Fiction | ‘Voice’ by Madhavi Johnson

It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in New York City. A young African American hostess prepared the audience gathered in the warmth of the Harlem Repertoire theatre for a ‘smooth and joyful voyage to unknown lands’ aboard Celebrity, the infamous slave ship, sailing out of the Ivory Coast. The hostess urged everyone to sit in an orderly fashion, ‘fasten their shackles,’ behave themselves and not sing, talk or play drums. A background display of murals and images of slaves shackled to the ship’s hold, transported passengers across choppy seas to distant, unknown lands. The accompanying vocals by the hostess and her companions; a mixture of folk, blues, soul, and jazz, set the mood for the journey.  

‘Coloured Museum’s’ opening show was totally sold out that night. This was the first time an off-Broadway show had engaged the spectators to this level of partnership during the performance. We were all high on adrenaline, having received a standing ovation from the audience.

I walked over to the green room afterwards, and stepped out of my hostess costume.

“You were great tonight Ruby. So confident, and poised,” Cyrus said to me. “Your skin is a heady mix of bronze and beige. It glows,” he continued as I started removing my makeup without saying anything. 

“Are you nervous?” He asked; I had expected him to read my tension. I would be meeting my birth father for the first time tonight. Of course I was nervous. 

In hindsight, I wondered if my pursuit of truth had been a mistake. Mum had told me I was adopted when I was young. I had tried to probe over the years, in sudden bursts of curiosity. Mum and dad did not have much to give me, and I can understand that. If I was in their place, I wouldn’t have offered much myself. I had set out wondering and being inquisitive about my birth when I turned eighteen. It took some effort, and I managed to locate one surviving parent in Belize City three years later. The woman who had given birth to me had died a few years after she had left me with a lady from Louisiana. 

“I should have let things be,” I turned to Cyrus.

“Don’t be silly. You will not regret one minute of this. I am sure you will look back and know you did the right thing.” Cyrus reassured. 

“Thanks, Cyrus. Will you walk with me to Calypso? I asked Mr. Satuye to meet me there.” I could not bring myself to refer to the visitor from Belize City as ‘father.’ 

Joanna and Manuel Jordan were the only parents I had known in my life. Joanna had arrived in Chicago from Poland with her parents and older sister when she was three. Manuel came to the US from Barbados with his aunt, as a teenager. Mum had defied her family to marry dad. Manuel’s request for Joanna’s hand had been soundly rejected by mum’s father, Lech Kowalski, the local butcher. They were glad he had not brought out his shotgun that night! 

To say things were dramatic, wouldn’t be an understatement. Mum smuggled her possessions, packed in two trunks, out of her house with the help of a friend and eloped with dad by stepping out of the bedroom window and sliding down knotted sheets.

I was two years old when dad brought me home and handed me to Joanna. He was posted in Belize with the narcotics unit of the United States Military, assigned to monitor the border with Guatemala for the trafficking of drugs and contraband. One Sunday morning, he walked into an orphanage in Belize City, run by a kind lady from Louisiana. He spotted me there, “with bright eyes and a ready smile,” he said. He spent the rest of the day playing with me, feeding me, putting me to sleep. The next day he filed the papers to formally adopt me. 

He took me to Chicago a few months later. My mum vied with my dad to shower me with love even after my two siblings arrived. 

Jazz music, cigarette smoke and a low buzz welcomed us as Cyrus and I walked into Calypso Bar and Grill. Tony and Ginny were on a jazz routine on stage with a new player on the saxophone. He wore a neat blue suit. His dark skin gleamed under the bright lights.

Cyrus hurried towards the bar to meet up with an old buddy. His presence and his high pitched laughter was comforting.

The trio finished jamming to a smattering of applause. 

“Thank you for this wonderful music. Once again, let us welcome our guest from Belize City, Mr. Joseph Satuye,” The DJ announced.

Mouth dry and hands clammy, I stood rooted to my spot. Mr. Satuye got off the stage and headed towards me.

“Whiskey on the rocks, please.”

He had a sing-song drawl, a mixture of accents from deep south and the Caribbean. 

“Don’t just stare at me,” he smiled. “Say something, and surely you will have a drink with me?”

I was startled by his directness. 

“Hello, Mr.Satuye…”

I held out my hand. He leaned forward instead, drew me close to him, and gave me a bear hug. It was confusing and reassuring.

“You look just like her. Like Camelia. The same liquid brown eyes, smooth skin, lovely hair. You are a replica of your mother.” He took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his eyes. 

We sat in a corner table, deep in the shadows of Calypso with our drinks and his memories.

