Culture and the disappearing piano

Arts on Sunday

A recent debate over a political issue took place in the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament on January 12 that happens to raise some serious questions about our attitudes to our indigenous culture and culture in the Caribbean generally.  It was the usual profound, dignified and highly distinguished parliamentary debate about allegations of corruption and shady practices levelled by one side of the House against the other.

The reference to culture was casual, and peripheral to the main argument, but important to the issue of attitudes to our culture.  The context of the political argument was the report by the Trinidad and Tobago Attorney General Anand Ramlogan to the House that a very expensive Bosendorfer grand piano which was controversially purchased and placed in the Prime Minister’s residence while Patrick Manning was in office has disappeared.  He asked what had happened to it, describing its purchase as “a most shameful and disgraceful wastage of public funds.”  The sophisticated and high-priced piano, called ‘the Strousse’ which was delivered to the residence cost US$114,215.

“Bosendorfer pianos, Mr Speaker, for those of us who are accustomed to the steel pan and the dholak and the majeera and the rhythm section . . . the Bosendorfer piano is the Rolls Royce of pianos in the world. . . I have asked [current] Prime Minister Persaud-Bissesser to search those premises to locate this grand piano, because all we know about is a lil Bob Marley music and a lil kaiso and calypso and chutney, that’s all we listen to.  But this grand piano, I want to ask (Mr Manning) sir, if you know where that piano is in the Diplomatic Centre and your former residence, can you please assist us?”

Among the disturbing elements of these remarks by the Attorney-General are questions about the value we place upon our own culture in the Caribbean as against our regard for foreign metropolitan cultures, including our tendency to relegate our indigenous traditions to the level of the simplistic, unsophisticated and the uncultured. Now, it is known that parliamentarians and politicians will themselves engage in traditional cultural practices, such as picong when they harangue each other in the House.  There is a minor outside chance that Ramlogan was hurling a few picong shots at Manning.

He went on to say, “I didn’t realize that he was so multi-talented that he needed a piano in his house.”  According to the Trinidad Express (January 13) Jack Warner quipped ,“He can’t even play in the rain,” and an Opposition MP asked “What’s wrong with a piano?”  Ramlogan “shot back”  –  “nothing is wrong with a piano, but the day you could play a good chutney or calypso on it, come back and talk to me.”

A (not the) Bosendorfer piano

One can understand some of this in the context of picong, if that is what the MPs were engaging in.  But picong is known for its deliberate confusion of serious statements and ridiculing banter.  And it is ironic that they would be employing an indigenous tradition to press home a serious allegation against an opponent, while at the same time using one local tradition to put down and trivialise another.

The echoes behind Ramlogan’s quips are the hangovers of a colonial attitude to culture.  We were taught that European culture as manifested in its classical music and technical complexity and sophistication is the kind of tradition that is ‘cultured’ and worthy of dignified pursuit.  It is superior to any of the local traditions which are ‘uncultured,’ and besides, these inferior local elements are all Caribbean people really know about;  not the high bourgeois serious music and the grand pianos on which it is played.

Such a creature as the Bosendorfer Strousse is alien to our culture, so Mr Ramlogan has to assume an air of talking down to the uncultured in order to explain it to those “accustomed to the steel pan and the dholak and the majeera and the rhythm section.”  Those are examples of the inferior diet taken from familiar local music.  Ramlogan continues to play to this tune when he makes further reference to local musical forms with the adjective “little” : “All we know about is a lil Bob Marley music and a lil kaiso and calypso and chutney, that’s all we listen to.”  The “lil” relegates both the music and those who listen to it because they are not engaged in too many cultured pursuits, just a little of things that are of little consequence.

What, therefore, would we want with a grand piano, let alone with one of such high quality it is “the Rolls Royce of pianos” ?  Ramlogan’s choice of words suggests to us that the disappearance of the piano is a very serious thing;  more serious than we understand, because we do not really know much about this great instrument and cannot properly appreciate its value.  We are therefore likely to treat it in the same undignified way we regard “a lil” Bob Marley, pan, kaiso or chutney.  He further wishes to emphasize the extravagance of the former government when they purchased the piano.  They were squandering public funds on a high-priced white elephant, which we would never use since we lack the skills, talent and understanding to properly make use of it.  Further, it is alien to our culture and cannot be used to play local musical forms: “The day you could play a good chutney or calypso on it, come back and talk to me.”

Does the grand piano then, have any place in Caribbean culture?  Its origin is Europe and it is important to European culture, and might even be associated with it.  However, it has now become a part of music all over the world, and has long since transcended anything specifically European.  The piano is now universal.  Musicians, and everyone else, appreciate both the instrument and music and can embrace their value without parochialism.  Not everything that came from Europe is bad.  The grand piano is accepted unblinkingly in music in the Caribbean.

When Naipaul made his infamous utterance about “history is built on creation and achievement and nothing was created in the West Indies,” he was well hammered for it.  His real meaning, however, had to do with the West Indies being such a small society in the world that they lacked the power to enforce their culture on the world.  Since that time, however, the Caribbean has managed to enforce the power of its culture on the world, and this includes the very Bob Marley, steel band and calypso.

Even if the Attorney General was playing picong, his points of reference are still, indeed, a comment on the attitudes to our indigenous culture, because he could make his point by invoking a notion of superior and inferior cultures.

By the way, former Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared on January 13, that the missing piano, which was acquired for concerts, was very much still in its place when he moved out of the official residence.  He understands that after his departure, there was a moving around of items about which he knew nothing.

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