Monday, 21 December 2009

Trade Passages

A couple years ago I was invited (after several auditions, interviews and a ten year hiatus from performing) to write and perform a piece of poetry to commemorate the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain ..

The ‘Freedom Showcase’ was presented at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester.

Ten ‘emerging poets’, two mentors, a director, a video editor and a composer, and a host of arts organisations and live literature-managing agencies were commissioned to produce and stage a performance of epic proportions (for the poetry scene, man) ..

Scheduled for performance in July, we had only a few months to pull this original performance poetry event into shape and present the Midlands with an exciting and challenging show ..

So, we spent a lot of time preparing: writing, workshops, rehearsing, writing, recording, travelling, memorising and of course, writing ..

I approached my piece attempting to capture the perspective of the people I knew when I lived in the Southern region of the United States .. back when I was hanging at the Golden Rose after-hours members-only jazz club in the lowland swamps of South Carolina ..

I took on the role of a composite character developed from the various groups I associated with at that time, and throwing myself into the dialect and costume of the dramatis personae of the piece I tried to bring to life the history and culture of the people ..

The poem is divided into 3 separate narratives: the first offers the tragic personal story of two young lovers taken from Africa to America to serve on the plantation .. the second part is a time-skipping story that takes us on a winding route through the South from the days of abolition to the New Orleans flood ..

The final act is a contemporary reading of capitalism and it’s slave roots; the way trade, multinational corporate financial exchange, whether traffic in people, electronics, food or weapons, is gradually eroding freedom through consumer gentrification and using the ultimate cataclysm of terror as threat ..

The 3 sections were accompanied by music and large screen video. The music moved from simple drumming to a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of early 20th century bands to the electronic hum of rockets and radios. The video began as a huge projected stone circle reminiscent of Stonehenge, which through the piece transformed into mirrored skyscrapers. For the first segment I sat cross-legged on the stage enveloped in the aura of an orange light, for what is the campfire but the stage around which the narrative of life has been played out through eternity? The tale is told and we listen and participate in the story. Through the second section I rambled across the stage as a traveller seeking identity within the newly achieved freedom to roam. In the final act I was still and contemplative in anger as one seeking justice, an active agent employed in the inter-relation of progress and devastation of identity through cultural and social disintegration. I enjoyed being the creative behind the selection of images and composition .. though naturally I'd like to thank Thomas Hall for the video art and Mark Melville for the audio.

I titled my contribution ..

Trade Passages

Living in the past
Or the present day
Time is but a narrative of trade

Travelling hand in hand and eye to eye
Chained one to each other
A history shared also collides


Uhuru was a youthful poet, African princely born
A tall dark warrior, His true name it means freedom
Torkwase was his bride, a life about to start
She sailed with Uhuru from an oasis in the desert

They were on a slave ship going to the new world
Taken from their rightful kingdom
About them the mighty grey Atlantic swirled
They were just commodity
Another man’s immoral income

Red white and blue flags on the ship unfurled
The slave trade and their emblem
Every day in fear their lives imperilled
Hoping on a slow train
Coming for their freedom

Uhuru ran from the plantation
Liberty deep within his soul
Legacy of his free will
Laying low and makin’ north

He lay behind a chicken coop
After three days in deep mud
His feet thickly blistered
His eyes red with blood

Torkwase had been living
Under a master’s dirty ways
Her fingers still remember sand
Her eye recalls Uhuru’s gaze

A memory of her tribute a shamanic presence gave
She walks amongst the shadows, servant to the slaves

Night fell as Uhuru scratched notches in the wood
Tonight he’d kill a chicken, the waiting needed food

With baptised tears Torkwase crept toward the shed
In a sacred dance round midnight the cockerel would be bled

A fateful chance encounter as the full moon shone
Torkwase screamed so loudly others heard it too
Recognising within Uhuru’s eyes the passion of remembrance
A separation by the slave ship crew

They held each other tightly with distant hound dogs barking
Uhuru and Torkwase reunited caring not for all lost time
In minutes it was over everyone had come
But in the night the hangmen committed a dark crime

"Your people they were free, your father was a king"
Torkwase to the newborn babe, one day she would sing

It takes two to tango
Two make a narrative of trade
Travelling hand in hand and eye to eye
From the cradle to the grave


Moors to Maroons Morocco or Mali
Black or white Latvian Asian or Mexicali
Put out your hand
The road to freedom
Is through another’s land

