Derek Walcott was the proverbial prophet in his own land. His universally appreciated oeuvre was unknown in the land that gave him birth, including the allegedly most intellectual. He was seldom invited to lecture at our schools. Meanwhile many in a position to know better often publicly dismissed him in the worst way: declaring him aloof, unsociable and worse. Of course the truth was that there was hardly a time when Walcott did not have at his Cap Estate home young people from home and abroad benefitting from his gifts.
Boo Hinkson is one exception: “I spent a lot of time with Derek. I did a lot of work with him. I would listen carefully to understand his every word during private and public exchanges wondering how this local son had travelled from Chaussee Road to become Derek Walcott, the genius writer and painter. I still cannot say I know the answer. But I learned a lot of the character of Derek Walcott, whose every word was music to my ears.”
When I sat down with Ronald ‘Boo’ Hinkson the other day, my purpose was to talk to the gifted musician and songwriter about the status of the local creative industry. But before long he was talking of his appreciation for the likes of Sir Arthur, Daren Sammy, Levern Spencer and our publisher. The last mentioned and Hinkson, it turns out, have been close friends “for countless years”. It is “absolutely vital”, Boo emphasized, that a country not only have its native heroes but that the powers that be encourage the young to fully appreciate what made them special.
“A country without heroes, without an underscored interest in what made them special, is a country without a future. It is vital that our young people have reason to aspire to greatness; to be able to say that if this Saint Lucian could have risen above adversity to become someone special, then so can I if I follow in his footsteps. Without heroes, whom do we follow? On whose shoulders do we stand?”
He paused, as if in his mind he were picturing the nightmare.
“I’ve grown to understand that nearly all the people who have achieved the heights of success in their field, locally and elsewhere, started out as simple people.” He rattled off some names. “They appeared at first to be ordinary people,” he said, “then seemingly all of a sudden they were household names. The lives of such people are worth studying, by the young especially.”
Boo spoke of his own life, emphasizing that such success as he had achieved had “everything to do with determination, discipline, commitment and focus”. Failure was simply never an option. But if indeed he encountered a set-back then it had to be “transformational”.
Boo remembers strumming his first notes on a guitar under the patient guidance of his mother, Iona Hinkson.
“She knew a lot of old songs,” he laughed, then shared how jazz in particular had struck his heart.
“There was always music in my house that the average young Saint Lucian did not grow up listening to,” he said. “Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Jackson . . . all the old, old master musicians. I grew up listening to their recordings. When I eventually went into jazz, it was a vocabulary with which I was already familiar.”
He says jazz gave him “the freedom to be expressive; it kind of democratized music for me”. As a young musician, he recalled, he could always count on his older brothers, also aspiring musicians, for support. “Without that special, loving support they provided, who knows whether I’d be the person I am today?”
Certainly not the musician who, with his band of the day—The Tru Tones—had performed during the acclaimed Super Bowl’s half-time show. The year was 1979. Nearly four decades later the event remains for Boo one of the highlights of his career.
“As a small-island boy, it was a bit of a cultural shock,” he recalls. “The population of Saint Lucia at the time was probably about 100,000 people, and you get to America and find yourself performing before a crowd larger than your country’s population. What 20-year-old will ever forget such an experience? I know I never will!” My own mind went back to Michael Jackson when he said, “Only the best perform at the Super Bowl!”
Of course, there was the other side of the Super Bowl coin. As Boo laughingly put it: “A mediocre performance can destroy, and has destroyed careers.”
As for the Tru Tones, formed in the 60s, by the time they played that super gig they had attracted an international following. In their time they released four albums: ‘Tru Tones Combo of Saint Lucia’, ‘The Leaders’, ‘Power Struggle’ and a Christmas long player, as they were then called. Several of their singles were regional hits.
In a recent interview featured in this paper, Rupert Lay cited ‘Power Struggle’. Referencing the published interview, Boo said, “I think much of what he said was accurate. Tru Tones really set the pace, the tone, and the level at which we should be operating, but there was not sufficient follow-up.”
The band eventually split up, with the members shooting off in various directions. Boo somewhat diplomatically attributes the break-up to the band being ahead of its time.
“Tru Tones had outgrown Saint Lucia,” he added. “Maybe what we should have done was to migrate, as a group. That didn’t happen and the group folded up. Tru Tones comprised excellent musicians. People tend to forget that, as if I alone could’ve done what we did as a group.”
Like so many before him, including the now departed Walcott twins, Roddy and Derek, the creative arts in Saint Lucia are more than ever in need of official appreciation and recognition.
“The support has to be there,” he said. “We can and must make it happen. We’re dealing with a multi billion-dollar industry and we must claim our stake in it. It’s driven by young people and most of this country’s problems are a consequence of young people not gainfully engaged. Our youth are frustrated, even desperate. As a society we need to save them from themselves, especially when society will be their target for vengeance.
“We cannot continue to frustrate our young people who want to get into the arts, whether dance, or writing, or film. We must do whatever is possible to help them succeed. We have to create stars of our young people. We should know by now the folly in depending on others to do for us.”
Hinkson, who is a member on the board of directors of the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF), revealed that he had recently met with youth minister Fortuna Belrose. By the musician’s measure she was very enthusiastic about doing what needed to be done to move the local creative industries forward. He is looking forward to more meetings with the minister in a determined effort to find solutions to the problems too long associated with arts in Saint Lucia. Finally Roddy and Derek may have good reason to smile.
Ronald Hinkson recently was award the OBE by the Queen in recognition of his contributions to Caribbean music. Wait till Her Majesty hears about his efforts for justice and equity in his native Saint Lucia!