Sunday, September 23, 2012

News Feature: Striking the Right Chord

Published in The Sunday Gleaner on September 23:

"Music and children are my passion," says Andrea Curtis, a visionary whose dream is to operate an early-childhood institution where children learn about music. While that dream is yet to be realised, Curtis set wheels in motion with the establishment in 2003 of Pianoprep.

Curtis said, "The reason Pianoprep was birthed was so that talented children from all echelons of society could be given exposure to playing an instrument, voice training, understanding the art of music and where it is coming from." She believes that the empowerment children get from Pianoprep enables them to have "big power" to be the change they want to see, and even help with the realisation of Jamaica's Vision 2030.


"At heart, I'm a Jamaican girl," quips Curtis with a smile. "And I believe that every child is a musician, especially in Jamaica. We are naturally rhythmical - look at even the way we sing the multiplication tables. Music is just part of us."

Through Pianoprep, she teaches children how to play the piano, preparing them for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) examinations and, in the process, instilling within them a deep love and passion for music, country and self.

As a requirement of the programme, every child must learn to play the Jamaican anthem.

And, putting a little fun in the mix, she has developed a "last lick" culture, where children had better learn to outrun her before she plants one of her famous last licks on them when they are leaving her home, which also doubles as her teaching studio.

Her reason for doing this, Curtis says, is to help with the continuation of some time-honoured Jamaican traditions. She says many of the children she has tutored over her years were unaware of what a "last lick" was before they met her.

And does it make a difference?

"We still do the last lick," says Kevah Lyn, a Trinidadian-Canadian mother of two who now resides in Jamaica. Both her children attended Pianoprep: Victoria began when she was six years old and Nicholas at five. "Andrea does more than music, she also feeds the soul. She brings herself down to the kids' level and is playful ... it's real good."

Gregory Gordon, whose two children - Aimi (five) and Zuri (six) - attended this year's Pianoprep Summer Camp, agrees. "I thought it was a well-run camp. I like the idea of instruments that they used with their hands, the creativity, the 'oboephone' - the combination of the saxophone and the oboe. I like that they used boxes to think outside the box, the rewards system, the 'last lick' culture. It was quite fun, full, substantial."

He mentioned that Zuri cried after her first day of camp, when she had a difficult time learning to play the guitar, but "she went back and she got it. She played and sang at the closing recital. That was a proud daddy moment for me".

Josiah Rainford, one of Curtis' first students, had this to say to his 'Auntie Andrea': "You made me like piano, leading to guitar and drums. Thanks to you, I now play piano in church." He also did the ABRSM Grade One exam and passed with a merit.

An important aspect of Curtis' programme is self-development. Some of the highlights of her Pianoprep journey this year include: a two-year-old who still sings the Japanese song taught at camp, watching one of her youth helpers transform from being stern and lackadaisical to industrious, helpful and playful.

Curtis has her own share of challenges - financial support for her summer camps being the major obstacle.

But this is not going to stop her. "Not possible," the god-fearing Christian replies. "Pianoprep will be able to go through and grow through with a perpetual relevance despite the inevitable changes, while solidly holding to its core values, which makes it Pianoprep."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

To Hell With The Future?

The Bible says, “Man shall not live by bread alone … .” Perhaps the members of Damian Crawford’s East Rural St Andrew constituency have never heard that saying before, or, if they have, maybe they don’t believe it and think that “daily bread” from the hands of an MP will be enough to sustain them and their children for many generations to come.

While Crawford’s decision to use a significant portion of his Constituency Development Fund allocation – J$5,439,200 to be exact – on education is welcome by some as a step in the right direction, his constituents – the very parents of the children he proposes to help – are livid. They’re on TV every night threatening to significantly damage Crawford’s young career.

As with any news story, I do not know ALL the details, and I’m sure that there are more and deeper issues than we are being told. However, arguing from the assumption that what I’ve heard and the impression I’ve received is accurate, I have to ask: why is it that, when faced with a choice between a sacrificial, long-term investment in our children’s future and an immediate bellyful, we seem prone to choose the latter?  It bothers me that we make decisions about our children’s futures the same way we make decisions about the nation’s political future: who can full my belly fastest? This coarse, gravalicious mentality has been, for a very long time, the undoing of this nation.

When parents live for today only, they sacrifice tomorrow. These parents want their bread NOW, and what their attitude says to me, and to all well-thinking young persons in this nation is, “To hell with you; to hell with the future; to HELL with our children!”

Forgive me. Had to rant today.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Book Review: Leonie: Her Autobiography

Published in The Sunday Gleaner on September 16, 2012:

Title: Leonie: Her Autobiography
Author: Leonie Forbes, as told to Mervyn Morris
Publisher: LMH Publishing Limited

"When you suffer emotional trauma you take the energy from the pain and the loss and the confusion or whatever it is, and turn it right around."

For Leonie Forbes, this maxim applies not just to her performances on stage, but also to the way she lives each day. Interesting, fascinating, riveting doesn't even begin to describe the account of her life. Steeped in humour and poignant anecdotes, this book exudes a myriad of emotions – it will have you smiling, laughing, and, very frequently, stopping to sit and ponder.

It is always a pleasure to see veterans in any field take the time to share from their vast reserve of knowledge and experience for the benefit of their peers and upcoming generations. For the world of Jamaican and Caribbean theatre, Leonie has bequeathed, through her autobiography, wisdom for posterity and a unique voice that gives life and colour to an important period in Jamaican drama.


