Raising Cane

I have the hat, I have the loafers, I have the shirt. What more could I want? Here, where the entire population seems to live on the beach at the weekend, relaxing under the shade trees to the sound of Zouk on the radio and the smell of charcoal-grilled fish, you have to make a clear and sustainable decision to actually do anything else.

The surf was easy the day I came to stay on this quiet island in the bay … Don Fagen

We’ve heard there are some beautiful old French houses down in the capital, near the harbour, also markets for fish, vegetables and other foodstuffs, aphrodisiac spices (bois bandé), cloth and handicrafts (amazing how many different things can be made out of coconut shell or calabash), as well as a cathedral built entirely of cast iron girders from the same factory that constructed the Eiffel Tower and, of course, lots of music. So it’s time to roll out of the surf and onto the streets.

As we head downtown through the steamy heat, the crowd thickens, dense and noisily cheerful. Everyone is excited about the big race. The monster multi-hulls have been battling it out across the Atlantic for the last two weeks; Franck Cammas is expected to arrive this evening or sometime tomorrow or maybe the day after … who knows, who cares? But we’re trawling for something different today, though hardly less significant. We can already feel the rhythm as we weave among the overflowing stalls.

Trouble in Paradise

The statue of Vélo, legendary Creole drummer, marks the spot, and although the group have barely started, they are already hammering out a fierce groove without breaking a sweat. A semi-circle has formed around them: the faithful, the cognoscenti, a few stray tourists like us. A poor man in clothes that barely cover him and shredded workpants held up with twine has joined them to add a syncopated hand-clap to the mix. He seems to be tacitly accepted as part of the music, if not as part of the band. He might be the walking ghost of Vélo’s half-brother; he is so utterly drab, dirty and devoid of showmanship, while the others shine with the well-oiled health and loud apparel so typical to the youth of the Antilles.

After a while the drumming stops and the chanting begins. The big, broad man with the dreadlocks behind the big, fat drum sings in a full and resonant voice. The others echo back a chorus of affirmation to each phrase – call and response, call and response. The atmosphere is religious. The beggar’s querulous wail is way up the top somewhere, thin, reedy and plaintive; the dusty, phantom essence of a distant and unthinkably vast Diaspora. The big drummer, passionate and charismatic, is singing of Africa, of his ancestors, of exile, of suffering, of exploitation, of dubious liberation tainted by the clinging dependence on the “company store”, of big-brand neo-colonialism, of further disenfranchisement, of broken promises, of farms destroyed by the economics of scale, of streams poisoned by insecticides, of unemployment, of drug-abuse, of whole families chained to their welfare cheques, of cardboard huts behind the super-market. I am in the very heart of Eden and all is not well.

A powerfully built woman steps briefly through the crowd: she might be the leader’s mother, her gaze is solicitous, tender. She slips an envelope under the cord of his drum. He merely glances up for a moment, but that look says everything. “Yes”, it says, “I am eating enough, yes, I do have somewhere to stay, yes, we are doing OK, but all the same, thanks for the money …” There’s never enough of that, even in the tourist season, even at the close of the big race: the reason why shows up a minute or two later while the group is whacking out another gigantic polyrhythm.

A weasel in a poor boy’s wool

I’m not sure whether most of the people watching even notice the arrival of the skinny youth with the spangled shades. The white leather jacket, obviously stolen, is too big for him. He is festooned with the tackiest of bling. He swaggers past the group and positions himself ostentatiously close to the big drummer, as if to upstage him. He shows no sign of being here for the music, certainly doesn’t move to their rhythm – the rhythm of the islands – but rather to some urban beat rattling through his ear-buds. He stands there for a long time, directly next to the group, gazing around him with that long, slow, nodding and proprietary look so typical to “gangstas” everywhere. The musicians stare fixedly ahead, they are certainly not going to give him even an ounce of respect. For them it’s as if he were simply not there. What they are busy creating is so far above him and his kind, so transcendent a communion that they will not descend even so far as to recognize their own role in his grubby machinery.

White-jacket wiggles his fingers slowly. The message is clear. He grins toothily (certainly no gold in there, a weasel in a poor boy’s wool). For the first time I see beads of sweat on the big drummer’s brow. He glances down at the envelope tucked under the drum rim and then up at white-jacket and gives an almost imperceptible nod. The “local tax” collector moves away, twitching to his own interior demons. He’ll come back later to “help” them pack up.

Sugar sings the blues

The musicians drum away the rest of the morning, collecting coppers, selling CDs. They dream and sing of a lost continent that none of them would ever really want to go back to. They reproach all their paying customers, mostly us European folk, with the loss of a paradise they do not actually want to regain. Why should they? They live here in Eden, just a hundred yards from the beach and a few doors down from the very serpent they’ve made a deal with. It’s straightforward enough; if they don’t bruise his head, he won’t bruise their heel. Ask the woman, she’s learnt the words and the tune by now. “Crazy kids”, she would say, “what do they know? Life is good to us here. Just over the horizon in Haiti it’s already hell on Earth and now they have the cholera too.”

In the old market hall at the end of the street a man is stripping cane and sending it though the juicer. For a few cents you can buy a hunk and chew on it. Once all the glorious juice has trickled down your throat you can use the dried and fibrous husk to clean your teeth with. Isn’t that convenient, the way some things come with their own antidote? There are worse arrangements one could make, and with worse people.

Edwin Drood

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