JU L 2 6 210-
r bean Quarter|l
olume 45, Nov
The Construction of Identities among Caribbean-Americans
C Jama A dams
The Impact of Hindi on Trinidad English
Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad
Funso Aiyejina and Rawle Gibbons
A Bakhtian Approach to Jamaican Nine Night
Caribbean Music and the Discourse on AIDS
A Comparison of Black Street Parades in New Orleans and Gremio Fiestas in
Christina Bolke Turner
rwo Poems -
C, / o .
VOLUME 45, No.4 DECEMBER, 1999
CAR IB B EAN
(Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission forbidden.)
The Construction of Identities among Caribbean-Americans 1
C. Jama Adams
The Impact of Hindi on Trinidad English 13
Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad 35
Funso Aiyejina and Rawle Gibbons
A Bakhtian Approach to Jamaican Nine Night 51
Caribbean Music and the Discourse on AIDS 70
A Comparison of Black Street Parades in New Orleans and Gremio Fiestas in
Christina Bolke Turner
Two Poems 99
Books Received 102
Notes on Contributors 105
Instructions to Authors 106
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES
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Abstract and Index : 1949-1990 and 1991-1996 Author Keyword and Subject
Index available. The journal is abstracted by AES and indexed by HAPI
Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 45, number 4 the last issue for this century
contains six essays which all examine some aspects of cultural continuity and
synchronicity within the Caribbean region. It is appropriate that we recognize, at
this juncture in our history, that the admonition of the West Indian Commission
"Let All Ideas Contend "is alive and well within the region, and that as a region the
Caribbean has successfully woven a rich cultural heritage from its diverse strands.
The first article, The Construction of Identities Amongst Caribbean- Ameri-
cans, by C. Jama Adams seeks to address this very important concern of identity.
He attempts to analyse the construction of Caribbean-American identities ad-
dressing the themes of trauma and pain, constriction of reflective space and the
near silencing of the authentic voice. Adams argues "that the intellectual work of
Caribbean peoples that is expressed through daily acts of struggle and affirmation
is often either unrecognised or is denigrated as not requiring serious intellectual
Kumar Mahabir's essay examines the Impact of Hindi on Trinidadian
English he traces the use of Hindi, originally the language of religion, and one of
the many languages that were spoken in Trinidad by the indentured labourers and
surmises that its popularity of use might be linked to its use as the language of
Indian movies shown in Trinidad. He also shows how Christian missionaries
craftily gave Hindi names to Christian acts and artefacts of worship and how mass
education tolled the death knell for Hindi, but that both consciousness raising and
the emergence of "chutney music" had led to many Hindi loan-words appearing in
The next article also examines a cultural feature of Trinidad, but from an
African-Trinidadian perspective. Fuso Aiyejina and Rawle Gibbons examine The
Orisa Tradition in Trinidad, The article begins with an analysis of the Yoruba
Orisha tradition from both a historical and a contemporary perspective and also
makes reference to the survival of its forms and its extension into carnival, calypso,
and the representation of popular culture including masking.
The next essay by Huon Wardle, A Bakhtinian Approach to the Jamaican
Nine Night, looks at another quasi-religious rite of passage the wake. He argues
that 'the nine-night provides a nexus for re-shaping cultural understandings in a
dispersed milieu'. Wardle sees the wake as endowing the spirit with a rhthymic
and spatial context a musicality which has an effect on the participants any of
whom barely know the deceased.
In Caribbean Music and Discourse on AIDS, Curwen Best argues that his
essay, 'should serve as a critical resource document on account of its interventive
engagement within a domain of discursive silence'. He examines the lyrics of
songs that refer to AIDS from 1985 to the present day, and notes the shift from
fundamentalist local condemnatory views to conscious lyrics that see AIDS as yet
another social problem. Best argues that if the artist is seen by youth as being a
person won-over to the cause they are likely to listen but merely giving out
condoms in a one-off performance by an artiste for the cause will not be paid much
attention by the youth.
The final paper, A Comparison of Black Street Parades in New Orleans
and Gremio Festivals in Yucatan, by Christina Bolke Turner examines the relation-
ship between different conceptions of festival behaviour, ritual display and symbol-
ism. It demonstrates the structural and functional similarities between the two
disparate traditions and suggests that these similarities stem from comparable
historical backgrounds and socio-cultural positions in the modern world. Further-
more, it allows that the traditional festivals facilitate change while helping to main-
tain cultural continuity.
Two poems by Velma Pollard complete the issue.
Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 45, numero 4, dernier numero de ce siecle
content six essais qui, tous, examinent un aspect quelconque de la culture de la
region des Caraibes, dans sa continuity et sa synchronicity. En effet, il convient
de reconnaitre a ce carrefour de notre histoire que la recommendation faite par la
Commission sur la Caraibe anglophone, ((Permettons les debats didees, est
particulierement vivace dans la region. Reconnaissons aussi que les Caraibes, en
tant que region, ont su career avec success un rice heritage cultural, en tissant les
fils de ses diverse cultures.
Le premier article, la Construction des identities chez les Ameri-
cains d'origine antillaise>, par C. Jama Adams tente de trouver une response a cette
preoccupation si important quest la question de lidentite. II cherche a analyser la
construction de ces identities en abordant les themes de la douleur et du trauma-
tisme, la restriction dun space de reflexion et la reduction presque au silence de
la voix authentique. Selon Adams, (le travail intellectual des peuples de la Caraibe
qui sexprime quotidiennement dans la lutte et I'affirmation est souvent soit non-re-
connu, soit denigre, sous pretexte qu'il nexige pas de sources intellectuelles
L'essai de Kumar Mahabir etudie dl'impact de la langue hindi sur I'anglais
trinidadien . II retrace I'utilisation de I'hindi, langue religieuse a I'origine et une des
diverse langues parlees a la Trinite par les travailleurs engages. II conjecture que
la popularity de son utilisation peut sans doute etre rapprochee du fait que cette
langue etait celle des films indiens diffuses a la Trinite. II montre egalement
comment les missionnaires chretiens ont donned des noms hindis aux actes et aux
objets de culte chretiens et comment la scolarisation de masse a sonne le glas de
I'hindi. Cependant une prise de conscience accrue et I'emergence de la musique
((chutney ) a contribute a I'apparition dans I'anglais trinidadien, d'un bon nombre de
mots empruntes de I'hindi.
L'article suivant examine un autre aspect de la culture trinidadienne mais
cette fois du point de vue afro-trinidadien. Fuso Aiyejina et Rawle Gibbons exami-
nent la tradition des Orishas a la Trinite >. L'article debute par une analyse de la
tradition yoruba des Orishas, a la fois du point de vue historique et d'une perspec-
tive contemporaine. Reference est egalement faite a la survive de ses forces et b
son expansion dans le carnaval, le calypso ainsi que dans des representations de
la culture populaire comme I'art du masque.
Dans I'essai suivant, (une approche bakhtinienne du rituel jamaicain des
Neuf nuits , Huon Wardle etudie un autre rite de passage quasi religieux : la
veillee-mortuaire. II developpe I'argumentation selon laquelle (la veillee mortuaire
des neuf nuits permet d'etablir la liaison necessaire a la restructuration des con-
naissances culturelles dans un milieu disperse ). Wardle concoit la veillee comme
un moment qui ((offre aux esprits un cadre spatial et rythmique (une musicality) )
qui cree un effet sur les participants don't certain connaissent souvent A peine le
Dans la musique antillaise et le discours sur le SIDA , Curwen Best
declare que son essai ((doit servir de resource critique sur la base de son
engagement inter-creatif dans un domaine oOJ le discours est reduit au silence ). II
etudie les paroles des chansons evoquant le SIDA de 1985 a nos jours. II note le
passage d'un point de vue local, integriste et condamnatoire a des paroles plus
conscientes presentant le SIDA comme un problem social comme un autre.
Selon Best, si I'artiste est perqu par les jeunes comme quelqu'un gagne a cette
cause, ceux-ci finiront par ecouter son message. Cependant, s'il sagit s'implement
de distribuer des condoms au course dun spectacle organism par un artiste pour la
cause du SIDA, les jeunes n'y preteront pas beaucoup attention.
Le dernier article, ((une comparison des defiles des quarters noirs de La
Nouvelle Orleans aux festivals gremio du Yucatan par Christina Bolke Turner
etudie les rapports existant entire differentes conceptions du comportement de fete,
les manifestations rituelles et le symbolisme. II demontre les ressemblances
structurelles et fonctionnelles de deux traditions disparates et suggere que ces
ressemblances resultent d'antecedents historiques comparable ainsi que d'une
situation socioculturelle dans le monde moderne analogue. Par ailleurs, I'article
admet que les fetes traditionnelles facilitent le changement tout en aidant a main-
tenir une continuity culturelle.
Ce numero s'acheve sur deux poemes de Velma Pollard.
R6dacteur en chef
Este numero 4 del Volumen 45 de Caribbean Quarterly el ultimo numero
para este siglo incluye seis ensayos, todos los cuales examinan temas re-
lacionados con la continuidad y la sincronizaci6n de las cultures en el Caribe. Es
oportuna reconocer en esta coyuntura de nuestra historic que la advertencia de la
ComisiKn Antillana a Que convivan todas las ideas rige todavia en la region, y que
como region, el Caribe ha logrado tejer un patrimonio cultural de los diversos hilos.
El primer articulo, La Formaci6n de Identidades entire los Americanos
Caribeflos, por C. Jama Adams busca abordar la preocupaci6n fundamental de la
identidad. El autor trata de analizar la formaci6n de identidades americanas
caribefias que tratan los temas del trauma y el dolor, la restricci6n del espacio
reflexive y el silencio casi total de la voz autentica. Argumenta Adams que el
trabajo intellectual de los pueblos caribefos que se manifiesta en las acciones
diarias de lucha y afirmaci6n, a menudo pasa por desapercibido o es menospre-
ciado como si no hubiera necesidad de una fuente intellectual seria.
El ensayo de Kumar Mahabir examine el Impacto del Idioma Hindi sobre el
Ingles Trinitario. Traza el uso del Hindi originalmente el idioma de religion y uno
de los muchos idiomas hablados por los trabajadores contratados y sugiere que su
uso popular se debe a su uso como idioma en las pellculas hinduies exhibidas en
Trinidad. Cuenta como los religiosos cristianos daban nombres hindues a los
ritos y artefactos religiosos cristianos y como la educaci6n masiva termin6 extermi-
nado el hindi, pero que tanto la concientizaci6n y la emergencia de la musica
chutney habia conducido a la introducci6n de muchas palabras prestadas del Hindi
al ingles trinitario.
El siguiente articulo examine otro element cultural de Trinidad, pero
desde una perspective de los trinitarios africanos. Fuso Aiyejina y Rawle Gibbons
examinan La Tradici6n Orisa en Trinidad. El artlculo empieza con la tradici6n
Yoruba Orisha desde una perspective hist6rica y contemporanea y hace referencia
a la sobrevivencia de sus formas y su desenvolvimiento en el carnaval, el calipso
y la representaci6n de la cultural popular incluso el disfraz.
El siguiente ensayo de Huon Wardle Un Acercamiento Bakhtiniano al
Velorio Jamaicano, examine otro rito de transici6n quasireligioso el velorio. Argu-
menta que el velorio (Nine Night) sirve de nexo para la remodelacion de apre-
ciaciones culturales en un entorno disperse. Para Wardle, el velorio es la
dotaci6n del espiritu de un context ritmico y espacial, una musicalidad que
contagia a los participants quienes tienen poco conocimiento del difunto.
Curwen Best en La Musica Caribefla y el Discurso sobre el SIDA argu-
menta que su ensayo deberia servir como un document critic de base dado su
intervenci6n comprometida en el discurso de silencio. Examina las letras de las
canciones que hacen referencia al SIDA desde 1985 hasta la fecha y destaca el
cambio de perspectives fundamentalists locales condenatorias a letras conscien-
tes que ven el SIDA como cualquier otro problema social. Segin Best, si la
juventud ve al artist como alguien que simpatiza con la causa, es much mas
probable que le haga caso. Si se limitara aque el artist regalara condones
durante una funci6n unica, los j6venes no prestarbn much atenci6n a la causa.
El ensayo final, Una Comparaci6n entire los Desfiles Callejeros de Negros
en Nuevo Orleans y los Festivales Gremiales en Yucatin por Cristina Bolke Turner
examine la relaci6n entire los distintos concepts del comportamiento en los
festivales, los ritos ceremoniales y el simbolismo. Destaca las semejanzas estruc-
turales y funcionales entire las dos tradiciones distintas y sugiere que estas seme-
janzas tienen su origen en los antecedentes hist6ricos y posiciones socioculturales
comparable en el mundo modern. Ademas, concluye que los festivales tradi-
cionales facilitan el cambio a la vez que ayudan a conservar la continuidad cultural.
El nimero se complete con dos poemas de Velma Pollard.
The Construction of Identities among Caribbean-Americans
C. JAMA ADAMS
The construction of Caribbean identities has been a daunting task given
the historical forces at work in the region, the resulting enframing ideolo-
gies/metanarratives, the stultifying structural arrangements and the austere and
discriminatory systems of distributive justice.
In this section I will discuss three themes that are constants in the history
of the psychology of the Caribbean peoples. Theses themes must be addressed in
any theorizing about the construction of Caribbean identities. The themes are (1)
trauma and pain, (2) constriction of reflective space, and (3) the near silencing of
the authentic voice.
Trauma and Pain
The historical record of the last four hundred and fifty years is one of
trauma and pain brought about by ethnic cleansing, forced migrations, exploitation
of labour, constrictions on the development of personhood and the propagation of
ideologies that favoured the few over the many.
