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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 26, 2008

Air Date: December 26, 2008




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Take a trip south to the land of fresh clove and mangos as Living on Earth presents its winter storytelling special with artists from the Caribbean. We begin with Yvette Brandy whose roots are in St. Kitts and St. Thomas. She spins yarns about those frequent Caribbean visitors, the Jhumbi ghosts, and brings us memories of Carnival, Christmas steel bands, and of her great-grandmother, who was a slave. (12:30)


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Meeting revelers at the door in your pajamas, fattening up the Christmas piglet...we’ll hear these and other stories of a girlhood in rural Puerto Rico from Esmeralda Santiago, author of three memoirs and two collections of Latino writing. Santiago also brings us memories of her first winter in Brooklyn, telling stories around an open stove. (18:30)


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As we continue our winter storytelling special, Ken Corsbie of Guyana and Barbados, tells the tallest tales -- how to pick a mango, and adjusting to life in the cold north. And he performs the work of the beloved Caribbean poet Paul Keens-Douglas, complete with steel drum. (12:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Yvette Brandy, Ken Corsbie, Esmeralda Santiago

[MUSIC: Brute Force Steel Band “Mambo Jambo” from ‘Brute Force Steel Band From Antigua’ (Cook Records/Smithsonian Folkways 1953)]

CURWOOD: From Public Radio International, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This week three Caribbean storytellers remember holiday season traditions in the tropics.

BRANDY: For me Christmas is—you wake in the morning to scratch bands singing and dancing and they’re singing, ‘Good morning, good morning, I come from a guava berry! Good morning, good morning, put it on the table.’

CURWOOD: On some islands, the biggest anticipation for kids isn’t for Christmas or New Years, but Three Kings Day, when you had to impress the Magi and prove you were really good by—

SANTIAGO: Leaving delicious fresh grass for their camels in our shoes and leaving some water for the Three Kings to drink because of course they have been traveling such a long way and they must be thirsty.

CURWOOD: Stories of the islands and the journey north on Living on Earth’s storytelling special. Stick around!

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ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.


Yvette Brandy (Courtesy of Yvette Brandy)

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Our music is different this week because it’s time to take a break from news of the environment to celebrate the cool and dormant season in the north. We have a winter storytelling tradition here at Living on Earth as the sun hits its low point and folks get together. But you don’t need short days to celebrate and this year we’ve invited some storytellers from the Caribbean to share their fables and experiences from this time of year. It may not snow in the Caribbean but come winter the trade winds pick up and bring in a welcome coolness.

With us to begin is Yvette Brandy. She’s a native of St. Thomas with roots in St. Kitts. She’s a speech therapist, singer, writer, and storyteller and now lives in Pasadena, California. Welcome to Living on Earth, Yvette.

BRANDY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of memories do you have of Christmas in the islands?

BRANDY: I know when people think of Christmas for them it’s cold in winter and they snuggle, but for me Christmas is you wake up in the morning to scratch bands singing and dancing and they’re singing, ‘good morning, good morning, I come from a guava berry! Good morning, good morning, put it on the table!’ And then the choir’s singing behind it and you give them something to eat and they go to the next house. And then you’re smelling (inaudible) and a ham in the oven, and that’s what Christmas means to me, that’s what I remember.

CURWOOD: Now your family is, as I understand it, is from St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, but also from St. Kitts. And at one point the Danes had the Virgin Islands but not for very long. But the British and French held onto St. Kitts for a good while—


CURWOOD: Of course, both had slavery. So tell me a bit about the culture of the Islands as you experienced it.

BRANDY: My mother was born in St. Kitts and so I would spend summers there with my grandparents. And I was born in St. Thomas. My mother was born in a small village called Monkey Hill. And there was no electricity yet. And there was no indoor plumbing yet. My grandmother worked in the cane fields and so I understood that the ground that she now owned was hard earned and if she wanted to cook soup she would send me into the garden to get the potatoes or to get the yams or to get the cassava, whatever she needed, it was right there. And so she taught me that. Growing up in St. Thomas, where at that time it was an American island, was very different. Definitely we had indoor plumbing and electricity and all of that, but there was also the expectation that you would do well, that you would serve your family well, and that you represented your family every time that you left your door. And so that was the expectation.

Yvette Brandy (Courtesy of Yvette Brandy)

CURWOOD: Now the islands in the Caribbean of course, for people that families came from Africa, pretty much came as slaves.

BRANDY: Yes. In fact my great grandmother was a slave. She remembers that. She never knew who her parents were. She never knew who her siblings were. But she was expected to succeed and so she built her own house. She had her own shop and so she baked and sold goods. It was expected regardless of your circumstances—you were supposed to rise above them, because circumstances will always be there.

CURWOOD: Now there’s a Caribbean character, a character who’s well-known on many islands apparently, and that’s the Jumbie ghost?


CURWOOD: And I was hoping that you would tell us a Jumbie story today.

BRANDY: I absolutely will. And a Jumbie is—as you said—a ghost. And you have many, many stories written about the Jumbie and usually they’re cautionary tales; they’re there to teach you a lesson. And so the Jumbie story I’m going to tell to you today is called ‘Mr. Leneman and the Jumbie head.’

One day, Mr Leneman saw a piece of property he wanted to buy. But everybody knew how cheap he was. And he had no intention of spending that kind of money on that land. And so he went to the seller and he offered him a price. He said ‘I want to buy that piece of property for that amount of money.’ The seller thought he was stone matto crazy. ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ Well no matter what happened, Mr. Leneman kept going lower. The seller got so frustrated with Mr. Leneman. He said ‘okay, you know what? I have a bigger piece of property on the other side of the island. You could have that for whatever price you want. Well, Mr. Leneman was so excited. Of course he took it. And he ran over there so fast I mean you couldn’t see him move. Next thing you know he got there and he was like ‘but wait a minute the land is bigger!’ And so he started ‘okay, let me think, what am I goin' to do first, I’m going to plant some corn. Then I could take it to the market and really make some good money. So he started to clear the property. So he pulled the bush. Next thing you know he hear a voice say ‘a who dat a pull da bush?!’ Mr. Leneman turn around. He ain’t see nobody. So he went back to pulling the bush. He hear the voice say again: ‘a who dat a pull da bush?!’ Mr. Leneman say, ‘it’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ Then the voice say ‘help Mr. Leneman pull da bush. Big and little, get up, get up. Big and little, get up, get up! No bush left here today there will be. No bush left here today.’ The next thing you know, big hands, little hands, fat hands, skinny hands just come up from under the earth and start pulling the bush. They clear the land in two twos. Huh. Mr. Leneman was so happy with what he saw he forgot how scared he was. You know, all he saw was free labor. He had them Jumbie plowing the land and planting the corn and maintaining the crops. The next thing you know he had rows and rows of beautiful corn. He was so proud of hisself he called his wife up to take a look. The wife look around and say ‘but honey, how you do all of this here by yourself?’ He say ‘all by myself.’ Well (inaudible) to brag about it, and he tell the wife before he left, ‘don’t touch anything.’ She agreed. When Mr. Leneman left, Mrs. Leneman looked around and she was like ‘lord, look at this corn. My husband works so hard, the least I could do is to make him something from it.’ She pull the corn, and then a voice say ‘a who dat a pull da corn?!’ Mrs. Leneman turn around. She didn’t see anybody. ‘A who dat a pull da corn?’ ‘It’s me, Mrs. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mrs. Leneman pull da corn! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No corn left here today there will be, no corn left here today!’ When Mr. Leneman come back and he see all of his corn gone he was so mad. He say ‘woman, me ain’t tell you not to touch nothing?!’ He didn’t even think straight. The next thing you know he give she one clout. ‘A who dat a clout he wife? A who dat a clout he wife?’ ‘It’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mr. Leneman clout he wife! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No wife left here today there will be no wife left here today!’ When Mr. Leneman realize what he had done, he start a balling and a wailing and he started scratching he head. ‘A who dat a scratch he head? A who dat a scratch he head?’ ‘It’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mr. Leneman scratch he head! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No head left here today there will be, no head left here today!’ Well, around midnight, if you go walking through Shalitamale, you will find Mr. Leneman’s Jumbie looking for he wife, and looking for he head! (laughter)

CURWOOD: (laughs) Ooh, that’s a scary story, huh? So what’s the moral of your story?

BRANDY: That you will definitely get what you buy. That he thought he was getting this cheap piece of land for nothing and there is always a price. There’s always a price. Nothing in this life is free.

CURWOOD: And then I suppose, be careful what you ask for, you may get it.

BRANDY: Be very careful for what you ask for.

CURWOOD: Now, one thing I think about with the islands of course is Carnival time. What relationship between the Jumbies and Carnival, if any?

BRANDY: We have what we call the Moko Jumbies, and they’re the guys that walk on stilts, and legend has it that they’re going to protect you from evil spirits and so they’re different in the sense that if you see a Moko Jumbie coming that’s something good. They’re decked out in their costumes and music is blasting and they’re dancing and it’s a celebration of our Carnival time and a celebration that we’re here another year. Whereas if you see a Jumbie coming you might want to be careful.

CURWOOD: (laughs) Run the other way, huh?

BRANDY: Yes, absolutely.

CURWOOD: So, what was it like at Carnival there in St. Thomas?

BRANDY: It was fabulous. Carnival was weeks at a time. And you had music and the steel orchestras would compete against each other for panorama. And of course you’d have the parades. You had two parades, a children’s parade and the adult parade and all of this was a huge celebration of our culture and our past and just saying thank you for another year.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you so much for sharing those memories and those stories with us here on Living on Earth.

BRANDY: Well thank you so much for having me!

CURWOOD: Yvette Brandy tells stories, practices speech therapy, sings, and writes, and loves in Pasadena, California.

BRANDY: (singing) Good morning, good morning! I come from a guava berry! Good morning, good morning! Put it on the table! Good morning, good morning! I wish you a merry Christmas! Good morning, good morning! And a happy New Year! Good morning!

Related links:
- Yvette Brandy's bio
- eCaroh Caribbean Emporium (Caribbean music, including the spoken word)

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[MUSIC: Lord Invader “Early in the Morning” from ‘West Indian Folk Songs For Children’ (Cook Records—1960)]


Esmeralda Santiago (Courtesy of Esmeralda Santiago)

CURWOOD: You’re listening to a Living on Earth holiday special. Coming up next, wild oregano and clove from Puerto Rico. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. We continue now with our holiday storytelling special, and this year we’re spending it with Caribbean storytellers.
And now we’re pleased to welcome a writer of three best-selling memoirs and two anthologies of Latino literature, Esmeralda Santiago.

Esmeralda Santiago spent her young girlhood in rural Puerto Rico—and then came of age in a place that couldn’t be more urban: Brooklyn, New York. Esmeralda, thank you so much for being with us.

SANTIAGO: Hi! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!

CURWOOD: Thank you. So, you have some really—I have to say, they’re delicious descriptions of Christmas or Navidad, where you grew up with your sisters and brothers. I’m thinking of the smells. Tell me what it’s like to prepare for Christmas on the Island.

SANTIAGO: On the Island, it is a feast for your nose because it’s such a part of our cuisine to have highly aromatic food and a lot of these things like oregano just grows wild, rosemary will just grow wild. You’re smelling the garlic, you’re smelling the onion, the rosemary, the bay leaves, the ginger, the coconut, which is just such a big part of Christmas—cinnamon, cloves, but also you’re looking at these beautiful colors of these spices and things that are only served at Christmas. You really can just walk around and just smell to your heart’s content.

CURWOOD: (laughs) Mmmmm. Now, in Puerto Rico, don’t they have those little pigs that they serve special at the holidays?

SANTIAGO: Well we have the lechon and that is a pig. I remember as a child that we would get the cerdo—and so it’s called a cerdo while it’s alive, it’s called a pig while it’s alive—and my mother would feed it scraps from the table and we would basically take care of this animal that would then be slaughtered for our noche buena meal, which was on the 24th of December. So I grew up thinking of the animals that we had as part of our meals, they were not pets for me. And to this day I really have a hard time with household pets you know, because I think ‘why feed it if you’re not going to eat it?’ It made it a little challenging when my children were growing up and wanted dogs and cats.

Esmeralda Santiago (Courtesy of Esmeralda Santiago)

CURWOOD: Hey, can we hear some of that music that you would have played as you were turning the suckling pig over the fire?

SANTIAGO: I think you can.

[MUSIC: Parradon Boricua “De Lejanas Tierras” from Parradon Boricua (Universo Latino-- 1997)

CURWOOD: You know, that’s so bright and cheerful to have as you’re roasting your pig.

SANTIAGO: Yes, and that particular song speaks about something that is very much a part of the Puerto Rican celebration of the holidays and that is the parrandas. And the parrandas are just a group of people who get together with whatever instruments they have at hand, sometimes just their hands, sometimes a can and a stick, and they go from house to house singing these traditional songs and all they expect is that the people there might give them something to drink or if there’s food they get fed. But the whole idea is that everybody dances together, sings the songs together and shares in the joyful spirit of the holiday season. And one of the words that is used—the parrandas are the people who go from house to house, but when they actually arrive at your door, the whole idea is that they take you by surprise, so that they love it when you have just gone to sleep and then all of a sudden there’s people outside of your house singing and clapping and this is called an ‘asalto.’ And the idea is that then you are wearing your rollers and your face creams and you’ve been asleep for a couple of hours so—I’m speaking from experience (laughing)—so you get up, open the doors, turn on all the lights, and immediately start cooking an asopao or you pull out whatever you can find in the house to feed the musicians, give them something to drink. Some people make the traditional drink coquito, which is coconut milk with rum and spices and then you just have this big party until daylight comes and then everybody leaves and sometimes you go back to bed or more frequently what happens is the householders then join the parrandas and go onto the next one, the next person’s house.

CURWOOD: Now, there are a lot of places around the world that focus less on Christmas day, if you’re looking at the Christian tradition of the holidays, and more on Christmas Eve and then at Epiphany or in Latin American it’s called what—Three Kings Day?

SANTIAGO: Si, el dia de los tres reyes magos, the Three Magi Days and Christmas Day was really a day for reflection, you went to mass - you pretty much slept from having parties all night. So we actually opened our presents on noche buena.

CURWOOD: So what happens on the Three Kings Day?

SANTIAGO: Well on Three Kings Day that’s when the Three Kings, the Three Magi, who have been traveling for thousands of miles on their camels, come and leave presents for all the girls and boys who have been good—little girls and boys that year. And in order to prepare for them we of course, try to be good little girls and boys but we also try to curry favor by leaving delicious fresh grass for their camels in our shoes and leaving some water for the Three Kings to drink because of course, they’ve been traveling such a long way and they must be thirsty. And we go to sleep and the next day we get our Three Kings gifts and the tradition is in fact that that’s when you get your big present, is on the Three Kings day.

CURWOOD: Now, you have a story about one Christmas, one Navidad, when there was one thing that as a little girl you wanted so badly—could you read your story of that doll?

SANTIAGO: I would be happy to read “A Baby Doll Like My Cousin Jenny’s.” I was eight and I wanted a baby doll like my cousin Jenny’s, with pink skin and thick-lashed blue eyes that shut when we lay her down to sleep. The doll had no hair, but its plastic skull was traced with curved lines that ended in a curl on her forehead—painted chestnut. It was the size of a small baby. Its chubby arms and legs slightly bent. Its tiny fingers opened to reveal a hand with deep furrows and mounds. I loved the way it smelled—rubbery sweet. And its round little body with a tiny, perfectly formed naval above its belly fold. The baby doll had no penis but there was a little hole in her bottom at the end of the crease on her back that defined her tiny, flat buttocks.

Christmas was coming. I could tell because the songs on the radio were about how much the singer needed a drink, or about how his woman had left him alone and miserable through the holidays. There were other songs, about the parrandas who went from house to house playing music in exchange for a piece of roasted prok, or a pastel wrapped in a banana leaf, or a shot of ron canita. The neighbors tied red crepe paper around hibiscus and gardenia bushes, hung crocheted snowflakes along the eves of their tin roofs, displayed flaming poinsettias on their porches. The smells of Christmas floated from every kitchen—ginger and cloves, cinnamon and coconut, oregano, rosemary, garlic. Thick gray smoke curled from the backyards where pigs roasted, their skin crackling and sizzling to the scratching of guidos, the strumming of cuatros, the plaintiff aguinaldos about the birth of Jesus and Noche Buena. While Noche Buena was the adults’ holiday, el Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos was for children—the day we’d wake to find the presents they’d delivered after traveling thousands of miles by camel. Papi helped me compose a letter, which I worked on for days, laboriously copying it over and over until there were no spelling errors and my request was clear:

Dear Three Magi,

I have been good this year. You can ask mami and papi if you don’t believe me. I would like a baby doll like my cousin Jenny’s, with blue eyes that close. I hope you like the water I left and the grass for the camels. Have a good journey.

Esmeralda Santiago

Papi gave me a sheet of paper from the ones he used to write his letters and poems and let me borrow his pen, which meant I couldn’t make mistakes because the ink could not be erased. My sister Delsa asked me to write a letter for her. ‘Ask them,’ she said, ‘for a baby doll like the one Jenny has.’ ‘But that’s what I want,’ I said. ‘We can both get one and pretend they’re sisters.’ But I didn’t want Delsa to have a doll like mine, so in Delsa’s letter I wrote:

Dear Three Magi,

I have been good this year. I would like a doll, but not like the one you are giving Negi so that we won’t get confused.

Delsa Santiago

I didn’t ask papi to check the spelling, and I wrote her letter on a piece of notebook paper. When Delsa complained I told her the three magi would know she hadn’t written it if the letter looked too fancy since they knew she was only six-years-old and couldn’t write very well.

The days between Noche Buena and el Dia de los Tres Reyes were the longest two weeks of the year. Right in the middle we celebrated New Years with noisemakers and songs that no longer despaired of lonely holidays but hoped for better days ahead. Mami and Papi gave us cloth pouches filled with nuts and raisins and we were allowed a sip from the coquito Mami made, which tasted sweet and coconuty, and made our heads spin if we sneaked more when our parents weren’t looking.

