Based in inner-city London for nearly 30 years, poet, novelist and musician Anthony Joseph talks to Newsday about coming home to record an album on Trinidad’s remote north-east coast and playing his first live show in Port of Spain
Anthony Joseph answers my video call bare-chested and leaning against the wooden house in Sans Souci where he is recording his new album. His trademark beard is greying – understandably for an artist who recently turned 50. With beads hanging from his neck, he is the very image of a Bohemian city man gone rustic.
I put it to him that he looks great for his age, and very relaxed.
“Yeah, well, I’m on the coast!” he says, in a self-explanatory way, smiling from ear to ear.
Surrounded by coconut trees, the sea within earshot, frigate birds gliding lazily on the thermal currents, he is on a different planet from the streets of Camberwell, south-east London – the place he now calls home.
Born and raised in Mt Lambert, Joseph left Trinidad for England in 1989 and has spent the best part of three decades there writing poetry and novels, making music and touring Europe. “I like to think that home is where you want it to be,” he says. It’s a philosophy of adaptability that may come from his childhood growing up with his grandparents.
“My mum and dad had me when they were pretty young: my mum was only 18 and still living with her father.
“Then she got pregnant with my brother and my grandfather said, ‘You can’t have two children in the house – get rid of one.’”
Though he cannot remember the separation from his mother at just 18 months old, he has been told it was very traumatic.
“It was what made me a poet,” he says, as though the experience is something he processed, channelled and owned a long time ago. “Being torn away made me very insular and gave me a particular relationship with language. It wasn’t positive, but it was pivotal.”
Growing up in a middle-class suburb in the 1980s with musical influences from friends that included heavy metal acts Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, as well as calypso and pan, a career in a band was more of a dream, not a reality. As a young man his talents were mostly focused on writing, but after arriving in London, already self-identifying as a poet and experimenting with a rock band, he realised he could combine his poetry with music. Since that epiphany, his style of juicy, rhythmic spoken word – in a voice not dissimilar to Isaac Hayes – over the top of funky, sax-heavy free jazz, has led to notable success, particularly in France, where he has been signed to the Paris label Heavenly Sweetness for ten years.
His label bosses have made the dream of recording in Trinidad come true. He will also perform live for the first time on home soil at Kaiso Blues Cafe tomorrow night.
The Sans Souci adventure is the icing on an already very sweet cake.
“My engineer said, ‘What’s the point sitting in a hot studio in Port of Spain when we could be out among the nature feeling the vibe of the island?’”
Scouting for a location, they stumbled upon a guest house owned and recently renovated by artist Eddie Bowen. The band has converted the place into a temporary studio, and ten crew members are sleeping where they can – some on blow-up mattresses – and enjoying the bonus of food being delivered twice a day from the Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel.
Joseph confesses to feeling lucky to be able to travel back and forth between this idyllic place and his adopted home across the Atlantic.
In his early 20s, desperate to leave the Caribbean – lured, as he says by the big metropolitan city and bitten by the “postcolonial effect, where we think our future lies abroad” – he took his chance to move to London. While he was familiar with the culture, iconography and weather through books and television, he was not prepared for the bland food and “the sense of dislocation from Trinidad: my spiritual and ancestral home.”
While writing his Caribbean sci-fi novel, The African Origins of UFOs (“about time travel through DNA”) in 2006, Joseph had an urge to put the words to music, which led to his first 12-inch EP, Spirit Lash.
His current project also features the words of a forthcoming novel, The Frequency of Magic, scheduled for publication in 2019 (after another book, a “fictional biography” of Lord Kitchener, is published by Peepal Tree Press in June 2018.)
Both books were written as part of a PhD that Joseph completed last year at Goldsmiths, the university in Deptford, south London that spawned the wildly successful Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
Among the musicians playing on the as-yet-untitled speed-funk album, scheduled for release in the new year, are his long-standing bassist Andrew John, new songwriter, arranger and saxophonist Jason Yarde, and guest appearances by Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Ella Andall and the ubiquitous 3canal.
Whether any sneak previews will be aired at Kaiso Blues Cafe remains to be seen. The performances (one at 6pm and a late show at 8.30pm) are billed as the first live outing in Trinidad for Joseph’s 2016 album Caribbean Roots.