“I still remember the night I met Camelia. She came to the bar where I worked, in Belmopan, along with her friends. She was sparkling and full of life. I was an understudy to the saxophone player, and he was sick that day. I stepped in to take his place and stood in front of the audience, fearful, painfully shy. Until Camelia showed up. She sat right in front, close to the stage, and clapped for every single note I played. She got through my shyness. By the end of the week, we were seeing each other every evening. She told me, ‘Joseph, I love every single note and nuance of your music. I want to hear it all my life.'”

I nodded, taking a sip.

“We became inseparable. Spent time together, day and night for over four months. That’s when it got complicated. She vanished. Just like that.” Mr. Satuye’s voice sounded far away. “I was shattered. I heard about her from others. Someone saw her in a bar, drunk; she was at the church praying. I wanted her back in my life. I was not willing to give her up that easily.”

I could see the pain in his eyes. His love for that woman was surely undeniable. But I needed much more. 

“How could you not find her in a small place like Belmopan?” I asked. “Did you even bother to look far, and deep enough?” I sounded cruel. My way of protecting myself, I justified.

Mr. Satuye was patient. He continued.

“Camelia had moved to Belize City. I gave up my job at the bar and followed her over there. I just could not locate her. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. It was around then that I heard she had given birth.”

She rolled off his tongue as if she was there in the room listening to us. 

The music stopped. The bartenders and bouncers left. Calypso was closing for the night. Cyrus left with his buddy, his voice receding as he said goodbye to me. 

The bulb above us threw a circle of dull, violet light. 

“I got desperate. I knew this baby was mine. I was concerned. For her. For you.”

Listening to him drained me. I was tired and impatient, this was coming from someone who was still a stranger to me. I didn’t know what to believe. 

Mr. Satuye was in a trance.

“I was broke and exhausted. I decided to go back to my village in Dangriga to stay with my mother and my Nanna Marcela. I had to recover my health, my sanity.” 

“Let us catch up tomorrow. It is late. You must be tired.” I interrupted him.

“Sorry, Ruby. I hope I have not upset you,” he said.

“No, not at all, I will call you tomorrow.” I got up and hurried away from him, from the dim light, the lingering smoke and the story from the past. 

“How was it last night?” Joanna called early the next morning. I had spent a disturbed night, unsure about the man who called himself my father and the tale he had recounted.

“It is ok to feel this way, Ruby. After all, he is still a stranger to you. Give it time.” Joanna was her usual generous, comforting self. 

‘Why did I delve into the past if I am unable to accept it?” 

I did not expect an answer.

When I hung up, I noticed several messages from Mr. Satuye.

Sorry, I may have been too forthcoming last night.

Hope you will meet me again.

You are my one chance to somehow connect with Camelia.

Please, where shall we meet and when?

I got dressed, brewed coffee, and opened my computer. I wanted to find out where on earth Dangriga was.

Cyrus and I walked out of the theatre after the show that evening, high on the reception we had received from the audience. He persuaded me to contact Mr. Satuye again. I was fearful of my emotions and resisted the idea. We hugged, said goodbye, and I walked towards the subway station. 

Mr. Satuye stepped out of the shadows. I jumped. 

“I left a lot of messages for you.” His voice was gentle and persistent. 

“Mr. Satuye, I don’t really want to know about your past, or about the woman who you say was my mother. I am sorry I made you come over to New York needlessly. Now, if you do not mind, I have an appointment and I need to go.” I spoke rapidly. “I want to meet you again. I am here until the end of this week before I return to Belize City. Here is my card. I will be at Calypso every evening. Please…” He pleaded.

I grabbed the card from the man who called himself my father and walked into the subway station quickly, running away from him and my emotions. 

The lump in my throat remained for a few days. 

‘Coloured Museum’ continued its unbeaten run till the end of January. We were on Time Out’s list of New York’s top ten off-Broadway shows. When the season was over, we left on our separate ways. 

“Mr. Satuye mentioned a place called Dangriga. I think his grandmother and mother live there. They are singers.” I was back at home, relating my encounter to Joanna and Manuel.  

“We visited Dangriga when dad was posted in Belize,” Joanna paused. “It used to be called Stann Creek Town. Don’t you remember our visit there Manny?”

“I remember the sunsets there. The place itself was pretty basic. Lots of shacks, fresh fish, and… it was my first experience drinking bread wine.”

“What? How was that?” I was curious.

“I only remember the splitting headache he got after drinking that wine. Must have been the heat and the fermentation…” Joanna chuckled.

“The people in Dangriga.” Manuel was still on the topic. “They are descendants of slaves from Africa shipwrecked on those shores. And inter- mingling with the caribs.” He was taking a walk down memory lane.

“Come on let us chat over dinner. Don’t want it to get cold.” Joanna had cooked my favourite stewed beans and rice dish.