Stuart Hall (1995, p.6) speaks to this history of trauma and pain. "I don't
want to speak about the nature of this rupture, with the majority of the population
wrenched from their own cultures and inserted into the cultures of the colonizing
plantation relations of slavery. I do not want to talk about the trauma of transporta-
tion, of the break up of linguistic and tribal familial groupings. I don't want to talk
about the brutal aftermath of Indian indenture. I simply want to say that in the
histories of migration forced or free, of peoples who now compose the populations
of these societies, whose cultural traces are everywhere intermingled with one
another, there is always the stamp of historical violence and rupture."
There are myriad consequences to this intergenerational oppression and
denial of worth. Perhaps the most profound one is the pain of disconnection, the
sense that tradition and immortality are not qualities that the community can take
as a given. Equally important it is difficult to make sense of the pain given the
absence of reflective space, the denigration and near destruction of the collective
memory of those who are oppressed.
Constriction of Reflective Space
By reflective space I am speaking to both a psychological space in which a
people can reflect not only on their experience but can also practise life of the mind.
Such a space can be utilized to address the universal need to explore ontological
and epistemological issues. Paget Henry (1997) speaks to the expansive and
obliterating tendencies of dominant and enslaving ideologies that made it difficult to
establish an enriching reflective space. Homi Bhabha (1990) speaks to these
tendencies of the dominating culture when he states "the marginal or the minority
is not the space of a celebratory or utopian self-marginalization. It is a much more
substantial intervention into those justifications of modernity-progress, homogene-
ity, cultural organism, the deep nation, the long past that rationalizes the authori-
tarian, normalizing tendencies within cultures in the name of the national interest
or the ethnic prerogative". Given the scarcity of such space it was then difficult to
imagine, let alone develop the institutional structures necessary to produce the
intellectual tools for the construction of the authentic answers to important ques-
tions around personhood.
Again the consequences of this intellectual oppression has been profound.
Henry (1997) speaks to the underthematized nature of Caribbean philosophy.
While there have been always attempts to address the important questions about
being and knowledge, the models lack the richness and utility necessary to inform
everyday experience and thereby construct a more authentic self A second conse-
quence that Henry and Best (1997) also both speak to, is the ambivalence around
life of the mind that is often evident in Caribbean society. This could be a defence
against thinking the thoughts of the master and thereby re-experiencing the pain
inherent in identifying and modifying and where necessary expunging ways of
thinking about being and knowing that lend to inauthentic living (Fanon, 1967).
One therefore often observes an almost universal tendency among Carib-
bean peoples to dichotomize thinking and the use of reflective space, and acting.
What one observes is the privileging of an often-limited mode of thinking within
the most oppressive aspects of the European intellectual tradition. The intellectual
work of Caribbean peoples that is expressed through the daily acts of struggle and
affirmation is often either unrecognized or is denigrated as not requiring serious
intellectual resources. This bias persists in an educational establishment that still
maintains an artificial distinction between 'vocational' and 'academic' subjects, with
the former being widely perceived as being less intellectually demanding.
The near silencing of the authentic voice
Nettleford (1978), both in his writings and in his work as a performance
artist is one of many Caribbean creationists who have struggled mightily and with
considerable success to give voice to "the other Caribbean". This alternate psy-
chological space contains the shards, fragments and cultural impulses that sur-
vived the terror, and that has been an important bulwark against the hegemonic
and obliterating intentions of the dominant powers. It is a somewhat chaotic space
that is both fertile in its production of ideas around authenticity but also contains
elements that push towards the abyss of cultural death. Existing within this space
are elements of tradition and technical skills that keep the impulse of the lost
edenic homelands alive. It is these elements that give grounding to an Afro-Carib-
bean or an Indo-Caribbean identity.
While these elements exist as a powerful substrate, informing outlook and
actions, they often lack, as noted earlier, fertile institutional space in which to fully
develop. Alongside these life maintaining elements exists some of the internalized
aspects of the Euro-American world view that forces all Caribbean peoples to
question the relevance and efficacy of these immortal but elusive aspects of the
collective psyche. These hostile cultural interjects result in the questioning of the
relevance of histories of edenic homelands, of trauma and pain, and of Blackness.
Often as a crude, but necessary defence against such interjects, and given the
absence of space for a cleansing discourse, one often observes an unthoughtful
idealization of the past, alongside an attempt at total rejection of the European
Given the history of struggle to assert a sense of being human, and the
struggle to be recognized in the context of little reflective space around conflicted
ways of thinking it has been difficult to think about a conscious "We". The short
view is the long view. Again there is a lack of full bodied models that explain the
necessity of an "I/We", when "I" is of such recent vintage and is so desirable that its
advent silences the awareness that it lacks a necessary sustaining "We". It is not
coincidental that attempts at "We" have come out of a less constricted space such
as arts/sports or in a relatively more culturally expansive space such as the United
States. In summary, psychological space in the Caribbean reflects the reality of a
diasporic people. It is a creative, multi-voiced and contaminated space.
American space especially through its exports of material goods and
cultural products has been historically attractive to Caribbean peoples. It offers
access to an enviable material quality of life and the possibility of space within
which to explore the meaning of being an individual.
American space can be subdivided for purposes of discussion into two
overlapping spaces. The first is a powerful space dominated by seduction,
acquisitiveness and alienation. The second is a more tentative and alternative
space in which resistance and reinvention are the dominant themes.
In a market driven economy, the cultivation of desire, through the manipu-
lation of content and the de-emphasis of a life of the mind, creates an unthoughtful
eager and consistent consumer. In such a culture, oppression and the resultant
false living is achieved not through the naked use of the power to exclude. It is
much more effective to oppress by offering the illusion of choice, the invitation to
create an acquisitive self that lives for another. In such a space, the individual can
exist simply to commit his/her surplus, in the interest of fleeting gratification, to
increase market share. For the immigrant, the bewildering array of choices the
absence of an overt, restrictive and enframing ideology, with the resulting possibil-
ity of greater personal autonomy is understandably irresistible to many. There is
however, a dark side to this space. Seduction is not in the service of authentic
personhood but instead is in the interest of an illusory sense of individualism.
One of the great contradictions of a mature capitalism is its profound
ambivalence towards difference (Bell, 1976). In such a culture, difference is
attractive as a way of differentiating self from the group. It fuels a sense of
specialness and when linked to race/ethnicity/gender, a sense of belonging. In
addition, an unfettered difference makes for the possibility of authenticity and
unpredictability. For the dominant capitalist discourse this would create difficulties
around the regulation of desire. Difference is therefore acknowledged, exploited
and where necessary obliterated, even as the search for new differences continues
(Jameson,1991). It is these acquisitive and obliterating tendencies that fuel glo-
balization and limits the space in which to be different.
This ambivalence around difference constitutes both opportunity and dan-
ger for psychological life in the American space. What is offered as a chance to be
authentic, different and therefore special, can be at the same time an invitation to
live falsely for another, while under the illusion of living for one self (Freire, 1970).
There are however alternative spaces that offers the opportunity to strug-
gle successfully for an authentic way of being. Due in no small part to the struggles
of African-Americans as a vanguard group, there is a healthy skepticism towards
central authority and established order within the American space (Zinn, 1995).
Within this fragile and intensely contested space by market forces that wish to
co-opt and obliterate difference some authentic construction of self is possible. It
is in a space such as this that the struggle to maintain difference fuels the creativity
and abundance of selves for which American space is renowned. This is the space
of 'Otherness'. It is a space of furious invention, some of it fleeting and ephemeral
some of it false, all of it contested, within self, between groups that are literally
outside the pale and straight. This entire exercise, with all its exciting permuta-
tions, is of course influenced by, and impacts on the homogeinizing and acquisitive
tendencies of the dominant culture. (Hal, 1997)
It is within this chaotic, intoxicating and at times, deadly space that Carib-
bean migrants must find a niche within which to continue the work of constructing
an authentic self.
Some Elements of Identity
Psychology has a long history of positing identity as a structure built
accumulatively, anchored by core characterological elements and resistant to
change. This was reflective of an operationalization of time and space by the
authority of dominant discourse that attempted to control the content of identity
and the pace of change. This no longer obtains. Post-structuralist and post-mo-
dem ways of conceptualizing around identity would make the following points:
* Identity construction is a process that does not really result in a final product.
Individuals are constantly reinventing and reconfirminc old and new aspects of
their multiple selves (McBobbie, 1996).
* There is no one self but instead a multiplicity of selves that reflects the subjects'
multiple involvements and affiliations. It flows from this that there are multiple
ways of being in the world. This is a refutation of essentialist arguments
around identity that posits some irreducible essence that defines a given
cultural identity. Gilroy (1996) rejects any essential identity around Blackness,
speaking stead of a multiplicity of ways of being Black, some in open contradic-
tion to others. These various constellations of identities are irreducible to any
core or essentialist definition of Black identity. We live in a world of multiple
belongings and intense competition for commitment (Balibar, 1995).
Given the rejection of an essential self there is a greater degree of open-
ness around volition in the process of self-construction. Balibar, 1995, p. 176)
makes a distinction between culture as form and culture as content. He portrays
culture as ".... an empty place, vacant for a multiplicity of contents and objects, and
determined by the interaction of discourses that are in turn structured by the
categories we have singled out". Given this, it is of course possible as Scott (1997)
points out to single out categories such as African and Slavery, which preclude any
and everyone from defining themselves as Black. Racjman (1997) makes a counter
argument with regards to the limitations inherent in organizing around 'Other'. He
argues for an open process whose products are unknowable.
Any attempts at the construction of identities takes place within a particular
historicized, localized and contextual space". (Scott, 1997, p29). For Caribbean-
Americans, such a project must then take into consideration the experiences and
reflections of African-Americans. This vanguard group struggle with what Dubois
formulated as the double consciousness of being black in a predominantly white
space (Early, 1993). Caribbean-Americans must also take into consideration their
important diasporic heritage.
For the Caribbean-American especially, but for all who occupy a con-
tested space, the challenge is to engage in a process to transcend the typical, to
Lamming asks, "What is my identity? I live it and at the same time I create
it. What is the West Indian identity? It is the process in which West Indians are and
will continue to be involved as they choose their tasks and recreate their situations.
There is no fixity of location in this defining process. Identity is the accumulation of
layered identities: it is always plural." (1997 p.1). He goes on to say that the final
product is a place where "... man is truly man and the world he lives in is a human
place". (1997 p. 15).
Fanon reflects the same thought when he defines authentic living as "... a
passionate search directed to the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of
today, beyond self contempt resignation and abjuration, some beautiful and splen-
did area whose existence rehabilitates us both in regards to ourselves and others."
(In Hall, 1995, p. 5).
Epistemological Challenges in Constructing Caribbean-American Identities
The American space features an almost infinite plurality of data, perspec-
tives and attendant choices. The issue of the knowledge base and the ways of
privileging one perspective as against another profoundly influence the content
and range of identity constellations constructed. It is worth repeating that there is
no definitive Caribbean-American identity but instead myriad constellations organ-
ized around some subjective but primeval imagined and lived sense of the
Caribbean and of America. Bernstein (1993), from a post-modem perspective
cautions against strong essential arguments that either dichotomize categories or
make for an illusory sameness, when in fact the reality speaks to both powerful
contradictions within an imagined whole.
Unproblemadc identities: The temptations of essentialism
Given the histories of the black diaspora, with what Stuart Hall (1995)
referred to as the sense of "spiritual homelessness", the definition of selves that are
safe, proud and have a sense of immortality is a critical task. It is in this context that
the temptation to organize around a good past is both necessary and fraught with
risks. Paul Ricour quoted in Brown (1990, p.46) speaks to both sides of the issues
when he states, "The tension between 'universal civilization' and national culture;
between the involuntary natural awareness and dependency of every people and
region, made possible and inevitable by 'civilization' as well as the dogged persist-
ence of defensive moments, helping subject peoples carve out a bit of space in the
earth's economic turf'. He however, goes on to caution: "But in order to take part
in modem civilization, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific,
technical and political rationality. Something, which very often requires the pure
and simple abandonment of a whole cultural past." (p. 46).
Gilroy (1996) is skeptical towards what he defines as the inherently defen-
sive nature of essentialist arguments in relation to the obliterating tendencies of the
dominant discourse. While understanding the forces driving such formulation, he
portrays them as unprogressive, as they reflect a regressive turn to a simplistic and
uncomplicated edenic past. Equally important it is a defence not only against
Euro-American hegemony but also against the growing, healthy and irreducible
pluralism within the black Diaspora. Cultural nationalist arguments in their essen-
tialist forms are still locked into a sterile dialectic with the dominant discourse.
"This essentialism rearticulates black cultural nationalisms that have been appro-
priated without much modification from the standard European sources". (Gilroy,
1996 p. 21)
Gilroy (1995) and Scott (1997) among others speak to a careful disaggrega-
tion of the psyche from its suffocating embrace by the group, whether defined as
nation-state, community or kin. Yet the price of rejection of a space reducing
essentialism cannot be the embracing of an unthoughtful post-modemistic open-
ness. Such an embrace introduces the risk of a total decoupling from historical
data crucial for the reinvention of self. In quite rightly rejecting universalistic
discourses, Aronowitz (1995, p.121) argues that countercultural formations "...lack
even a secure strategic referent from which alliances can emerge and one ten-
dency is to move steadily towards accommodations with the dominant discourse". It
is the absences of such alternate referents Aronowitz argues that makes the turn
towards separatism attractive if not inevitable, with also the possibility of the
embracing of an authoritarian perspective in the service of moral superiority.
Clearly there is a dilemma here as neither a strong essentialism is
acceptable nor by contrast is that of the total absence of transcendental validating
categories. The possible solution lies in the suggestion by Laclau (1995) that we
think of essentialist categories as horizons rather than as in the old conception of
ground. Such categories become influential factors under control of the group
rather than deterministic factors. A group would then utilize, albeit cautiously,
essentialist forms as a defence against cultural obliteration, but not as the all
encompassing defining characteristic of the group. For the group to define itself
purely in terms of essentialist categories heightens the possibility of regression to a
place of refeudalization.
Counterbalancing the risks of such a necessary but nuanced defensive
strategy must be a willingness to seek out new ways to explore other forms of
difference. Balibar (1995, p. 176) captures this tension: "... cultural identity resists
time as simple change, it is identical to itself as the constant underlying every
transformation, which is why it authorizes the recognition, the "proper nomination
of collective subjects and nevertheless it only exists by its incessant transformation
(called creation, life, development, but which in the end appears as a requirement
of the very notion of culture)".
Some Elements in the Task of Constructing Caribbean-American Identities
Given the fertility, dangerousness and ambiguity of American space the
construction of Caribbean-American identities is a daunting but at the same time an
exhilarating task. Some elements of this task will be explored here; (1) openness;
(2) broadening of the historical database; (3) community building; and (4) inter-
Given the underthematizing of Caribbean ideas and identity, and the
complexity of the task, a project around identity construction must be open to new
ideas and new ways of thinking. Such a stance requires constellations within the
community to critically question historical closures, as a function of antagonism
towards a particular ideology. Vigilance needs to be exercised against the un-
thoughtful adoption of discourses that are anti-discursive or obliterate supportive
traditions and ways of being.
Openness speaks not only to a receptivity by Caribbean-Americans to
socially mediated data but also to the psychological data generated by the individ-
ual's response to experience. Fanon (1967), Nettleford (1978) and Gilroy (1996)
among others, speak to the importance of reworking trauma, violence and other
assaults on personhood. Such adaptive reworking should, over time, give coher-
ent insight into the psychological sequalae of such painful experiences. The risk,
especially in the American space, is to avoid doing such work. Instead the
Caribbean-American, among others, is often seduced into engaging in a mindless
consumption and a shallow but furious narcissism, as ways of dealing with the
psychic pain resulting from trauma and a sense of being unfulfilled.
Ethnic enclaves, tend to feed a defensive definition of the group that leads
to what Aronowitz (1995) termed "a self-enclosed universe of identity". Such a
space is vulnerable to marginalization. Openness permits a meeting of disparate
discourses, and it is at those points of contact that definitional issues are worked.
Broadening the Historical Base
Perhaps the most challenging issue facing any diasporic community is
defining the data set to be used in the creation, and reinvention of self-projects.
Here one observes a bewildering array of permutations, each one a function of the
particular culture, ground and horizons perceived by a particular constellation of
Caribbean Americans. Balibar (p. 176) speaks to this issue when he writes about
culture ". .. as terms that designate an empty space, vacant for a multiplicity of
contents and objects and determined by the intersection of discourses that are in
turn structured by the categories we have singled out".
Specific to the self-projects of Caribbean-Americans is an understanding of
Blackspace. This could speak to an understanding of the histories of the various
Africa's: the ancient magnificent and edenic, or the Africa of Ethiopianism, or the
Africa of Anancy. It could also include the revolutionary Africa of the mid-twentieth
century. Such inquiry could also speak to the diasporic Africa's, the histories of the
descendants of enslaved peoples in the "New World". An especially important data
set is that of African-American experiences. The struggles of this vanguard group
have established a space for Caribbean-Americans, while also exerting some
hegemony over their actions. Tensions arising from their physical and cultural
proximity are a crucial ingredient in the self-products of both groups.
An intriguing and largely unmined data set is the near invisible flows
across what Gilroy (1996) refers to as the Black Atlantic. For Caribbean-Ameri-
cans there is an untold history of the unceasing positive triangular movement of
peoples, materials and ideas between the Caribbean, North America and Europe.
It is worth repeating that which features of this vast data set a constellation focuses,
on would speak to their preoccupations, and their interactions with other constella-
tions, both within Caribbean-American space, within the larger Blackspace and
within the multi-voiced American space.
In the context of a multiplicity of identities and horizons examined, one
uses the term community as a weak singularity. It speaks to common goals
pursued in often contradictory ways but all linked by a common, if at times
incoherently defined history. An interesting challenge facing Caribbean-American
constellations is the relationship to Caribbean space. Bhabha (1990) makes the
distinction between defining one's nation through a cultural lens with a focus on its
own beauty, its timelessness and its traditions, or through a political lens with a
more narrow focus on state structures.
At present the focus by Caribbean-Americans tends to be on the more
organic structures within Caribbean space. There is significant positive attachment
to the edenic aspects of the Caribbean homeland and tremendous skepticism
towards the nation as a political entity. To date one observes community constel-
lations that are organized around remembering the edenic and assisting in its
maintenance. It is estimated that in 1996 Jamaicans outside of Jamaica remitted
in excess of $US600 million to their Caribbean homeland, to support kin and to
assist community based organizations. (Planning Institute of Jamaica, 1997).
Relatively few constellations in recent times have responded to CLR James' (1984)
call for Caribbean peoples to act as an agent of pressure on Caribbean political
One also observes a similar parallel with regards to the community's
stance towards American space. At this stage the preoccupation is with private
developmental projects and the use of community to validate the members' sense
of difference and specialness. There is some storming of the restrictive boundaries
of American space lead by a vanguard comprised of the Caribbean-American
women in the educational health care systems, and by recording artists especially
those using a "dance hall' genre. An important caution is necessary here. There
is much anecdotal evidence suggesting tremendous and creative ferment at vari-
ous intersections between various community constellations that is invisible, due
to indifference or to the subversive nature of such activities. So youth create
constellations and discourses that are often unavailable to older members of
different constellations. This speaks in part to some of the strengths of American
space, and that is the availability of alternate spaces in which to do authentic self
work and to be validated.
In summary, the community broadly defined is vibrant and diverse. There
are myriad self-projects being worked on. Absent however, is a solid institutional
base within which to reflect and to produce models to guide the study and articula-
tion of Caribbean-American sensibilities. The historical antipathy towards reflec-
tion, the "heavy lifting" already done by African-American kin and the attacks on
reflective space that are all features of the American project. All contribute to this
weak institutional base.
Given the fragile institutional base from which to conceptualize and deploy
defences against attacks on Blackness, Caribbean-Americans are forced into
alliances often as junior partners, with African-American constellations that are
usually well versed in struggle.
Such coalitions offer opportunities for Caribbean-Americans to learn to
manipulate American space and to acquire a more in-depth understanding of the
social features of their latest diaspora. An important challenge for both of these
embattled but resilient groups is for them to observe the universal and common
links within the particularity that makes each group distinct. The challenge for
Caribbean-Americans is to resist the often more well developed epistemological
models of African-Americans that often threaten to obliterate their own authentic
but less vibrant models. This risk is evident in the tendency of some Caribbean-
Americans to adopt or reject African-American ideology around black-white rela-
tions, in both cases, without prior thoughtful examination.
The Caribbean-American self-projects are exceedingly complex and at
times hard to distinguish from the projects of other marginalized groups, and from
that of similar projects around authentic growth in the larger American space.
Caribbean-Americans, however, are quite influential especially given their small
size and the obstacles to be surmounted.
This paper has attempted to analyze the challenges, and the state of
ongoing attempts to construct Caribbean-American identities. It has shown that
the legacy of the experiences within Caribbean space has influenced both the
ontological and epistemological aspects of this work. The paper has also explored
the challenges of such a project in a social space skeptical of essentialist ap-
proaches, ambivalent around difference and effectively seductive in having citizens
lead consumptive and inauthentic lives. The paper ends by briefly reviewing the
state of some elements thought necessary for the construction of Caribbean-
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The Impact of Hindi on Trinidad English
Even the simple distinction between Hindu and
Muslim names is not known [by the non-Indians in
Trinidad]; and the Negro makes less effort than
the average English person to pronounce Indian
names correctly. V. S. Naipaul The Middle Pas-
It is evident... that possible influences on the Eng-
lish of Trinidad which eventually emerged, must
be sought for primarily in Creole French and In-
dian languages (the language of the majority),
and secondly in the various minority languages
which were introduced in the course of the nine-
teenth century.(-Donald Winford "A Sociolinguis-
tic Description of two communities in
The Indian immigrant labourers who came to Trinidad to work on the
British-owned sugar plantations during Indentureship (1845-1917) were mainly
from the eastern districts of Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar. They were native
speakers of various dialects of Indian Bhojpuri and other minor languages like
Assamese, Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Punjabi, Oriya, Marathi, Malayam and other
tribal languages. Small groups of Awadhi, Magahi and Maithili speakers were also
among the recruits. The small number of emigrants from the port of Madras in
south India spoke Tamil and Telugu (see Wood 1968:145, Jha 1972: 19 and
Mohan 1978:8-11). The size of each linguistic group ranged from several dozens
to a few thousands.
In 1865, the Reverend H. W. Gamble (1966:33) remarked upon the diver-
sity of languages spoken by Indian labourers:
The Bengali speak Hindustani and Bengali, while
the inhabitants of the Madras presidency speak
Tamil, a totally different language. When these
people meet in Trinidad, it strikes one as some-
what strange that they have to point to water and
rice and ask each other what they call it in their
The arrival of 153,000 immigrants from India during indentureship enriched
an already-complex cultural mosaic in Trinidad in which French, Spanish, Chinese,
Portugese and certain African languages were being spoken.
The majority of Indian immigrants were native speakers of various dialects
of Indian Bhojpuri, but these were not particularly homogenous. In the situation, a
koine (lingua franca) variety of Bhojpuri developed in the sugar estates in Trinidad
which was referred to as "plantation Hindustani." The emergence of this Indian
inter-group survivor language is noted by McNeill in 1914 (cited inTinker 1974:211):
The local dialect of Hindustani which an immi-
grant speaks on arrival is rapidly modified and
amplified by words and phrases of local currency
and of English, French or Spanish origin ... soon
after arrival all immigrants learn plantation Hin-
Trinidad plantation Hindustani later came to be known and defined as
Trinidad Bhojpuri, the ethnic language of the Trinidad Indian community (Mohan
Trinidad Bhojpuri gives a greater impression of homogeneity than present-
day Indian Bhojpuri (Mohan and Zador 1986:294-5), but both, nevertheless, shar-
ing most of their lexicon with Hindi/Urdi despite having a very different morphology
(Mohan 1978). Indian Bhojpuri is one of the Magadhan languages of north eastern
India a group which also includes Bengali, Assamese, Oriya and the eastern
Bihari dialects of Magahi and Maithili. Trinidad Bhojpuri is an ethnic language as
distinct from an ancestral language in that it differs, in some cases to a considerate
degree, from the varieties of Bhojpuri and other Indic languages brought to Trinidad
by the original immigrants.
The social functions carried out by Trinidad Bhojpuri (as indeed Guyana
Bhojpuri) are in complimentary distribution (Gambhir 1983). While the transplanted
variety of Bhojpuri is used mainly by the oldest generation in folk songs and other
spontaneous forms of oral expression, Standard Hindi is employed in religious
discourses which centre around the sacred texts. Standard Hindi is also the
language of the Indian movies. An European writer visiting Trinidad during Inden-
tureship was struck by the ability of Hindu/Indian labourers to read and recite the
prestigious Standard Hindi of their scriptures.
It is ... astonishing how familiar the Trinidadian
coolies (sic) are with them; even amongst the
humble labourers who till our fields these is a
considerable knowledge of them, and you may
often in the evening, work being done, see and
hear a group of coolies crouching down in a semi-
circle, chanting whole stanzas of the epic poems,
Ramayan, etc. (Collens 1888:20).
The use of Hindi in Trinidad, therefore, can be placed on a synchronic/dia-
chronic scale with Bhojpuri at one end and Standard Hindi at the other. In this
paper, I will use the generic term Hindi to include all the varieties that fall within the
continuum in Trinidad. I will also use Trinidad English to mean Trinidad English
Africans learn Hindi
The newly-freed Africans were not at all happy at the entry of immigrants
into the labour market because it weakened their power to bargain for high wages
on the plantations.
The dislike of the negroes in Trinidad to the intro-
duction of the emigrants from either India or Ma-
deira is very great, and they take every
opportunity to insult and deride the new-comers
Most of the Africans who remained on the estates worked in skilled
occupations such as coopers, carters and stock-keepers. Their numbers in the
fields and mills rose at crop-time and subsided after (Wood 1968:37). The Africans
also joined the Indians in the Shi'ite Muslim commemoration of Hosay/Muharram
which became a boisterous affair in the 1870s and 1880s (Wood 1968:153,
Thus at the same time the process of inter-dialectal levelling and the
evolution of Trinidad Bhojpuri was taking place, the Indians were learning French
patois from the Africans (Gamble 1866:38-39). The Indians were highly motivated
to learn the new language since it was a medium of acquiring knowledge about
working conditions and about the new environment/country. But there was also a
reverse linguistic influence on the African speakers. In a language contact situ-
ation as existed in Trinidad at that time, there was bound to be some degree of
mutual exchange. The extent to which Hindi elements were integrated into the
speech patterns of Africans depended on the degree of intimacy/interaction with
the Indian community. My own research among surviving ex-indentured immigrant
labourers has shown that there were numerous Hindi-speaking Africans during
Indentureship (Mahabir 1985). More recent examples have been Johnson Black-
well, Sailas Bailey and Roy Cooper, all of whom won special prizes for singing
Hindi songs on the Indian television cultural show "Mastana Bahar" in 1974, 1977
and 1975 respectively. Cooper became renowned in the Indian community for his
superb chanting of the Ramayan and other sacred texts.
Europeans learn Hindi
In The Still Cry (1985), an oral history of Indian indentureship in Trinidad, I
have tried to capture the evolution of the language of East Indians at the turn of the
twentieth century. The text is a blend of Hindi and English and is spiced with other
Indian languages. The narratives are left intentionally unedited in order to retain
the nuances of authentic speech. The following extract illustrates what non-Indians
referred to as "coolie English," but which was really pidgin speech characterized by
the extreme impoverishment of syntax and vocabulary (see Bickerton 1981).
wheg-time coming hyar [here, Trinidad]
me all a dem call e breda
[working one place]
ah ka laa [I am also] call jahaji
long time if a man talking english
i beat e
i say e cussing
if a man play bad
bolat bandha [we say to tie]
bring e rope bholay
tie e bandha hath goar [tie his hands and feet]
all time keepam a lathee (stick]
if all a dem fighting
if a coming lathee
if ah play e arse
gi e cutliss
Resistance to the intrusion of English was seldom met with violence as this
surviving male labourer makes it out to be, though Bengalis were found to be
noticeably adamant (Collens 1888:4).
In an effort to communicate with some of the Indian workers, the European
estate officials sometimes found it necessary to adapt their own use of English.
The construction of this make-shift language, Collens (1888:48) notes, required "a
Coolie English ... is in itself a sort of patois of
another kind, and it needs a little apprenticeship
for you to understand that when your newly en-
gaged Oriental servant tells you: "Gi-um pifty
mangy, massa, me sabby do-um all something
dis side," he intends to convey to you that if you
give him food, he can undertake any work you
When the Bengali's did attempt to speak English, they translated it into their own
idiom and used their own syntax. Gamble (1866:34) notes, for example, "Ghora
lahi is 'Horse bring him' and 'horse bring him' accordingly we say in speaking to a
Bengali" (emphasis added)
One European Baptist missionary, visiting Trinidad around 1860, ex-
pressed his indignation not only at the speech patterns of the natives, but also at
the way in which plantation officials addressed them:
... Negro and Coolie English is most barbarous
stuff, and ought everywhere to be discouraged.
There can be no reason why the Coolie, whether
Chinese or Indian, should be addressed in the
ridiculous style which constitutes the usual me-
dium of intercourse between him and his em-
ployer (Underhill 1970:27).
It is unfortunate that no illustration was given of this "ridiculous style" of Coolie
English, and one is, therefore, left to speculate whether the Indic influence was in
the area of phonology, morphology (e.g. -am, gi-um, do-um, etc.), syntax (verb final
position), or lexicon. It is obvious that the missionary was referring to pidgin, a
language of interaction which arose in minimal contact situations between the
dominant colonizer and his colonized subordinates (Finegan and Besnier
Spanish was in constant use in the European drygoods stores in Trinidad
in the 1880s, but in an effort to increase sales by attracting new customers, clerks
were advised to be familiar with other languages.
Since the Coolies and Chinese have to come to
the country, many clerks have managed to learn
to speak a few words of Coolie as they term it,
meaning of course Bengali, but in Tamil and Chi-
nese, nothing can be done (Gamble 1886:39).
Gamble observes that the non-Indo-European languages, Tamil and Chi-
nese, were not much spoken in commercial transactions, and that they learn to
speak English with "much greater ease and quickness" than their language can be
learnt by non-Asians.
Canadian missionaries learn Hindi
In an effort to spread the Christian word to the "heathens" of the New
World, the Canadian Presbyterian Mission took upon itself the responsibility of
working among (on?) Caribbean East Indians from the late 1860s. The foremost
missionary to Trinidad, Reverend John Morton documented many examples of
Indian speech at the turn of the twentieth century (Morton 1916:51). A mother's
explanation for rubbing her baby with coconut oil is given as "Suppose no do 'em
so, picknie no get 'em fat." Another woman listed the conditions under which she
would sell her bangles: "Suppose want 'em mang6 (food), must sell 'em; no want
'em mange, no sell 'em; too much naked arm." The idiom used clearly illustrates
that the Indian speech was made up of English, Hindi and French patois recast to
some extent in Hindi syntax. Their language also involved features of reduction
and simplification, typical of pidginization, for example, /no kill and eat mumma; no
kill and eat cow/. Sperl (1980:45) cites other examples of simplification in Indian
speech: "which place" for "where" and "who men kissmiss" for "whose Christmas."
Language was an important tool used in the indoctrination of East Indian
Hindus and Muslims into the Christian faith by the Presbyterian Mission. Hindi had
to be the initial medium used to introduce the teachings of Christ, and the mission-
aries, therefore, had to learn the language of those they sought to convert. Hindi
literacy after the 1860s improved considerably for both the Canadians and the
mass of Indians. Presbyterian churches in Trinidad were given Hindi names like
Aramalya (abode of rest), Dharam Ka Surag (the splendor of truth), Jagat ka
prakash (light of the world) and Bhor ka tara (morning star). In some pastoral
charges, the session (meeting of minister and elders) was termed panchayat or
panch which was the Hindi term for an assembly of village elders. Another method
used in the process of conversion was the sale of Hindi books either imported from
India or written and printed locally by the Canadian Mission Press in Tunapuna
(Bhatia 1982:139). The Presbyterian missionaries circulated anthologies of bha-
jans (Hindi hymns with Christian messages), two of which were entitled Ratna
Mala (a garland of jewels) and Git Mala (a garland of songs). By 1890, special
Canadian Mission schools were established for Indian children in which every
teacher was required to know both Hindi and English (see Samaroo 1982).
The state of Hindi today
Hindu children of immigrants from India spoke Hindi fluently and frequently
with their parents and in the community. Many of these first-generation Indians
scolded their children when they attempted to speak English at home:
kaa bootee tuu "hungry." kaa naa hindii boolee
angreejii baat ham naa samjhee. (What do you
mean you're hungry? Why don't you speak
Hindi? I don't understand English).
The implication of this is that "not only do I not understand English, but I do not want
to understand." Speaking English even until the 1930s in Trinidad was interpreted
as a sign of becoming "creolised," speaking the language of the Africans or the
English. A sixty year old first-generation Indian woman explained:
"My parents say "hindii bool-tuu kirwal baatee?"
(Speak Hindi! Are you an African?)."
And when a man of the same age-group and generation spoke English to his
brother, the latter retorted, "ii sahab banal" (He has become a white man) (Sperl
Today Hindi is spoken mainly by old, usually rural Indians in Trinidad, but
almost all Indians are fluent in the mainstream official language which is English. It
is the older generation who is over sixty years old who know Indian folk tales,
proverbs, prayers, religious songs and who can do exegeses, like the pandits
(priests), on the Hindu scriptures. Among Indians who are more than fifty years
old, jokes figure prominently in their use of Hindi (Sperl 1980). At wedding ceremo-
nies, resque in particular, are employed by women to establish the right mood and
to put their older interlocutors at ease. Jokes in this context can mean no more
than the sporadic use of Hindi lexical items which gives rise to laughter, for
example, asal kee phul (flower essence) for p!uncheon rum.
Among the younger generation today, Hindi is confined to the exchanging
of ritual greetings and to the issuing of short requests and instructions. Compe-
tence in speaking Hindi for the younger generation, even in Guyana (Gambhir
1983), is limited to lexical items especially those pertaining to the domains of
religion, food and kitchen, kinship and abuses. Urban Indians and Indians from
other areas of Trinidad had abandoned Hindi at least a generation earlier than in
rural Caroni (Mohan and Zador 1986). (This area is situated in central Trinidad in
the sugar belt and has the largest concentration of Indians. It is referred to as the
Indian heartland). Almost all speakers of Hindi are of Indian descent, however it is
not uncommon to find Africans, who grew up in Indian areas, who are competent in
Hindi (Winer 1983:42). The few young speakers of Hindi are Hindus rather than
Christians or Muslims because Hindi is used more frequently and is better pre-
served in the Hindu community (Mohan and Zador 1986).
While Trinidad Bhojpuri grew at the expense of other transplanted Indic
languages which have died without leaving descendants it became marginalized
quite early in favor of outside elite languages. It was never really accepted by the
wider society and it was looked upon as a backward "coolie" language. The death
knell was struck with the advent of mass education in English for Indian children.
It was probably not the teaching per se that
brought the shift in language loyalty. Rather the
new primary schools weakened the once-con-
stant parental and estate contact for the new
school-going generation at a critical age when
language loyalty was being established. A new
type of peer group was created in the community:
the age group (Mohan and Zador 1986:315).
English was the official language of the Canadian Presbyterian mission, British law
and the educational system, and in it was embedded the hidden biases and social
values of the ruling class/race/culture. It was not until the 1950s that primary Hindu
schools began to sprout in Trinidad and Hindi became part of the curriculum.
The linguistic consequences of this situation were that:
(1) Hindi was the natural means of in-group Indian
(2) English was learnt by adults to the extent that it was necessary
as a means of communication with persons outside the community,
especially non-Indian neighbours, colleagues and supervisors at
work (Sperl 1980).
As Indian economic spheres widened and occupations became more diversified,
the shift to the mainstream and prestigious language of the British colonial power
was reinforced. English was the language used in the economic, political and
legislative spheres in the colony at that time.
But even the combined forces of the state, church and the non-Hindu
school could not have stamped out Hindi all at once. A survey conducted in 1931
revealed that the English literacy rate for the total Indian community was about
twenty-three per cent (23%), with that for non-Christian Indians being as low as
seventeen per cent (17%) (see Mohan and Zador 1986:314). The 1946 West
Indian census, though not giving any figures, noted for Trinidad "the high illiteracy
there among the East Indians" (1946:43-44). This observation is supported by a
survey of the linguistic background of primary school children conducted by the
University of the West Indies in 1969. The survey revealed that forty-six per cent
(46%) of Indian children were exposed to Hindi at home as either a first or second
language (Carrington et al. 1974). Field work done in 1979 by Peggy Mohan and
Paul Zador (1986) found that there was a close relationship between English
illiteracy and speaker competence in Hindi. They also discovered a correlation
between having been a labourer on the sugar estates and high competence in
Hindi. In the low-competence group, no one had ever worked in the sugar cane
The impact of Hindi today
Institutional racism practised by the Afro-dominated Government in con-
temporary Trinidad has resulted in the rise of Indian ethnic consciousness and the
attempt to articulate that consciousness at a national rather than at a village level.
Phagwa (a Hindu harvest festival) for example, has grown from a village event to a
national celebration involving island-wide singing competitions and parades. The
teaching of Hindi has also become part of this consciousness-raising as organiza-
tions like Bharatiya Vidya Sansthhaan (BVS) and the Hindi Nidhi Foundation
attempt to consolidate and intensify their activities. A new Indian-controlled radio
station the first in the island's history which makes much use of Hindi, and the
Hindi vocabulary quiz in the television show Mastana Bahar, are also part of this
Research undertaken by Savitri Sperl (1980) in south Trinidad has thrown
some interesting light on the language problem. She argues that while conversa-
tional Hindi is on the decline, attitudinal concern about it has hardly diminished.
Hindi is seen as an important aspect of Indian ethnic identity by members of all age
Hindi is seen as an important aspect of Indian ethnic identity by members of all age
groups whether they have any competence in the language or not. Frequent
comments by Indians are made to the effect that knowing Hindi equals knowing
one's roots, one's origins, one's place in the world, that it is even a guard against
an uncertain future.
Trinidad English is a highly heterogeneous language made up of borrow-
ings from many other languages of which Hindi is a main contributor. While Mohan
and Zador (1986), among other linguists like Durbin (1973) and Bhatia (1982),
continue to speak in terms of the death of Trinidad Hindi (Bhojpuri), there is also the
need to adopt an alternative approach in exploring the linguist debt of Trinidad
English to Indic languages, even if the research has to be confined to the influence
of lexical items loanwordss) and calques. The primary focus of Mohan and Zador,
Durbin and Bhatia, has been limited to intra-communal language use within the
Indian community. Winer (1983:44) claims that although grammatical and struc-
tural input of Hindi into Trinidad English is relatively small, the lexical input is
certainly evident. The use of the[e] instead of [E] in Guyanese speech in words
such as another and brother, pronounced as [(an)dar] and [brDdar], is attributed by
some linguists to the numerical strength of Hindi-speakers in that plural society
(see Roberts 1988:95).
For the younger generation of Indians both in Guyana and Trinidad, the
use of Hindi is limited to lexical items relating particularly to the domains of religion,
food and kitchen, kinship and abuses. Winer (1983:44) explains that certain
languages are traditionally linked to certain domains:
Kite-flying, for example, has a fairly extensive vo-
cabulary which appears mostly derived from
French Creole and English .... However, knowing
that this custom is East Indian in origin, it is not
unreasonable to posit an Indian etymology for
rasum, a type of kite-string paste. It is also nec-
essary to determine whether the more recent
terms are perhaps calques on Indian phrases.
The names of many Indian foods and kitchen items have been naturalized into
general Trinidad English usage (see Mahabir 1992). In the political domain, the
use of nemackharam (lit. ingrate) by Opposition parliamentarian Basdeo Panday to
denote the behaviour of those politicians who had betrayed the trust and confi-
dence of the electorate in 1986, gained popular currency in political banter. Kelvin
Ramnath's coinage of jeeraiya (lit. shivering due to ague fever) to indicate the
cowardice of those politicians who stayed with the ruling NAR after the break-up of
the coalition in 1989 and who were afraid to confront the racist African oligarchy,
become assimilated into general language use.
Other Indic expressions denoting various forms of abuse like gadaha
(donkey), gatchu (stupid), kulachan (destructive), pagla (crazy), terhee (fuzzy),
thetar (stubborn), kutni (mischief-maker), koorhi (lazy), etc. have survived because
it is felt that English cannot capture the essence of that peculiar condition, and that
literal translations cannot carry the same connotation as the originals. These
lexical items are in general use in spite of the low value Hindi suffers in the eyes of
non-Indians and increasingly, by Christian and upper-class Indians themselves
who try to distance themselves from a culture from which they have sprung.
The recent emergence of a popular vocal/musical genre called chutney, as
an indigenous art form, has added another corpus of loanwords to Trinidad English
lexicon. An extract of a chutney (lit. bitter-sweet sauce) is given to illustrate the
macaroni language content as well as the stylistic structure. In this episode, the
sexually assertive male persona addresses a female:
"you mumma gi'you diamond
you daddy gi' you gold
bu' I do give you baccha [children]
fo' mind you when you [get] old".
In another stanza, the male bard announces his predicament:
"ah build ah little kitchen
ah cover it wid tin-in,
ah build ah little kitchen
ah cover it wid tin-in
de only t'ing ah missing
is ah little dulahin" (bride]
(Mahabir 1989a:511, 1989b:3).
At the end of each stanza, everyone would joyously join in the chorus singing
something like, karhaiyaa na toro hamarl ho balama repeatedly and in fragments.
Contact between the two numerically major races in Trinidad has also
given birth to the dougla a Hindi term which means the bastard offspring of a
mixed sexual union. Columnists Kamal Persad and Ravi-ji have been making
frequent use of Indic words and expressions in their contributions to the main-
stream national newspapers. Certain business establishments, catering specifi-
cally for an Indian market, have given Hindi names to their product brands, for
example, Gowna ghee (a brand of clarified butter), Nariel (a brand of cooking
coconut oil) and Chatak (a brand of spices and seasonings),
Winer (1983:41) notes that the fact that Indic words like Hosay (a Muslim
commemoration) and mandir (Hindu temple) appear in written texts without glosses
indicate a presumption of general comprehensibility by monolingual Trinidad Eng-
lish speakers. Trinidad Indian novelists like Seepersad Naipaul, Samuel Selvon
and Harold Sanny Ladoo, and poets like Kenneth Parmasad, Bhadase, Seetahal,
Kumar Mahabir and Rajandaye Ramkissoon-Chen make much use of Hindi idi-
omatic expressions and literary devices drawn from both the classical and folk
Indian cultural traditions. The Trinidad-based non-Indian 1992 Nobel Prize poet
laureate, Derek Walcott, employs Hindi lexical items in "The Saddhu of Couva"
without either typing the items in italics or providing a gloss. An extract of the poem
And to that gong
sometimes bald clouds in saffron robes assemble
sacred to the evening
sacred even to Ramlogan,
singing Indian hits from his jute hammock
while evening strokes the flanks
and silver horns of his maroon taxi,
as the mosquitoes whine their evening mantras,
my friend Anopheles, on the sitar,
and the fireflies making every dusk Divali
(cited in Brown 1992:105).
But interestingly, it is the Afro-Guyanese poet, Wordsworth McAndrew, who uses
Hindi/Hindu liturgical and ritual items to capture the cadence of the speech rhythms
of the officiating pandit during a marriage ceremony:
wedding white, for virginity...
it will not be long now
before they tie
the magic umbilical of white and pink garments
... aya nama
it is finished. Henceforth,
these four footsteps shall be one
as the king rises with his handmaid and
leads her, veiled
across the threshold...
Under the bamboo where they sat
the lahwa smoulders near the tillak
and bares its heart to the wind in a last,
of the kangan and the thalee
and the badie and paaw poojay
the burning dough and wafers thrown over the shoulder
gifts of notes and silver
symbols of rice, sugar and flour
(cited in Brown 1992:52-3).
This excerpt of the poem, entitled "Barriat" (lit. wedding procession), makes effec-
tive use of symbols to communicate the excitement of the occasion and the
nervousness of the innocent young bride. Again, the Hindi lexical items appear in
the text without annotations.
The most potent instrument by which Hindi is being disseminated to the
entire Trinidadian society is through the medium of the calypso. There are,
however, some major problems involved here. The mainly African male singers
use their limited knowledge of Hindi names for food, deities and persons in either a
derogatory or sexually suggestive manner (see also Bhatia 1982:139). In Dicta-
tor's "Moonia," for example, the bard makes full use of Hindi phonology, morphol-
ogy, syntax and lexicon to express his complaint that as Indian father (bap)
disapproves of any kind of intimate relationship between his daughter and an
Bap no like am kilwani (sic) Moonia..
In another calypso, the pronunciation of Mahabir, a Hindu deity of great physical
prowess, is parodied in the second instance along with a corruption of presumably
Hindi words "in a fashion calculated to evoke laughter" (Rohlehr 1988:280):
Mahabir, mahaba puja koray...
Cobanay (sic) talkarie.
In "Gi Sita Ram Gi" the historical desire for repatriation by the then-indentured
immigrant Indians is mockingly reduced:
Me work for me money, me go back to me country
Gi Sita Ram Gi
Cook am choti (sic) bigan talcarry
Gi Sita Ram Gi
Me tell you me go me going home tomorrow
Gi Sita Ram Gi
Me have the privilege to live Rambat village
Gi Sita Ram Gi
Again, this excerpt illustrates that Hindu sacred figures (Sita and Ram which is also
a form of Hindu greeting Indian culinary dishes (baigan talkari [curried eggplant]),
and pidgin Indian inflections (Cook am) are objects of comic ridicule.
This linguistic attitude to ridicule and to belittle things Indian/Hindu is
extended even today to the arena of the print and broadcast media. Racist
elements working in the weekly newspapers, for instance, rebaptized the ingenious
politician and author of the book The Political Uses of Myth or Discrimination
Rationalized (1993), Trevor Totaram Sudama, by referring to him as "Toteeram" -
the compounded element totee signifying a flaccid penis. Thus language was/is
being used particularly by the African calypsonians as a weapon to destroy any
symbol of Indian cultural retention and expression in Trinidad. Whether intentional
or not, African newscasters continue to misrepresent the voiced central alveolar [r],
the voiceless glottal [h], and the nasal sounds in Indic-words. The mispronuncia-
tion of the approximants, among other phonetic elements, adds insult to injury
particularly to bereaved Indian families when obituaries are being read. Occasions
like these cause much public embarrassment to Indians in the politically African-
dominated society and is one reason for the growing self-anglicization of Hindu and
Muslim names of persons. Chandra, for instance, is changed into Sandra, Nalini
into Nel, Zanifer to Jennifer, and Ashram into Ashford.
Even the small East Indian community in Jamaica (5%) has contributed its
fair share of Indic lexical items to Jamaican English. A few entries may be cited
from Cassidy and Le Page's (1980) linguistic collection:
baaji /baaji, baji/ sb dial; Hindi baiji, 'greens'. The East Indian name for CALALU,
or spinach (more commonly used in Trinidad than in Jamaica).
BABU sb dial now considered derog; Hindi babu; cf OED baboo. BL G T
1. A term for an East Indian, in general use in Jamaica among those of Negro
descent. 1921 Frank 431, Hindu men, whom the overseers invariably address as
'Babu', do most of the cutting.
2.Also attrib, as in babu cloth East Indian cloth.
CHALLA /chala/ int dial; Hindi chalo, int, away, begone, come away. G
1943 GL Clar, Port, St J, Challa, go quickly; Kgm, Challa, go away Coolie word.
1955, FGC Manl chala 'move off!'(not violent), 'I'm going'.
beti /beti/ sb dial; Hindi beti, daughter. A little girl. (Chiefly among East Indians; the
word is prob understood as the personal name Betty.) 1943 GL Clar, Beti, little girl;
Kgn, Indians... Betty, A young girl.
CHILLUM /chilom, chilong/ sb dial; Hindi chilam, the part of a hookah which
contains the burning tobacco. A pipe for smoking GANJA; also generally of any
pipe for smoking. GT 1943 GL Kgn, Chillam; St C, Chillum; St M, Chelung; Tre,
Chillum, Chilum, East Indian smoking pipe.
[GANJA / ganja sb; Hindi ganja, ganjhb, the hemp plant. OED 1800 The spelling
'ganga' is erron. s MACONI WEED; s WEED. The plant Cannabis sativa, whose
leaves are smoked and chewed as a narcotic; it also has medicinal properties. It
was introduced to Ja in the 19th cent by East Indians, and the word list has entered
into local combinations.] BL GT
It is interesting to note that most of the lexical survivals are derived from the
domains of food, appellations, designations for women, and religion i.e. ritual items
of the Rastafarian cult that were borrowed from Hinduism.
In A Dictionary of Common Trinidad Hindi (1990), of which I am one of the
co-compilers, more than 1,200 lexical items were collected after one year of direct
listening to the spontaneous expressions of contemporary Indians. The collection
is made up of loanwords that were/are an intrinsic part of Trinidad English speech
relating particularly, but not confined, to the younger members of the Indian
community. The dictionary does not include the large corpus of Hindi names of
persons and places, and excludes those items which appear in print. The format-
ting of entries did not follow the method of that of a standard dictionary because it
was intended for a laypublic. It, therefore, does not include citation dates, num-
bered senses, documentation of spelling forms/variants, etymologies, usage la-
bels, etc. The dictionary, nevertheless, represented a breakthrough in the study of
language contact because it sought to capture the assimilation of Trinidad Hindi
(Bhojpuri) through other Indic items are also incorporated into the dominant
language. A reprint totalling an historic 9,000 copies of the dictionary were sold just
after one year of publication. A more definitive work, however, on Indic influences
on Caribbean English creole languages in the areas of phonology, morphology,
syntax and lexicon awaits the enterprising scholar in this virgin field.
Critics who wish to continue to speak in terms of the death of Trinidad Hindi
as a fully functional language must be mindful of the findings of Carrington et al.
(1974:14) who state that the language "is still to be reckoned with in educational
planning." The researchers add that:
Even though the use of the language by the
younger generation may be mainly to communi-
cate with their elders, the importance of the lan-
guage for religious purposes, and its
reinforcement by the popularity of Indian films
since the 1930s, requires that planners should be
more concerned about the implications of its ex-
ENDIX I MAPS OF TRINIDAD SHOWING RELIGIOUS AND LINGUI!
MAP I RELIGIOUS DISTRIBUTION 1960 (Compiled with 1960 Ce
irts, Government of Trinidad and Tobago)
Rehlgious Distribution 1960- Trinidad
Hindu- Moslems vs. Others
E 11111 o10-30% --. .-. _
61045' 61o30' 6l51 61X0)'
Source:Bhatia 1982: 137.
MAP 2 -THE HINDI (BHOJPURI) SPEAKING REGION OF TRINIDAD.
13 ........... ..
Soon .. ".. I. 'two
-- TH HINDI SPEAKING AEA
L 0 9
Source:Bhatia 1982 : 138.
TRINIDAD HINDI WORD LIST: FAMILY AND KINSHIP TERMS
1.1 Same Generation
bhaii, baiyaa brother
diidi elder sister
bhawjii wife of elder brother
bahoonii sister's husband
chootka husband's younger brother
saar (i) wife's brother
(ii) term of abuse for a man
saarii wife's sister
saaruubhaaii husband of wife's sister
barkaa husband's elder brother
barkii wife of husband's elder brother
deevar younger brother of husband
nandooni husband of husband's sister
samdhii son's or daughter's father-in-law
samdhin son's or daughter's mother-in-law
1.2 First Ascending Generation
maa, magii mother
kaakaa father's brother
kaakii wife of father's brother
phuphaa husband of father's sister
phuphuu, phuuaa father's sister
maamuu mother's brother
maamii wife of mother's brother
mawsii mother's sister
1.3 Second Ascending Generation
aajaa father's father
aajii father's mother
literally bride, commonly used to refer to daughter-in-law
(i) a man who lives in wife's parental home
(ii) a hen-pecked man
N.B. Much lexical loss in this domain can be attributed partly to the disintegration of the Indian ex-
naanaa mother's father
naanii mother's mother
1.4 Descendinq Generation
beeta-a (i) son
(ii) term of endearment for boys
beetii (i) daughter
(ii) term of endearment for girls
baccaa (i) child
(ii) term of endearment for children
naatii daughter's son
naatin daughter's daughter
bhatijaa brother's son
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Bhojpuri and Standard Hindi." Anthropological Linguistics. Vol 25, No 1, pp. 28-38.
Gamble H. W. 1866 :Trinidad: Historical and Descriptive. London: Yates and Alexander.
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Morton, Sarah, ed.1916 : John Morton of Trinidad. Toronto: Westminister.
