Y42K – A Review
Roi Kwabena has taken his performance poetry to another level on his recently published CD, Y42K. This is a technological advance from his first chapbook of poems published when he was eighteen years old, many years ago. His journey has been long and wide-ranging: from Christian to Black activist, from Muslim to conventional politics, where he became a senator in his country’s opposition. He is a world traveller as well, and an excellent survivalist.
The poems should relate to a Trinidadian audience or to the Caribbean diaspora in Britain and elsewhere. The fourteen performance pieces seem to hinge upon the persona’s wish to alleviate the evils and negativity of his society.
The sequence begins with the obeahman theme (and title) and thirteen pieces later concludes with a reprise of the same theme and title to end the cycle.
Between the introduction and the reprise the pieces explore contemporary situations in Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Hang’ treats the capital punishment issue around the time that nine convicts were executed over three days. The poet prefers instead that all the other ills and evils of under-development and under-developed societies should ‘hang’ instead. This theme and approach informs the whole presentation.
The approach to form in the set is universally pregnant with cataloguing and repetition. Perhaps it is unavoidable in a rapso genre, which is based on the ethnic call, response and echoing format.
The drumming, steelpan, and other instruments, which provide the musical framework, complement, as well as compliment, the performance. They often add a piquancy to the pieces that satisfies a fellow tribalist. The ensemble, including the poet, Kwabena, works well and creatively, within their limitation, and supply music appropriate to the focus of the poems. They create mood and atmosphere, whether the focus is on obeah, the First Nations (Amerindian) influences as in ’cacique’, the East Indian influences as in ‘Sour Chutney’, the African influence as in ‘el niyl’, and the Trinidadian influences throughout.
With the end of the year approaching, I can see ‘cascadura’ catching on as an alternative to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ for Trinidadians everywhere. There is an old legend, mostly forgotten now, that those who eat the Trinidadian mudfish, the cascadura, must return to Trinidad to die. It was the theme of a well-known 1930s poet, Allister Macmillan, and was also the theme of a Samuel Selvon novel, Those Who Eat the Cascadura. Kwabena has done an excellent job in providing this piece of nostalgia for his audience.
This genre does not provide much opportunity for felicitous imagery, but two pieces of creativity struck me. In ‘sour chutney’ which treats with indentureship and its aftermath, the poet chants about "sugar cane fields bleeding molasses", which is quite a pithy image. In ‘whether or not’ there is, as well, "the sting has left the nettle".
In ‘cascadura’ also, there is a surprise injunction the "No one supports stealing leatherback turtles’ eggs." This highlights a serious conservation problem in Trinidad, and its introduction must have been deliberate.
‘Y42K’ did not have, for me, the impact expected of a title poem; it deals with time, one of the perennial concerns of poetry. It also concerns a phonetic, dialect question, and a celebration of a significant year in the poet’s life. ‘Triangle’ is interesting though it doesn’t work quite well in this treatment, but I acknowledge the difficulty of the genre which forces one to adopt a haranguing tone for most of the issues. How to produce a perfectly sculpted poem that contains protest, didacticism and music will always be a problem, especially for those who try to take the form forward.
Roi Kwabena is to be commended on his almost pioneering presentation, which harvests his consciousness and handles his art in a creditable manner.
Y42K is produced by Kwabena’s Bembe Productions, 1999.
Anson Gonzalez Diego Martin