FRIENDS, colleagues and well-wishers gathered recently at the Kariwak Village, Crown Point, Tobago, to celebrate the launch of a memoir of John Arnold: A Tobago Son.
Written by Lisa Allen-Agostini, the memoir is an inspiring tale of the events and experiences which moulded Arnold into one of the island’s cultural giants.
It details, among other things, Arnold’s early life in Bethel, his exploits with the Signal Hill Alumni Choir and his battle with prostate cancer.
Arnold, in opening remarks, told guests the idea was conceptualised about five years ago but work on the memoir began in earnest during the covid19 pandemic.
Arnold said he initially wanted to name the book Eventologist, owing to the number of events he was involved in at the time. But he said Allen-Agostini persuaded him to focus on other elements, including his love of music. Many of the interviews were done via Zoom.
Arnold, who read excerpts of the memoir, said it was an eye-opener.
Even though he had read all of the manuscripts, “When I had the real book, it was like a completely different experience,” he said. “The book is blatantly honest. And when I say that I mean every word.”
He believes it is important for Tobagonians to document their stories, the history of the island and all the people who contributed to its development.
The event on November 24 was hosted by former independent senator and educator Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, one of Arnold’s long-time friends and mentors.
McKenzie, who has been the MC at all of Arnold’s shows over the years, lauded his passion as an artist. She recalled his meticulousness in organising graduation ceremonies at Signal Hill Secondary but noted he was never at the forefront of the ensemble.
“In the Signal Hill Alumni Choir you hardly saw John when he was playing,” she said. “Very many musicians accompany their choirs in the front or by the side. John in the back. Is only when the choir moves off the stage, you see this fella there.”
McKenzie, in her typical folksy style, drew chuckles from the audience when she said Arnold “lets down” his bottom lip during performances
“Sometimes I have to remind him to pull up he bottom lip.”
McKenzie recalled it was Arnold’s mother, Jean, who introduced him to music.
“John does not boast about this, but he got a lot of the musical start from a woman who was one of the first female pannists in Tobago. She and two others started female pan sides in Tobago.”
As a deeply-religious woman. McKenzie said, Jean often played soft, soothing music as a pannist.
“John grew up in that atmosphere, but he moved on to other instruments, including the piano.”
However, she said, Arnold was not supposed to play what were called “banta” songs.
“We, as children, when we go out on a Sunday, we could sing anything but don’t sing any banta song. Anything outside of a religious song, a hymn, was a banta song. So yuh can’t sing calypso, yuh cyah play steelpan.
“Yuh can’t do anything on a Sunday, except church thing. So he started off within the confines of the church, but it eh last long because of the passion of the rhythm and the beat, the passion of life.”
McKenzie regarded Arnold as a sharing individual, who gave freely of his expertise to cultural groups in the island’s primary schools, especially in Charlotteville.
She also applauded his thirst for perfection and knowledge. Arnold is currently doing a PhD in cultural studies at the St Augustine campus of UWI.
Kariwak founder Allan Clovis said he has known Arnold for about 40 years. In fact, he said Arnold helped to build the hotel’s brand.
“One of the things about John is that he seemed to have had a kind of passion for seeking out talent,” he said.
Clovis said he often makes a point of examining how people with whom he has had a personal relationship treat others.
“That is the test of who we really are, because you never know….You look at how the person you choose to be close to treats people beyond your sphere.
“I’ve looked at John and I have noticed his quest for seeking out and bringing out the best in them. And then his job is over. I would say that is probably what stands out most in my mind.”
Clovis said throughout Arnold’s career, he recognised and stood on the shoulders of Tobago’s cultural stalwarts.
Former THA secretary of infrastructure Kwesi Des Vignes worked intimately with Arnold on several major cultural and entertainment projects, including one of the island’s signature events, the Tobago Jazz Experience.
Des Vignes, who regarded Arnold as a friend and mentor, praised his professionalism and work ethic. He noted Arnold received a Hummingbird medal (gold) for culture and the arts in the 2011 national awards.
He believes Arnold, like all of Tobago’s cultural figures, should be honoured and cherished.
Deputy Chief Secretary and Secretary of Health, Wellness and Social Protection Dr Faith BYisrael admitted she did not know Arnold personally, but had learnt of his impact on Tobago’s cultural landscape. She said she was very impressed by his commitment to his craft over the years.
BYisrael, who a read a few lines of the memoir’s introduction, noted that Arnold spoke about the influence of the piano in laying the foundation for his career in music. She also said the image of a laughing Arnold on the book’s cover depicted the man in his element.
BYisrael urged people to document their stories. She said what might appear to be mundane to some could be hugely beneficial to others.
A Tobago Son is available on Amazon.
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