The night before the Three Magi were to come my sisters and brother and I searched for the freshest, most tender blades of grass to leave in our shoes for the magi’s camels. We placed the shoes under our beds, the toes sticking out so that the magi would see them. We cleaned out empty tomato sauce cans and filled them with water from the drums at the corners of the house. Then we lined them up by the door, my letter in front of my can, and Delsa’s in front of hers. The other kids complained that we had an advantage because we could write but mama convinced them that the Three Magi knew what each of us liked, even without a letter.

I woke up while it was still dark. Two shadows moved around the room carrying bundles in their hands. I closed my eyes quickly. ‘It must be two of the magi,’ I thought, ‘while the third stays outside with the camels.’ Next time I woke it was daylight and Delsa was squealing in my ear, ‘look Negi, look! I got a baby doll just like Jenny’s!’ I scrambled out of bed, looked under it, found a flat rectangular package under my shoes. It didn’t look wide enough to hold a baby doll. It was a box, with a colorful painting of a racetrack divided into squares and stiff horses in various positions around it. Papi saw my disappointment and asked, ‘don’t you like it?’ His face looked worried and Mami came and stood next to him and looked at me sadly. ‘I wanted a doll,’ I cried. ‘Like that one!’ I grabbed the doll from Delsa’s arms and she grabbed it back and ran to a corner of the room. Mami and Papi looked at each other. Mami knelt and hugged me. ‘You’re a big girl. This game is for a big girl. Dolls are for little kids.’ ‘But I want a doll!’ I sobbed. She looked at Papi, who took my hand and walked me to the yard. Across the room, Delsa undid the baby doll’s dress, its pale pink skin glowing under her brown fingers. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t afford two dolls, and she’s younger.’ ‘What?!’ ‘I’ll get you a doll for your birthday.’ ‘What happened to the Three Magi?’ Papi looked at me, his eyes startled, his lips pursued into a tight ‘O.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and hugged me. The End.

CURWOOD: The end, oh. (laughs) You grow up to a certain age in Puerto Rico but at a certain point your mom decides to take you what—to New York City, where her parents were. I want you to go back for a moment to that apartment in Brooklyn and you’re 13-years-old. Tell me how you got started telling stories.

SANTIAGO: One of the strongest memories I have of our first winters in Brooklyn was that we lived in an apartment that was three rooms and it was—the apartment was not heated—which we didn’t know when my mother rented it. So here it was, my mother, my six sisters and brothers, the youngest of whom was about five, my grandmother, and my grandmother’s boyfriend, all living in this three room apartment, which was unheated. So, in the evening, we would all gather in the kitchen, because in the kitchen was the gas stove and my grandmother would light the oven and we would kind of sit around the oven and tell stories. And because I was the reader in the family normally I began to tell a story either of something I had read, or of something I had learned in school, or more frequently something I completely made up on the spot. And at some point my mother would get up and say ‘go on, keep on telling the story, I’m just going to make some hot chocolate.’ And the way that she made hot chocolate was she begins by grating a big bar of hot chocolate and melting it in a double boiler and then boiling the milk and boiling it several times because having grown up in the country, she still did not believe pasteurization would get rid of all the germs so she still boiled it the way she did when we used to get the milk right from the cow. And we would all sit and have hot chocolate and Saltine crackers as the stories are being told.

CURWOOD: And what was the story that your little sister kept asking you to tell over and over and over again?

SANTIAGO: Well they loved the stories about princesses in which the princess was a heroine. They focused on this whole idea that—we didn’t like the you know, sleeping princess and then the prince comes through with a sword and yeah, yeah, yeah, right. You know, we were raised by a single mother (laughs) so we just didn’t quite believe in the hero prince at all. And so the stories that were the ones that I was asked to tell were just these altered stories where I would begin with Cinderella or Snow White or any of the traditional fairy tale princesses but it didn’t end with her being rescued by a prince, it very likely would end up with her rescuing the prince or just having some marvelous adventures or some marvelous battles, and that was really the things that they were most, most eager to hear about because we were little girls who had no power really and just envisioning ourselves as powerful princesses was the one thing we indulged in the privacy of our own little kitchen, with the open oven door.

[MUSIC: Parradon Boricua “De Lejanas Tierras” from ‘Parradon Boricua’ (Universo Latino-- 1997)]

CURWOOD: Esmeralda Santiago’s next novel is going to be called “Whisperings of Tropic Nights.” Thank you so much.

SANTIAGO: Thank you, it’s been really fun talking with you and remembering my beautiful island and its lovely, lovely traditions.

Related links:
- Esmeralda Santiago's website
- Caribarts: The Home of Carribean Art and Culture

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[MUSIC: Parradon Boricua “De Lejanas Tierras” from ‘Parradon Boricua’ (Universo Latino-- 1997)]

CURWOOD: Just ahead, how the steel pan was born in verse. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI: Public Radio International.


Ken Corsbie (Courtesy of Ken Corsbie)

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Well, we've arrived at the last segment of our holiday special where we’ve invited Caribbean storytellers to keep us warm with their yarns about plantation ghosts, and feeding the camels of the three wise men. We’ve also heard about the spark of a career that was struck telling stories around a Brooklyn tenement stove.

Now we’re joined by a performer who’s made his career, telling stories, reciting poetry and generally exaggerating. Ken Corsbie hails from the far reaches of the Caribbean, from Guyana on the northeastern coast of South America. He’s also lived in Barbados, and now makes his home in rural Long Island, New York. Welcome to Living on Earth, Ken.

CORSBIE: Hi, hi Steve, welcome. I’m glad to be here.

CURWOOD: Thank you. Now, just tell us a bit about Guyana. I think it’s a place that most of us know very little about.

CORSBIE: Well Guyana is actually a strange thing. Although it’s on the South American coast, it’s actually considered politically, culturally, Caribbean islands. We call ourselves the West Indies. We are affiliated culturally, socially, politically with the Trinidad, Barbados, Granada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Antigua—and not with South American because although we’re there, we never learned Dutch, which Suriname is one of our borders. Venezuela is Spanish and we never learn Spanish in our schools. Brazil is on our border and we never learn Brazilian Portuguese, so we are really English speaking in that sense, which is a very hard thing for people to understand, that although we are in South America. We’re really part of the Caribbean islands.

CURWOOD: How did you think about the seasons when you were growing up in Barbados? What were the seasons there?

CORSBIE: When I was growing up there were four seasons: dry season, short dry season, long dry season, short wet season, long wet season. That’s it. That’s our seasons. It’s nice to be in a country where the seasons are regulated—spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

CURWOOD: (laughs) So you come all this way north, first you go north to England and then you come to New York, in fact you’re living in New York now.

CORSBIE: That’s right.

CURWOOD: So tell me about adjusting to this country.

Ken Corsbie (Courtesy of Ken Corsbie)

CORSBIE: Now here’s the difference between living in the Caribbean and living here in northern North America. My wife and I about seven years ago decided to buy a house in Long Island. That was in Febrary. I’m freezing outside. So I buy this house. In the Caribbean I lived in my own house for about 20 years and all I had was a handsaw, a hammer, a screwdriver, and a cutlass, which is you call a machete. That’s all. I come here to find that the things you have to get to live here comfortably are astonishing. Autumn came, you buy rakes to rake the leaves. You have to get a latter to get to the roof to take leaves off. And the winter comes and you buy a shovel, and my wife says you have to get an ergonomic one. And you have to buy firewood because one of the attractions in our house is the fireplace I’d seen in so many Hollywood films. It was great. So I find out there’s this place selling a cord of wood, and I don’t know what a cord of wood is so I think it sounds good. I order a cord of wood. Enough wood came to build a forest. A truck dumps some wood about 8-feet high, 20-feet across, fills up the entire driveway, now we can’t park our car. And then I have to buy an ax to cut the wood. Then I have to buy a shed where the wood must be put. And you buy a vacuum to clean the carpet—you know, a big one. But you have to buy a small one if one drop fall. And then you have to buy a carpet cleaner, another thing. You buy a humidifier. That puts water into the air. Summer comes and you buy a dehumidifier. That takes the water out of the air. And that is living in North America.

CURWOOD: (laughs) Ken, we’ve asked you on the show because we understand that you’re an expert at one of the most important things about living in the Caribbean, living in the tropics, and that is—eating a mango. Can we get the instructions from you?

CORSBIE: Okay, okay. Eating a mango. You see there are four ways to eat a mango. Credited ways. The first way to eat a mango is the natural way. You just eat it with your teeth and let the juice fall all down to your elbow and you just twist your elbow and lick it off. There was a friend of mine named Mark, he was an expert at that—the natural way. If the mango juice fell down from his elbow onto his knee, he would bend down and lick it off. I’ve seen him lick mango juice off his toe.

CURWOOD: (laughs)

CORSBIE: Now don’t laugh because eating mango the natural way like that made him an incredible storyteller. He has a tremendous body language and he can, you know, he got that ability from eating mangos the natural way.

