Panday, Weekes, lost idealism of the mid-70s, and the saxophonist

Enchanting saxophone melodies broke the nightly ambience near Library Corner, San Fernando.

It was a splendid musical treat, especially for those who did not know the sob story of the saxophonist.

The year was 1975, and legend had it that the accomplished musician was a member of a band of artistes touring international West Indian communities.

He duly repatriated much of his earnings to his family, to whom he was deeply devoted.

He hurried home for a surprise visit, but his world fell apart with what he saw.

If you are boggled by the subject, refer to calypsonian Penguin’s “Slippers”, which strikingly relates a similar episode.

The San Fernando saxophonist fell into a mental mess, became a street dweller and, with his musical instrument as his sole companion, each night played haunting solos from his open-air “home.”

The music happily invaded the tranquil atmosphere.

The lovelorn saxophonist may have provided one of the soundtracks to a defining, and often tumultuous, year, especially in politics and industrial development in the southern capital.

Five years had passed since the civil and military uprising, and the country was without a parliamentary opposition as a result of the bizarre boycott of the 1971 national polls by A.N.R. Robinson and Vernon Jamadar, in protest of “rigged” voting machines.

George Weekes, Basdeo Panday, Raffique Shah, Joe Young and other militant trade unionists had coalesced under United Labour Front, launched at a thumping rally of some 25,000 workers at Skinner Park.

Emboldened with the workers’ mandate, the labour leaders announced a protest march under the rubric “”Peace, Bread and Justice,” from outside OWTU’s Paramount Building.

Police chief Tony May declared the proposed march illegal, and threatened action.

With the wry humour he only sparingly used, Weekes issued the repartee: “March comes before May.”

But the determined top cop sent one of his senior officers and a battalion of recruits with batons and teargas and instructions to destroy the protest.

They wrecked the march, inflicting hurt on more than 100 protestors, and arrested all the leaders except ex-army man Shah, who scaled a wall and slid into hiding.

The next day Panday summoned the media to announce his gritty determination to sustain the fight against the “oppressive” ruling regime.

After a high-profile trial, the first which I covered as a reporter, Panday and other accused were duly found guilty by San Fernando Magistrate Nazrudeen Khan.

Panday – who mere years before had returned from legal and theatrical training in England – cross-examined some State witnesses in a performance so absorbing and dramatic that it won kudos from the magistrate.

A couple years before, Panday had ousted Rampartap Singh as leader of the sugar workers’ union, through clandestine activism in the cane belt.

His shiny hair flowing over his slender shoulders, the posture, prose and presentation of a thespian, he dramatically announced to the 1975 Fyzabad Labour Day crowd: “We must now turn the united labour front into the united political front.”

Panday had declared his political ambition in 1966, contesting the general election (and losing his deposit) on a ticket of the hastily-formed Workers and Farmers’ Party.

His public meetings in 1975 – and 1976, when he led ULF to the national polls – were a theatrical threat, his oratory inflected with passion and pain, his message provoking sentiment and sensation.

The top political analyst of the day wrote that you listened to Panday “with your jaw open.”

For his part, Weekes was leading an ideological fight against the Williams administration for nationalisation of the energy sector, “the commanding heights of the economy.”

That campaign peaked in 1979 and bore fruits in the decade of the 1980s.

In 1975, oil and sugar still controlled the economy, Weekes and Panday charted the workers’ agenda, Williams was once more tall in the political saddle, and there was much national innocence and optimism.

A cramped and sparse room in the southern city was my living quarters, for its proximity to the offices of the daily newspaper to which I was wedded, spending long entertaining days indulging in the craft I loved.

We sent typewriter-written stories and unprocessed film to the newspaper’s capital city offices, through a taxi driver, whom we paid the value of a passenger fare.

This was our version of the information super-highway, teased one of my colleagues of the era, Davan Maharaj, in his acceptance speech of an honorary doctorate by The University of the West Indies.

Maharaj, son of a former official of the sugar union, had become managing editor of LA Times, the influential American newspaper.

Davan remains one of the most brilliant people I’ve known, while George, my landlord, vies to be one of the most colourful.

The property owner endured an isolated and almost shadowy existence, filling his dull days in snail’s-pace work building fishermen pirogues, from which he earned his bare income.

He had a quick temper, which flared whenever boat owners challenged him on the slow pace of his work and reminded him that they were being denied the opportunity for a livelihood.

George claimed to have a vivid historic account of San Fernando, but –like the fabled girl who is dressed up with nowhere to go – he had no listeners, not even lady friends.

When one acquaintance went to jail, he pounced on his concubine, courting her with a few items of clothing.

The jailbird paid an angry visit to George immediately upon his release, and, among other things, accused the lecherous loner of squiring his lady with cheap intimate garments.

George sought comfort in an explanation to me, admitting that he bought some economical items, but rebuffed: “One piece cost me $10. Yes, $10! How he could accuse me of being cheap?!”

That, he acknowledged, was an item of lingerie, although he did not pronounce the word phonetically.

I drove by sometime ago, and found George, now grey and gaunt and with a forlorn outlook, struggling over a pirogue, his yard still scrappy even amid the rapid development of the southern city.

As for the saxophonist, his melodious music has long gone silent, much like the fervour and idealism of the mid-seventies.

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