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‘When I Think of Trinidad, I See It in Technicolor': A New Music-Theatre Work Takes the Stage

Roger Roberts as title character Jab Molassie; photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Roger Roberts as title character Jab Molassie; photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Jab Molassie, a new work of music-theatre that is a modern, Caribbean take on Stravinsky's nearly century-old The Soldier's Tale, premieres this Thursday in Trinidad's capital city.

The play's titular character, Jab Jab, is one of the most enduring characters of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, portraying what is known as “devil mas”. Jab Jab's costumes are typically very simple: the horns and tail are sculpted out of wire and covered with fabric or plaster of paris. Most Jab Molassies carry chains and a pitchfork and douse themselves with grease, mud, or red and blue paint. They produce a frighteningly commanding rhythm with tin pans and whistles, while dancing suggestively (or “wining” in local parlance) in a hypnotic performance — usually on the streets of the city during the annual Carnival celebrations.

The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Now, thanks to the Calabash Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit created to provide both funding and developmental support for new and original theatrical works in the twin island republic, the Jab Molassie will take to the stage at The Little Carib Theatre, a long-standing bastion of artistic integrity in the country. It is not the first time a Jab Jab will grace the Little Carib's stage, but it is the first time that it will do so as one of the main characters in a music-theatre production, with an entirely original score created by a Trinidadian composer.

What is also unique about this new work is the level of global collaboration it has received from some of the best creative talent in the industry. Inspired by the poetic parlance and vibrant culture of Trinidad and Tobago, American Double Bassist Caitlyn Kamminga wrote the libretto. Award-winning, London-based playwright and director Patricia Cumper, who has Jamaican roots, is directing the production. British conductor Ian Shaw is on board as musical director. A group of exceptionally accomplished musicians from all over the world comprise the Jab Molassie orchestra, while the cast boasts some of the best local performers whose strengths include everything you would expect in a work of music-theatre: singing, dancing, and acting.

Jab Molassie's librettist, Caitlyn Kamminga. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Jab Molassie's librettist, Caitlyn Kamminga. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

In this post, Global Voices continues its conversation with the librettist, Caitlyn Kamminga, and the composer, Dominique Le Gendre.

Global Voices (GV): How do both of you think this indigenous stage production benefitted from international collaboration?

Caitlyn Kamminga (CK): I would turn this question around and say how has this American author and double bassist benefitted from collaborating with local artists…my best answer is when my father asked me why on earth would I want to leave London for Trinidad I said, ‘When I think of London I see it in black and white and sepia tones and when I think of Trinidad I see it in technicolor.’

Dominique Le Gendre (DLG): This production has only been strengthened by the collaborations: the musicians who played for the workshop were of the highest calibre possible and some of them were way beyond our expectations. The piece itself makes demands of everybody, taking both the performers and the musicians out of their comfort zones, so that everyone involved has to go beyond themselves. To do this, the singers need help with their singing from someone who can combine the best that a classical training has to offer with our own performers’ talents. The professionalism and generosity of all of these collaborators can only be a bonus because of what they add to the performance. Ian Shaw as conductor and Pat Cumper as director both bring skills and expertise that we do not have here in Trinidad. If we are to really achieve our fullest potential in any realm, we must collaborate with the best people so that we learn from them and raise our own professional standards.

GV: Tell us more about the choice of Patricia Cumper as director. What has she brought to Jab Molassie?

CK: Pat is a very fine writer, as well as a director with over 30 years’ experience. She has been wonderfully supportive in allowing me to have a voice in the workshops and rehearsals for the premiere. I am incredibly grateful for her generous spirit…not all directors take kindly to writers’ notes!

DLG: I have worked with Pat for over 15 years in London. I know what sort of results we can expect from our working relationship and more importantly, how she empowers performers to give of their absolute best, while maintaining an absolute handle on everything that is going on in the rehearsal room. We also have a shorthand language [when it comes to] our ideas of staging and perspective on performance, which comes from a shared Caribbean culture and artistic tastes that were shaped at a vibrant and flourishing time in the '60s and '70s.

Dancing with the Devil? Nickolai Salcedo plays the role of Starboy in Jab Molassie. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Dancing with the Devil? Nickolai Salcedo plays the role of Starboy in Jab Molassie. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: What have been some of the challenges — and successes — of taking Jab from an idea to a full stage production?

CK: The original plan was to perform my adapted libretto with Stravinsky's music, but for a myriad of reasons this did not happen and for this I am truly grateful, because it allowed the relationship I had already established with Dominque to blossom. This meant that we were going to have to raise funds to properly commission Dominque. The seemingly universal respect that Maria Nunes [the founder of Calabash Foundation for the Arts, which helped develop the work] carries within the artistic and corporate communities of Trinidad paved the way to Calabash raising the funds for the workshops and the premiere. This was both a major challenge and huge success. The really lovely, natural collaboration between local and and international artists has made a delicious callaloo, both familiar and fresh.

DLG: The great thing about a happy creative process is that I never remember the challenges because what matters is the piece that has evolved into existence. For anything to grow healthily, it has to undergo change and transformation. In the case of Jab, this has very much been a process of steady growth and change supported at all levels — and not necessarily with what is considered the standard level of financial or administrative support.

Caitlyn and I always maintained the faith that this piece would be realised. Ever since Maria Nunes came on board and created Calabash Foundation as a vehicle for realising the music commission, development and production of the piece, work has been more or less non-stop and we have all had to move forward in the dark without confirmations or assurances that our expectations would be met. Happily, they have and continue to be supported by extended families of supporters and well-wishers and collaborations between numerous people and organisations. We are all learning as we go along, since realising a project of these demands in Trinidad is far from obvious.

GV: What should patrons expect when they attend the premiere and what do you think they will take away from the experience?

CK: The audience can expect to be entertained by some of Trinidad's finest performers. It's a wonderful collaboration on stage of extremely high caliber national and international artists. And the beautiful thing about a piece of art is that once it leaves the hands of its creators, the audience takes charge of what happens next. What we hope is that they leave the theatre completely engaged with the characters, with tunes running through their head for days on end and spontaneous conversations about their experience in the theatre.

DLG: I don't want to spoil the surprises, but in the main what Jab Molassie does for an audience is that it brings to vivid life so many aspects of our Carnival characters and features of our built and natural landscape through the beautifully simple and poetic set on which the performers relate the story of Starboy. They will see and hear all of Trinidad brought together in a way that I don't think anyone could have imagined through the words, music, movement, costumes and set. I think that this piece, while it is a fable, can help us to appreciate the mythology with which we live daily and the way that our traditions are integrated into our lives. Above all, it is a great piece of entertainment with some of our best performers and creatives.

Belorussian-born American conductor, clarinettist and saxophonist Yevgeny Dokshansky in rehearsals. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

Belorussian-born American conductor, clarinettist and saxophonist Yevgeny Dokshansky in rehearsals. Photo by Maria Nunes, used with permission.

GV: What are the future plans for the production? Will it be staged elsewhere in the world?

CK: We are currently exploring possibilities of touring the work. I don't want to jinx the premiere by saying this has a life after November 9th…but I think there are a lot of people that are going to want to see this on the stage!

DLG: The desire is there and for the time being all of our efforts are concentrated on making the Trinidad premiere and performance an absolute knockout.

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