Fittingly released in the year of Jamaica's 50th anniversary of Independence, the book provides invaluable historical insight into Jamaica's rich theatrical heritage from the first-person perspective of one of the nation's most beloved personalities. Leonie: Her autobiography is an exceptional literary treasure which will captivate the hearts and imaginations of its readers.

Dedicated to Alma Mock Yen, Muriel Amiel and Leonie's children, the autobiography is written in refreshingly honest and vividly straightforward prose. Interestingly, the English is sometimes broken into what can be termed a 'mild dialect'. However, the transition is so smooth that it creates a conversational feel. You can almost hear Leonie speaking directly to you in that rich, reflective tone that carries wonderfully throughout the book.

She tells of living on Princess Street  with 'Aunt G' (her mother's sister), who played the role of guardian not only to Leonie, but also to many unfortunate children roundabout her. She speaks about early indicators of her theatrical ability – a very entertaining and ironic twist to an attempt at mimicry, and her enjoyment whenever she watched the performing arts – and of a passionate crush on a Senior School teacher.

From its genesis, her worklife has been intricately interwoven with some of the most well-known moments and personalities in Jamaican media and theatre. She was typist for Philip Sherlock, and throughout the expanse of her career, had encounters with the likes of Louise Bennett, Trevor Rhone, Charles Hyatt, Ranny Williams, and Easton Lee. Readers will appreciate Leonie's chronicling of her time at the Radio Education Unit and Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation as instructive and informative, especially since these chapters are seasoned with humorous anecdotes and, in many places, the nostalgia is palpable.

Leonie's experience with and opinion on theatre training will also prove valuable for anyone who has worked in or desires to work in that field. She gives a first-hand account of the thrills and challenges of the profession, detailing her exposure to a variety of roles.

"I think my most successful roles have been Miss Aggy in Old Story Time, Mother of Judas in Easton Lee's The Rope and The Cross and Ojuola in Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blame," Leonie says. She devotes an entire chapter to a detailed description of the effort that went into her work as Miss Aggy, and her near-total immersion into the part. As she states in a later chapter, "A  lot of times my skill was not in making the moment believable but in not getting carried away by it I mean, being able to stop, cut it off."

And this 'stopping' and 'cutting off' of the character when the play is done is an important element of acting. Leonie makes it clear that there are roles which an actor can so strongly internalise that he/she never emerges from the stage as his/her own self. She shares some of the moments when she wasn't sure she could make it through a character representation, along with some of her lighter, not-so-pleasant moments in theatre. For example, the time when "Mas Ran as Petruchio got carried away and gave me the box of my life – I thought my jaw was dislocated. But the show went well".

Leonie gives readers insight into another side of her – encounters with what she terms "the paranormal". She touches on her strong intuition, which she has had from an early age, and how this has helped her over the years. She tells of her love life – the three marriages she has been through, and her relationship with her children, her biological mother, religion, and good friends. She pauses to express gratitude to the many persons who have invested in her over the years, including those she met in her travels to different countries, from England to Australia, Ireland, Germany, India and Trinidad.

There are pictures of Leonie at different stages of her life interspersed throughout the book, giving a strong visual representation of the different periods and plays she describes. Her passion for her family and work can be strongly heard and felt as well, and the wisdom she has gained over the years is undeniable. After imparting to the reader these gems from her life, she ends:

"God is good. I give thanks for family and friends, and the many people with whom I have collaborated in theatre, broadcasting and other endeavours. I am glad to have been allowed a rewarding range of roles. I have learnt from every aspect of my life."

And the reader can't help but feel a sense of gratitude, too, for her life, her story, her voice, and her legacy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: The Penniless Millionaire

Published in The Sunday Gleaner on September 2, 2012

Title: The Penniless Millionaire
Author: Dorothy Martell
Publisher: Xlibris Corporation

Our life experiences are important in shaping our characters and creating our destinies. In her book, The Penniless Millionaire, Dorothy Martell shares the unique encounters of what she terms her “peculiar but beautiful life”, using her testimony as a platform to encourage readers to persevere despite their struggles, and to trust in God’s unending faithfulness.

From the book’s beginning, she introduces readers to the roller-coaster that is her life. She tells of the many different instances when God gave her, and persons close to her, visions and dreams about his purpose for her, explaining that while she is now able to make sense of her “exciting and sometimes inexplicable journey of God’s amazing grace”, it wasn’t always clear what He was up to.

Martell shares about being pregnant at 15, and struggling to avoid the chasm of shame and guilt that wanted to swallow her up. She talks about her experience with migration, and how God used her time abroad as a testing ground to build her trust in Him and mature her faith.

She also shares about a topic that many people today can relate to: money trouble. Again, it was her willingness to obey God, even when he told her to give away her most valuable material possessions, that enabled her to overcome and find resolution for her financial problems.

Martell introduces her readers to a life fraught with struggle. She has had to deal with a sister with an autistic child, the deaths of her elder brother and father in quick succession, attempted robberies, threats, persecution … she knows what it is like to grapple with failure, grief, disappointment and an unclear sense of purpose. Throughout the book, however, one point remains absolutely clear: Martell is firmly convinced that it was God who helped her to overcome.

The book is sprinkled with humorous anecdotes, which compensate for sometimes unengaging writing and an otherwise casual narrative. While the story is not told with a very structured timeline, Martell’s purpose for writing this book remains definite: to encourage readers to believe in the power of a God who has amazingly transformed her life and allowed her to become the ‘penniless millionaire’.