Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sweet bread, saltfish and sitar


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The evening started with my friend Kamal and me talking about heredity and the fact that it is not just hair or skin colour that passes from one generation to the other but intangibles like musical or writing talent. Since I can't carry a tune even if I were provided a suitable receptacle, and have always envied those who can, I told him that a perfect example existed in the case of Norah Jones the Grammy Award-winning American singer-songwriter, pianist and actress whose father is the famous sitar-player Ravi Shankar. Norah's paternal half-sister Anoushka Shankar, a sitar player like her father, was also nominated for a Grammy. Then environmental influences built on the hereditary platform. Norah grew up with her mother in Texas, took piano lessons and was exposed to the music of Billie Holiday. Her half-sister lived with their father and started training on the sitar when she was very young.

Where I grew up we have a simpler version of the difference between heredity and environment. If a child resembles its father, that's heredity, and if it resembles the neighbour, that's environment.

I tend to resemble my father in terms of his sense of humour and sheer stubbornness and I always think of him when I am invited to tell anecdotes about my life and times, or I am pushed too far. The evening continued with an event in Coral Springs in South Florida where the Trinidad and Tobago Diaspora Association had the courage to hold "An Evening With Tony Deyal" in my honour. I figured it would have been easier to get a Kamal to pass through the eye of a needle (a hypothesis which, given Kamal's bulk, is so remote that any further discussion would be futile) than to get people to leave home on a Wednesday night, come to a bar which is at least a forty-minute drive for many, to ask me questions about Trinidad, its polytricks and ticks, and listen to my

jokes. Yet some hardy souls did and brought food, most likely on the basis that even if I failed to satisfy, the Trinidad buljol (a salt-fish dish) from Ida (an ida whose time had come) and Radica's famous sweet-bread would alleviate some of the disappointment and fortify them for the long trip back.

One lady, who accompanied Radica, her sweet bread and her husband Michael, told me that she had no idea who I was but when asked by her husband where she was going she responded that she was attending a concert featuring the Trinidad pianist, Tony Deyal. I took note of that and it was grand. Maybe, next time I could try playing on Alicia Keys. As I told the lady jokingly, a lot of women have made up excuses for spending the evening with me instead of their significant others but this was the best I ever heard. I thought of my wife's possible response to hearing that people actually looked forward to an evening with me and it would be, "Better them than me." Evenings with me have lately tended to be boring affairs with me asleep on the couch and snoring away during my wife's favourite television programme Antiques Road Show. As my wife says, she loves antiques and this is why she married me. I keep telling her that's an old joke.

Because I was in a bar where the event was held and had been talking about music and Norah Jones, and now hearing from the lady that she thought I was a pianist of note, the old pianist joke popped into my mind and still has not left me. A man carrying a duffle bag walked into a bar and ordered a double brandy from the bartender. The man downed the drink in a gulp and then pulled out a miniature concert piano and stool followed by tiny man, about one foot tall, bedecked in formal attire, tuxedo and all. He ordered another shot while the tiny man began playing the most beautiful music anyone had ever heard. "Where on earth did you get that piano player?" the bartender asked the man. "I was walking along the beach last summer and found a lamp that had washed ashore," he replied. "Just for kicks, I thought I'd give the lamp a rub not really expecting anything, but a genie appeared and granted me a wish." "I see," said the bartender, wondering why someone would want the tiny piano player as his wish. "The genie will grant everyone one wish only when they rub the lamp. Would you like to make a wish?" the man asked the bartender as he pulled the old lamp from his duffle bag. "Why thank you. Don't mind if I do," replied the eager bartender who then rubbed the lamp, and the genie appeared. "I grant you one wish. Whisper it in my ear, and it will be my command" the genie told the bartender. The bartender did as he was told, and with that, the genie disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and the whole pub was filled with ducks quacking away.

The stunned bartender protested, "I told him I wanted a million BUCKS, not a million DUCKS!" The man replied, "Come on, do you really think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?" I had a good time reminiscing about the ghosts of Whitehall (the office of the Prime Minister in those days) and the many skeletons in the political cupboards. I even told the story of Basdeo Panday when asked if his teaming up with ANR Robinson in 1986 was a "marriage of convenience" and his reply, "Isn't every marriage?" For a while we were on home turf but while people in the diaspora are concerned about their homelands, sometimes their interest is not welcome because they are seen as deserters who want to meddle in the affairs of lands they left behind.

I have a different view – distance and experience of other countries and cultures give the people of the Diaspora a unique perspective that those who live in the same place too long sometimes lack. In this way myopia becomes Utopia and not even Lens Crafters can help. It is then you know the difference between an optimist and an optician.

*Tony Deyal was last seen munching on Radica's sweetbread and singing a verse from an old calypso, "He never sit down to eat sweet bread/ But used to lie down upon his bed…"