The cover of Caribbean Roots, Scene With Two Blue Devils art by Che Lovelace.
Right from the start of his new album, Caribbean Roots, Anthony Joseph declares his intentions.
“The Kora narrates a poetic journey along his beginnings.
Where is he going? Where is this?
We moved through the din and dank covered market
Warped African vinyl were dusty grooves in floorless rooms
of sacrilege. Nothing here was worth returning with.”
Is it an actual place or the wreckage of memory, its fragmented ruins flipped over piece by piece seeking answers to questions he is still learning how to frame?
Joseph’s work encourages that kind of existential musing, his dense, unforgiving poetry slipping the leash of ready rhyme and passionate emphasis in favor of a landscape of imagery and expression that draws you in, partly puzzled, partly empathetic and entirely overcome by perceptions of the poet’s world that are detailed, deeply felt and casually engaging.
He ranges far and wide in the album, exploring a casual calypso narrative in Neckbone, the eternal story of the Caribbean bad man, a working man with no patience for pointless bullying who finally reaches his limit, his “bucket bottom” finally dropping off.
There’s a wistful remembrance of Jimmy, the trouble child always getting into trouble who “wasn’t looking for a wife, he was just looking for a woman who could suck the marrow from his bone.”
In Mano a Mano, Joseph frames a fight between a young man and an older bandit as a metaphorical stick fight that isn’t nearly as one-sided as it seems.
The most recognisable of these personality vignettes is Slinger, a admiring recollection of Slinger Francisco, better known as The Mighty Sparrow.
Co-written with David Rudder and featuring an infectious refrain of “roll it back again,” the music is readily identifiable as inspired, even cloned from the early soca rhythms of Ed Watson and his peers.
And could there be anything more man-crush adoring than this?
“If somebody thief your woman
is probably Slinger
‘cause If you know anything about jam
he know it better.”
But the most successful of the sextet of songs focused on characters is Brother Davis (Yanvalou), classic Anthony Joseph material, a narrative so rich in metaphor and gentle misdirection that you can find yourself as lost in the flood of imagery as the protagonist of the song is.
A recasting of the parable of building a castle in sand, Brother Davis references common Caribbean imagery of small church worship, perennial muddy floods in rainy season into a riveting allusion to the struggle to find self.
The song is brilliantly supported by his band for the album, the solos by guitarist Patrick Marie-Magdelene, pannist Andy Narell and saxophonist Jason Yarde swirling in and around the words in delicate, tugging eddies.
The manifesto for the album is laid out in the title song, Caribbean Roots, a deeply personal yearning for place and history.
Joseph opens the song bluntly.
“Look how long we out here
and we still looking somewhere else for roots”
The artist, widely travelled in his studies, lectures and performances, acknowledges his on moment of epiphany, or more likely, epiphanies as he finds himself in the old world realising that his old world has no monuments that were the legacy of its current occupants.
“How come these monuments, even the ones in the islands,” he asks, “were built by those who colonised and enslaved me?”
Much of the album is dedicated to searching for not just the roots, but the foundations of the musical architecture that he’s working with on his spoken word albums.
It’s both the album’s greatest strength and weakness.
This review is unfinished and I have lost the thread of its planned conclusion. It was written in June 2016, then shelved during a turbulent time in my relationship with the Trinidad Guardian. It is published here to provide a reference point for a more current review of Joseph’s new album, People of the Sun.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago.