May 6, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, Monique Roffey's The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is the rare novel that crisply portrays conflicts both political and personal, in this case the evolution of Trinidad from colony to democratic government and the marriage of expatriates living in that country.
This is a novel set in Trinidad, a small Caribbean island which has its own musical forms, Soca, kaiso, chutney, but most notable calypso. For me, the book rings with these melodies. Calypso, named after the songstress who kept Odysseus captive for a decade or so, is used by calypsonians in a number of ways: to entertain, to make joke, to dance to, but most importantly it was born as a form of dissent and social commentary. Politicians in Trinidad don't really give two hoots about its writers and poets and what they say on the page. But should a well known calypsonian take offense, get vexed and pick up his or her pen and write a popular tune criticizing them – then, they take note.
"Jean and Dinah," The Mighty Sparrow (mentioned in the second part of the novel)
When my characters George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad, it is 1956. They quickly become immersed in the country, its politics, culture and music. A young calypsonian called The Mighty Sparrow is bursting on to the stage for the first time, a man who will rein for the next fifty years and become an international superstar (he has a cameo part in my novel too). He has a massive hit and wins the Road March competition the same year with a calypso called "Jean and Dinah", about two working girls who are left high and dry and out of work when the Americans leave their bases in Chaguaramas. George and Sabine would have danced to this at the first carnival parties at The Country Club. Vintage Sparrow, still a famous tune everyone in Trinidad remembers. Here is the chorus.
Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clemontina
Round de corner posin'
Bet your life is something dey sellin'
But when you catch them broken you could get dem all for nuttin'
Doh make no row
De Yankee gone and Sparrow take over now
"Get to Hell Outa Here," The Mighty Sparrow (also mentioned in the second part of the novel)
This is also vintage Sparrow. Sparrow and Eric Williams were friends in the early days of Independence in Trinidad. Sparrow supported the PNM government mostly and Williams used him as a campaigning partner in winning the vote of the masses. But Sparrow turned on Williams too, in this song which he wrote in 1964 in response to a scandal involving one of Eric Williams' right hand man, Patrick Solomon. Solomon's stepson got into trouble with the police and Solomon, then Minister of Home Affairs, simply collected him from the station without any fuss. There was a huge public outcry over the fact that a minister's son went uncharged. It was noticeable cronyism and collusion between those in power and the police force, the first time the PNM and Williams was picked up for corruption. Williams sacked Solomon due to public pressure but then re-instated him and said that anyone who didn't like it could 'get the hell outa here'. Sparrow penned a calypso in response; here are some of the words.
I am no dictator
But when I pass an order
Mr. Speaker, this matter must go no further
I have nothing more to say
And it must be done my way
Come on, come on, meeting done day.
...this land is mine
And I am the boss
What I say goes
And who vex loss
And if I say that Solomon
Go be Minister of External Affairs
And you ent like it
Get to hell outta here!
"Fighter," by Maximus Dan
This is the anthem our Trinidad's national football team, the Soca Warriors. It was everywhere in 2006 when Trinidad qualified for the World Cup. I was in Trinidad, at the time, writing the first draft of this novel and used to here it all the time on the radio. I used to sing it all the time, it was everywhere. I saw the Soca Warriors play Peru in Trinidad at the stadium, an okay match. Peru seemed like a much more disciplined team. It was a memorable day out, especially as at one point, the blimp hovered overhead and Patrick Manning came out o to the pitch. I've written about this day, the Peru match and the blimp is also mentioned – a lot – in my novel. Just what was it doing is still a mystery. Today Trinidad has a female prime minister and a new party in power – and the blimp no longer circles the skies over Port of Spain. This is definitely a theme tune of the first half of the novel and I can hear the song in my head as I write.
"Strangers on the Shore," Acker Bilk
This was my parents' favorite song. The used to dance to it a lot. A fairly romantic instrumental sax piece, a classic. I guess in my head somewhere it is a song Sabine and George dance too as well. This book is born partly from family biography and somewhere this tune plays in my head between my two main characters.
"Fire in me Wire," Calypso Rose
This calypso was penned in 1966 by the mighty Calypso Rose a year one of Trinidad's leading female calypsonians. This was the year after I was born. It's one of the most famous calypsos ever written and is the theme song to my childhood. George and Sabine would have listened to this and their children would have grown up with this song, it's a lively party tune about a woman who has fire in her pants, that's simple. You can't keep still to it.
"Bridge over Troubled Water," Simon and Garfunkel
This was a hit song and album all over the world in 1970, the same year as Trinidad's black power revolution. I remember my parents had a copy of the album and it evokes an era of folk optimism and peacenik-ism. It's a very sweet lilting melody, about a man saying to a girl 'I will be your friend' and 'I will lay me down' for you in troubled times, just like a bridge. I have always loved this song, it is another great ballad of a time, the 70s, and it makes a stark contrast to the troubled times ahead for Trinidad. It was No 1 in the charts just weeks before Port of Spain erupted in flames. This is a peaceful song for troubled times.
"Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," James Brown
Conversely, this is one of the hippest and funkiest black power anthems of the 60s, from superstar and soul singer James Brown. It also captures a time and a place and the mood of the revolutionary 60s, and a time when Eric Williams, a man opposed to colonialism, was making black power speeches. I've included it because it speaks the Black Panthers, and it has something of the outspoken voice of Black radicalism, a movement which was lead by Stokely Carmichael, a famous Trinidadian. Carmichael opposed and threatened Williams. Trinidad had a black government and a black power revolution which attacked those who gained power for being corrupt and still colluding with the old ways of colonialism.
Monique Roffey and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists