Footprints of Africa in the Caribbean: Part Two

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LOVELACE’s literary work emerges from his personal life experiences with diverse social groups in different areas of Trinidad and Tobago and reflects the difficulties of having to negotiate an independent present with a colonial past. His writing resonates within Trinidadian society in the efforts to rebuild a positive sense of identity in the Caribbean.
Lovelace acknowledges this notion as a life principle against which each individual whatever their social, cultural, or racial status can be an active agent in the forging of new identities.
The Dragon Can’t Dance is the story of the existence of the people of Calvary Hill and the culture they create in the process of surviving.
The novel is episodic, placing greater emphasis on character portrayal than on story line.
The Hill attracts people from throughout Trinidad, who are quickly absorbed into the life and culture of the Hill, save the East Indian Pariag and his wife, Dolly who persistently fail to be symbiotically absorbed in the matrix of this mixed community.
Carnival, a festival marked by steel band and calypso music, totally transforms the Hill and its occupants to the extent that even a snob such as Miss Cleothilda can claim: “All o’ we is one.”
Chronologically, the novel is set in the late 1950s, a period marked by violent clashes between the politicised steel bands and toughs known as ‘bad johns’.
In this environment, Fisheye and the other bad johns assert their manhood and act out the aggression that colonialism has nurtured in them.
In the same way, Aldrick uses his Carnival dragon costume to threaten and intimidate.
However, all this is not to last as modern commercialism steps in to still the steel bands and to emasculate their warriors.
In the unfolding of these altercations, Fisheye is asked to behave, and when he refuses, he is thrown out of his band.
Aldrick’s dragon is disabled; Philo gives up on his ‘calypsos of rebellion’ and Carnival, once an expression of traditional warrior spirit is relegated to tourist entertainment.
The main stage for the development of the plot, Calvary Hill, is introduced through a series of descriptive elements that portray it as being something close to a slum.
The mood of the hill is described through the lifestyle of Aldrick Prospect, the novel’s main character: “(he) would get up at midday from sleep, yawn, stretch, then start to think of where he might get something to eat, his brain working in the same smooth unhurried nonchalance with which he moved his feet.”
He provides us with a picture of a sleeping world that is not in a hurry.
Carnival is set as the central focus of the novel and is portrayed as the only phenomenon that is able to bring the hill to life and corrupt everyday life in Trinidad.
The power and soul of Carnival, however, lies in calypso, the songs that “announce the new rhythms of the people, rhythms that climb over the red dirt and stone, break away rhythms that laugh through the bones of these enduring people.”
Calypso music is what Trinidad and Tobago is best known for.
Along with folk songs and African and Indian-based classical forms, cross-cultural interactions have produced other indigenous forms of musical fusion. Calypso music grew together with carnival.
The music drew upon the West African Kaiso and French/European influences, and arose as a means of communication among the enslaved Africans.
Highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals characterised the music, which was most often sung in a French creole and led by a griot.
As calypso developed, the role of the griot (originally a similar travelling musician in West Africa) became known as ‘calypsonian’.
The story details the demise of the ‘bad johns’ and the dragon.
These are major symbols of rebellion.
They resist the change and, for a while, perpetuate their ‘warriorhood’.
They terrorise the community in line with the tradition of Carnival until their continued defiance leads to confrontation with the police.
In this confrontation Fisheye seizes a police jeep and two policemen hostage; and for two days, he and his gang ride with short-lived gusto through Port-of-Spain in a futile attempt to stir the people to rebellion against the system. Fisheye and Aldrick’s failure results in their trial and imprisonment and brings about a transformation in Aldrick, who henceforth rejects the notion that playing a dragon once a year for two days is sufficient to constitute living.
Older and wiser, Aldrick returns to see whether there is still a life for him and the beautiful Sylvia, only to discover that the Hill has already claimed her.
She is on her way to being married to Guy, not out of love, but because he can provide her with material comforts.
For Aldrick, it is also late for a rapprochement with Pariag, who has become a shopkeeper.
Both Aldrick and Pariag pass up the opportunity to connect. Aldrick stops before the shop and moves on, while Pariag admits that “I had a chance to call him in.
“I didn’t do it.
“I paused too.
“Just like him—and moved on.”
The author begins with the depiction of life in the community known as ‘the yard’, where most of the major characters live, and the story line returns to the yard at the conclusion of the text.
The yard community has disintegrated with the departures of Fisheye, Aldrick, and Pariag. Philo has moved away, and Basil, Aldrick’s apprentice in costume making, is about to join the police force.
Cleothilda, now looking her age, no longer spurns the advances of the now successful and popular Philo.
In the end everything changes.
It is now time for every character not only to soul-search, but also to redefine oneself in terms of the demands of the new age.
While the past can still inform the present, it can no longer rigidly assert itself. The dragon can no longer dance.

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