So the other way to eat it is if you go to Barbados, you carry and eat the mango in the sea—with the salt and the sweet. And you can toss it there it’s biodegradable. No problem. But the third way is the technological way. A friend of mine named Ricardo Smith used that a lot. What you do, you take your mango and you take a penknife or something, you slice off a large slice, as far down as close to the seed as you can. And you flip it over and you sort of, you tic-tac-toe, I don’t know what you call it—criss cross it, and you turn it inside out so you have these little squares, and you eat them. And he—Ricardo Smith used that method. And he became very successful because he used to eat mangos the technological way. I’ll tell you why—he learned to compartmentalize his life. To have things measured exactly in his place. And now he’s living in a big house on a hill in Tobego overlooking the sea.

Now, the last way. You squeeze the mass out, you squeeze and squeeze it until its soft. You nibble off a little piece at the top and you suck it out. Squeeze it and suck it out. Mmm, that was my way. And I’m not sure I can tell you what skills that taught me. But that was my way—drinking mangos. But you know, no matter what style you use, at the end of it you have to say ‘this mango’s sweeeeeeeeeet!’

[MUSIC: Mighty Sparrow “Mango Verte” from ‘Sparrow In Hi-Fi’ (Cook Records/Smithsonian Folkways 1960’s)

CURWOOD: We’re speaking with Ken Corsbie, a teller of tales at Caribbean story festivals. Ken, you’re a professional storyteller, and you have several CDs. So tell me, what’s your experience of how people here in the U.S. view storytelling compared to the West Indies?

CORSBIE: They put limitations on what storytelling is. For instance, I’m sitting right here in the studio and I watching a tape by (inaudible—Spalding Gray?). I see a video must be here on your desk, Spalding Gray. To me a great storyteller. But the storytelling community here tended to call him a monologist. ‘He does monologues, he’s not really a storyteller.’ I for instance do—I do a standup comedy. But it’s not the one liners like a lot of the Americans do—your great at one and two liners, they’re beautiful. But I tell little anecdotal stories—jokes if you wish but they’re little stories, they only last 30 seconds or a minute but there it is. And I use that technique when I’m doing storytelling. I also do—what I did a lot in the Caribbean—which is perform Caribbean poetry. We got a lot of poetry. And I’m not sure if they’re all seen as stories unless they’re strictly narrative. Here I was told for instance, ‘don’t act it, Ken. Tell it. You’re very (inaudible) for the story. And I said ‘I’m on that stage. People watching me.’ So I found that people tend to want to limit you in various ways. There are an incredible wide range of what story is now. Anything—song. For instance I wanted to sing a song to tell you one type of story, I could illustrate to you a song.

CURWOOD: Okay. Alright.

CORSBIE: I remembered a song by a friend of mine called Dave Martin’s. He runs a group called the Trade Winds. He lives in the Caiman Islands, where I go every year to do a festival, a story telling festival. And he told me a story in song. He said (singing) ‘a custom officer friend of mine was telling me recently how to tell people’s nationalities. Look around any airport, from New York up to Belgium and you can tell what nation somebody from. If a woman wearing a Sari, she’s from Pakistan or India. A man in a (inaudible) and a sweater, well he from Canada. But if you see a man with a suitcase the size of a Cadillac, you can be sure that’s our West Indian going back, because he’s traveling with ten pounds of flour, six pounds of split peas, I see sugar, where? In his suitcase. A bag of potatoes, and a big slab of cheese, bicycle tires, where? In his suitcase. The airlines in every country had to pass a regulation, just to control yes we West Indians. Seventy pounds in our suitcase, they say that is the limit, but our West Indian got that in he back pocket. Now in the USA and Canada, every time a West Indian going back, you know it’s two days it take him just to pack. And when the bags arrive at the airport, them Sky Caps just run and hide in the washroom and refuse to come outside. But when you see he traveling between the islands you laugh until you cry. If you see the things we bring on the plane, believe me I wouldn’t lie. A bag of crops stinking up the room—fried fish in a tin, a coconut broom, four bread fruit and two live chickens, because we’re traveling with parts of a tractor yes, a motor car seat too, Nike sneakers in his suitcase yes. Two dozen mackerel, a bag of salt beef, hifi speakers in his suitcase.

I use a lot of calypso songs. And in fact in the Caiman Islands storytelling festival every November it runs for ten days a different beach every night we go to tell, the main feature are Trinidadian Calypsonians who they bring in for the occasion, who actually sing a lot of narrative and old time calypsos, which are very lyrical and narrative, and very funny and very witty. And one of the things they do, too, in case you didn’t ask, was the Caribbean poetry, which I’d like to do just one short one here.

CURWOOD: Oh, please do.

