On Sunday I did not go to Mini Veni in spite of the allure of Superblue’s promised performance. This Carnival is proving harder to navigate than I’d counted on. What feels safe and what doesn’t. What feels covid-safe and what doesn’t. But to miss Superblue is no small thing for me.
I started being Gordon Rohlehr’s student in 1994 and never stopped. Superblue was one of the musicians we talked about a lot. And by “talked about” I mean we had interestingly measured arguments.
I was thinking about Superblue and the fete-that-was-missing-me when I heard that Gordon had died. Just like that. Big Sunday afternoon three weeks before Carnival and Gordon ups and leave and now I have no one to talk to.
Maybe it seems like he was always here because how else could he understand so much? At UWI, at public lectures, in print, on panels (with his talisman tape-recorder), at calypso tents. He had to have seen it all happen because the expanse of his knowledge stretched so far, so wide and horizon-like.
And it was as deep as it was wide. His legendary ability to see motifs, similarities and connections – across time and disciplines – created a profound wisdom.
When I was a student at UWI, he would walk into class whistling or humming or singing, swinging folders of yellow, legal-length sheets of paper covered in his hand-written notes. They always seemed on the verge of escape.
One of the many extraordinary things about Gordon was that he listened. He listened to everyone. He tolerated many fools. How?
Maybe it seems like he was always there because so much of my own research circled back to his work at one point or another. Or maybe it’s simply that when someone occupies such a monumental place in your life, it is hard to imagine that the world could, in fact, have existed without them. I’m not convinced that it can now.
Gordon could link Shakespeare to Kamau Brathwaite to last year’s most forgettable extempo (except he would remember it) and somehow you would emerge from the conversation understanding something about Caricom or why Federation didn’t work.
He once told a group of students about a mind-blowing (his words, really) fact he’d come across. The man who had been tracking and successfully identified the thing we now easily recognise as Sahara dust, his name was Joseph Prospero. “Prospero! he exclaimed, “Prospero is still controlling the weather!” Few minds were blown. It did not lessen his delight.
That right there, that’s what I want, I thought. I want to connect all the dots. I want to make the small things make the big picture.
Eighty, you’re thinking, is a long – and in Gordon Rohlehr’s case – very full, very rich life. His influence on the cultural, philosophical, and intellectual landscape has already been pored over by his many peers and students, much said about what Gordon taught them either as a writer or a teacher.
Some of us went to UWI, St Augustine specifically so we could be taught by him (and, to give due credit, by Ken Ramchand as well). The teaching of West Indian literature started with them. If you wanted to know what West Indianness meant, that’s where you had to go.
And thankfully, Gordon stayed. He stayed and he taught and he taught and he wrote and he published and he did it all here in Trinidad. He is a one-man institution. He showed us we could live and work here and still be relevant and meaningful. That we could set the bar high. He is my built-heritage and my inheritance.
I wish this was yet another tribute full of bright, beautiful sentiments for him. Instead, I mostly have rage that he is no longer here. Not here to write more. Not here to say more. Not here to talk about music. Not here for me to finally win an argument about music.
Without him I would not have the vocabulary nor the catalogue of ideas that helped me to understand myself as a Caribbean person and a person from Trinidad and Tobago.
With him and through him I became obsessed with gods of the cross-road: gods who intercede on our behalf and ones whose favour we must gain if we are to make it to the other side. We talked about how much our music was one of those gods, opening the door for us to go through.
In this season, go now. Walk good.
Remember to talk to your doctor or therapist if you want to know more about what you read here. In many cases, there’s no single solution or diagnosis to a mental health concern. Many people suffer from more than one condition.