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Orisa (Orisha) Tradition in Trinidad
FUNSO AIYEJINA & RAWLE GIBBONS
Notwithstanding the evidence in support of pre-Columbian economic and
cultural contacts between Africa and the New World (see Ivan Van Sertima, They
Came Before Columbus), the Atlantic Trade remains the first properly documented
contact between the two worlds. Because of the nature of the Atlantic Trade, it was
also the case that the documentation which took place was basically from the
perspective of those who co-ordinated the exploration and subsequent exploitation
of both Africa and the New World. However, while the Africans who were forcibly
brought to the New World might not have recorded themselves in the log books of
written history, they ingeniously recorded themselves in many other ways. They
kept their memories of home alive in the ways they interpreted and related with
their new homes at the level of religion, social behaviour, economic institutions, and
Given the vicissitudes of the Atlantic Slave Trade, only the fittest of Afri-
cans made it to the New World and, similarly, only the most pervasive and
dominant traditions survived thereof. For example, while the veneration of the
Orisa survived in the New World, the specialized practice of Ifa divination with its
cultic and complex odus (verses) did not, except in Cuba and Brazil which main-
tained a relatively constant traffic with Africa after emancipation, with many Ifa
priests visiting from West Africa. In the case of Trinidad which did not have such
continuous contacts with Africa, only the basic method of divination (the use of obi
seeds (kola nuts)) has survived.
The Yoruba Origin of the Orisa Tradition in Trinidad
On the strength of the contemporary African religious tradition in Trinidad,
it can safely be concluded that the Yoruba tradition emerged as the most prominent
and influential of the various African groups to have been brought here. The major
reasons for such a development are the nature of the Yoruba tradition and the
cataclysmic political events within the Yoruba kingdom on the eve of the abolition
of the Slave Trade.
By the time of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the Yoruba tradition was a thriving
one; it had evolved an elaborate ritual structure through which its world view was
affirmed and perpetuated. Yoruba culture ensured its perpetuity through a struc-
ture of ideographic writing, drum language, ritual observances, and the estab-
lishment of specialists in every aspect of life. There were specialist farmers,
metaphysicians, priests/priestesses, drummers, weavers, carvers, and hun-
ters/warriors, with each group having its intricate body of poetry which encom-
passed its history, rituals, and moral codes. According to archaeological evidence
at both Oyo and Ife, the Yoruba people have lived in large urban centres as far back
as A.D. 800-1000. In addition, they have one of the oldest dynasties in the world,
with the Oni of Ife, ancestral home of the Yoruba, belonging to an unbroken
succession which dates to the ninth century.
By the late 18th century, the Yoruba empire was in decline as a result of a
combination of external and internal forces which led to its subsequent collapse
and to the dispersal of millions of Yoruba people to the New World in the 1830s.
Yoruba tradition seemed destined for oblivion in the wake of these internecine
wars, the slave trade, and the introduction of western religious ethics at the end of
the reign of Alafin Awole of Oyo in 1796. By this time too, Dahomean warriors and
Fulani horsemen were raiding the western and northwestern sections of the Yoruba
kingdom for slaves, leading to the weakening of Oyo, its inability to wield a
cohesive administration, and, in 1821, civil wars between Yoruba sub-groups.
Captives from these wars formed the bulk of Yoruba people who were sold into
slavery in the New World. While most of the Ketu-Yoruba who were captured by
the Dahomeans ended up in Haiti and Brazil, most of the Oyo-Yoruba captives
ended up in Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad, thus leading to the preponderance of the
Yoruba world view in those territories.
It should also be noted that many of the Africans who were transported to
the New World spent considerable length of time in the slave ports of Elmina (Gold
Coast/Ghana), Ajase Porto Novo (Dahomey), and Badagry and Calabar (Nigeria)
and would have become exposed to the indigenous cultures of these coastal
groups. Given such a background, many of the non-Yoruba victims of the Yoruba
wars who were sold into the New World would have spent a considerable period
marching through the Yoruba area to the coast and would have interacted with
Yoruba captives who would have been in the majority and, therefore, in a position
to influence the African world view which they subsequently brought to the New
World. In essence, the subsequent unification of African world views and theolo-
gies by the New World African would have started in Africa, at the various depar-
ture points. This phenomenon would also have prepared the New World African for
the subsequent absorption and reinterpretation of other world views, especially the
imposed Euro-Christian one, within the context of the one(s) they had brought with
In his analysis of the Yoruba contact with the Euro-Christian world of the
ruling class of the New World, Robert Farris Thompson, affirms that:
[T]he Yoruba remain Yoruba precisely because
their culture provides them with ample philo-
sophic means for comprehending, and ultimately
transcending, the powers that periodically
threaten to dissolve them. That their religion and
their art withstood the horrors of the Middle Pas-
sage and firmly established themselves in the
Americas (New York, Miami, Havana, Matanzas,
Recife, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro) as the slave trade
affected a Yoruba diaspora reflects the triumph
of an inexorable communal will." (Thompson
The same sentiments are affirmed by Henry John Drewal, et al, who insist that the
dispersal of millions of Yoruba people, because it happened relatively late in the
Atlantic Trade, in the 18th and 19th centuries:
ensured a strong Yoruba character in the artistic,
religious, and social lives of Africans in the New
World. That imprint persists today in many arts
and in a variety of African-American faiths that
have arisen not only in the Caribbean and South
America, but also in urban centres across the
United States. (Drewal, et al, 1989: 13-14)
In specific terms, although many Yoruba deities including Esu (gate keeper
of heaven, keeper of the ase of choice, individuality, and change), Ogun (Lord of
iron, road ways, creativity, and war), Yemoja (goddess of the sea and fertility),
Osun (goddess of sweet water, love, and giving) survived to be worshipped in
Trinidad, it was Sango (god of thunder and lightning, and the titular/patron deity of
Oyo from where most post-Emancipation Yoruba captives were brought into Trini-
dad) who made the most visible contribution to the practice of African religion on
the island. So great and widespread was his influence that, until very recently, the
whole of the Orisa tradition in Trinidad was named Sango, leading to the erroneous
belief that he was the pre-eminent Orisa.
In addition to this historical rationale for the pre-eminence of Sango in
Trinidad, however, it should be pointed out that Sango's qualities as a protector
and an avenger deity would have appealed to the enslaved/oppressed Africans,
whether they were Oyo-Yoruba, merely Yoruba, or not Yoruba.
The nature of Yoruba Orlsa Tradition
While a general awareness of African Traditional Religion may be an
adequate background for an understanding of African religion in the New World,
any comprehensive analysis of African religion in Trinidad, because of the prepon-
derance of Yoruba influence, must begin with an acknowledgement of the nature of
the Orisa tradition of the Yoruba people. As with other African people and many
other ancient civilizations, religion among Yoruba people is an all-inclusive philoso-
phy which cannot be separated from the political, the cultural, the social, or the
creative realms. The traditional structure of religion in Africa encompasses the
observances of rites of passage birth, marriage, and death all of which are
accompanied by elaborate rituals.
While monotheism insists on the existence and the need to recognize only
the supreme divinity, African religion upholds the totality of existence and the
individual as existing within a universe governed by spiritual forces which are
ranged in some hierarchical structure and who must all be placated by humankind
if we are to benefit from their kindness.
For the African, God is the Originator, Preserver, and Sustainer of Life.
Olodumare (also Olorun, Eledumare, Eleemi, Eleda) is recognized by the Yoruba
as the creator of the universe. Olodumare is without sexual identity and is the
source of all ase: the life force in all of creation. Olodumare resides in orun which
is also the abode of the Orisa and other spiritual beings. There are no shrines to,
or physical representation of, Olodumare, the Almighty God. This African practice
of not erecting shrines to Olodumare has survived in Trinidad. Similarly, an
acknowledgement of the over-riding power of Olodumare is evident in the cognate
terms for Olodumare in some of the songs and prayers collected from old Yoruba
people in Trinidad by Maureen Warner-Lewis. (See Warner-Lewis, 1994)
The Orisa are charged with the task of overseeing life, especially human-
ity's, with modulating humanity's destiny and interceding with God on man's behalf.
Animals, plants, and natural phenomena and objects constitute the environment in
which humanity, the centre of this ontology, exists. Because nature provides
humanity with the means of existence and sustenance within the context of a
cosmic totality, humanity, both out of gratitude and awe, is expected to establish a
mystical relationship with such utilitarian phenomena of nature as rain, mountains,
On a broad basis, the Yoruba people conceive of the cosmos as compris-
ing of the visible (aye) and invisible (orun) entities. Aye is the visible, tangible world
of the living and orun is the spiritual realm and the abode of ancestors, gods, and
spirits. It is also often the case that both the ultimate religious and the ultimate
socio-political authorities are vested in one and the same person as can be seen in
-the case of an obe (king). In the Yoruba world, there is cosmic totality and a
consciousness in which the essence of humanity is inseparable from the entire
Two Orisa stand at the threshold between orun and aye. Esu
/Elegba/Elegbara functions as the gatekeeper who allows or prevents our prayers
from getting to Olodumare. He is also the deity of choice; he offers options to
humanity and insists that whenever and whatever an individual chooses, that
individual is held accountable for that choice. The second Orisa of the threshold is
Ifa. Ifa is the Yoruba system of divination, presided over by Orunmila, through
which the individual can access the forces at work on him/her in specific situations
and influence the course of events in a desired way. The babalawo is the priest
and custodian of Ifa's ancient wisdom and its system of prediction/revelation.
The Orisa are grouped into two broad divisions, namely the cool, temper-
ate Orisa (Orisa funfun, e.g. Obatala, Yemoja) and the hot, temperamental ones
(Orisa gbigbona, e.g. Ogun, Sango). Although the Orisa live in orun, however, they
regularly visit the living through their mediums whom they possess during rituals
and through whom they communicate with the living. Possession of devotees by
the Orisa is usually the desired high point of a religious ritual/festival among
continental as well as diasporic Yoruba people. Since the Orisa are perceived by
the Yoruba people as having both positive and negative dimensions, devotees are
mandated to obey their demands such that they may be positively blessed and their
Ancestor Veneration in Orisa Tradition
Ancestors form another essential part of the population of orun. Some
Orisa are ancestors who have been elevated to Orisahood. But ancestors who are
not thus elevated are also conceived as having acquired significant spiritual status
which puts them next to the Orisa in the hierarchical order of the cosmos. From
their vantage point, they are able to influence the affairs of the living, especially
those of their descendants, by guiding and blessing them. The establishment of
affectionate filial relationship between the living and their ancestors in Africa is
effected through the sacred masquerade festivals, overseen by members of the
cult of ancestors, which comprises ritual sacrifices and the manipulation of reality to
simulate the ritual return, on an annual basis and in times of crises, of ancestors.
During these festivals, the returning ancestors fraternize with the living, entertain-
ing with songs/chants, graceful dance steps, magical feats, and generously be-
stowing their blessings on them.
Conceived as returnees from heaven, African masquerades are dressed in
special outfits made from cloths of different colours. They are usually covered from
head to toe, wearing improvised shoes and wooden masks or netting over their
faces to facilitate vision and conceal the identity of the makers.
Ancestor Veneration in Trinidad
In spite of the centrality of the rituals/festivals of ancestors (egungun
festivals) to the religious world of the African, however, this tradition did not survive
in its complex ritualized form in the New World but ancestor veneration continues
to be signalled through basic social rituals like the pouring of libation to the earth
(the abode of the dead) from freshly opened bottles of rum, through the placing of
offerings at grave-sites, through the laying of tables during the ancestral ritual of
saraka, and through the absorption of aspects of egungun practices into carnival
masking. It has been speculated that, since public visitation of ancestors was not
possible under the restrictive plantation system, the intensity with which Africans
entered into the carnival tradition derived from a perception of carnival as the only
legitimate public means of actualizing their tradition of ritual masking, albeit, on a
not wholly ritual occasion. Scholars like J.D. Elder (1996) and Maureen Warner-
Lewis (1991) and the cultural activist, Molly Ahye (1978) have drawn attention to
the coincidence of world view between the Caribbean and Africa and identified
many of the links, affirming that the predominant source of African influences on
Trinidad is unarguably Yoruba, with the Rada tradition of Dahomey, itself a cousin
of the Yoruba, in evidence in a part of Port of Spain and a sprinkling of Igbo,
Hausa, Congo, and Mandigo practices in other parts of the island. They have
identified moko jumble, jab jab, dragons, juju warriors and midnight robbers as
some of Trinidad carnival characters which owe their genesis to African ritual
traditions. Similarly, Daniel J Crowley (1956) provides an account of Trinidad
carnival characters such as Moko Jumbies, Cattle or Cow Bands, Pai Banan and
the Congo or Shango Bands with qualities which recall ritual as well as social
aspects of African masquerade traditions. Crowley identifies the Juju Warrior,
especially the one led by one Olumbo Jumby which was said to have been
introduced into carnival directly from Africa:
The Jumby was a man completely covered by a
conical wire structure of black-dyed bag or black
satin. At the tip of the cone was the head of a
kangaroo (the informant may have meant a gi-
raffe) executed in paper mache or paper-covered
wire and painted silver, with a red-tongue and ear,
white teeth, and glass eyes. The masquer saw
through a paper mache mask on the Jumby's
"chest" and his hands extended through the cone.
He wore silver-painted canvas gloves and san-
dals with upturned toes, and carried a small
broom called "kokoyell or a "chechere". ...Olumbo
Jumby spoke "African". (73)
Although the connection between Carnival and ancestor veneration is yet
to be fully investigated by historians and social scientists, creative writers like Earl
Lovelace have signalled its potential energy. In The Dragon Can't Dance, Love-
Up on the Hill Carnival Monday morning breaks
upon the backs of the tin shacks with no cock's
crow, and before the mist clears, little boys, cos-
tumed in old dresses, their heads tied, holding
brooms made from the ribs of coconut palm
leaves, blowing whistles and beating kerosene
tins for drums, move across the face of the awak-
ening hill, sweeping yards in a ritual, heralding the
masquerader's coming, that goes back centuries
for its beginnings, back across the Middle Pas-
sage, back to Mali and to Guinea and Dahomey
and Congo, back to Africa when Maskers were
sacred and revered, the keepers of the poisons
and heads of the secret societies, and such chil-
dren went before them, clearing the ground, an-
nouncing their coming to the huts before which
they would dance and make their terrible cries,
affirming for the village, the tribe, warriorhood and
femininity, linking the villagers to their ancestors,
their gods, remembered even now, so long after
the Crossing, if not in the brain, certainly in the
blood... (Lovelace, 1979: 120).
One of the methods deployed for the control of the New World African was
the deliberate practice of stripping him of everything that might remind him of his
physical as well as spiritual connection with Africa. This was the principle behind
the dispersal of people from the same ethnic groups to different plantations such
that it would be difficult for them to keep alive their languages and/or be in a
position to organize themselves into pressure groups and the banning of African
rituals, especially the beating of the drums, out of fear that the drum could be used
as a means of secret communication between communities of Africans and be-
tween Africans and their essential spiritual selves.
Against the background of the authoritarian control imposed on the New
World African, he had no choice but to be resourceful. He was forced by circum-
stances to reach deeper into the self and into his religious practices to find ways of
coping. Having been brought out of a culture in which myths, symbolism, dance,
and music, were the ingredients of daily life, it was very easy for him to use those
same qualities to hoodwink the establishment and to remind the self of its essential
self. The African took his religion underground. This would have been very easy
to accomplish since significant aspects of religious rituals of Africa are generally
opened to only the initiated. So, while affirming the general truth to the effect that
when a people are denied the opportunity to express themselves openly, they are
forced to go underground, they were also affirming a practice that is an integral
aspect of African religious tradition.
In addition to being forced to emphasize the cultic dimension of their
religion, the African also manipulated the religion of the slavemaster into becoming
the unwitting carriers and preservers of his religion. Aware that the only public
method of worship he would be allowed was that of the slavemaster, the African
accepted the religion of the slavemaster and consciously erected a parallel inter-
pretation of the Christian structure of saints such that when he publicly prayed to
them, his inner mind/head (ori-inu) which is regarded by the African to be by far
more powerful than the actual head, in spiritual matters, was praying to the
The enslaved New World African engaged in the coded insertions of key
African words, especially ritual words like ebo (Yoruba), into the language of the
enslaver such that he was able to talk about ritual plans without the master being
any wiser to such plans. English lexical items such as "feast" from the Catholic
feast to the saints, "stool" used to signal the seat of the Orisa and phrases like
"laying the table" were also reinvested with new African ritual meanings which were
obvious only to the initiated.
The process whereby the African appropriated Christian practices for the
articulation of his spirituality became known as syncretism. On the strength of the
details about the Orisa which have survived in Trinidad, we would like to suggest
that syncretism, if defined as a method of conflating two religions into one, is an
inadequate term. What the African did was to use the dominant and socially
accepted form of theology to preserve his systematically despised world view and
its theology. The saints and the prayers, therefore, became mere "alphabets" with
which the African recorded the stories of his Orisa for posterity. However, over the
centuries of writing the Orisa tradition into Christian rituals, there has been some
significant carry-overs from the latter to the former. But it must be stressed that
such carry-overs are not always necessarily religious. Rather, they are, as in the
case of the use of candles in Orisa rituals, adaptations undertaken out of contextual
convenience and suitability. In these matters, the African is merely demonstrating
adaptability and resourcefulness as his tools for survival. In the words of J.D.
What the Africans were doing was highly en-
trepreneurial. They were selecting from the so-
cial milieu, those cultural materials originating
with European social, religious, and economic in-
stitutions that would be functional and useful in
the building of their own religious system what
Herskovits termed assimilation. So that Shango
(in Trinidad) for example became a new exciting
religion accommodating the Christian concept of
the Supreme God, the perception of the Other
World, the concept of the pantheon of gods, very
African and yet very Christian in which all the
Catholic saints from a foreign culture find rest and
recognition. (1990: 27)
Perceptive though the above analysis is, it must be noted, in passing, that, contrary
to the observation in the above, New World Africans did not come to a realization
of the Supreme God through Christianity. The Yoruba, like other African people,
always had a concept of Olodumare as the Supreme God. In his affirmation of the
Christian belief in a Supreme God alongside his belief in the saints who, for him,
represent the Orisa, the New World African was merely continuing an authentic
Orisa Tradition in Trinidad Today
The contemporary state of the Orisa tradition in the New World reveals that
the tradition has continued to adjust to the demands of a new and changing
context. As with the practice of Orisa tradition in other parts of the New World, one
of its most exciting aspects in Trinidad, is the unification of the Orisa under the
same roof. Whereas, among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, each individual/fam-
ily/community is associated with a particular Orisa and, therefore, more actively
involved in the rituals associated with such a patron Orisa (often represented in the
individual/family/community ritual space), in Trinidad, while a shrine may be dedi-
cated to a particular Orisa, all or as many of the Orisa as possible are represented
in the yard. During the annual feast, all the Orisa are invoked and the major ones
are expected to manifest on their special days within the period of the feast.
At the Marabella shrine of lyalorisa, Melvina Rodney head of the Orisa
Movement in Trinidad and Tobago (anointed by the Oni of Ife, in his capacity as
the Spiritual Leader of the Yoruba people, during his state visit in 1988), the
following Orisa have stools dedicated to them: Esu, Jakuta, Ogun Kangun Kangun
(one of the seven variants of Ogun), Ibeji, Ogun, Sopona, Osayin (Osain), Mama La
Terre, Elufon/Babalufon/Balufon in the open yard and Obatala, Shango, Oya,
Erinle, Osayin, Orunmila, Yemoja (Yemanja/Emanja), Osun and Ma Fury inside the
The centrality of women as followers, as the leading performers of Orisa
rituals, as owners of shrines, and as the leading organizers of shrine activities are
some of the other areas in which the Trinidad/New World practice of the Orisa
tradition has been altered in line with the reality of the New World where the African
woman has been in the vanguard of the struggle for survival. For example, over
fifty percent of the about 80 active shrines in Trinidad are owned and maintained
by women. Similarly, although Papa Neza has remained the most legendary of the
Orisa priests of this century, informants talk reverently about past, strong Orisa
priestesses like Ma Taiwo, Ma Diamond, and Mother Gerald.
In the context of the liberation of the African woman and her relationship
with her men, however, it should be noted that in every one of the shrines where
the leadership is firmly in the hands of women, the women recognize a number of
roles which remain exclusive to special male members of the shrine. The
mombwah (the person who conducts the feast), the slayer, (the person who
undertakes the ritual slaying of sacrificial animals), and the drummers are usually
Orisa Feast (Ebo) in Trinidad
Outside of recent efforts to popularize an annual public observance of the
Feast of Osun and attempts to lobby the government to approve a public holiday in
honour of all the Orisa, the public dimensions of Yoruba religious rituals such as the
public parade of returning ancestors, the public ritual festivals which accompany
the veneration of Sango in the ancient city of Oyo, of Ogun in Ire/Ondo, or of Osun
in Osogbo did not survive in Trinidad. However, many of those qualities associated
with such public expressions are very much in evidence in the annual Orisa feasts
organized by each active shrine.
Orisa Yard as Sacred Space
In Trinidad, a household devoted to the worship of the Orisa is referred to
as an Orisa yard and such a yard treated as sacred space. While among the
Yoruba people, sacred Orisa shrines are demarcated with sacred plants, symbolic
leaves (like palm-fronds for Ogun), and the hanging of pieces of appropriately
coloured cloths over the entrance of the shrine, an Orisa yard in Trinidad may be
identified through the shape and colours of flags on bamboo poles planted in the
yard. Our investigation has so far been unable to date the earliest instance of the
flag-on-pole tradition. The tradition might have been initially influenced by the
colonial penchant for flag-flying and later intensified by the flag-flying tradition of the
Hindus, especially since the flag tradition is most evident in Trinidad where interac-
tions between Africa and India are very strong. So strong is the inter-penetration of
Africa and India in Trinidad that, in the context of the Orisa tradition, Osayin is
perceived by some Orisa practitioners as having an Indian dimension and Hindu
deities are represented in many Orisa chapelles or in separate Hindu chapelles
within the Orisa yard. Such practitioners combine Hindu and Orisa spiritual work,
adopting whichever option is preferred by their clients.
Orisa flags are rectangular, as opposed to the triangular flag of the Hindus.
Each Orisa is represented by the colour or the combination of colours on the
bamboo pole. For example, generally, Ogun's flag is red and white, Sango's red,
Mama La Terre's is brown/mauve and Esu is black. In addition to the identification
of each Orisa by the colour scheme of the flag, each Orisa also has his or her
favourite ritual/sacrifice items. In Trinidad, this tradition has been modified in light
of both what is available and what is socially acceptable. For example, olive oil is
widely used in place of palm oil, candles have replaced the traditional African
clay-and-oil lamp and the dog, one of Ogun's favourite sacrificial animals among
the Yoruba people, is not used in Orisa rituals in Trinidad since, one suspects, the
dog is not an acceptable source of meat for human consumption in the West.
Sacred and Social Space
The space within an Orisa yard can be divided into social and ritual space.
The distinction between the two is not always clear cut, especially since the stool of
Esu is located at the entrance into the yard thus demarcating all of the yard as a
ritual space. However, the residential section of the yard is often used as a social
space wherein some of the ritual taboos which operate in the various ritual spaces
are not mandatory.
The ritual space of a yard is made up of the balance of the yard: an open
courtyard in which some stools are located; the palais where the singing, drum-
ming, dancing, and manifestations (all public aspects of Orisa rituals) take place;
and the chapelle where more stools are located and where sacrificial animals are
usually slaughtered. Except when the priest/priestess waves the rule, only the
initiated or those being initiated are allowed into the chapelle which is regarded as
the most sacred space in the yard. It is the equivalent of the sacred groove of the
Yoruba people. The floors of sacred spaces in a yard must be maintained as bare
earth and no one may enter such spaces wearing shoes. This practice is designed
to facilitate communication between communicants and Mother Earth the source of
bountiful harvest and the ultimate resting place.
A feast is an annual event at every active shrine. The feast season starts
immediately after Easter and goes on until early December. While the major
shrines tend to make sure that their feasts do not clash, it is possible to have a
number of feasts happening at the same time across the island. A feast is primarily
the responsibility of the priest/priestess of the shrine, the elders of the shrine, and
the children of the shrine the spiritual children of the priest/priestess of the shrine.
It is however the practice that devotees of the Orisa usually attend one another's
feast. Outside of the events which take place inside the inner sanctum of the
chapelle, non-devotees are allowed either inside the palais or on the outside
The undertaking of a feast requires considerable ritual preparations for
both host and participants. The host usually undergoes a period (three weeks) of
fasting and abstinence prior to the feast. During this period of seclusion, the host
is expected to pray, continually seeking the guidance and support of the Orisa. The
same holds for those participants who may be making offerings during the feast.
The ritual of flag planting takes place on the weekend of the feast. In this
ceremony, the old flags by the stools are replaced which involves the ritual
cleansing of both flags and poles and the ritual revitalization of the Orisa energies
inside the holes in which the poles will stand. Also, at this time, those Orisa/powers
such as Esu who require to be fed outside the compound are fed in the bush.
The feast starts on a Sunday night and lasts for five nights. Although each
day of the feast is devoted to one or more Orisa, every night of rituals, singing,
dance, and invocations opens with an invocation to Esu as the bearer of rituals to
all the other Orisa and the Supreme God. As is the practice among the Yoruba
people, Esu is invoked and placated to eschew chaos from the celebration and to
open the gateway for the rituals/prayers of the evening to ascend to the Orisa.
After the invocation of Esu, the four cardinal points are acknowledged and
homage paid to them before the other Orisa are invoked in a sequence that is fairly
fixed: Ogun, Mama La Terre, Shopona (Shakpana), Jakuta, Osayin (Osain), Erinle,
Ibeji, Yemoja (Yemanja), Osun, Oya, and Shango.
The success of a feast depends on the degree of the Orisa-energy in
evidence. On a primary level, this is determined by the spiritual knowledge and
preparedness of the officiating priest/priestess who is usually the owner of the
shrine. In addition, there is the degree of spiritual energy contributed by the children
of the shrine and visiting devotees which can be felt in their participation in the
singing and dancing. Most significantly, complementary to the singing, the perform-
ance of the drummers is very crucial to the success of a feast. Although there are
individual Orisa devotees who can manifest possession in the absence of music,
possessions during a feast are directly related to the quality of the drumming,
singing, and the presence of spiritually-primed mediums in the congregation.
In most shrines, dances which take place inside the palais during the feast
are conducted in a circle, an affirmation of the circularity of the African/Yoruba
world view. The first song (Esu baragbo) is sung with the congregation moving
anti-clock wise. When the prie-tess/priest raises the next song the congregation
spins around, bends, touches the earth, gets back into the dance mode, this time
moving clock wise, all in one smooth movement. This sequence is repeated for the
seven songs to Esu. The only time a dancer gets out of formation is during
possession when the possessed person would tend to take to the centre of the
circle. When this happens, the drumming and singing rise to a crescendo, with the
emphasis on songs for the manifesting Orisa, a knowledge which comes out of the
type of dance the possessed does and/or the ritual implements he/she takes up
from the chapelle to dance with. The dancing intensifies until the devotee becomes
totally inhabited by the visiting Orisa. In that state, the possessed often delivers
divine messages to members of the congregation, performs spiritual work such as
healing, and, moves through the palais, greeting individual members before the
possessing/visiting Orisa dismounts. There are instances in which the manifesting
Orisa may alight on observers on the outside of the palais. In many such in-
stances, experienced devotees may help calm them down, if it is that they are not
ready to cope with the spiritual and physical rigours of possession. At a later date,
if the novice so desires, his/her head may be washed and the manifesting deity
settled in his/her head in an initiation rite known in Trinidad as daysunnu.
