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REFLECTION: Rohlehr’s heart of gold

Last Updated on Wednesday, 1 February 2023, 13:45 by Denis Chabrol

by Wesley Gibbings

Professor Gordon Rohlehr

Really? Prof. couldn’t wait till the music subsided and the emotions ebbed at the estuary of a season that took so long to arrive? Instead, midstream Caroni (whew, not Essequibo!) – between the contestations of pan, and the loud, often cacophonous proclamations of force-ripe griots, and the sharpening of the mas’ makers’ tools – was where he left us clinging to flimsy rafts bearing precious assets.

Those who suggest the books and speeches and memorabilia left behind are sufficient to the cause of celebration wholly miss the distinction between a man and his divisible work. Consequently, most of us Caribbean folk are more likely than not to underestimate the value of what we have lost, even in recognising a bountiful legacy.

With public intellectuals, openness accounts as much for a willingness to share as it has to do with ease of access to the essence of their work. Read anything Gordon Rohlehr has written or listen to what he has said, and you will readily recognise an intention to reach all hearts and minds.

It was around an All Fours table at the Best household in Tunapuna in the early 1980s, we first traded grins, with Jack in hand and few trumps left to deliver. “Your turn, Dr Rohlehr,” when he stopped paying attention and pretended to peek at Robert’s amateurishly positioned hand.

All man jack, to the extent it was biologically possible, was trying with beards. The facial hair on the oldest guy at the table was not yet fully grey but hung impressively from a strong chin, converging nervously with a moustache with which we were certain its host was born.
And when he laughed, from the top of his silver coated head to the lowest points of his goatee motioned for everyone else to join in till we belly buss.

Then when the fun ended, we would ask questions we did not fully understand, and he would respond in a way that made us both understand what we really meant and what we needed to know to help us find the answers.

There were questions about history – the discipline my late mother-in-law, Marianne Ramesar, and Prof. Bridget Brereton insisted remained Prof. Rohlehr’s true calling. But also, about music, art, cricket, football, and the right time to pick a julie mango for ripening, the Best trees as bountiful as they were.

And politics? Oh yes, there were numerous polite and impolite perspectives. He could steups with the best of them and lower his head while peering above Coke bottle glasses as if to charge like a raging bull. Then, in an instant, a broad toothy grin to soothe any lingering pain. He was the man with a heart of gold.

One time, I was on my fourth collection of poems and needed honest feedback. The other giant, Ken Ramchand (who has said he shared the same metaphorical cricket pitch with Gordon Rohlehr and would now miss the batsman on the other end), had looked at previous sets. I wanted to try the other batsman.

I chose ‘Lost in the City’ as the title. Dr Rohlehr described the collection as having marked a transition from “the playfulness and elation of … earlier work” to “a concern for the city, a sense of change and a nostalgia for dying lifestyles.”

“Dying lifestyles.” I subsequently noted similar observations about changing calypso messages, and the texture of the music. I had not heard him post-2019 on the subject, especially as performance spaces both contracted and expanded all at once. His vast personal collection would have taken him through unscathed.

He met Celia at the supermarket and broke COVID distancing rules. For sure, he would have also extended his long fingers toward me had I been there.

Not long before, Krisson Joseph had met us all on Zoom in 2020 from a backyard set with ‘Survival: Remembering Resilience’ and, as recently as last Saturday at Little Carib with ‘Revel in the Ritual’ – he reprised songs Prof. Rohlehr most likely knew by heart.

Then, on Sunday at NAPA, David Bereaux was delivering memories of the kind Prof. would have stretched back on his seat, extended his long legs and sandalled feet, and mouthed the lyrics as if he had very recently come across them in a pleasant dream.

The NAPA show had dragged on too long, as is our irritating wont at this time of year. We were all tired. But Carol Addison charmed, and Bereaux brought us back. We reminisced and laughed on our way back home.

Then, just as we arrived came the news that a light shining from the east had been extinguished.

Mr Wesley Gibbings, a national of Trinidad and Tobago,  is a noted Caribbean print and broadcast journalist. He is also a staunch advocate for freedom of expression, artist and poet.