Milla Riggio's friend John Cupid, the Caribbean folklorist, used to tell her, “I don't know what it is about you, but you're just not as white as you look.”
Prof Riggio is a Trinity College researcher who attended Harvard University, was a Fulbright scholar, and is acknowledged as a leading world expert in Shakespeare and Trinidad Carnival.
Her distinguished open lecture on February 3, at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Learning Resource Centre, was titled “Carnival Crossings: From There to Here—Arkansas to Harvard to Trinidad”.
Cupid's statement might have been tapping into the fact that Riggio is part Cherokee, but more likely was his intuitive encapsulation of her ability to be both an outsider and an insider in this Trinbago cultural milieu. Her self-professed perspective on culture is being the inside outsider—being inside but looking from outside.
She sees her role, for example, as working to “facilitate for others that want to tell their stories.”
Riggio says, “In Trinidad and Tobago, I found a rhythm that has not only grounded my life but my life's work… personal identity embedded in the cosmic sense of play.”
Her life journey began in Arkansas. It was a place that for young Milla evoked the sensory and emotional richness of soul food and “a sense of the sacredness of life.”
It was there she began to understand one of the principles that she would explore more fully through Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. This latter is the idea that communication is not limited to language, but incorporates rather than depends on language and words.
In one funny anecdote, she remarked that her father was a Baptist preacher who would send young Milla to teach the Bible study class. She objected, saying, “But I don't know the Bible.” He replied, “Neither do they. Make it up.”
Her father's words were a definitive and telling response. Indeed, her unspoken lesson herein is that we have the power to interrogate and interpret for ourselves these wonderful traditions and innovations of Carnival, much as young Milla could analyse the scriptures for herself.
This is what happens in the give and take of the interpretation of culture, as ideas and experiences are exchanged across geographical and social lines. Riggio engages with local cultural icons such as Peter Minshall, Tony Hall, and Derek Walcott as well as practitioners in the panyards and in the Ramleela and Hosay festivals.
One might wonder what an outsider can really teach us about we ting, we mas. Yet, Riggio's own experience as a scholar serves to remind us how often interpretation is positioned and situational.
For example, she speaks in a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek way about her experience in Australia as a Fulbright scholar. She says she was a privileged American in what she refers to as “one of the few places where to be an American is to be entirely admired.”
Prof Riggio notes, too, with a chuckle, that when she taught at Harvard she found that one of her greatest challenges was teaching her students that “there was something they still had to learn, and just possibly I could teach it to them”.
Embedded in this, though unarticulated, is a kernel of wisdom we as Trinbagonians can extract: Doh feel yuh reach already; There are various experts and well-meaning advocates who can draw on their respective fields of knowledge and come alongside us in our journey to realise our best selves as a Caribbean people.
Riggio helps to affirm some of the underlying facets of our culture that sometimes remain unspoken in ordinary, everyday circles. She notes that in both Carnival and Shakespeare the unseen is often more real than the seen. She reminds us that dance and music constitute values.
“My texts are not entirely verbal,” she says, “they are often rhythmic and kinesthetic.”
In examining “Ben Lion” and “Food Fight” by Andre Tanker, Riggio notes that the songs, though satire, have a moral centre. The rhythm and the music are significant, too, she says, and the power of the simple children's rhymes like “spam” and “ham.”
Quoting from a story by Peter Burke, Prof Riggio remarks that “people live in this country in the memory of one festival, and in the anticipation of the next.”
She remarks on the interesting dynamics of our culture, for example, whereby the Muslim festival Hosay is celebrated by some Christians and Hindus. One family she stayed with explained it to her like this—“It's very simple. We become Muslims for a month.”
Another of Riggio's general observations is that “Trinidad is a country that demands and rewards patience… Efficiency is overrated. Neither is it smart for Trinidad to look anywhere else for efficiency, for example, locking up street vendors which are the life-blood of this type of economy and putting them in sterile malls. Efficiency without heart is greatly overrated.”
She affirms that there is worth, still unrecognised, in some things we under-value.
“Panyards take young people off the streets and teach them music and teach them to find meaning in their lives,” she says.
Riggio, smiling, calls our driving a phenomenon of “making space where there is none,” and makes an argument for Trini time, because real life, she says, is simply not marked by the clock.
As such, she defines Carnival to be “time in” rather than “time out.” I take this to mean that during Carnival we are being more fully ourselves rather than escaping what we consider to be our real lives.
One example of this tapping into the permutations (and inventions?) of ourselves is found in a video clip shown by Riggio of Brian Honore (midnight robber) and Edgar Whiley (bat). In this clip, renowned midnight robber Brian Honore said that in Trinidad Carnival, bringing a mas is a form of becoming and being rather than a form of portraying something else as with a western masquerade. As such, he said, the midnight robber mas is not trying to show anything; he is being, fully being, the midnight robber.
Moreover, Carnival manifests “the village in the city,” and embodies principles of cultural collaboration, the seriousness of play (meaning its significance and viability), the preservation of heritage, and the linking of the insider-outsider point of view, says Riggio.
An advocate of “organic engagement and cultural wholeness,” Riggio suggests that if something is known only in your head, you don't know it at all.
In light of this, Riggio encourages her Trinity College students to fully engage when they come on exchange to UWI. You might remember one as the Soca Monarch finalist, The Celtic Invasion, who sang “I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road, and we'll reach the Big Stage before you… Me and she bumsee go never meet again, on the long and winding roads of Port of Spain.”
Two other very special musical offerings were shared at the UWI open lecture. One was a live performance by talented teenage pannist Luke Walker. The second was the video clip of globally renowned masman Peter Minshall giving a spirited rendition of Lord Invader's “Bed Bug”, and when the applause had dwindled down a bit, Minsh himself in true Globe cinema style called out, “Shakespeare!”—which of course was met with more resounding applause.
Riggio affirms Trinidad and Tobago and the possibilities that she envisions for us after spending 20 years in this, her adopted land.
She says, “We have a competency (here in Trinidad and Tobago) that is beyond what some of those do, who have lost their way and approach life in a more sterile way.”
“I have found a home here,” says Prof Milla Riggio. “I've tried to hear the stories of the people that live here and have them tell their stories for themselves.”