Friday, 17 April 2009

Levi Tafari, Poet

Levi looked at me with assessing eyes. I could see that he was trying to work out my intentions and it made me nervous. My intentions were not very profound.

Of Jamaican heritage and West African roots, he is a celebrated poet, playwright and musician. His compelling face and background make him an ideal subject to photograph.

On a dark rainy afternoon in November, I knocked on Levi’s door. Amongst all his other accomplishments, he is a trained Cordon Bleu chef and I had a vague motion of a man and his kitchen. This idea was swiftly dispatched when I found out that two others had been there before. The knife and the elaborate dish trick had been executed. I certainly did not want to be derivative.

That day Levi put together a simple meal of moist Jamaican fruit bun, thickly sliced and smeared with butter, and topped by a young cheese. To accompany we had fruit tea. He placed this gracious treat on mats in the dining room on a square glass table and invited me to sit down. I asked Levi which place was his. He is married, with a son and a daughter, and everyone in families has “their” place at the table. I did not want to start things off on the wrong seating.

We talked, circling a mishmash of topics. Often being described as an Urban Griot, I could see why. For starters, he jumped right into politics and the pending displacement of world powers. This was duly followed by food and Liverpool, mixed with various aside stories. The finale was why Levi had a Jamaican accent (of sorts), although he had been born and raised in Toxteth.

His formative years were passed in a large Victorian house owned by an aunt where he only heard foreign accents. A Barbadian family lived on the ground floor, Nigerians above, and Levi and his family on the top floor. When Levi first went to school he was placed in a class for the incomprehensible.

In the two hours I stayed, Levi never ceased to look at me with those questioning eyes. At the end he asked, so what about my kitchen, is it right for the shoot? I paused. It does not say enough about you, I said. He looked disappointed, and retorted, but it is only a kitchen. Exactly, I answered, and added hurriedly, there is not enough natural light anyway.

Thus it was agreed that I would shoot him in my studio, black on black. Just in case this did not happen, I took a few very dark shots of him in the kitchen in front of a metal wall organiser. Then I left and worried all the way down the dock road. Would he cancel?

As soon as I arrived home, I loaded the few photos onto my computer. Underexposed, but very good. Levi has a great face and he is very relaxed in front of the camera. I pressed auto contrast in Photoshop and the images took on new life. If necessary, they would pass muster.

The shoot did happen, and Levi gave generously of his time. He was extremely loquacious and we continued to explore a medley of topics. I had worried what he would think of my home, but I need not have. As a matter of fact he had had the same worries about what I had thought of his after a tactless comments during our first meeting. This is a man who pays close attention to words.

A week later I posted the contact sheets off to Levi. The next afternoon I was driving home after a really upsetting day and my mobile rang. It was Levi; ecstatic, full of heart-felt praise. He just wanted me to know immediately how much he loved the photos. His words flowed down my hands-free like beautiful, warm, soothing honey, sheer poetry and music to the ears. Levi, champion of Liverpool 8, Urban Griot and conscious-raiser, had cheered me up.