Ken Corsbie (Courtesy of Ken Corsbie)
As we continue our winter storytelling special, Ken Corsbie of Guyana and Barbados, tells the tallest tales -- how to pick a mango, and adjusting to life in the cold north. And he performs the work of the beloved Caribbean poet Paul Keens-Douglas, complete with steel drum.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Well, we've arrived at the last segment of our holiday special where we’ve invited Caribbean storytellers to keep us warm with their yarns about plantation ghosts, and feeding the camels of the three wise men. We’ve also heard about the spark of a career that was struck telling stories around a Brooklyn tenement stove.
Now we’re joined by a performer who’s made his career, telling stories, reciting poetry and generally exaggerating. Ken Corsbie hails from the far reaches of the Caribbean, from Guyana on the northeastern coast of South America. He’s also lived in Barbados, and now makes his home in rural Long Island, New York. Welcome to Living on Earth, Ken.
CORSBIE: Hi, hi Steve, welcome. I’m glad to be here.
CURWOOD: Thank you. Now, just tell us a bit about Guyana. I think it’s a place that most of us know very little about.
CORSBIE: Well Guyana is actually a strange thing. Although it’s on the South American coast, it’s actually considered politically, culturally, Caribbean islands. We call ourselves the West Indies. We are affiliated culturally, socially, politically with the Trinidad, Barbados, Granada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Antigua—and not with South American because although we’re there, we never learned Dutch, which Suriname is one of our borders. Venezuela is Spanish and we never learn Spanish in our schools. Brazil is on our border and we never learn Brazilian Portuguese, so we are really English speaking in that sense, which is a very hard thing for people to understand, that although we are in South America. We’re really part of the Caribbean islands.
CURWOOD: How did you think about the seasons when you were growing up in Barbados? What were the seasons there?
CORSBIE: When I was growing up there were four seasons: dry season, short dry season, long dry season, short wet season, long wet season. That’s it. That’s our seasons. It’s nice to be in a country where the seasons are regulated—spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
CURWOOD: (laughs) So you come all this way north, first you go north to England and then you come to New York, in fact you’re living in New York now.
CORSBIE: That’s right.
CURWOOD: So tell me about adjusting to this country.
CURWOOD: (laughs) Ken, we’ve asked you on the show because we understand that you’re an expert at one of the most important things about living in the Caribbean, living in the tropics, and that is—eating a mango. Can we get the instructions from you?
CORSBIE: Okay, okay. Eating a mango. You see there are four ways to eat a mango. Credited ways. The first way to eat a mango is the natural way. You just eat it with your teeth and let the juice fall all down to your elbow and you just twist your elbow and lick it off. There was a friend of mine named Mark, he was an expert at that—the natural way. If the mango juice fell down from his elbow onto his knee, he would bend down and lick it off. I’ve seen him lick mango juice off his toe.
CORSBIE: Now don’t laugh because eating mango the natural way like that made him an incredible storyteller. He has a tremendous body language and he can, you know, he got that ability from eating mangos the natural way.
So the other way to eat it is if you go to Barbados, you carry and eat the mango in the sea—with the salt and the sweet. And you can toss it there it’s biodegradable. No problem. But the third way is the technological way. A friend of mine named Ricardo Smith used that a lot. What you do, you take your mango and you take a penknife or something, you slice off a large slice, as far down as close to the seed as you can. And you flip it over and you sort of, you tic-tac-toe, I don’t know what you call it—criss cross it, and you turn it inside out so you have these little squares, and you eat them. And he—Ricardo Smith used that method. And he became very successful because he used to eat mangos the technological way. I’ll tell you why—he learned to compartmentalize his life. To have things measured exactly in his place. And now he’s living in a big house on a hill in Tobego overlooking the sea.
Now, the last way. You squeeze the mass out, you squeeze and squeeze it until its soft. You nibble off a little piece at the top and you suck it out. Squeeze it and suck it out. Mmm, that was my way. And I’m not sure I can tell you what skills that taught me. But that was my way—drinking mangos. But you know, no matter what style you use, at the end of it you have to say ‘this mango’s sweeeeeeeeeet!’
[MUSIC: Mighty Sparrow “Mango Verte” from ‘Sparrow In Hi-Fi’ (Cook Records/Smithsonian Folkways 1960’s)
CURWOOD: We’re speaking with Ken Corsbie, a teller of tales at Caribbean story festivals. Ken, you’re a professional storyteller, and you have several CDs. So tell me, what’s your experience of how people here in the U.S. view storytelling compared to the West Indies?
CORSBIE: They put limitations on what storytelling is. For instance, I’m sitting right here in the studio and I watching a tape by (inaudible—Spalding Gray?). I see a video must be here on your desk, Spalding Gray. To me a great storyteller. But the storytelling community here tended to call him a monologist. ‘He does monologues, he’s not really a storyteller.’ I for instance do—I do a standup comedy. But it’s not the one liners like a lot of the Americans do—your great at one and two liners, they’re beautiful. But I tell little anecdotal stories—jokes if you wish but they’re little stories, they only last 30 seconds or a minute but there it is. And I use that technique when I’m doing storytelling. I also do—what I did a lot in the Caribbean—which is perform Caribbean poetry. We got a lot of poetry. And I’m not sure if they’re all seen as stories unless they’re strictly narrative. Here I was told for instance, ‘don’t act it, Ken. Tell it. You’re very (inaudible) for the story. And I said ‘I’m on that stage. People watching me.’ So I found that people tend to want to limit you in various ways. There are an incredible wide range of what story is now. Anything—song. For instance I wanted to sing a song to tell you one type of story, I could illustrate to you a song.
CURWOOD: Okay. Alright.
CORSBIE: I remembered a song by a friend of mine called Dave Martin’s. He runs a group called the Trade Winds. He lives in the Caiman Islands, where I go every year to do a festival, a story telling festival. And he told me a story in song. He said (singing) ‘a custom officer friend of mine was telling me recently how to tell people’s nationalities. Look around any airport, from New York up to Belgium and you can tell what nation somebody from. If a woman wearing a Sari, she’s from Pakistan or India. A man in a (inaudible) and a sweater, well he from Canada. But if you see a man with a suitcase the size of a Cadillac, you can be sure that’s our West Indian going back, because he’s traveling with ten pounds of flour, six pounds of split peas, I see sugar, where? In his suitcase. A bag of potatoes, and a big slab of cheese, bicycle tires, where? In his suitcase. The airlines in every country had to pass a regulation, just to control yes we West Indians. Seventy pounds in our suitcase, they say that is the limit, but our West Indian got that in he back pocket. Now in the USA and Canada, every time a West Indian going back, you know it’s two days it take him just to pack. And when the bags arrive at the airport, them Sky Caps just run and hide in the washroom and refuse to come outside. But when you see he traveling between the islands you laugh until you cry. If you see the things we bring on the plane, believe me I wouldn’t lie. A bag of crops stinking up the room—fried fish in a tin, a coconut broom, four bread fruit and two live chickens, because we’re traveling with parts of a tractor yes, a motor car seat too, Nike sneakers in his suitcase yes. Two dozen mackerel, a bag of salt beef, hifi speakers in his suitcase.
I use a lot of calypso songs. And in fact in the Caiman Islands storytelling festival every November it runs for ten days a different beach every night we go to tell, the main feature are Trinidadian Calypsonians who they bring in for the occasion, who actually sing a lot of narrative and old time calypsos, which are very lyrical and narrative, and very funny and very witty. And one of the things they do, too, in case you didn’t ask, was the Caribbean poetry, which I’d like to do just one short one here.
CURWOOD: Oh, please do.
CORSBIE: One of the most popular—in fact probably the most popular and prolific storyteller, dialect poet, call it what you will, is a man named Paul King’s Douglas. He is Trinidadian-Granadian. I am sometimes surprised—and I shouldn’t be, of course, when I ask people, an American audience, ‘who has heard of steel band? Ever heard a steel band play?’ And if there are 20-30 people, five or six of which would say ‘yes.’ In my ego of a Caribbean person I say ‘oh, how can you not hear a steel band? How could you never have eaten a mango?’ Anyhow, so how the steel band is born: Steel band as you know, made of oil drums they cut down to various heights to give the high note, the low note, mid note, deep note, bass notes. And steel band nowadays, which started very primitively, has ended up to be bands of 30 and 40 playing classical music. High-class classical music, and being judged by adjudicators of classical music. Anyhow, how was the steel band born? I’ll tell you how Paul King Douglas says. He says once long ago, not so long ago when the story I’m telling is true. A man take a pan with his hammer in his hand and thought he’d invent something new. It was an ordinary drum in which the oil used to come. It didn’t make no partiular sound. One note, maybe two, you could beat it til you’re blue, but that was all it could do for you. Until the man take the pan with the hammer in his hand and he say how he understand, that if the pan making one and the pan making two, then the pan can make quite a few. So the man take the pan with the hammer in he hand and he stooped down there on the ground. And he heat it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it and the pan start to make a new sound. Yes the pan start to make a new sound. It go (to the tune of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’) ‘pim pim pim pim pim pim pim, pim pim pim, pim pim pim!’ Yes a do ray mi and a mi ray do—that was all he could make it say. But it sound so sweet he take it on the street. It was the first time they hear pan play. And all where he gone the word got around that they heard sweet notes that he pound. And none will forget the day that they felt the day that the steel band was born. And since that time all over the line, you hear that sweet sound of pan. How he hit it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it the man with the hammer in he hand. How he hit it and he beat it and he stretch it and he mark it and the pan start to make a new sound. Yes, the pan start to make a new sound.
Now, what I’d like you to do, Steve, is at the end of every two lines here I want you to say ‘oh yeah,’ like I say, ‘they make a tenor pan and they make an alto pan and they come and make a double tenor, too.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: They make a cello pan, and they make a guitar pan, and now they take 60 men to make a band.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: A do ra mi and a fa si lo di do, ain’t no place the pan can’t go.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: Upper class, middle class, lower class, newer class classics, to Calypso.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: Oh yeah.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: Born on the streets of Trinidad, it has now gone far and wide.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: There ain’t no stopping it, it’s a song of a people’s pride.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: So when you hear the beat of a steel band in the street and the rustled of the toes and feet remember that man with the hammer in his hand who put the first notes on the pan. Oh he heat it and you beat it and stretch it and you mark it, stooped down there on the ground. Oh he heat it and he beat it and stretch it and he mark it, the pan start to make a new sound, oh the pan start to make a new sound, yeah! The pan start to make a new sound!
CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
CORSBIE: And the pan start to make a new sound.
CURWOOD: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
CURWOOD: Ken Corsbie is a storyteller who’s from Guyana. He’s also lived in Barbados and now makes his home in rural Long Island, New York. Thanks so much, Ken.
CORSBIE: Well that was great. All the best Steve, thanks a lot.
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