By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
One midnight in eternity a mighty ancient wind blow from the Kalahari to the Gobi and sweep through the Sahara and there I form and rise out of the belly of the pit of hell. I is the Scorpion King! Androctonus Crassicauda, master of the isms, schisms and flesh eating dwellers. I am the last word of the iron bird laid to rest at Piarco, the father of the fatherless who have no roof over their heads. Famine, tsunami, aides, when the dust blow I does cause wars, earthquakes. Revenge is mine and ah reach Trinidad ah reach! I have no beginning and I have no end. No muddah make me. Hooves like ten thousand camels across the Atlantic in a heartbeat sprinkling Sahara dust. Grains settle in grown man eye and turn children lungs to husk! Dust cannot cover the rising or setting sun and curdle the blood of all dem wining woman. When that upstart Baby Bush try to outsmart, ah send my handmaidens Osama and Saddam but I come to Trinidad, ah show myself in person. Watch meh ah was cley, doh make joke with upstarts.
Excerpt from Midnight Robber speech (Robber Talk)
The Midnight Robber is one of several characters that play a part in the famous Trinidad Carnival on which Toronto’s Caribana festival has been modeled. I was introduced to many of these characters on Friday, July 30 through the work of Rhoma Spencer, Artistic Director of Theatre Archipelago who was supported by several Trinidadians living in Toronto. The Midnight Robber character really made an impression because of the costume, the pageantry and the play with words. I also learned more about Jouvay (J’ouvert) and other traditional Jouvay characters.
I volunteered to be a member of the Jouvay celebration on July 30 at the Harbourfront Centre not realizing how much there was to learn about the various characters. Assembling the costume of a Dame Lorraine was an education in itself. Coordinating the exaggerated bosom and backside almost required attending a remedial class in science (at least for balance.) I wasn’t sure I could remember to fetch all the pieces of my Dame Lorraine costume down to Harbourfront and I did not want to leave home wearing the thing. I managed by carrying the various pieces in two bags and only forgot to take my elaborate fan. The camaraderie was amazing, especially since I was the only Guyanese there and the Trinidadians seemed to all have known each other for years and were familiar with the stories being told about various places and people.
There were quite a few hilarious stories, especially one about a bullying police officer known as “Bag Ah Lions” who was put in his place by a magistrate after one too many instances of bullying ordinary citizens.
Being involved with the Jouvay celebration at Harbourfront gave some context to many of the calypsoes I had heard during my youth. The play of words on the placards we carried was hilarious and I could imagine where the calypsonians received their education and inspiration. It is unfortunate that the majority of visitors to this city during the recent festivities did not have an opportunity to learn about the history of Jouvay and Carnival.
This celebration has also been transported to Britain where the Notting Hill Carnival was established by Claudia Jones. According to information in the biography Left of Karl Marx (published 2007) written by Carol Boyce Davies, Jones was born on February 21, 1915 in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and moved to New York City on February 9, 1924. She was treated to aggressive surveillance by the FBI because of her political beliefs and after being imprisoned several times was ordered deported to England on December 5, 1955. She left on December 9, arriving in London on December 22, 1955.
Jones promptly became involved in political activity in London including cofounding the West Indian Workers and Students Association, founding a newspaper the West Indian Gazette and organizing racialized communities in London. Her work led to the organizing of the first London Caribbean Carnival on January 30, 1959 in St. Pancras Hall (forerunner of the Notting Hill Carnival now celebrated at the end of August) and the Afro-Asian Caribbean Conference in 1961 and the formation of the Committee of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Organizations.
It is not surprising that someone with the credentials of Claudia Jones would see the value of organizing an event like the London Caribbean Carnival and that its successor, the Notting Hill Carnival includes the Midnight Robber character.
Information on this character from the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago (NALIS) states: The Midnight Robber is one of the most beloved characters in traditional carnival. Both his costume and his speech are distinctive. His “Robber Talk” is extravagant and egocentric, and boastful. He brags about his great ancestry, exploits, strength, fearlessness and invincibility. This “Robber Talk” is derived from the tradition of the African Griot or storyteller, and the speech patterns and vocabulary are imitative of his former master. He wears a black satin shirt, pantaloons, influenced by the American cowboy tradition, and a black, flowing cape on which the skull and cross bones are painted. Also painted on the cape is the name by which the robber goes. He also wears a huge black, broad-brimmed, fringed hat on which a coffin is often superimposed. In his hand he carries a weapon – either a dagger, sword or gun – and a wooden money box in the shape of a coffin. He carries a whistle which he blows to punctuate his tales of valour.
Spencer conducted a workshop at Harbourfront about the Midnight Robber character and encouraged participants to compose their own “Robber Talk.” I tried my hand at composing “Robber Talk” because I want to play the Midnight Robber character at next year’s Jouvay. Can you see me in the Midnight Robber costume delivering this “Robber Talk”? Yes you can!
I am Abena the grand-daughter of the famous Obeah Man from Berbice. I sprouted fully formed and clothed from my grandfather’s brain. In 1763 we advised Kofi and his lieutenants, Akkabre, Akkara and Atta who defeated the Dutch enslavers in Berbice. After my grandfather joined the ancestors the leaders of the Berbice Revolution refused to listen to a mere woman so I brought down confusion on their heads and they all perished. In 1791 when Boukman send message I fly to Haiti in the form of a Canje Pheasant and because Boukman and the Africans in Haiti take my advice they defeated the French. I come here now to help allyuh people solve the confusion in this city, so heed my advice. Remember, I am the mighty Abena from Berbice history so don’t cross me and don’t try my patience or I will call down the ancient plagues of Egypt on allyuh head.