Concerning Bucks and Bacchanal

Kei Miller

It was two weeks after Carnival was done and dusted away that the buck appeared. And I think that was bad manners. Or at least bad timing. But maybe good timing and manners is not something to be expected of ghoulish beings. The point is, Carnival was done and people say life had already come back to normal. Everything had come back, including the Christians who had gone to Tobago to hide out, and including Trinidad itself that had gone wherever it is that entire countries go – cause sometimes it could feel like that, like the island itself had just packed up and gone along with the Christians, and along with good behaviour, gone off somewhere to hunker down and keep safe during the Carnival week.

Some people say that Carnival is its own country, and that Carnival has its own citizens, and that those citizens (like me) are not always from Trinidad, and that those citizens (unlike me) are not always human or corporeal. There is a feeling in the country called Carnival that a new kind of space exists, and the space is a generous one. It can accommodate all manner of things – not just the bad behaviour and the wutlessness and the wining – but also jumbies, and the ancestors, and Shango.

On J’ouvert morning it might happen like this: you walking in that cool before-day-morning, and the Laventille Rhythm Section playing a kind of music that feel like a haunting – a kind of music that waking up not just the few people who stupid enough to be inside their houses trying to catch sleep at this time – but something older and deeper. Just like that a feeling might pass through you, something that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You don’t know how to name this feeling but you know that other people feeling it too. A woman who is just in front of you, marching with a fire held in front of her, the black smoke from her home-made torch lost into the night air – you notice how she shiver like a sudden shock of electricity has passed through her. She break away from the crowd and march in a wide circle as if to claim a space on that road. And people not stupid. They know to give her the space that she is claiming. She have a Pepsi bottle of kerosene in her pocket. She full her mouth with it. Then she hold the fire in front her mouth and breathe out a spectacular breath of flames, like she is some kind of dragon. Like she is Daenerys own daughter. You feel the heat of that fire all over you skin, and then another woman who standing beside you is just nodding. Her eyes closed tight but she nodding just like those women you grew up with in church – that kind of nod when the preaching sweet – that nod that come right before the Amen! The woman beside you nodding in that way – nodding at this just-wake-up feeling that you don’t have a name for. And then she name it. Such a soft word on her lips, and her eyes still closed. But she say the word, ‘Spirit!’ And you look out on the crowd again and realize is more than just a crowd of people, but also a crowd of spirits.

“Low! Low! Low!” he instructing the band the way Jamaican DJs instruct their bands when they want to bring the music down so they can talk to the crowd. Machel put his foot on a speaker and he talking like a high priest to his congregants. “My job,” Machel say, “is to make you jump out of yourselves.”

And it don’t even matter to you that as the Laventille Rhythm Section playing their music, and the woman is breathing her fire, that there is another set of people who looking like they just come down from North America, and their mouths open wide and they shouting to each other, “Ohhh my gaawwwdd! Isn’t that like amaaazing!” and they taking pictures of the woman breathing fire – it don’t matter because you too are not from this place, and you too find the spectacle of fire amaaaazing though you know enough not to smile so dotish and look so stupidly impressed by it. And you suspect as well that there is a layer of meaning that the Northerners not seeing – a layer of jumbie and spirit. And is ok. Is ok because Carnival is not a selfish country. Is a generous space. It can mean plenty things to plenty people. Is enough that you can see this aspect of spirit. And you realize Carnival is a kind of country like this – where there is a mix up of people from every nation, and a mix up of races, and a mix up of classes – but also a mix up of the living and the dead, and the seen and the unseen, and the real and the unreal.

***

Being a supernatural creature – a squat, leprechaun-like figure from the forests of Guyana, a devious shape-shifter – I think it might have been ok for the buck to have appeared during Carnival; I think there might have been space even for misbehaving ghosts such as him. Especially this year. To my own ear, the sound of Carnival was changing. Is like something older and deeper was waking up. “This Carnival have a different kind of energy,” Machel Montano sang in the song he initially hoped would have been the anthem for 2019 and eventual road march winner. I listen to him at his album launch. “Low! Low! Low!” he instructing the band the way Jamaican DJs instruct their bands when they want to bring the music down so they can talk to the crowd. Machel put his foot on a speaker and he talking like a high priest to his congregants. “My job,” Machel say, “is to make you jump out of yourselves.” And I think this thing he trying to articulate is so much bigger than any of our mouths can say, how in that country called Carnival you can be yourself and not yourself, and how it make space for jumbies and duppies to roam. I realize Machel is a man who take his job serious – who understand the kind of energy music supposed to create, and what it supposed to make possible, and he trying his best to create that energy.

Carnival 2019. Lapeyrouse, Port of Spain. Photo by Sophie Bufton, courtesy of Vulgar Fraction.

But old people say man a plan and God a wipe! The song “Release” just never gained the traction Machel had hoped for. And yet its prophecy was still potent. This Carnival really did have a different kind of energy. And if the specific song he hoped for never won, it was only because he end up beating him own self. It was his collaboration with Bunji and Skinny Fabulous, a song called “Famalay”, that had the different kind of energy people needed. It had the sound of Bouyon coming in from Dominica. And 2019 was also the year where other sounds from other islands was coming in. It was a year for the Jab-Jab sound as well – from Mr Killa’s “Run Wid It” to Mandella Linkz’s “Tombstone” to Lil Natty and Thunder’s “Get in Your Section” and “Pandemonium” from Voice. That Jab-Jab sound from Grenada was invoking a different kind of mas – Spice Mas and Oil Mas – something grittier, dirtier, more primordial. And is not that Jab-Jab wasn’t just as native to Trinidad, or that the sound of it wasn’t still there in the voice of Super Blue and the music of 3 Canal, but these was feeling more and more like exceptions. The majority of songs that were produced for Carnival had become so studio perfect, such slick productions that they could feel as pretty and as tailored as Tuesday Mas.  But this year it had a feeling like while the pious Christians had left for Tobago, Jab-Jab had returned with this kind of grunting sound, a kind of growl, and I think maybe the buck could have found his rightful section, could have found his perfect direction in the midst of that. But the buck end up waiting for Carnival to done. He wait for the bands to be disbanded, and the J’ouvert paint to be washed off the roads. It was a good two weeks after Carnival and no one was in the mood for bucks.

But this is not quite true. By all accounts not only had the buck been active during Carnival but from long before. He had been tormenting his chosen family in Gasparillo for all of seven months. It is not that the buck did not appear until after Carnival, but that the story of his haunting only made headlines after. A full two weeks after. Now all over Trinidad people was picking up the Guardian and reading this article, and then they put down the newspaper and they place their hands on their heads like they feel a migraine coming on. They shake those same heads wondering if they really and truly did read the story they think they did just read. They pick up the newspaper one more time to confirm that there in black and white was a genuine John 3: 16 article about a squat, leprechaun-like figure haunting Krishna and his poor wife, Balmattee, to the point where the buck even asking Balmattee for sex, and Balmattee feeling all frazzled and bothered and is now at her wit’s end. Krishna at his wit’s end as well. And their son Govinda who can show you on his foot a red mark where the buck did attack him, is also at his wit’s end. What to do? Hindu pundits, Christian preachers, Spiritual Baptist leaders, Orisha priests – they all arriving at the house in Gasparillo to perform exorcism, to anoint the doors with John-the-Conqueror oil and Run-Devil-Run, and to prove amongst themselves whose God is really the strongest. But this buck out to prove that he bigger and badder than all any oil they can pour, than any god they can call upon. Police come to the house as well, not with oil, but with batons and with guns. But listen nuh – this buck badder than priest, him badder than preacher, him badder than pundit, and him badder than police.

Now the story of the buck creating its own little bacchanal all over Trinidad. More news teams going in. Camera crew going in. A fellow with a real sense of humour and satire write a story in the papers, an exclusive interview with the buck. People watching the news. They reading the articles. They reading the exclusive interviews with the buck. The buck say he is misunderstood. The buck say he want justice. The buck say he want less of whatever discriminatory ism it is that people practice against ghosts. People can’t stop shaking their heads. People now laughing till their sides hurt, but they also frowning. They asking, “Is this what journalism has really come to in Trinidad?” And when they take to social media to talk bout this buck (which is how I hear bout it in the first place) they using the hashtag #TrinidadIsNotARealPlace.

I think is plenty, plenty things to unpack from that hashtag. #TrinidadIsNotARealPlace. By which I think they mean to express a kind of incredulity. By which I think they mean to say, lawd these people can embarrass you eh! By which I think they mean, this run of articles in the Trinidad Guardianwould not have happened in the UK Guardian, or in the New Yorker, or in any ‘real’ newspaper. By which I think they was probably thinking again about those Northerners who had come down for Carnival – the self-same ones who had been smiling so dotishly and taking pictures of the fire breathing woman – they was imagining them reading the story of the buck and squinting their eyes and asking “Wha’ de ass is a buck?” but in their own accents, and they were feeling themselves judged by such questions. Not just Trinidadians but all of us – we were feeling ourselves judged by such imagined questions. By which I do not think we were saying that we don’t believe in the supernatural – in what Toni Morrison calls the world beyond the five sense – in jumbies, and jab-jabs, and even bucks – but that there is a time and place. I find myself wondering bout time and place. Does time and place exist only for a week? When is the time and place to talk bout unrealities in the Caribbean which so often feel like realities.