“Punta music… ah… now I remember. Garifuna music is feisty…” Manuel continued reminiscing over a glass of port once the table was cleared and we settled in the living room.

Joanna got up as if she just remembered something. She went into the study, rummaged, and brought a disk out, a CD of music by Garifuna women. 

“This is not like Punta. Maybe more layered, soulful,” Joanna handed the CD to me. I looked at the cover, a woman looking at the sunset by the tropics. The tape was quite a mix. Stories of hurricanes that swept away homes and livelihoods, the pain of childbirth, a son murdered in a remote village, and struggles of daily life. Personal narratives of mothers and daughters passed on through songs to future generations. The CD was titled ‘Umalali.’ The woman on the cover was Marcela, the name rang a bell.

Awake late into the night, I googled the word ‘Umalali,’ the Garifuna word for ‘voice.’ I scrolled through stories about the Garinagu and their journey to Dangriga. They inhabited the land, which is now St Vincent and Grenadines, before the British laid claim to the island in 1672. I read about their trials upon landing in Stann Creek, about Joseph Chatoyer, the Chief of the Garinagu, who fought bravely against the British and died defending his land, language and culture. 

‘Umalali’ the ‘voice’ of the Garifuna women. The music Joanna had played defined their identity, language and culture. I knew that I, too, could connect with it if only I let it enter my me, take over me. 

***

Stone Tree Recording Studio in Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize buzzed with activity. Silvia and the other singers from the Garifuna Collective arrived from Dangriga. Everyone was waiting for the rehearsals to begin for a new CD of their latest music collection. Mama Marcela had not travelled with them this time. She was 92 now and had become frail since her last trip to the studio five years ago. 

Director Ian had spent time with them in their villages then, capturing their soulful voices. The women had then visited his studio to record ‘Umalali.’ He had blended the rich vocal textures of the women’s voices with echoes of rock, blues, funk, African, Latin, and Caribbean music.  ‘Umalali’ had made them famous beyond Belize and Central America. The women were far more confident and relaxed on this trip. After a month of rehearsals and recordings, the women began their return journey to Dangriga. Easter was around the corner, and busy days lay ahead of them as their bus took them towards their families, partners, parents, children. 

Silvia’s anxiety about Marcela increased the closer they got to Dangriga. She was feeble, with a sharp mind and a barbed tongue. Silvia wondered about Aunty Helen, who was kindly helping out with Marcela in her absence. She got off the bus in Dangriga and walked through the town, the orange hue of the spectacular sunset guiding her home. The front porch, framed with bright pink bougainvillea, looked warm and welcoming. Silvia clicked the gate open and entered the path towards the house, calling out to her mother and aunt in Garifuna, “Hello… buiti binafi.,” she said as she entered the doorway.

Marcela was sitting in her armchair, facing a young woman wearing a green and blue dress. The young woman stood up when she saw Silvia. 

“This is Ruby. From New York,” Aunty Helen introduced her to Silvia. 

***

Silvia looked at me searchingly. 

“Hello. I am Ruby. Sorry I came here without letting you know. I was visiting Belize City on holiday and thought I could come over to Dangriga. I have read a lot about this place – lovely beaches, punta music, great fried fish! I also heard Umalali, my mum has a CD, and wanted to come in person to tell you how much I admire your voices, your singing.” I blurted it all out in one breath.

“Camelia’s daughter?” Silvia asked, out of the blue.

I stood in the middle of their living room, flushed and embarrassed. 

“Ha, I can see the resemblance now.” Marcela peered at me. “You are an exact copy of your mother. The same eyes, the skin, the hair. Come close to me,” Marcela held out her hand. “Sit here.”

I felt weak-kneed as I sank to the floor near her. Just one month ago, I met a stranger in a bar in Manhattan. Now I was in someone’s living room in another country and could not even remember why I had decided to come there.

“I know of Camelia. But not much.” I sounded lame. 

“Thank you Aunty Helen for preparing dinner. I missed homemade beans and rice.” Silvia smiled and turned to me. “Camelia came here in search of Joseph when you had just turned one. She returned to Belize City the same day when she did not find him here, she wouldn’t even stay the night. Joseph had left for Chicago by then. We begged her and promised to take care of her and you. But she left. We never saw her again.”  

Marcela was making loud chomping noises and nodding her head. I remained silent and stared at the food in front of me. I was annoyed with myself for having been so naive to think I would get away with the excuse for my visit.

Morning dawned, and it brought some clarity. I would tell my hosts the real reason I was there, apologise and leave town soon after. 

