8 am in Trinidad

I wrote this reflection exactly 4 years ago today (July 10, 2014). Don’t ask me why, but this came to mind. I searched my hard drive, and there it was, in a ‘TRAVEL’ folder. To honour Carnival season in Toronto, here’s a personal essay on a place I hold dear to my heart, with memories that are shaping the person I am becoming. 

It’s 8 a.m. in Tunapuna and a woman calls out for her dog. Its name is Iris and her voice rings with urgency. Minutes before, and minutes after, sirens fill the air. They scream danger in broad daylight as people flock to the market for fresh breadfruit or meat, flies hovering in the heat above each slab.

Inside a home, sophisticated and plush, surrounded by tin roof shanties and Creole houses coloured lavender, robin egg blue and baby pink, there is no urgency and you feel no tension. The world outside, stigmatized by crime, kidnappings, pickpocketers and rape is separate. Foreign women are free from catcalls and terse eyes. You can watch the news without being subjected to reality.

“Out in the streets, they call it merther,” sings Ini Kamoze. “When rhythms spacing out your head.” The concrete is hot, as the sun welcomes a new day in Trinidad. Kamoze’s birthplace may be Jamaica, but it all makes sense in daylight. Just walk around Port of Spain, and you’ll see an array of faces, characters, symbols and surfaces. Behind each of them lie vast experience, historic depth and cultural flavour.

“How many yuh want?” says the doubles lady on the corner, placing two bara on a piece of grey parchment in the palm of her hand. “Channa? Aloo?” Yes to both. She dips her spoon into vats of curried chickpeas and potato, dumps them onto the bara, adds a little chutney, be it cucumber or sweet tamarind. “Pepper?” she asks. All in, it’s an inferno. If you’re somewhat committed, say, “slight.”

And that’s only breakfast – an intro to the gastronomic blend of Creole and Indian cuisine and the event we call “eating.” Curried chicken wrapped in paratha or dhalpuri, its layers sprinkled with dried split peas makes a mean roti. Fill mine with pumpkin, a bit of channa and a bit of aloo. A dash of tamarind chutney. Wrapped in paratha. All is well.

Natural light seeps through a barred window into the kitchen, where a grandmother picks at a roti shell, buss-up-shut. After a series of locked gates, a door is left open to let in the island breeze. Walls are plastered with photographs. Family heirloom pillows grace a couch covered with macramé throws. The Price Is Right blares through the TV, its neon American primetime applause fighting the percussive chutney soca from a car passing by. The day is hot, and bodies become lethargic. Across the street, small children play in the yard of a shanty house. The woman tells me her neighbour’s property has never changed. No progress in upkeep or addition. She says that one of the young male inhabitants is a Rastafarian, who can be seen smoking sinsemilla in his own private space – a tin shed in the backyard. Bricks lay atop the roof to balance the beams below. It’s a wonder that they don’t fall.

Cars drive by, blasting Machel Montano’s latest track. Some bump Drake or 50 Cent. There’s shared cultural elements amidst the varied demographic puzzle in each subdivision and it shines in many ways.

At night, it’s hot. Crickets orchestrate a symphony of song, buzzing in the heat. A breeze rushes in every now and then. As palms brush against the walls of the house, it sounds as if someone has entered the property. Your heart races. Then stops. Races. Then stops. You realize that it’s just the nature of the weather, the vibe of the people, the essence of the land.

Sometimes you forget where you’re going; numbers, names and turns. The next thing you know you’re driving around town with strangers. Full speed down the highway, the windows are down and your hair is a mess. It’s mad hot. The heat is thrilling as Action Bronson plays through the stereo on full. The directions to Tacarigua are blurry as each moment passes. And at that point, you want to be lost for a very long time.

It’s almost midnight in Trinidad. In a partition, you question what you just did and answer with emotion. Push boundaries. Turn a blind eye to the warnings. Life is more real when it’s raw.


Vito Rezza: Drums and Colossal Passion

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Vito Rezza’s skill-laden compositions on his 2011 release with the 5 after 4 quartet _ appropriately named Rome In A Day _ make it seem so. On the band’s first trans-Atlantic tour, all it took were 12 hours to visit the eternal city: “Suddenly, I get to Rome and all of these sites are popping up; the Colosseum, Pantheon, Piazza di Spagna.” says Rezza, whose personality and Italian heritage are major influences on the the Peter Cardinali-produced recording.

Born in Modugno, Bari, it was Rezza’s third visit to Italy since immigrating to Canada as a two-year old. At the time, his father was a professional soccer player, invited to Toronto by Steve Stavros, former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As work endeavors were slim, the family found difficulty fitting into the Canadian landscape.

The young musician would later find solace in music, despite being labeled “too heavy handed” when learning piano at five years old. After visiting a music store on Corso Italia, Vito discovered his true calling: the drums.

From the early age of seven, Rezza would begin playing to Toronto’s Italian community in afterhours clubs and bars. He recalls rough memories of performing in adult situations and trauma brought on by his first drum teacher, who hit Rezza when he made mistakes.

In spite of this hazardous learning environment, Rezza claims that the drums have always been his sanctuary. “When I play, it’s the most safe I ever feel,” he says. “It’s reflective of my character and who I am inside, allowing me to do and be the best I can be.”

In the 1970s, Rezza performed live in Italy, impressing the audience with a familiar surname, similar mannerisms and a sound reminiscent of the foreign Elvin Jones or Art Blakey. Rezza’s Italian fans have the utmost respect for his work because of his strong authority behind the kit. His fellow drummers from Italy lovingly say he has “la Grinta,” a term dubbed to describe the soul and grit they believe makes North American music stand out.

Rezza feels that he is “out on the front lines” representing Italian-Canadian artists. He is proud of his accomplishments and plans to do more with the help of his strong values. “There is a great passion that Italians show,” he says. “Loyalty, a sense of family, food, how we eat – it’s very important to eat and share moments together as a band.”

Staying true to his modus operandi, Rezza is drawn to real life stories of struggle when writing and sharing music. His favourite song from Rome In A Day, “Mr. Govindas”, is inspired by a story Deepak Chopra wrote about a destitute alcoholic outside a hospital in Mumbai, India. Rezza is motivated by these experiences to help others.

At the 2004 Montreal Drum Festival, a father and son approached the artist at an autograph session. The father, restricted to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, lamented that he would “never be able to do what you can” to Rezza. “I’m playing for you,” he replied optimistically.

“Music is medicine; you can’t measure the power of music financially,” says the guru of Canadian jazz drumming, who regards his instrument as his “ashram, temple and church.”

And though it seems that his success has grown at a rapid rate, his musicianship has been built on dedication. “People don’t know that I have spent 10 hours a day developing my craft as a drummer,” he says of a half-century long career. “When I perform, you’re going to be the recipient of what I have to offer, through my sentiments, emotion and music as an extension of me.”

The drum stool is Rezza’s workbench, and like Rome, the construction of his monumental talent took much more than just a day.

This piece was first published in the February 2012 issue of Panoram Italia Magazine