Soharee And Steelpan

Over and over, the deep-seated self-devaluation lurking deep inside the Caribbean psyche keeps tripping us up.  At every opportunity to step forward and declare ourselves boldly to the world, the degenerative disease of self-doubt bites hard and forces us back.

No, we can’t. Not we, insignificant sardines in a world of sharks. Caution, baby, caution. Get real. Dream small, if at all.

Desperately seeking suzerainty over our imagination, we come up hard against that old voice pushing the religion of conformity for security. Within the invisible limits of a box drawn by some gnarled hand of our depraved past we park our dreams and accept that some things, like bold business ideas, are simply not for the likes of us.

How else to explain the persistent poverty of the will that keeps us paralysed in the role of consumers to the world while opportunity to produce for the world goes to waste?

This is why the Steelpan is so important. It is also why, as a people of the New, post-Columbus World, we must be resolute and unequivocal in holding up the Steelpan as an example and reminder of what we are capable of. When the will is driven by passion, imagination, intelligence and commitment, neither official hostility nor social ostracism can stop it.

Until the youngsters of Laventille began ping-ponging their way through empty oil barrels and dented dust-bins, these pieces of metal were just so much scrap iron. It was the imposition of their imagination that transformed items of exhausted commercial value into a product of new commercial viability for a market that then did not even exist. In Schumpeter’s theory of innovation, men like Winston “Spree” Simon, Anthony Williams, Ellie Mannette and Bertie Marshall were real entrepreneurs, “wild spirits” engaged in “creative destruction” to create  new a instrument that made music a whole new way.

If we could put aside our historic prejudices, we would recognise that in the 1930s and 50s, the steelpan stretch from Laventille to Woodbrook was our own version of Silicon Valley, a community engaged in intense developmental production involving  competitive rivalries and  collaborations.  The big difference is that Silicon Valley was actively supported by venture capitalists willing to risk their investment on the next big thing. In Trinidad, our steelband entrepreneurs not only went unrecogised but were actively punished until tamed and corralled into the stable of state and corporate welfare. Investment, clearly, was not for the likes of them.

Now, juxtapose the story of the Steelpan with the Soharee leaf.

Especially in this week of Divali, but in every week of the year, thousands of Soharee leaves are used in serving food by the Hindu community. In a very informative article on Hindunet.org, my long-time colleague Caldeo Sookram quotes Raviji’s estimate of 100,000 Soharee leaves a month being used in Hindu events in T&T.  And yet, despite the high and consistent demand, the Soharee leaf remains exactly as found by indentured Indian immigrants for whom it was a good option to the banana leaves used in the homeland, but which were out of bounds as the property of the colonial master.

For 175 years, this island’s natural bounty of Soharee leaves has served guests at pujas, yaghs, weddings, celebrations and Hindu events of all kinds. Where cultivated at all, it is done on a small scale for household use. The leaves that are cut by the thousands every weeks come mainly from plants growing wild in the Nariva Swamp and Sangre Grande in the east and Point Fortin and Cedros in the south-west. Despite being a far superior alternative to disposable plates made from styrofoam, plastic and paper, there is no indication, as far as this column is aware, that that the Soharee leaf ‘s potential as an indigenous, eco-friendly, easily disposable plate has been explored by either the scientific or investing community. Programmed to devalue our own, we are blind to the possibility of engineering, producing, packaging and marketing Soharee leaves as an eco-friendly, indigenous alternative plate available in optimum shapes and sizes and of consistent quality, reasonable price, good shelf life and easy availability.

If they were ever produced, the Soharee Leaf Plate would find a market, domestic and export, among consumers cringing with guilt over their own role in environmental damage.

Instead of exploring the Soharee’s potential for innovation, the T&T market has stuck to its colonial role as a destination for cheap imports.  A few years ago, paper soaked in green dye, waxed and designed to imitate a Soharee leaf hit the market here. Like the gold that was given up in exchange for Columbus’ glass beads, the traditional Soharee leaf has been given up by some for the shiny ,green-dyed paper imported from India.

Every day, we carry the burden of a history that negates our very being and devalues us, both in the eyes of a world that sees us as mere markets for its goods and services and  in our eyes that see us as not good enough to produce for the world.

In this continuing crisis of confidence, the emerging debate on the future of state-owned CNMG could usefully consider how the resources of broadcast media could be transformed into a truly national platform where all of what we are could be shared with all of who we are. Smash the cultural silos in which we’re trapped and unimagined possibilities will be revealed.

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