Jay Telfer lived with passion and style


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Category: Profiles 05 Apr 15

April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow....

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Only There is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

—The Waste Land by T S Eliot

It was an open casket. He lay there, a slim ‘red’ man with a face so peaceful he may as well have had his feet crossed, lying somewhere in the dry grass looking at the Savannah. What I didn’t get at the funeral of Everest Cecil Telfer Jnr, (Jay—born August 27, 1929, died March 26) while the sun came streaming in from four corners of St Theresa’s church in Woodbrook, is how it all felt so light. He looked like an Indian Sikh, wore the colours of the flag of T&T, was born Catholic, a devotee of Sai Baba, an intellectual, and a Sufi who loved the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. I thought then, we should each write our obituary in our lifetime. It will help us to see ourselves.

Last April he saw through me as if I was made of air. He knew my deepest dreams. He told me two things, to go deep within, to stop playing to the gallery. There are people who look at you, and people who actually see you. He was the banished, the fear and nourished the hope in all he encountered.

This was more than a service put together by his wife, Ruth, and his best friend, Francesca Hawkins. This was a reflection of a new world man, a Trinidadian who dared to claim all the continents bequeathed to him. There was a poem by Rabindranath Tagore. There was the Bach concerto for two violins. There was Dr Len Boogsie Sharpe with clear notes of the single pan with Amazing Grace.

This is a cruel month, I thought, as I saw the Minsh—an iconic figure amongst us—his hat and head bowed, walking into the church as if he was bracing for the next blow. The quickly rotting blossoms remind me of how, despite our constant connected online presence, how ironically, our access to global news and people has actually shrivelled our lives to tiny electronic devises.

Jay lived large and plenty. His first memory must have been his mother playing the piano to silent movies in a theatre owned by his father. He grew up around Calypso and toyed with the idea of being a Catholic priest.

In the 50s in New York, he grasped the idea of black consciousness through men like Harry Belafonte and Stokely Carmichael. While working in a jazz club, he met and grooved to the music of the greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane; his natural West Indian rhythm blending into their soul of jazz.

Upon meeting men like Michael X, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, he absorbed Pan Africanism. In the 60s, now back home, he worked with Dr Eric Williams, this country’s first prime minister, in the Economic Planning Unit along with intellectual giants such as Willie Demas, Ben Primus and Frank Rampersad.

Back in London in the seventies, there were the heady days of the early momentum of the Nottinghill Carnival with Sir Learie Constantine and Peter Minshall.

Everyone from Ray Charles, to Stevie Wonder, frequented his club, Ambiance. His friend Felipe Noguera called Jay a widely read spiritual warrior. He went to India for two years in the 70s with Ruth where he lived in an ashram with Sai Baba when he became a lifelong devotee.

He must have begun wearing his turban around then because in response to an incredulous Indian in London who wondered why he did not speak Hindi, he said, “I do speak Hindi, ‘West Hindi.’”

Flipping back to Trinidad in the late 70s with his third bride, Ruth, wanting to start a Calypso Musician’s Union he befriended Roy Cape and Leroy Calliste (Black Stalin), a collaboration that lasted a lifetime. It was the start of his lifelong devotion to Despers steelband.

Yes, I thought, looking around the church, this was a true, true Trini. A man who wore red, white and black for decades. Jay wasn’t a wealthy man, but a man rich with life.

A young friend Valentina Pollonais read a poem she wrote about him, “Armed with an extensive knowledge of art, literature, poetry, spirituality and religion, calypso, pan and at times a Guinness bottle, Jay helped us all figure out our own journey, while at the same time revelling in his.”

Jay’s death and funeral fell between two eclipses, between the pink and yellow flowerings flaring gold in Easter, and the Holy Week. His friends encircled him in the cremation grounds in Caroni where (following the Catholic service) he was given Hindu and Orissa rites. As the flames engulfed him, Jay showed us we are the sum of the opposite of fear, the sum of how brightly we choose to light up those around us.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur