting firecrackers is something enjoyed by individuals. I remembered that i had been asked by the Style Observer to write about my memories of Diwali in India. It was also a puff piece for a restaurant called Akbar’s in Kingston which has some of the best waiters in the country. Read on if you want to partake of my memories…

Diwali Riddim

Whenever I see young vendors dodging between cars at Christmastime selling what I think of as petty firecrackers like sparklers and rockets I smile to myself and feel superior. Having grown up in India my relationship to such incendiary delights is quite different; like most Indians, where patakhas or firecrackers are concerned I’m something of a hands-on connoisseur.

For in India there is Diwali, the festival of lights (and crackers and bombs and rockets). Usually falling in November or late October, it is the biggest festival in the country, the closest thing we have to Christmas. There are several versions of the reason Diwali is celebrated in the way it is but they all boil down to the victory of good forces against evil ones. The good forces having prevailed, Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, is propitiated. Hindus paint their homes and buy new clothes to wear on this nationally celebrated holiday.

As a child I wasn’t really interested in the whys and the wherefores of Diwali. Instead I would be completely swept up in the preparations for this magical festival. A few weeks before the happy day vendors would set up their stalls all along the sidewalks, their carts overflowing with every manner of gaily-wrapped and decorated combustible. Over the days leading up to Diwali we would assemble our arsenals, buying judiciously and storing patakhas till the evening of D-day when joy oh joy we could all become pyromaniacs for the night.

Sparklers were for babies. My favourites were hawaiis or flying saucers, a more densely packed, airborne version of chakris or Catherine wheels. Chakris could either be lit on the floor where they would create magical spinning wheels of light or you could hold them on the end of a wire stick so that you looked as if your extended arm had a fiery wheel of shooting sparks at the end of it.

There were many different kinds and sizes of rockets and rocket bombs and the variety of bombs would leave you dazed if not deaf. Our favourites were the long ones that looked like green and red cigarettes strung together like Christmas lights. You lit the fuse and then flung it away from you and the string bombs would explode all over the place. The single fat ‘hydrogen’ bombs were more dangerous, sometimes exploding before you had time to run from them. The sound they made was absolutely dreadful. Far more benign were the phooljadis or flowerpots, triangular earthenware creations gaudily dressed in multicoloured foil. When you lit them–depending on their size–they would shoot a shower of sparks into the air that gained in intensity until it assumed the shape of a Christmas tree.

What fascinated me most when I first started celebrating Diwali however were the ‘snakes’. You bought them in rolls, flat black tablets a little larger than an aspirin. Put a match to it and the tablet would magically grow, shooting forth like a sooty fat tubular creature that writhed and twisted as it grew. It made a sizzling noise and left a sulphuric smell in the air.

Of course a big part of Diwali was the fancy food and feasting that was also a big part of the festivities. Hundreds of luridly coloured sweetmeats would make their appearance in the food stalls. As a child I wasn’t that interested in this aspect of things though that is mostly what Diwali has been reduced to now that I’m an adult.

I was reminded of this when I was invited to Akbar’s to participate in a Diwali lunch with Rajiv Bakshi, his sister, Rajni, and their friends last week. I am altogether more appreciative of good Indian food now and at Akbar’s there was no shortage of this. It was a pleasure to see Rajni again, visiting from Bombay, and catch up with Rajiv whom I see far too infrequently considering we inhabit the same city.

The food was fab and I tucked into warm tender rotis and naan with my favourite dal makhni. I could easily have made a meal of just that but there was also a delicious paneer cauliflower dish, tandoori chicken, rogan josh and alu raita. The food was not as highly spiced as I would have liked, no doubt taking into account the Jamaican palate, but extremely good nonetheless. The service too was good . There is something so comforting about going to a restaurant over the years and meeting the same staff. There were several familiar faces and I was particularly pleased to see Cyprian again. Now there’s a man who takes the job of waiting seriously.

Was it normal to have meat dishes at a Diwali lunch asked someone? Why not? Those who eat meat, will have either chicken or lamb, beef being taboo. And the large numbers of vegetarians will stick to what Rajiv dismissively called ‘ghaas poos’ or leaves and grass. In Bengal and Kerala fish is bound to be on the menu. In places like Trinidad and Guyana however there is apparently a lot of fuss about Diwali meals being purely vegetarian but in Mother India tastes and customs have changed. At any rate there is far more latitude at home than in the diaspora it seems.

The Blogging Caste

I’m really glad the Jamaican government decided to spend $12 million (Jamaican of course; J$80=US$1) on fireworks at the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. It was a mere series of blips compared to the displays in Hong Kong and Australia but they were our blips and we enjoyed them. I hear the mutterings and rumblings about how the money could have been put to better use etc but it’s not as if Jamaica is Zimbabwe or Iraq. We haven’t been ravaged by disease or war in quite the same way and there’s a limit to the difference a hundred and fifty thousand American dollars could make to the general well-being of the population.

In fact a firework display for all to enjoy was one of the few ways the money could have been used to benefit many. All things considered the fireworks did briefly manage to prop up a generally sagging public morale I think. As bad as things seemed by the end of the year at least we weren’t too poor to afford fireworks. Thousands turned out to reclaim the normally abandoned downtown and waterfront areas of Kingston and I hear Tivoli was popping with a more rollicking session of Passa Passa than usual. I’m sure vendors and hustlers did a roaring business that night. And it wasn’t just downtown. Cars and people lined the Palisadoes road all the way to the airport to watch the fireworks and set off their own.

I surveyed the numerous firework displays from the lofty heights of Stony Hill where we enjoyed a commanding view of the city. A private home in Jack’s Hill threatened to rival the fireworks at the waterfront. We viewed it as a struggle between the private sector and the public to outdo each other. The latter won, just about.

So 2008 was a rough year and 09 doesn’t promise to be any better. The Israeli pounding of Gaza underscores the grim future that awaits many of us. Meanwhile that ingenious merchant of hope, Barack Obama, gets ready to occupy the most powerful throne on earth. Will he actually make a difference? What will we be thinking and saying of him a year from now? And when is someone going to invent fast forward and rewind buttons for life so that we don’t have to leave such matters to speculation?

My new year’s resolution in 2007 was to start a blog in 2008. Determined to join the blogging caste I managed to kick start Active Voice last January and it picked up momentum during the course of the year. What an odyssey into the unknown it’s proven to be, this excursion into the blogosphere; this deepening acquaintance with the internet and cyberspace. The world wide web is a sticky place and blogs are like mini-webs spun by human arachnids who aim to trap you with silky tripwires. Not to eat those who wander into their webs but to entice them to return, again and again, leaving trails of page views and visits and occasional comments— blogfood—that rich humus that feeds the growth of blogs.

How bloggers who never receive comments or a minimum of visits continue to maintain their output is beyond me. But then again its all relative. I think i’ve done well to have received close to ten thousand hits over the last year but when you compare that to Indian bloggers whose page views number in the hundreds of thousands you may as well retire coz it’ll probably be the year 3000 by the time you get there. I mean Domain Maximus will soon reach the million viewer mark and the Compulsive Confessor is already a million plus .

So although advertisers would have us rate the success of blogs by the number of hits they attract on a per diem basis—apparently anything less than 2000 hits per day is not considered worth spending advertising dollars on —there are other indicators of blog health and success that may not be as easily quantifiable.

The other highlight for me has been allowing myself to get into Facebook in a serious way. At first I couldn’t understand why I should join such a network. It seemed to me like entertainment for the feeble-minded or ultra young with its good karma requests and its past life, monster birth and mob wars invitations (all of which can be safely ignored). Then I read a New York Times article about ‘Digital Intimacy’ or something like that which explained the whole concept of the thing and suddenly I got why it’s as innovative as it is.

From the album: Hitman Wally

Haven’t looked back since. Life without Facebook is pretty damn unimaginable today. The poverty of the print media in Jamaica was brought home to me when I read Eve Mann’s review of Sting 08 (Jamaica’s top dancehall event, held every December 26) that she posted as a note in Facebook. Her excellent account underscored the anodyne, barely competent writing we tolerate from print journalists here. It remains a mystery to me why Jamaican newspapers offer their readers a third-rate product when first-rate writing is so readily (if not as cheaply) available. Surely they realize that like anything else you get what you pay for?

This preference for second and third-best isn’t confined to Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago (and elsewhere) stunned readers of his column are expressing dismay that the Trinidad Express has terminated B.C. Pires’s provocative and acutely critical weekly column. Ever one to lay bare the truth with wit and originality Pires probably wasn’t as biddable as the Express would have liked. Without more information one can only speculate. In one of his last columns for the Express he interviewed himself. He was nothing if not hard-hitting and original.

Closer to home the Gleaner seems to have terminated the column of the punderous Dr. Orville Taylor (it never fails to amuse me the childish glee with which people brandish their titles here. Even ‘Mrs.’ is an honorific in Jamaica and she who has earned the right to be called ‘Mrs.’ is likely to rub it into your face with all the zeal of a Pond’s Cold Cream salesperson). Dr. Taylor liked to announce his witticisms with an advance marching band of quote marks and both bold and italic type just in case there was a reader who didn’t get it. In many ways Taylor was the opposite of B.C. Pires, lacking his finesse and acrobatic way with words and ideas, so his departure is likely to be met more with sighs of relief than regret, although he did have his fans (Stero?). Of course no one could be more grief-stricken than Dr. Taylor himself. Contrast his parting column, Swansongs and Auld Lang Syne with that of Pires, Write time, wrong place.

But guess what guys! The twenty-first century piece of all-purpose advice is no longer “Get a life!”; its “Get a blog!” Come join the blogging caste–the only caste you don’t have to be born into. So what if your papers have cut you loose? Its their loss…light a candle, sing a sankey and find your way to! Your readers will follow suit.

Blogging in a World without Peace

I’ve been frittering away my time finding creative ways to do nothing the last few days; I don’t know– it seems a suitable way to wind an old year down. Frustrating though because I really wanted to write this blog a day or two ago. Actually the day Harold Pinter died. His death reminded me of a speech Gunter Grass made in Berlin at the PEN International Congress there in May 2006.

It was a mere few weeks before the World Cup was to begin in Berlin when I had the good fortune to be sent to that city with Niki Johnson to represent Jamaica in its bid for membership of this august body. The keynote address was by the celebrated German author and Berlin resident, Gunter Grass. In keeping with the theme of the Congress Grass called his talk “Writing in an unpeaceful World.” Grass’s speech was an eloquent disquisition on war and the lack of peace through the centuries; he quoted Pinter’s scathing critique of the United States only recently delivered during his Nobel address the previous year. Pinter’s sentiments were so strongly expressed, so uncompromisingly critical that the American and British media had panned it and if Grass had not lingered on his words i would have been unaware that the Nobel Laureate had been so outspoken.

The Israeli strike on Gaza today makes it a particularly apt occasion to recall Grass’s heartfelt rumination on war and the role of writers in times of war. His speech pointed the finger at the United States and the unjust and protracted war it was conducting in Iraq. Within the year Grass found himself accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. Coincidence? Who knows?

While Grass did not explicitly mention bloggers (perhaps in 2006 they were not as omnipresent as they are today) everything he had to say about the responsibility of writers can and should be applied to us. Here are some excerpts from what he said:

There has always been war. And even peace agreements, intentionally or unintentionally, contained the germs of future wars, whether the treaty was concluded in Münster in Westphalia, or in Versailles. Furthermore, preparations for war do not solely depend on weapon systems that have to be continually modernized and replaced: making people dependent and acquiescent by controlled shortages has been a proven method, from biblical times to the globalised present. In his inaugural speech at the United Nations Willy Brandt referred to it in no uncertain terms: ‘Hunger is also war!’ he shouted more than three decades ago, at the time of the Cold War. Patterns of mortality as well as hunger statistics confirm his dictum to this day. Those who are in control of the market for basic foodstuffs and therefore able to manipulate surpluses as well as shortages by price policies have no need to fight conventional wars.

