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Soharee and Steelpan: Sunity explains how they can lift T&T’s self-esteem

Over and over, the deep-seated self-devaluation lurking deep inside the Caribbean psyche keeps tripping us up.  At every opportunity to step forward and declare ourselves boldly to the world, the degenerative disease of self-doubt bites hard and forces us back.

Photo: Worried "Soca Warriors" fan. (Courtesy Wired868)
Photo: Worried “Soca Warriors” fan.
(Courtesy Wired868)

No, we can’t. Not we, insignificant sardines in a world of sharks. Caution, baby, caution. Get real. Dream small, if at all.

Desperately seeking suzerainty over our imagination, we come up hard against that old voice pushing the religion of conformity for security. Within the invisible limits of a box drawn by some gnarled hand of our depraved past we park our dreams and accept that some things, like bold business ideas, are simply not for the likes of us.

How else to explain the persistent poverty of the will that keeps us paralysed in the role of consumers to the world while opportunity to produce for the world goes to waste?

This is why the Steelpan is so important. It is also why, as a people of the New, post-Columbus World, we must be resolute and unequivocal in holding up the Steelpan as an example and reminder of what we are capable of.

When the will is driven by passion, imagination, intelligence and commitment, neither official hostility nor social ostracism can stop it.

Until the youngsters of Laventille began ping-ponging their way through empty oil barrels and dented dust-bins, these pieces of metal were just so much scrap iron. It was the imposition of their imagination that transformed items of exhausted commercial value into a product of new commercial viability for a market that then did not even exist.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago President Anthony Carmona (second from right) shows Pope Francis how to beat iron. (Courtesy whensteeltalks.com)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago President Anthony Carmona (second from right) shows Pope Francis how to beat iron.
(Courtesy whensteeltalks.com)

In Schumpeter’s theory of innovation, men like Winston “Spree” Simon, Anthony Williams, Ellie Mannette and Bertie Marshall were real entrepreneurs, “wild spirits” engaged in “creative destruction” to create new an instrument that made music a whole new way.

If we could put aside our historic prejudices, we would recognise that in the 1930s and 50s, the steelpan stretch from Laventille to Woodbrook was our own version of Silicon Valley, a community engaged in intense developmental production involving  competitive rivalries and  collaborations.

The big difference is that Silicon Valley was actively supported by venture capitalists willing to risk their investment on the next big thing. In Trinidad, our steelband entrepreneurs not only went unrecognised but were actively punished until tamed and corralled into the stable of state and corporate welfare.

Investment, clearly, was not for the likes of them.

Now, juxtapose the story of the Steelpan with the Soharee leaf.

Especially in this week of Divali, but in every week of the year, thousands of Soharee leaves are used in serving food by the Hindu community. In a very informative article on Hindunet.org, my long-time colleague Caldeo Sookram quotes Raviji’s estimate of 100,000 Soharee leaves a month being used in Hindu events in T&T.

Photo: Dancers for Massy Trinidad All Stars perform to "Curry Tabanca" during the International Conference and Panorama at the Grand Stands, Queen's Park Savannah.  (Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)
Photo: Dancers for Massy Trinidad All Stars perform to “Curry Tabanca” during the International Conference and Panorama at the Grand Stands, Queen’s Park Savannah.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

And yet, despite the high and consistent demand, the Soharee leaf remains exactly as found by indentured Indian immigrants for whom it was a good option to the banana leaves used in the homeland, but which were out of bounds as the property of the colonial master.

For 175 years, this island’s natural bounty of Soharee leaves has served guests at pujas, yaghs, weddings, celebrations and Hindu events of all kinds. Where cultivated at all, it is done on a small scale for household use.

The leaves that are cut by the thousands every week come mainly from plants growing wild in the Nariva Swamp and Sangre Grande in the east and Point Fortin and Cedros in the south-west. Despite being a far superior alternative to disposable plates made from styrofoam, plastic and paper, there is no indication, as far as this column is aware, that that the Soharee leaf ‘s potential as an indigenous, eco-friendly, easily disposable plate has been explored by either the scientific or investing community.

Programmed to devalue our own, we are blind to the possibility of engineering, producing, packaging and marketing Soharee leaves as an eco-friendly, indigenous alternative plate available in optimum shapes and sizes and of consistent quality, reasonable price, good shelf life and easy availability.

