An Ode to the Anti-hero

staggerlee_mIn 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with New Orleans police. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. The last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For black musicians, he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black anti-heroes of superhuman capabilities, whose acts of defiance were both celebratory, captivating and frightening.

painting: Cruel Old Stagger Lee, by Van Orno

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Carnival of Fury- The Ballad of Robert Charles

robert charlesIn 1900 a black laborer named Robert Charles set off a massive manhunt after an altercation with several New Orleans police officers. Before all was done, Charles would shoot well over 20 whites sent to apprehend him, killing several. Altogether, 28 people (the exact number is truly unknown) would die in riots, including Charles, who made a last stand in a burning building. The violence that surrounded him continued to swirl and claim others even after his death. Previously unknown, the last turbulent days of Charles life would make him a monster to many and a folk hero to others. For blues artists he became one of the legendary “bad men”–those near mythic black personas of superhuman capabilities whose defiance of white authority was both frightening, dangerous and captivating all at once. He even had a ballad written in his honor. The famed Jelly Roll Morton would relate his own experience of the event in an oral tale to musicologist and archivist Alan Lomax, tying Robert Charles to an influential moment in the creation and dispersal of American Jazz.

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Wicked Jab

jabjabIt’s that time of year, when Jab emerge to haunt the streets of the Eastern Caribbean! I’ve always been fascinated (and slightly frightened) by Jab since I was a kid–Blue Jab, Red Jab, Green Jab, Mud Jab, Jab that spit fire, Jab with bat wings, Jab with devil mask, Jab in chains threatening to attack unless you “pay de devil!” But by far, my favorite are the Jab Molassie–oil slick, jet black, scowling, snarling, axe-carrying, rat-tail eating, rum-guzzling, conch-shell blowing, posse-deep and out-of-control like some horde climbed up from Hell! But wait, allyuh doesn’t know what Jab is? What? Well lemmee learn yuh…

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Pass the Chutney, Watch for Soucouyant and Beware Unclean Hands

“Don’t accept no food from Mr. Ramkisoon. Neighbor say Mr. Ramkisoon hands not clean.” The names have been changed to protect the accused, but this was the warning given by my parents before I got on a plane bound for our house in Trinidad. For those who might not be aware of the phraseology, the concern about Mr. Ramkisoon’s unclean hands has nothing to do with his hygiene. It was a warning that Mr. Ramkisoon possibly dabbled in some “simi dimi,” or more likely had done something foul to earn a curse placed upon him. My parents (who now live in the US) had it on good information–an Indian neighbor on our block who kept them apprised of the goings on back home. Like the song say, “Trini talk talk talk talk talk…”

So here were my Afro-Trinidadian parents, who are nominally Christian, concerned with superstitions rooted in Hindu (specifically Indian-Trinidadian) folklore. Welcome to the cultural mash-up of my childhood, or as I like to call it, a little bit chutney and a little bit pelau.

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