A report by Wesley Gibbings for Trinidad’s Guardian.
Derek Walcott’s famous collaborations with award-winning Canadian-American music producer, Galt McDermot, included productions such as The Charlatan, The Joker of Seville and, the much less acclaimed, O Babylon!—staged over the years in cities such as New York, London and in Port-of-Spain in the mid-1970s.
For US jazz trombonist turned journalist, Adam Penenberg, O Babylon!—“a forgotten masterpiece”—provided a unique insight into the world of the famous poet whom he only met in person years later.
Mention of the New Yorker’s involvement in the “reggae opera” had been the ice-breaker leading into a conversation with the late Nobel Laureate.
Penenberg could have rested entirely on his journalistic laurels when he travelled to Jamaica in March to be part of a team of investigative journalism trainers but for the fateful morning of the 17th when news of Walcott’s passing circulated among the Caribbean participants assembled at Runaway Bay along the island’s north coast.
The news stopped the well-known investigative journalist in his tracks.
“It’s not like I had been following Walcott’s career or anything,” he said, “but I do know he was a pivotal figure not just for the Caribbean, but for the world. He was a towering figure.”
The two met at a book-signing at Barnes and Noble a few years after the New York staging of O Babylon! Penenberg, Walcott collection in hand, had decided to introduce himself via his McDermot credentials.
“He spoke like he wrote,” Penenberg remembers, “he was one of those who spoke in full paragraphs and every word was perfect.
“I was very touched by his brilliance and his ability to express himself so beautifully.”
The O Babylon! experience was, to Penenberg, also a chance turning point in his now abandoned musical career.
“I was in college and this trombone player in our jazz band said ‘hey my dad has a band would you come in and sub for the trombone player’ and I said ‘sure’ and I went up there and I played,” he said.
In the end, the original trombonist turned up for the rehearsal “but they said oh well play with us anyway.”
“So I played and I had a really good day that day…I took things up a few octaves…and they said ‘hey you wanna join the band?’ So I didn’t know what the guy had done…and he said ‘well do you know the musical called Hair?’”
“The fact is I had listened to Hair every Sunday. That was it!”
He remembers practice sessions for O Babylon! “in a small space at the Lincoln Centre” before they moved to the famed SIR rehearsal space in New York where McDermot had assembled legendary drummer, Bernard Purdie, jazz and funk bassist Wilbur “Bad” Bascomb, a choir and a guitarist whose name he could not recall.
Mc Dermot was on the piano and Penenberg remembers hearing the “amazing” voice of Carl Hall whose soprano solos on the O Babylon! 1980 album have only recently been re-released as mp3 downloads on Amazon.
The performance was eventually staged at the Symphony Space on Broadway—“a glorious experience,” Penenberg concludes.
The music had brought tears to his eyes.
Today, a journalism lecturer and writer whose 1998 work on exposing a fabricated story in The New Republic generated the storyline for the 2003 drama, Shattered Glass, Penenberg is nostalgic about his days as a musician.
For the journalist, O Babylon! remains an enduring highlight of a musical career now some considerable distance behind him.
As many in the group in Jamaica recounted their own experiences, this was his memorable Walcott story.