***

All across the Caribbean we know this to be true – that the crossroads is a powerful place, an intersection not just of streets, but of the real and the unreal. It is at the crossroads that you might buck up on a jumbie, or a duppy, or a buck for that matter. Thinking bout it now, I realize is true. Marching on that J’ouvert morning, it was always at the crossroads that the woman with her torch would get into a kind of spirit and make her circle and breathe out that breath of fire. It was at the crossroads that we was always finding spirit. As I read more bout this buck that is raining down hell on poor Krishna and Balmattee and Govinda, I think that he might be his own crosses and his own crossroads – his own intersection of the Caribbean, and our histories, and the tensions that live with us and between us even today.

In Guyana the name is not buck but ‘bacoo’. They believe this comes from the Yoruban legend of the Abiku – a spirit baby who end up dead before he even get a name. Or else it could come from the word ‘Baku’ which in some West African languages means ‘little brother’ or ‘short man’. The Guyanese bacoo can be a terror, but if you know the way to trap him in a bottle, he can also grant your wishes. There are stories of Trinidadians who have gone to Guyana, lost themselves in the hinterland, on the hunt for their own bacoo that they believe would be the key to wealth. By the time the bacoos, trapped in their bottles, get to Trinidad, the name get shorten down to ‘Buck’. And so this is the creature, by way of Guyana, by way of Nigeria, who they say is now haunting a family in Gasparillo.

Photo of Tekel Kidale Sylvan by Jason Curt Audain. Makeup and costume by Sylvan. From Audain’s Trinidad Carnival 2019 series

Things get even stranger. Krishna say the buck has been speaking to his family at night. Krishna say the buck has been threatening them in a blood curdling, demonic voice. Krishna say he have the evidence! He have a recording of the buck. Krishna plays the tape. On the tape the buck sound evil for true, even if a little cartoonish. And it have cats yowling in the background like is Halloween. The buck giving real robber talk on that tape. He boasting bout what he going to mash up and what he going to destroy and who and who he don’t fraid. And then the buck claim his nationality, his specific place in the world. Listen nuh – this buck say he don’t come from Trinidad. And he don’t come from Guyana either. Neither did the buck travel all the way from the African continent. The buck say him come from Jamaica. Is a Yardie buck who grow up on ackee and cornmeal dumpling. I scratch my head hard at that one. I start to laugh. I thinking bout the different duppies we have in Jamaica – Rolling Calf, Old Higue, River Mumma and that East Indian duppy whose name is offensive outside of our shores. But I never once hear bout no ‘buck’. I know bout ‘Bull buck and duppy conqueror’ but that is not a duppy – just somebody who so strong and confident that they not afraid of bulls or duppies. But here is this buck claiming my own country even as he doing it in a Trini accent. Listen to what the buck say on the tape: “I doh fraid Pundit Ramesh… and I doh fraid no pastor!”

It take me a minute before I finally understand that ‘Jamaica’ in the buck’s mouth don’t quite mean Jamaica. Rather it is a signifier of other things – of a kind of badman-ness, a kind of ruthlessness. It represents a certain and unfortunate imagination of Jamaica. I feel a kind of heaviness when I realize this. I understand now that the story of the buck is frivolous but also, it is not frivolous at all. There is plenty, plenty things to unpack in this story of a Guyanese buck who living in Trinidad but claiming Jamaica as his ancestral home. There is so many things happening underneath. I wonder what it means for this Indo-Trinidadian family to be haunted by an Afro-Jamaican ghost. I wonder about the things that haunt all of us, the things that lurk inside a Caribbean night, that we go to bed worrying about. I feeling sorry for Balmattee who did nothing to deserve the advances of this ghost who take up residence in her house and acting like he want to rape her. I suspect the story of the buck is haunted by other stories, other histories that only Balmattee, Krishna and Govinda could tell you – the kind of things too difficult to talk about or unpack because we wish those things were not real.

video still from 2019 carnival footage

I think how sweet J’ouvert morning was this year – how we was walking in that before-day-morning. How some of us came out as bats, and some of us as devils, and some of us as just ourselves because sometimes that is the hardest mas to play. And I remember how we anointed each other with paint and mud and glitter because this was ritual. And I remember the fire coming out of the woman’s mouth and the heat that was on our skins. And I remember how we was chipping by the cemetery and how after a while it did feel like things from the cemetery was chipping right behind us. But it was nothing to be afraid of. It was ok. We was as fearless as that Jamaican buck in Gasparillo. And I remember the North Americans who was taking pictures, but how their cameras couldn’t possibly capture everything that was happening in that rising dawn. For there was things there you could see and there was so many other things that you could not see. And in this mix of tourist and local, and fun and ritual, and jumbie and human, I think I don’t know any time or place more real.

Image Credits: Carnival 2019. Photo at top of essay by Arnaldo James. Thanks to Vulgar Fraction for granting permission.

2 thoughts on “Concerning Bucks and Bacchanal

  1. Hi Annie, did you say there is a piece by Jessica Knight? Could you please send to me? Carol

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