With a radio show dedicated to all things Caribbean, a communications company built to preserve his Trinidadian heritage and an annual Father’s Day island-infused comedy event, Von Martin could be considered the unofficial ambassador of the tropical region. This weekend he will host the 24th annual Caribbeana Comedy Festival, bringing in song and laughter from both local and Caribbean-based performers.
Martin, who also hosts the long-running Caribbean music and culture program “Caribbeana” Saturday evenings on WPFW-FM, talked with The Root DC about the legacy of his home country, bridging African American and Afro-Caribbean relations and why laughter is a great way to celebrate family relationships.
The first time I did it, I wanted to celebrate my birthday of my radio program on WPFW. The comedy festival started 24 years ago. It started at first as a “talk tent.” Back home we have something where entertainers stand up on a stage and talk — usually it’s humorous, but it’s talking about life, about stories, about politicians.
We tried it, and it didn’t catch on until we changed the concept to comedy, where we’d bring stand-up comics. People who do the same kind of thing but make it very laughable. We talk about the lifestyles, and it gave people a sense of comfort, reminding them of back home.
Your weekly radio show, which has been on the air for 35 years, was originally started to have a voice for the Caribbean community?
I thought that doing a radio program would give us an opportunity to be an exposé to the world. I’ve collected a mass of information, interviews, music. I have music that was recorded in 1934. Calypso was very popular here in the United States, so we have all of this out my collection. My kids decided that instead of letting this go to waste . . . we formed a company called Caribbeana Communications Inc., which is to . . . institutionalize this memory bank that we have.
We’ve developed something called the 3 E’s: to educate, entertain and enlighten. And by that I mean I educate people that are not in the Caribbean. I tell them what the Caribbean is about politically, socially, culturally, and then I entertain those who are from there, and I enlighten those who are from there. I will do research and present documentaries on the activity. That gives me an opportunity to reach out to wider audience that just a typical Caribbean audience.
How do you feel that relations have improved between the Afro-Caribbean and the African American community since you’ve been in Washington?
When I first started, there were some antagonists existing. But then I realized all that happened because people didn’t know who we were. People didn’t know who Afro-Caribbeans were, and some African Americans didn’t even know we were from there. When I grew up, for example, I didn’t know there were black Americans. I only found out when a ship came to Trinidad, and we saw black figures on the ship.
This was an opportunity to help bridge that gap, because there’s a lot of cross-cultural interchange. We like similar things, we like similar foods and so forth. The program helps to dissipate that and to show that link in the cross-cultural impact. Over the years I think it has improved in the sense that you don’t have a second-generation Caribbean. People like my children are now Americans, born here. They live in both worlds. You still have some antagonisms going on between both parties, but I don’t think it is as much as before.
Why has it always fallen around Father’s Day?
It used to be on the last weekend of June, and they started doing the carnival around that weekend. I moved it from that weekend to Father’s Day weekend, and I saw that there’s a custom that we have in New York — a Mother’s Day festival — so we celebrate with a typical Caribbean show. I thought Father’s Day would be a good opportunity where . . . a child could bring a father or a wife could bring a husband to sit and talk and laugh and hear some good jokes.
I think it’s going to be a wonderful exposéof the region. It won’t be an accent that people won’t understand. I think it will be in a manner that will be clear. As the host of the activity, I think it’s important that people understand this mix of contemporary and classic Caribbean expressions is very unique. I would love the Caribbean culture to draw non-Caribbeans, and this is what we are seeking out to do as we advance further. Our hope is to keep this authenticity of Caribbean culture in the community, while creating bridges to a mainstream audience.
The festival beginsat 7 p.m. Sunday in Cramton Auditorium at Howard University. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door. Visit caribbeana.org for more information.
Read more on The Root DC