Von Martin has signed off his Caribbeana radio program on WPFW-FM the same way for years: “If you’re drinking, don’t drive; if you’re driving, don’t drink,” he says in a gentle Trinidadian lilt. “People, remember: I love ya.”
The feeling appears to be mutual: In January, Martin was honored with a Mayor’s Arts Award, and this week, the Organization of American States, where Martin has worked since 1978, gave him its Leo Row Award for staff members who go beyond the call of duty. (Martin’s daily OAS news program, The Americas Today, is syndicated throughout the Caribbean.)
On Sunday, Martin will be feted by legendary calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow and others at Zanzibar for his 30 years of service to the community, which includes volunteering at WPFW, producing the Caribbeana Comedy Festival, and working on DC Carnival.
Martin’s a tireless chronicler and advocate of Caribbean culture—as the 20,000 albums in his collection attest. He’s lectured internationally, consulted for the Smithsonian, produced documentaries about West Indian music for National Public Radio, contributed to the book Ah Come Back Home: Perspectives on the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, and begun writing another about the history of steel-pan drums.
But Caribbeana is Martin’s primary way of sharing his knowledge. “From the time the show finishes, I live with it in my head,” he says. “I’m listening to music in the car, listening to the community.”
Martin, 63, was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and moved to D.C. in 1967 to attend Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia). His was the first voice heard on WPFW when he spoke into an open mic during a 1976 equipment check. The station signed on for good in February 1977, and Martin has been the host of Caribbeana ever since.
Every Saturday night from 7 to 10, Martin entertains D.C.’s West Indian diaspora with a mixture of music, news, and in-depth interviews for what he calls “a radio magazine.” His show always begins with an hourlong set of Caribbeanized covers of pop songs, such as John Holt’s reggae version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” and Kenny J’s soca version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Then come news, sports, and interviews, followed by a mixture of steel-pan music, calypso, Caribbean jazz, and more.
But it’s not just West Indian folks who have benefited from Martin’s dedicated scholarship. Dera Tompkins, a longtime reggae promoter in D.C., says that in the late ’70s, Martin’s show helped introduce her to the music, culture, and politics of the West Indies. “I definitely did not know very much about anything in [the Caribbean],” she says. “Von is one of the people who’s helped make the link between our cultures. As a black American, it’s been a beautiful thing to discover the Caribbean, and it was through doors like Von’s program that you could pass through and the link became real.”
Another important portal for West Indian music and news in D.C. is John Blake’s WHUR-FM program, The Caribbean Experience, on the air since 1971 and now heard every Saturday night from midnight until 6 a.m. Sunday. Blake will co-host Martin’s tribute at Zanzibar, which is only fitting: It was on his show that Martin first hit the D.C. airwaves, in the early ’70s. “He worked with me on the radio program, doing news on what’s going on in the community,” says Blake, a fellow Trinidadian. “Von’s quite a guy. He’s really committed to what he does. I just pray for his health; he’s had some challenges.”
In 2000, Martin developed a blood clot in his leg during a long flight to London and nearly died from deep vein thrombosis. He was stuck in England for four months before doctors would let him fly home. Another close call happened in 2002, when Martin and his wife, Brenda, were on a European cruise for their 30th wedding anniversary. “While in Italy, I collapsed; I couldn’t breathe. They took me to the ship’s infirmary,” he says. Martin was hospitalized for 10 days in Malta due to congestive heart failure and hypoxia, both caused by severe sleep apnea, which was exacerbated by his weight problem. He’s worked on trying to lose some of the heft, but Martin’s ample belly indicates he still has a ways to go. “I’m going to get gastric bypass surgery. I’ve eaten a lot of nice food for my life, man,” he laughs.
The Zanzibar tribute was partially born out of the Caribbean community’s realization that it almost lost one of its main voices and champions. Martin says, “All these guys told me, ‘Look, we want to do this for you—we need to do this for you. Many times you’ve nearly gon’ left us; we want to do it while you’re here.’”
The Mighty Sparrow was a natural choice as headliner. “Sparrow, to me, is one of the most important calypsonians, intellectually or otherwise,” Martin says. “He’s also committed to his people and his art form. He had an opportunity to become as [popular] as Harry Belafonte, but he didn’t. He chose to remain grounded in the society.”—Christopher Porter
“Tribute to Caribbeana,” featuring the Mighty Sparrow, Tocos, and Ayanna, takes place on Sunday, April 23, at Zanzibar, 700 Water St. SW. For more information, call (202) 554-9100.
During his three-decade career, Von Martin has interviewed thousands of people. When asked about his favorites, he eventually cites calypsonians the Mighty Sparrow and Growling Tiger as well as reggae legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. But three politicians sprang to Martin’s mind first.
Colin Powell, secretary of state (2001Ð2005), son of Jamaican immigrants
“I was proud as a West Indian that he had reached so far. It’s not every day that a West Indian—or a second generation West Indian—obtains the level he has. Many people may not have sat in the same saddle with him politically, but he was indeed one of those who stood in terms of his achievement. So that I liked.”
Michael Manley, Jamaican prime minister (1972Ð1980, 1989Ð1992)
“Michael was all charisma; he was on top of his game. His questions, always on target. The man just knew the stuff, and he could articulate it smoothly. Just fantastic. After one of the last interviews I did with him, he said, ‘Man, this was a good interview; this was the best interview I’ve ever done.’ I felt proud with him telling me that, man. Because the questions were right on target, and his responses spurred me on to ask more pertinent questions. He was a true, true leader. A visionary.”
Forbes Burnham, Guyanese prime minister and president (1964-1985)
“He was certainly quite a character—a strong power figure. When [political activist] Walter Rodney was killed, I asked him about it. He told me, while sitting down in a chair and relaxing with his grandson in his arms, ‘Walter was not a serious politician. Politics is a matter of life and death.’ And he just continued on,” Martin laughs, amazed at the politician’s power to be so polite about something so ruthless. “He had power—the way the chief of staff would bow down to him and say, ‘Comrade Leader,’ and that kind of stuff. Yet at the same time, the way he spoke to me, the way he responded to me with such niceness. Oh, gosh, something else.”