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River of Freedom brings rhythm to Merikins story

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
UTT music lecturer Adam Walters, centre, takes the applause of his cast members and the audience at the end of River of Freedom, the musical treatment of the Merikins coming to T&T 200 years ago. PHOTOS: MIKHAIL GIBBINGS

Nobody remained seated when the cast of the world premiere of Adam Walters’ River of Freedom took their bow at the end of a May 15 performance many will remember for a long time to come.

This musical treatment of the coming of the Merikins to Trinidad close to 200 years ago clearly struck intimate chords, both among those who journeyed far from other parts of the island and Fifth Company residents who came out to wrap up a week of activities to mark the arrival of freed slaves who had fought on the side of the British during the War of American Independence and other military conflicts. 

The former soldiers had been rewarded with their freedom, a free trip to Trinidad and up to 16 acres of land in Moruga—a safe distance from African compatriots who had arrived long before, for fear they would spread militancy and dissatisfaction. The audience assembled in the hall of the St Mary’s Primary School along the Moruga Main Road was provided an encounter with musical excellence. 

On the tenor pan was Mia Gormandy alongside Walters himself on the French horn; Simon Browne on the violin; clarinetist, Yevgeny Dokshansky; Aidan Chamberlain on the trombone; percussionist, Josh Watkins; Katy Gainham on the flute and Caitlyn Kamminga on the double bass. Against the stark backdrop of a school assembly stage were Che Lovelace’s projected artistic images crowned by a round skylight like a dark, low-hanging moon. 

Baritonist, Krisson Joseph, was the audience favourite on the night, his huge voice filling the acoustically challenging hall and inspiring ambitious echoes from male members of the crowd even as the show came to an end. For the production, Walters teamed up with Kamminga who scripted a sometimes exhausting narrative masterfully delivered by dramatist, Michael Cherrie and conducted by Kwame Ryan.

The score comprises musical sets to represent three essential scenarios. The first is located in colonial America where weary British troops engage a recalcitrant population intent on establishing its own independent republic. If you listen well you hear shades of Yankee Doodle and 19th century American folk songs as the tale is told of strife and disorder in the colony.

The second set introduces elements of European orchestral music. Walters admits to a reliance on Igor Stravinsky as this section attempts to reference what it must have been like for the freed African slaves to align themselves with the British colonials against their former masters. A vague familiarity set against the newness of a relationship that might bring either victory or death.

Those who attended the March trial run at Napa would not have been familiar with the third section which attempts to locate the music and the action in colonial Trinidad. The Merikins are credited in some circles with introducing the worship of the Spiritual Baptists and Kamminga’s script invokes the choice of “conjuring” (magic) versus Christian worship.

So, when Joseph makes his way from the back of the audience, up the aisle, bell in hand and Gormandy takes hold of the tambourine and Watkins goes on the djembe drums, there was a collective breath in the audience and somewhere someone was humming along and the feet began tapping.

Walters had explained back in March that when he first started listening to Baptist worship, “I’d experienced nothing like this before.” He said it made “a deep impression” on the way he decided to approach the score of River of Freedom. This was among the more memorable moments of the performance—Joseph’s voice, the hypnotic refrain of the band and the buzz of an audience hearing another interpretation of its own story.

Community organiser, Carl Burton, described the performance as a significant part of a week of activities marking 199 years since the arrival of the Merikins. “This is most important because we try to get people to understand a story that not many people know,” he said. On more than one occasion during the evening, the audience was reminded that the story of the Merikins was of one of the untold chapters of the country’s history.

The UTT Musicians clearly provided a version that will not be easily forgotten by those who were there in the heartland to hear and see it.


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