The Underground Railway still exists
In my mind
Passages of lives
And the ties that bind
History following the tracks of my tears
Lazy Southern river flows all through the years
Leads to the levee that bartered the town
Barbeque sauce and banjos till dawn
Ain’t no one caring
Now the hurricane is gone

Spit roasted swine skewered and soaked in lime
Carrying the memories of Creole and slaves, that lost time
Flood done come to Orleans down Louisiana way
Coloured man does suffer, women bear the pain

Ain’t gonna be no harvest this year
Ain’t gonna do nothin’ but rain
Poor child barefoot in the old town
Family washed away
The wind it is a howlin' wolf at the door
House of sticks and straw
Sun won’t shine here no more

He’s the black and tan minstrel
Roamin’ from town to town
Ain’t no white man’s burden
Gonna weigh him down
Dropped him in the river
Rolled away the stone
Plays guitar like lickin’ fat
From a chicken bone
Music be the devil
Gonna make the kingdom come
Sing no more of misery
Take him back down home

"Gonna head on up to Memphis
Seek some shelter from the state
Leave the lowland bayou humid night
Ride the freedom train .."

Makin’ merry and livin’ mirth
Like young men do
Gonna follow that old river
Flowing water of his birth
Strollin’ under a yellow moon beneath the Southern skies
Climb aboard and ring dem bells, "headin’ North," he cries:

“I wanna sing about tomorrow’s world
‘til I got a place to call my own
A little piece o’ somethin’
Without oppression and the rain
Ain’t nobody give me nothin’
No space to lay my head
I guess I’ll keep on ramblin’ man
Freight train of freedom
Be my only friend

“I wanna sing to you
Songs of hope and freedom, no more ‘bout the cane
I wanna bang the tribal beats
No more sufferin’ whips and someone else’s chain
I wanna sing to you of soul baby, not about the bruise
Sing no more of heartache
‘Cause we’re all black .. and blue"


Nowadays ..

Bitter tears of ecstasy
As freedom comes our way
Pinkies extended mocking class without a care
Lip service afforded by the leisure of the day
Sitting sipping fair trade free trade
Cappuccino in the square
Listening to conversations
Watched by cameras everywhere
Express yourself!
And your freedom if you dare

Lock me up or lock me down
And coffee
Instant status for all
Ashes to ashes
Soil to soil
Cotton and molasses and pepper
Bubbling troublesome oil

Refineries of industries manufacturing dignity
Liberation and libation an abolition of emancipation
Another manumission of the social institution
A slave ship of integrity battling the waves of history

Batten down the hatches!
Board up all the doors
The hurricane is blowing
There’s no such thing as Civil wars

Civil liberty heresy and piracy
China to Brasil
People won’t stand still
Jealousy conspiracy
How about a little humility?

Boston beans and Indian rights
Peasant blood mixes sugar, Honey
And Champagne fizz!
The pursuit of happiness
For this privileged homecoming
On shores tainted with conquest
And cotton and sugar and maize
Slap on molasses
And gimme those old time religion ways!

Toast the victors! Toast and jam
I’m going down amongst the squalor
Beans on toast! Beans ground roast
Cash crop indulgence to the privileged
Great white wave
To mine a golden harvest of that sugar cane
Sweating through shafts of sunlight and fear
For colas and cocoa and beer!?

The dam burst through the eye of the storm
The slave ship sailed to the land of the free
With oil and napalm and power of spice
And a few phony CDs

If this here train leaves the track
I swear I’m never goin’ back
To the land of my father
To hear the plantation whip crack!


For the disease of deceit
The weary wreath of commerce
Flyin’ like a union flag over a confederate grey sea
The first to pledge allegiance will divide the nation
A copper tinge of blood mingled with remembrance
Everything we buy is paid for in the currency of migration

So sing your song and take your stance
For children baptised by Christian arms
For the silence of freedom chimes
For flooding waters in which to bathe

The heathen hymns. The evil whims.
The blackened sins of everyday things

Crimes justified
A cruel reality
Of ..
Import and Export ..
The Twin Truths of Trade.

*     *     *

Kevin Wallace 20-06-2007 Freedom Showcase


Many of us involved with the showcase have moved on to other things and developed beyond our night in the lights of the Phoenix, yet we stay in touch and meet up and work together on various projects .. and I know we were all happy to receive the opportunities associated with this successful production ..

Where poets gather ..

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