Interview: Anthony Joseph (November 2016)

The Caribbean: scattered islands, surrounded by sea that is at times green, at times grey, and at times blue. The nations that make up the Caribbean are all products of large slave populations, sometimes 90 per cent to 10 per cent plantation owners, the genocides of native tribes such as the Taino, plantation systems that set the structures of their societies for years to come, and finally vibrant slaves who in time became proletariat and then middle class, cultures full of humour and life despite strife.

Haitian poet Jacques Roumain once wrote that the Caribbean worker knows “all of the songs of this world”; Caribbeans are the descendants of Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Middle Easterners, melded together into sometimes tranquil but often explosive societies. To add to this, the Caribbean has always produced a thin crust of intellectuals, whether poets, historians, or painters, in and outside the Caribbean, who make it their crusade to evolve cultures and perceptions on these nations through their intellectual practice.

Anthony Joseph, while living in England, is one such intellectual, He is a poet who practices what he considers to be musical poetry, rooted in his native Trinidad’s Calypso tradition. His most recent album is titled Caribbean Roots. I spoke to him about the album, and also about his art in general, a topic he knew well.

What are Caribbean Roots? Cultural Roots? Racial Roots?

Doing research on the Caribbean, especially having read thinkers from the 1960’s, has led me to believe that the Caribbean is a fractured region and that is its main feature. The more I look into this fundamental fracture, I realised that there is a hidden unity to it: a history of near 600 years, and sea that surrounds us, for example, that shapes our living and our identities through its motion and how it imposes itself. Our unity is submarine (think of slave ships submerged) to quote the poet Kamau Brathwaite. That unity, and that the area is a receptacle of our historical, often submarine, cultural unity, as descendants but also living in the present, is the root.

As a novelist, researcher and poet, what were your ambitions as a performer and lyricist on Caribbean Roots?

Well, I consider myself first and foremost a poet and this album is quite simply my poetry, put to music. Think of a guy like Mikey Smith, the assassinated dub poet, when thinking about my poetry/music. My voice is certainly my instrument but it is a poet’s.

I can think of poet-musicians in French culture such as Leo Ferre, or in Canadian culture with Leonard Cohen, but it doesn’t seem to be the norm in the Caribbean.

Well, we have just started developing an intellectual footprint. We have certainly produced great poets and thinkers such as Derek Walcott but it takes some time after independence to produce poet-troubadours, as has been the case in the West for a long time.

In terms of performing your music/poetry, the Caribbean surely has great political figures of political seriousness and militancy in music, and also of serious artistry, but there is certainly a tradition of home grown Caribbean minstrel performance. Do you take that into account when performing?

I see what you mean. I am inspired by crowd gathering and crowd-pleasing, the Calypso tradition, but certainly not by minstrel performance and stray away from that as far as possible. When I aim to please a crowd, I am inspired by Spiro, who is certainly not a minstrel. I am especially inspired, however, by my upbringing in the Baptist Church and seeing preachers: it is the reason for my fiery passion [laughs].

The Caribbean is known for its beaches and other pleasures. There is certainly darkness in this vast history, submarine history that are its roots today. What role does it play in your poetry/music?

I think of a writer like Marlon James when you say darkness. What interests me the most is how we live this darkness through humour, calypso for example, and how we have been doing it for a long time.

What’s your relationship to the English language when you write and perform? I would imagine that your University education has led you to have a unique relationship with the English language, as strong as the crowd-pleasing vernacular of much of calypso?

Derek Walcott used to say that when people would accuse him of using the English language, he would reply that English does not belong to any race but to the imagination, and so to everyone. That’s how I feel about using the English language. I would have to say that I have a special relationship with the city of London – it has expanded my education and allowed me to be a citizen of the world (of the cosmos) Access to some resources were certainly limited in Trinidad, despite everything it gave me, and I have found much of those resources, for example, listening to Albert Ayler here in London.

Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy Anthony Joseph’s new album launch at Jazz Café on Saturday

photo ©: Edwige Hamben