Commentary: Different places, different traces – By Dave Martins + Music video

Stabroek News- By Dave Martins 

One of the benefits of my life as professional musician for over 65 years is that I’ve seen many different countries, some of which I have lived in, during my time – starting with Guyana, where I lived on the West Demerara, first at Hague, my birth place, then Vreed-en-Hoop, where the family moved when I was going to school in town – first at Sacred Heart High School on Main Street and then St. Stanislaus College on Brickdam.

After graduating from Saints and getting a job with B. G. Airways, I then lived at Atkinson Field with my eldest sister Theresa’s family (she was married to Joe Gonsalves) before migrating to Canada in 1955, where I joined my mother and three other sisters in Toronto (they had migrated earlier).       

It was there that I married Dorothy Walker (we had two children, Luana and Tony) and started Tradewinds in 1966.  After some 25 years in Toronto, with Tradewinds becoming popular across the Caribbean, I moved to Grand Cayman, relocating the band there in 1980 and travelling from there across North America and in annual trips to the region which had started in 1967. In the band’s early years, from our Toronto base and our own nightclub, We Place, we were crisscrossing North America on weekend engagements that took us across the continent from Halifax in the east to Vancouver in the west, and from summer time Montreal to South Florida’s Miami and Orlando.

I wasn’t directly conscious of it at the time, but in all the places I lived as an adult I was continuing the example of my father, Joseph Francis Martins, who was a successful farmer in the Pomeroon with two farms on opposite sides of the river about a mile or so from Charity. In all the places I’ve lived, including the present one in Oleander Gardens, I was continuing my father’s life pattern by spending a lot of time cultivating trees in my yard.  It started in Canada where I had purchased a house in Willowdale, just north of Toronto, and although it was nothing like the three-acre spread I would later acquire in Cayman, I found space in the backyard to plant sweet corn on one side of the property and even some strawberry bushes closer to the house.

I pause here to say that if you ever eat corn on the cob, picked and immediately cooked, you will be astounded at the difference in taste that immediate cooking gives you before the starches in the corn begin to break down. In general, too, the array of fruits and vegetables that Canada produces in the summer, with all of it readily available at roadside vendors every week of the warm weather, made our Toronto summers a time of fabulous eating. And when I moved Tradewinds from Toronto to Grand Cayman in 1980, after our recordings had become popular in the Caribbean, I quickly acquired an acre of reclaimed swamp land, close to the capital, George Town, where I proceeded to plant coconut trees in an area with no running fresh water.  It was the only plant to survive that harsh environment, but I didn’t mind – I was planting. What a difference – corn and strawberries in Toronto, coconuts in Grand Cayman.

That first venture in Cayman was close to the sea, which was ideal for coconuts but not much else, so I soon started looking for prime agricultural land and found a great spot to the east, with the encouragement of a Caymanian neighbour, Kurt Tibbetts, who had built his family home in an area called Northward, and Kurt steered me to the land immediately across from his, which he knew to be on sale, and I ended up buying those three acres for a house and to plant my beloved fruit trees (sorry, but I don’t spend five minutes on decorative plants).  I started from day one, getting a backhoe operator to come in and clear all the dense tangle of bush and wild trees covering the property, leaving standing the only useful tree to be found inside the spread – a towering locust, or in Guyanese lingo “stinking toe” tree, that was sitting, completely obscured, in the centre of this three-acre expanse of bush.

I gave the backhoe operator strict instructions: “Clear everything growing, and I mean everything, but don’t touch the local mango tree at the very entrance to the land, and the one stinking toe tree on the property.” From a kid in Guyana, I love locust. My mother would complain about the odour when I would bring one home and crack it open with a hammer, but I ate every morsel and even licked my fingers afterward.  In Cayman, my plan from the beginning, however, with a lot of encouragement from my then wife, Angela Ebanks, was some of the more acclaimed fruit trees growing all over the three Cayman Islands, and I couldn’t wait to get going. I had already picked out the spot on the land where the house would go, adjacent to a natural rock hole which was ready-made for a freshwater cistern, and coincidentally on the highest part of the property – perfect home site. Furthermore, given my impatience to get planting, I now had the way clear to plant on every square foot of the three acres, except where the house and the cistern and the septic tank would go. Hallelujah!

Previously I had made friends with a neighbour, Harding Watler, a Caymanian living in the same Northward area – himself a fruit trees man, too – and in short order, with some help from him, I had already instructed the back hoe operator to look for ideal planting spots when he was clearing the overgrowth. With the pocket holes of red mould already identified by the back hoe probing, the fruit trees I had in mind to plant had already been ordered from a nursery in Miami, timed to arrive when the planting pockets were ready, and in short order, with no work on a house whatsoever having been done, my Jamaican gardener helper Nicholl and I got busy adding planting soil and fertiliser to the holes, and gradually inserting and propping up the three-foot-high seedlings from the Miami nursery.

The US list included 9 mango trees, including my favourites, Nam Doc Mai, Southern Blush, and Tommy Atkins, along with East Indian, Valencia Pride, and of course, Julie, and a couple others, to go along with the local flavours of Cayman Long Mango. I also had three sapodillas, two breadnut, two breadfruit, two carambola, two golden apple, three whiteys (it was unknown in Cayman; I had brought seeds from Guyana) and, right at the very entrance to the property, a towering old Cayman Mango tree, not in the best shape, but standing there like a sentinel for years –  the fruit were truly not very good but the tree looked like it had been there before I was born….I didn’t have the heart to cut it down and it stands there to this day on the property, watching you as you drive in, imposing, almost regal. Mango icon. And, oh yes, the lone stinking toe tree is also still there.

That planting surge took place about five years after I had moved to Cayman. Angela and I had been living in an apartment close to town, and our first child Annika came when we were living there, but also saving and planning for this move to the east once we had identified the land. Just this past week, I was chiding a Guyanese friend, H.S. Williams, who wrote on Facebook about the wild monkeys near him in Barbados that came out of the bushes and ate his ripe mangoes and, in his words, “eat the ripe mangoes and spitefully pick the green ones and drop them.”  It reminded me of my experience with monkeys in Cayman so I wrote H. S. as follows: “Nice try, but you got this wrong. The Bajan monkeys not spiteful; they’re just smart.  They eat the ripe mangoes, but when they pick the others and see they’re green, they just drop them; why waste time.  That’s not spiteful; that’s smart.” When I lived in Cayman, I had a mango tree close to the house; the monkeys used to invade.  I would chase them.

One day I’m up in the tree, picking, and a parrot flies in, lights 6 feet from me and starts one yammering obviously busing me for getting in his way.  I chased his ass. The Cayman parrots used to also bite the stems of my young mangoes; some mornings you find 50 or more very tiny, young mangoes on the ground. It would infuriate me. Imagine, in one crop, how many mangoes you would lose this way? The Cayman farmers would shoot them, no questions asked, although I believe it was illegal to do that. To dissuade them, you’re supposed to pelt them out your tree, or set a trap to capture them alive…  In Cayman, if you trap a parrot and take it into the Agriculture Department, they pay you a bounty… I forget how much.  Pretty bird, but very destructive.

Anybody who plants can tell you; there’s always something in your way.  If it’s not dry weather, or the reverse, too much rain, it’s either some insect eating the leaves, or a fungus attacking the fruits, or, as in Cayman, birds competing with you for your mangoes or your whitey. Parrots love whitey;  the crunch of the shell covering the fruit – they love that – and of course when they get to that hard black seed…great work out for the beak – keeps it sharp. I swear to God…I saw this in Cayman.  You’d be standing on the ground using a long stick to pick fruit out of a tree, and the parrots would come in, 20, 30, or more of them, park in an adjacent tree and start up this torrent of cawing and squawking to high heaven – literally giving you what for…you would think it’s their fruit. In a way, I guess it is. Oh yes, different places, different traces.

Back in Guyana now, over 10 years, my father’s genes are still active.  I put in two mango seedlings on Annette’s property in Oleander Gardens (one of them obviously Nam Doc Mai) and a sapodilla, a golden apple, and an ackee…all of them bearing.  Definitely, different places, different traces.


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