“Your father was named after Joseph Chatoyer.” Marcella said as soon as I entered the living room. “Chatoyer was our big Chief who fought the British. Your father was the first boy born in the family after a long line of women. He is a seventh generation Chatoyer, the British version of our family name. Over time we took on the original family name Satuye.”

I forgot my apology and sat down at Marcela’s feet again. 

Marcela talked of the bravery of Joseph Chatoyer and his followers, the Carib wars against the British, the struggle of the Garinagu to keep their language and customs intact against colonial oppression and invasions by other tribes. She explained the origins of the Garifuna language, their story-telling prowess, their powerful voices, and their indomitable spirit. “Our Umalali, our voice, is special,” she declared. “You must learn our language. That’s the only way this culture will flow in your blood.”

Over a meal of fried beans and fish with rice, I tendered my apology for visiting them knowing who they were. They were confused. 

“You have every right to come here any time,” Silvia told me. “What is the problem? Stay tonight, and I will show you around Dangriga.”

“You must watch the sunset on the beach. They are spectacular,” Marcela insisted. 

Silvia and I walked through the town to the beach in the evening. I was introduced as Nibari to every person we met. I was Nibari, the grandchild Silvia had been waiting for, for a long while. 

I had heard the song Nibari on the CD that Joanna had played. 

We sat on the beach as the orange hued sun descended over the blue waters. This was my last night in Dangriga; I would be returning to Belize City tomorrow to catch the flight back home. I yearned to stay longer, to be near Nanna Silvia, to hear stories from Nanna Marcela.

“Stay as long as you want. This is your home. You belong here.” Silvia said as though she had read my mind. “We were not in touch all these years. We can still make up for all the lost time.”

“I have to be back in Manhattan. Rehearsals start in a few days.”

I lay back on the sand with the breeze blowing gently across my face. The two women had welcomed me with unquestioning warmth and generosity. I was one of them. I was the daughter of Camelia and Joseph, a Satuye. 

“Camelia was already deep into drugs when she came here. Her arms had syringe marks, she looked thin and sick.” Silvia was drawing fistfuls of sand as she looked into the horizon. “I refused to give her money but told her she could stay with us as long as she wanted.”

“Joseph was away. I did not tell him anything about her or you. I kept track of Camelia for a while until she disappeared. I had no idea what she had done with you.” Silvia’s said, her eyes moist. 

I listened to her quietly. I was still hesitant to voice my claim to a connection with her. But I slept better that night. 

We made our way to the bus station slowly with Marcela insisting on walking all the way, holding my hand. The two women stood at the bus shelter and watched me board the bus. Silvia had packed some food for me. As I waved goodbye to Nanna Silvia and Nanna Marcela, I wondered if they would tell my father about my visit to his home.

Cyrus beamed when I recounted my adventure in Dangriga.

“I told you, you had nothing to be afraid of. I hope you are planning to keep in touch with your Nannas and will return sometime?” 

I didn’t answer.

The second season of ‘Coloured Museum’ opened this time in a theatre close to Times Square. The show was expanded and more sets and actors were included. 

My voice carried loud and clear through the theatre as I sang Nibari, trying to recreate the soulful voice of Silvia. Yes, I had managed to convince the director to add a cameo on Garifuna people. Dad smiled through my performance, and Mum sat straight with an unwavering gaze on me.  

“Let us go to Calypso. It has been a long time,” Cyrus was full of energy after the show. A West African band from Mali was playing on stage as we entered. We settled down to a meal of fried beans and fish that brought back memories of Nanna Marcela and Nanna Silvia. 

“The gentleman over there sent this complimentary drink for you.” The barman placed a Margarita with lots of ice in front of me.

“A secret admirer?” Cyrus teased me.  I looked up. 

A man in a deep blue suit greeted me from the bar, “Buiti Binafi!”

I kicked the chair behind me as I rushed towards him. I wanted a proper hug from my father this time.

Glossary:

Garifuna, also known as Garinagu, are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and subsequently moved to Belize. Garifuna mainly live on the coast but are also very present in towns and villages.

Dangriga, formerly known as Stann Creek Town, is a town in southern Belize, located on the Caribbean coast at the mouth of the North Stann Creek River.
Punta is a Garifuna music and dance style performed at celebrations and festive occasions. Created by the Garifuna people of St. Vincent best known to derive from Honduras, Belice, Guatemala, and parts of Nicaragua, so Central America.

Garifuna words:
Umalali – Voice
Nibari – Grand child
Buiti Binafi – Hello (general greeting)

*

Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson was born in Chennai and spent her early career years working as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her into an interesting career in international development/humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia and USA (New York). She now lives in Ballarat, in the Victoria Region of Australia, hosts a blog and mentors young men and women from developing countries on organizational skills and self-development.

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