Composed and agile in body and manner - it is not hard to guess that Mary-Anne Roberts is a performance artist. In fact, Roberts embodies a truly intercultural spirit. Hailing from Trinidad and Tobago, her performance oeuvre spans European ballet, western contemporary dance, theatre and folk music. But there's more to her art. For over two decades now she has worked at the grassroots in the Caribbean and in Britain to preserve folk arts, crafts and events like the carnival, which represent skills and philosophies that are steadily being lost to the modern world.
"My parents gave me the best in dance and music lessons and a top education trying to ensure that I would never be a 'jamette'. In Trinidad, jamettes are those who live below the diameter of a respectable society, supporting its upper crusts. But for me, the people who worked at our house, on my grandfather's cocoa and coffee estates... there was something about their life that drew me to them. The way they spoke, ate, danced, dressed and their spontaneity with music was more real to me than lessons in English history," recalls Roberts.
This attraction to the jamette led her to train in the carnival - the most obvious expression of jamette culture - and implanted a political seed in her art. Roberts expresses what the carnival means to her, by sharing the thoughts of Narri Aproo, her 77-year-old teacher.
Aproo's parents were from India and arrived in Trinidad as indentured labor during colonial rule. They migrated from the sugarcane plantations to the urban Port of Spain, where Aproo became godson of a black shaman priestess. Living among the black and creole population, he got absorbed into the carnival. His words, "I am Mas (short for masquerade) and Mas is me", have been an enduring source of inspiration for Roberts through the years. "The carnival is not all sweetness. There's sweetness and there's bitterness. There's dance and there's fight. People portray their dreams, their fears, their hates and loves. They express these through dance, out on the streets in front of everybody else. In a way, we relish airing our dirty laundry in public. It does not matter who you are, what class you are, or who you might think you are. The carnival reminds us that we are all jamette," she states.
The carnival's traditions and underpinning philosophies are imparted by teachers through word of mouth and hands-on craftsmanship. Today, it is at the risk of losing its traditions as the older generation steadily dwindles away. However, Roberts has been actively involved in preserving this unique form.
She first served as a choreographer for the Trinidad Tent Theatre that worked to revive the diminishing carnival archetypal characters. In 1988, she migrated to Britain. She studied at the Middlesex University and worked as a community artist across Britain and Europe, collaborating on projects administered by organizations such as the Commonwealth Institute and Welfare State International. In 1990, she moved to Wales to regenerate the carnival within the sizeable Caribbean community in the city's docklands. She cherishes the unique culture and community of artists, designers, performers, musicians and poets she met.
However, Roberts soon parted ways from this project because she experienced a pronounced disjuncture between the arts organizations promoting the carnival and the actual culture of the people to whom the carnival belongs. "Some higher person from a first-world country looks at a third-world country and goes - 'Oh, look at those people dancing in the streets and having fun. They are poor and deprived. Let's pick a little of this and put it in a deprived borough of London.' Then an arts organization comes along, gives money and tells people what a carnival should address. This is against the spirit of the carnival. How can an arts organization know what people's dreams are? You make your dreams with what you have. Everything in the carnival from the costume to the performance is made from one's own resources. Carnival is about our relationship with ourselves," asserts the talented performer. Today, Roberts travels frequently to the Caribbean and attempts to participate and preserve the carnival practices there.
But she has not confined herself just to the promotion and preservation of the carnival. Since 1999, she has become part of Bragod, a musical collaboration between herself and Welsh musician, Robert Evans, dedicated to reviving medieval and renaissance Welsh music and poetry. Evans is a trained fiddler who has extensively researched Welsh musical instruments. Bragod works with the crwth - a bowed lyre that was popular in Europe between the 10th and 18th centuries.
Their performances are very popular amongst music lovers and even lay people come to experience and enjoy a relatively unfamiliar style of music. As one hears the two perform - Evans on the crwth and Roberts as the singer - one experiences a striking mix of cultural influences. Robert's being, wrapped in the spirit of the carnival, provides a bold and primordial vocal rendition to the verse that evokes every part of her body while it is being sung. Combined with the mathematically precise and rustic music of Evans's crwth, the duo's performance presents a unique intercultural experience.
There are critics and connoisseurs of the Bragod. To some it is high-flown and, in an unspoken way, Roberts's intervention is just a bit too 'foreign'. To others, it is an 'immersive' experience into a world distinct from contemporary times. Bragod has earned praise in Wales, Ireland, Mexico, Sardinia, Trinidad and India. Recently, Richard Graham, a young filmmaker from Scotland, heard the performance in Cardiff and thought it was "mesmerizing". "It is amazing when people from different cultures come and give to an art the best they can offer - in the process making it new and alive," he says.
Roberts embodies a truly intercultural spirit. "After my visit to India in 2002, I asked my mother why I felt more at home in India than in Africa. And she said, 'Indian culture in Trinidad is a whole. African culture in Trinidad was taken away from the slaves in colonial times. What we now see is more tenuous and fractured.' I am from a truly multicultural society... so many cultures came to this island and they exist in such proximity."
Roberts's ethnic background is a mix of African, Chinese, French, Spanish, English and native American. This eclectic mix has endowed her with many talents that she evokes through the varied arts and media she works in. But most strikingly her eclectic cultural background has enabled her to value the crafts and practices of different cultures on their own aesthetic terms and work with people by touching the human spirit common to all people, irrespective of color or culture.