CORSBIE: One of the most popular—in fact probably the most popular and prolific storyteller, dialect poet, call it what you will, is a man named Paul King’s Douglas. He is Trinidadian-Granadian. I am sometimes surprised—and I shouldn’t be, of course, when I ask people, an American audience, ‘who has heard of steel band? Ever heard a steel band play?’ And if there are 20-30 people, five or six of which would say ‘yes.’ In my ego of a Caribbean person I say ‘oh, how can you not hear a steel band? How could you never have eaten a mango?’ Anyhow, so how the steel band is born: Steel band as you know, made of oil drums they cut down to various heights to give the high note, the low note, mid note, deep note, bass notes. And steel band nowadays, which started very primitively, has ended up to be bands of 30 and 40 playing classical music. High-class classical music, and being judged by adjudicators of classical music. Anyhow, how was the steel band born? I’ll tell you how Paul King Douglas says. He says once long ago, not so long ago when the story I’m telling is true. A man take a pan with his hammer in his hand and thought he’d invent something new. It was an ordinary drum in which the oil used to come. It didn’t make no partiular sound. One note, maybe two, you could beat it til you’re blue, but that was all it could do for you. Until the man take the pan with the hammer in his hand and he say how he understand, that if the pan making one and the pan making two, then the pan can make quite a few. So the man take the pan with the hammer in he hand and he stooped down there on the ground. And he heat it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it and the pan start to make a new sound. Yes the pan start to make a new sound. It go (to the tune of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’) ‘pim pim pim pim pim pim pim, pim pim pim, pim pim pim!’ Yes a do ray mi and a mi ray do—that was all he could make it say. But it sound so sweet he take it on the street. It was the first time they hear pan play. And all where he gone the word got around that they heard sweet notes that he pound. And none will forget the day that they felt the day that the steel band was born. And since that time all over the line, you hear that sweet sound of pan. How he hit it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it the man with the hammer in he hand. How he hit it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it and the pan start to make a new sound. Yes, the pan start to make a new sound.

Now, what I’d like you to do, Steve, is at the end of every two lines here I want you to say ‘oh yeah,’ like I say, ‘they make a tenor pan and they make an alto pan and they come and make a double tenor, too.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: They make a cello pan, and they make a guitar pan, and now they take 60 men to make a band.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: A do ra mi and a fa si lo di do, ain’t no place the pan can’t go.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: Upper class, middle class, lower class, newer class classics, to Calypso.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: Oh yeah.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: Born on the streets of Trinidad, it has now gone far and wide.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: There ain’t no stopping it, it’s a song of a people’s pride.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: So when you hear the beat of a steel band in the street and the rustled of the toes and feet remember that man with the hammer in his hand who put the first notes on the pan. Oh he heat it and you beat it and stretch it and you mark it, stooped down there on the ground. Oh he heat it and he beat it and stretch it and he mark it, the pan start to make a new sound, oh the pan start to make a new sound, yeah! The pan start to make a new sound!

CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

CORSBIE: And the pan start to make a new sound.

CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.


CURWOOD: Ken Corsbie is a storyteller who’s from Guyana. He’s also lived in Barbados and now makes his home in rural Long Island, New York. Thanks so much, Ken.

CORSBIE: Well that was great. All the best Steve, thanks a lot.

Related links:
- Ken Corsbie's website
- The National Storytelling Network (the umbrella organization for tellers anywhere)
- Caribbean master storyteller and poet Paul Keens-Douglas' website

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[MUSIC: Len Boogsie Sharpe & Phase 2 Pan Groove “Hard Times” from ‘Trinidad: Le Cri Que Danse’ (Blue Silver 1994)]

CURWOOD: Next time on Living on Earth, in the Celtic tradition, a year is made up of two parts: the dark winter and light summer. And each season is represented by two faces of a great goddess.

FREEMAN: in the winter she was called the Cailleach which is a word meaning "the veiled one" and her bright side, which returned when spring came along, was Bride, and Bride is the young maiden who ushers back the warm light-filled days of the early spring.

CURWOOD: The Cailleach doesn’t give up her hold on the cold dark days easily. We’ll hear her tale next week on “Season of Light,” a storytelling special from Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. This week’s holiday program was produced by Ingrid Lobet. Our crew includes Ashley Ahearn, Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Bruce Gellerman, Helen Palmer, Emily Taylor, and Jeff Young. Our interns are Alexandra Gutierrez and Mitra Taj. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org. I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening. And happy holidays!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm: organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield pays its farmers not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows. Details at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from you our listeners, the Ford Foundation, the Town Creek Foundation, the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of climate change and marine issues. The Skoll Foundation supporting social entrepreneurs around the world. Uncommon heros dedicated to the common good. Learn more at skull.org. And Pax World Mutual Funds, socially and environmentally sustainable investing. Pax World: for tomorrow. On the Web at PaxWorld.com.

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