But what about writing in a world permanently without peace? The literati, i.e. all those scribblers and wordsmiths and sound acrobats and tracers of suppressed screams, the poets constraining themselves by rhymes and those using free verse, all of them, the men and women of verbal activity, they carried on, from Troy to Baghdad: lamenting in metre, soberly reporting, pleading for peace here, greedy for heroism there. The platitude ‘Where weapons speak, the muses remain silent’ is easily disproved.

. . . Today we find ourselves at the mercy of the hubris of only one superpower – a fact that has not proved beneficial – whose search for a new enemy has been successful. Armed force is used by this superpower to defeat the terrorism which, as it helped – take Bin Laden – to bring it forth, it is responsible for. Yet the war deliberately started in blatant disdain of the laws of civilized societies produces still more terror and will not end.

This is not only true of the war in Iraq, now in its third year. Dictatorships – and there are plenty to choose from – are referred to, in turn or simultaneously, as rogue states and threatened vociferously with military strikes, the only effect being to stabilize the fundamentalist power systems in those countries. Whether or not the term ‘Axis of Evil’ is used to refer to Iran or North Korea or Syria, the politics could not be more stupid and hence more dangerous. Even the repeat of a war crime, the deployment of nuclear weapons, is threatened.

Meanwhile the world is watching and pretending to be powerless. At most, participation in foreseeable new wars is refused. Three years ago the French and the German governments took an exemplary stand and said ‘No’, and later the Spanish government joined them when they withdrew from their complicity with the United States and engagement in the inevitably criminal activities of the superpower. yet despite lies having been exposed and the disgrace of torture being all-apparent, the British government continues to feign deafness and to act as if the tradition of the British Empire, the merciless colonial rule, has to be adhered to – even under the leadership of a Labour government.

Such submissive loyalty cannot but provoke dissent: in December of last year Harold Pinter’s speech as Nobel Laureate was published. In his admirably straightforward text the dramatist spoke first as a writer, then as a British citizen. When his bitter speech, sparing no one and exposing all our failures and our considerate hushing-up, was made available it gave rise to vehement attacks, originating in this country even in the arts section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Mr Stadelmaier, a renowned theatre critic, tried to ridicule and dismiss Pinter as an old leftie whose plays were a thing of the past. The disclosure of truths that had lain hidden behind mollifications and a web of lies caused serious resentment. Someone, a writer, one of us, had made use, in our unpeaceful world, of the right to accuse.

I quote from Harold Pinter’s speech:

“The United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

“Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. you have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

In the course of his speech Pinter poses the question: ‘How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?’ This question cannot easily be dismissed as merely rhetorical, for it aims at the West’s established practice and hypocritical method of counting, the body count. Although we meticulously keep count of the victims of terror attacks – terrible though their number is – nobody bothers to count the dead caused by American bomb or rocket attacks. Whether the second or the third Gulf War – the first one was fought by Saddam Hussein with support from the United States against Iran – rough estimates put the figure at hundreds of thousands.

Clearly every single one of the carefully accounted-for 2,400 soldiers killed so far in the present Iraq war is one too many, but this list of casualties cannot serve as the retrospective reason for a war that was started illegally and is fought by criminal means, nor can it offset the untold number of women and children killed and maimed, whose deaths are trivialized from a Western perspective as ‘collateral damage’. In Western evaluation there are first-, second- or third-class citizens not only among the living, but also among the dead, and yet they are all of them victims of the mutual terrorism.

Copyright © 2008 Universal Press Syndicate

Today the United States has a second chance with its new President, Barack Obama, to turn away from war and steer the world toward some kind of peace. I’m not taking bets on whether war or peace will prevail although Barack is the one holding out hope as a very slim lifeline. Let’s see what 2009 brings.

That Infernal Online Password

Who hasn’t gone through this? i just had to change my NCB passwords yet again a few days ago–and why do you have to start from scratch each time? i mean if you get one letter wrong, it erases all the info entered obliging you to type it in again…and again…and again–

This Indian comic really expresses that exasperated feeling we all know so well.

software, usability, security, registration, password, rules, security vs usability

Fly You Fools – Indian Comics about Life.