If they were ever produced, the “Soharee Leaf Plate” would find a market, domestic and export, among consumers cringing with guilt over their own role in environmental damage.

Photo: Lunch on a Soharee leaf. (Copyright Trinimummy.com)
Photo: Lunch on a Soharee leaf.
(Copyright Trinimummy.com)

Instead of exploring the Soharee’s potential for innovation, the T&T market has stuck to its colonial role as a destination for cheap imports.

A few years ago, paper soaked in green dye, waxed and designed to imitate a Soharee leaf hit the market here. Like the gold that was given up in exchange for Columbus’ glass beads, the traditional Soharee leaf has been given up by some for the shiny, green-dyed paper imported from India.

Every day, we carry the burden of a history that negates our very being and devalues us, both in the eyes of a world that sees us as mere markets for its goods and services and in our eyes that see us as not good enough to produce for the world.

In this continuing crisis of confidence, the emerging debate on the future of state-owned CNMG could usefully consider how the resources of broadcast media could be transformed into a truly national platform where all of what we are could be shared with all of who we are.

Smash the cultural silos in which we’re trapped and unimagined possibilities will be revealed.

About Sunity Maharaj

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj is a journalist with 38 years of experience and the managing director of the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies. She is a former Trinidad Express editor in chief and TV6 head of news.

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18 comments

  1. This is a wonderfully insightful article. Societies have a lens they use to evolve, or not. Without recognition of our own habits that hold us back, we are destined to fool ourselves into believing that we are evolving. Money is not evolution. Rather, it is in how the society treats its citizens, values itself as an entity, and encourages creative communication in the arts. TnT does a great job of stalling itself in all of those areas.

  2. be careful what you say girlfriend

  3. Ewe leaves in Ghana used to wrap popular rice and beans meal called Waache

  4. But it is already mentioned in Eartha Kitt’s Xmas song,” Santa Baby.” Remember the words,” Soharee down the chimney tonight ” ?

  5. Lasana Liburd, Sunity Maharaj may find it instructive to refer to an article about the soharee, which was written by me and published about a quarter century ago in the T & T Review at a time when I believe she was editor of that newspaper.

  6. I’m remembering my own talks with would-be investors here when I wanted to start the site.
    I don’t want to turn the talk away from Soharee leaves and steelpan.
    The point is investors here seem to want the next best thing to also be a proven success. Which is obviously a contradiction.
    They want you to provide a guarantee that is virtually impossible unless you are taking the blueprint of something that worked somewhere else.
    That’s why I feel you are more likely to get money to bring a Cold Stone here than to start a local ice cream business.
    And that is why if the synthetic green paper resembling a Soharee leaf worked in some part of the world, most investors would take that over the Soharee leaf any day of the week.
    Clearly life is so good for investors here that there is zero need for risk. But then I suppose why take a chance when you can throw your money into a political party and get a 1000 percent return.
    Ok that’s my rant. Carry on. ??

  7. Symptoms of the economic myopia and developmental laziness that come with having the more immediate income earners of oil and gas…

  8. One expects that you will be most present at the formal sessions arranged for “the emerging debate on the future of state-owned CNMG” to bring your truly unique insights not just on media but on topics such as the one you have so skillfully sketched here. Our Sundays would be infinitely poorer without your columns.

  9. These leaves could be the answer and end to all the styro foam pollution clogging drains in T&T.

  10. About availability of soharee leaf commercially, it is interesting because in groceries away you see corn husk and banana leaf etc but it is hard to find here commercially and they are part of our culture. Tell me paimie and pastelle taste the same boiled in fig leaf or in foil. As for the steel pan, seems we wait for the outside world to stamp their seal of approval on us before we accept that we are world class. Claudia Pegus and Meiling, Sparrow and David Rudder, Angostura and Sasha cosmetics-we are world class. The best ice creams I ever taste are locally made gourmet ice creams. How are the Ministries of Trade and Labour challenging businesses to be innovative and competitive. How effective are the online presence of our local businesses? There seems to be a great divide between where we at and where we want to be, the challenge is how we building the bridge to cross this chasm.