Each night's proceedings climax with the slaying of the ritual animals in the
early hours of the following day. All the animals to be offered for sacrifice are
ritualistically cleansed and draped in the colours of the Orisa to whom they are to
be offered. Once this has been done, the drummers are once more called back to
duty. One by one, each supplicant feeds his/her sacrificial animal, touches his/her
head with it, kneels before the stool of the Orisa, and silently utters his/her desire
before the animal is slaughtered, to the accompaniment of the appropriate music.
Once all the animals have been sacrificed, a departure song is raised to signal the
departure of the Orisa.
All animals killed are cooked, without salt, to be consumed by devotees
and willing visitors. In essence, although it is a feast to the Orisa, it is also a feast
for their followers and their friends. Besides specific parts of the animal like the
feet, head, genitals, bones (ritualistically consigned to a fire kept burning before the
entrance to the yard) and the blood which are treated as belonging to the Orisa,
everything else is consumed by members of the congregation.
Among the Yoruba people, there are many types of sacrifices. There is the
thanksgiving or communion which best equates to the Trinidadian notion of feast;
there is the votive sacrifice which is undertaken as a request to the Orisa and as a
promise that if your request is granted, you would make an offering; there is the
propitiatory sacrifice which is recommended for when one is plagued with maladies
and misfortunes; there is the substitutionary sacrifice which involves the deflection
of evil and death from the supplicant; and there is the foundation sacrifice which
includes all sacrifices designed to ensure the success of rites of passage like
weddings and social tasks like building a house. (Awolalu, 1979). Although
Trinidad Orisa sacrifice may not sub-divide neatly into the above categories, it is
obvious that all of the meanings of sacrifice which exist among the Yoruba people
have been incorporated into the various Trinidad Orisa rituals/sacrifices. Day-
sunnu, the initiation process in Trinidad recalls African initiation ceremonies, the
practice of bush bath is reminiscent of propitiatory rituals, and saraka which entails
the feeding of children and honouring of ancestors contains the Yoruba practice of
sara (alms, charitable gift).
Historical and Contemporary Roles of Orisa Tradition in Trinidad
On a general basis, African and Africa-inspired religions have always
functioned in pre-Emancipation New World as unifying tools for revolts. There
were hardly any large scale revolts on plantations that did not involve a priest of
African religion, the use of the drum and/or the swearing to African ritual oaths to
ensure that participants did not betray their co-conspirators. In such situations,
participants who were tempted to betray the plot would be mindful of the tragic
consequences of such an act, whether they were found out or not. All accounts of
the Haitian revolution, for example, confirm the centrality of the voodoo religious
practices in its successful execution. The hold which Uriah Butler had on the trade
union movement in Trinidad in the 1930s has been attributed in part to his
involvement with the Shouter Movement. Similarly, the success of Eric Williams
among grassroots Africans was linked to his association with the Spiritual Baptists.
More than the politician, however, artists and musicians have been the
ones most influenced by the Orisa tradition. Going as far back as Tiger and Lion
and coming down to Lord Nelson, Chalkdust, Sugar Aloes, David Rudder, and Ella
Andall, Orisa subjects and rhythms have found expression in calypso, thus reaf-
firming, in a contemporary context, the dimension of the Orisa origin of the ca-
lypso/carnival art forms. The steel drum which emerged in Trinidad in the late
1950s is another descendant of Orisa/Africa drums. In 1884, Orisa/African drums
were banned from Carnival. Revellers responded to the ban by substituting bam-
boo drums (tambour bamboo) and, by the 1930s, the steel band or "ironside," as it
was called, in place of Orisa/African drums. In essence, the origin of the Trinidad's
musical phenomenon of steelpan is deeply rooted in African and, in particular,
Orisa musical practices. (See Blake, n.d.; Gibbons, 1997)
In spite of the association between leading political figures and African
inspired religious traditions, the publics' acceptance of such traditions did not
begin to gather pace until after the mass protests of the 1970s. These protests
which have gone down in history as the Black Power Movement encouraged racial
pride and the embrace of African names and fashion. Indirectly, the interest which
this movement initiated extended into the area of religion and encouraged many
closet devotees of these traditions to come out in the open. This period also
signalled the public participation in these traditions by members of the African
middle-class with the result that middle-class professionals have become influential
members of the socio-political leadership of the more prominent Orisa shrines in
Trinidad. The ritual and popular leadership has, however, remained firmly in the
hands of the grassroots practitioners of the tradition. Today, two dominant trends
are evident in the practice of Orisa tradition in Trinidad. Because of the accretive
nature of the religion, especially in the New World, the practice of Orisa tradition in
Trinidad exists in many shrines alongside or, in some cases, is integrated with
Spiritual Baptist/Shouter elements as well as with cabalistic rituals. This trend is
commonly called the "full circle" approach. But, against the background of the new
freedom with which its practitioners can now perform Orisa rites, there is a strong
tendency to de-Christianize the tradition and embrace Yoruba language, rituals,
and theological teaching in an effort to return Trinidad Orisa tradition to its African
Awolalu, J. Omosade, 1979: Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, Harlow, Longman Group Limited.
Blake, Fido, n.d.: The Steelpan ot Trinidad and Tobago: History and Evolution.
Crowley, J. Daniel, 1956: "The Traditional Masques of Carnival," Caribbean Quarterly, (Trinidad Carni-
val Issue) Vol 4 Nos. 3 & 4.
Drewal, John Henry and Pemberton III, John, with Abiodun, Rowland; Edited by Wardwell, Allen,
1989: Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought, New York: The Center for African Art.
Elder, Jacob D., 1996: "The Orisha Religion (Shango) as Resistance and Social Protest," in Manfred
Kremser (ed), Ay BoBo: Afro-Caribbean Religions, Vienna: WUV-Universitatsverlag.
Gibbons, Rawle, 1987: "The Second Coming: The Orisha Factor in the Emergence of the Steelband
in Trinidad and Tobago." Paper presented at the 5th World Congress of Orisa Tradition and Cul-
ture, San Francisco, August, 1987.
Lovelace, Earl, 1979: The Dragon Can't Dance, London: Andre Deutsch.
Mbiti, John S., 1969: African Religions and Philosophy, Oxford: Heinemann International Literature
Sertima, Ivan Van, 1976: They Came Before Columbus The African Presence in Ancient America,
New York: Random House
Thompson, Robert Farris, 1984: Flash of the Spirit, New York: Vintage Books.
Warner-Lewis, Maureen, 1991: Guinea's Other Suns, Dover: The Majority Press.
1994: Yoruba Songs of Trinidad, London: Karnak House.
1996: Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory, Tuscaloosa: The
University of Alabama Press.
A Bakhtinian Approach to the Jamaican Nine Night
When I say that ... is just to show you the theme
of LIVITY! At Vemal's nine night
In contrast to a traditional ethnological view which sees ritual as the
essence of a local culture the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has recently
shown us how it is ritual that is often key in localizing global social and cultural
forces (1995). Despite its centrality as an institution in popular Jamaican life, the
nine night, set-up or singing (in other words the wake nights that follow a death in
Jamaica) is surprisingly underrepresented in studies of Caribbean religious experi-
ence: analysis of the aesthetics at its core is even more rare. My aim here is to
draw on the aesthetic theory of Bakhtin io bring out the complex intermixing of
personality and shared values that make up the nine night as a celebration of
someone's life and death. Like Appadurai, I see the nine night as part of a process
that localizes the experience of global social networks. This process can best be
understood through the prism of Bakhtin's theory of utterance. In this article I draw
on three themes from Bakhtin's cultural critique.
The analytical centre here is Bakhtin's idea that aesthetics implies the
creation of a surplus of meaning between aesthetic 'co-experiencers' (1990).
Bakhtin understands aesthetic expression as something that emerges once recog-
nized genres are created and which changes and develops dialogically as different
speakers and listeners play on existing kinds of genre to create their own culturally
effective utterances (1994). Aesthetic genres provide boundaries that allow people
to carry forward their own project in a symbolically acceptable relation to others.
They also allow and encourage free-play with the history of utterances through
which the genre is continuously reformulated. In turn aesthetic genres create a
pool of surplus meaning which is not present where two people do not share
elements of the same dialogical history. One of the advantages of Bakhtin's
approach is that he does not see culture (as structural anthropologists have done
in the past) as a closed system of signs and messages but something continuously
and consciously recreated from a wide range of sources. The importance of such
an approach is apparent once we see the wake as an open-ended genre continu-
ously reformulated in the utterances of its participants and directed towards the
co-experiencing or co-authorship of the soul of a dead individual.
A second theme, running throughout this discussion, concerns the kines-
thetic quality of the wake, in other words, the degree to which the carrying forward
of the wake as a shared project rests at the bodily level and the way in which bodily
rhythms and musicality shape the flow of the event and the development of
personality within it boundaries. Much aesthetic theory has a mentalist bias
(Bourdieu 1977, 1984:1-7). By contrast, for instance, Michael Jackson (1989:119-
136) has drawn very effectively on the work of Mauss (1985) and Bourdieu (1977)
to demonstrate that ritual is best understood at the level of bodily habitus: our
verbalized, intellectualized questioning of ritual action often fails to reach the
essence of ritual that lies behind, or beyond, words. On the other hand, we should
not discount the degree to which, while aesthetics is shaped at a bodily level, it is
also formed intuitively and reflectively; as the priestess says below, 'your strings of
music here is coming from your heart, is coming from your thought...'. My argu-
ment, following Bakhtin (as in the quote above) is that the collective activity in the
nine night (bodily, intuitive and verbalized) serves to 'rhythmicize' the experience of
the departing soul temporally and 'give it form spatially'. Clearly there can be no
sharp divorce between bodily and intellectual/intuitive components.
The third issue here concerns how the mode of representing the wake (or
ritual more generally) channels the understanding of it. Hence the (perhaps rather
alienating) strategy of placing a quite long piece of transcription at the heart of my
analysis. Much of the literature on ritual since Van Gennep (1960) has dwelt on
structural elements at the expense of individual voices (Tyler 1992), that is
something I want to reverse here. A related point is that writing, of course,
depends on its own aesthetic modes to reach an audience (as I show, the nine
night consists of a balancing of book and oral modes). In attempting an aesthetic
analysis of the wake I also want to make the aesthetics of that representation itself
transparent. However, before beginning my analysis some comments on the
organization of the nine night are necessary.
Key sociological elements in the wake
For an institution so omnipresent in popular Jamaican life, the nine night
has received surprisingly little extended attention. Treatments such as those by
Beckwith (1929:82), Cassidy (1961:255), Keff (1963:133-134) et al are cursory,
save Simpson (1956:376-380, 1957, 1980), and all show up immense variation at
the level of meaning and practice. It may be that this has to do with the tendency
of commentators to focus on one denomination in their assessments of folk religion
(eg Seaga 1969, Guano 1994, however cf Besson 1995 for a comparative ap-
proach) whereas the nine night in its broadest form is pan-, or para-denominational,
in other words not dependent on any specific church congregation. My own
experience (based on two years of fieldwork, 1991-1993) would place the nine
night at an absolutely central point in the peasant-urban-cosmopolitan continuum
of recreational, religious and especially aesthetic experience.
The constituency of the nine night varies. Wakes are mostly populated by
working class (often informally employed) Jamaicans. Many of the city's poorest
inhabitants, who often do not attend any church, will sometimes travel long dis-
tances to reach a wake. But wakes also draw family members back from 'foreign'
and there is an internal distinction within this institution between those who come to
sing, drink and eat and the family which opens up its yard and provides for these
(not always entirely welcome) guests. This distinction is perhaps central to the
typical atmosphere at the nine night where a celebratory, frequently burlesquing,
atmosphere may nonetheless contain conflictual sentiments. While anyone famil-
iar with the classic comparative literature on death (eg Hertz 1960) will be surprised
by the degree to which the nine night celebrates, rather than mourns, death, the
degree to which this celebration is organized around the accommodation and
incorporation of interpersonal conflict should not be ignored.
Equally a feature of the nine night that has gone unnoticed is its character
as a redistributive and reciprocal network: bereaved family members will bring their
friends to their family's nine night and in turn be welcomed when the situation is
reversed. The preparations for the wake, in terms of food and drink involve
considerable expense and yet, as I describe below, anyone from the neighbour-
hood is also free to visit and sing at the wake and, in return, receive food (usually
curried goat and soup) and drink (white rum, but also occasionally bottled beer).
The nine night's quality as a network becomes apparent when I say that some of
my friends in Kingston were able to visit wakes as often as once a week or once a
fortnight simply on the basis of invitations from friends, friends of friends or by
If accounts such as Kerr's (1963:134) are accurate then the structure of
the wake/funeral celebrations has changed radically over the last fifty years from a
situation where the nine night was a post-funeral event to one, as currently, where
the wake, or wakes, happen pre-funeral. In fact it has become customary for there
to be two main nights, sometimes distinguished by the terms nine night and set-up,
which take place on the first Saturday and second Saturday after the death (it may
well be that the extension of the period before the funeral has come about because
it allows family members living abroad time to arrive for the final wake and funeral).
These two key nights are distinguished by their degree of lavishness the second
is a more grand affair which more people attend and by elements of rite the first
is a more family centred event where the spirit of the dead is turned out, in other
words, made to leave the house by a mixture of coercion and ritualized entreaty.
To summarize then, in a highly mobile population the nine night provides
an open-ended framework, itself made up of varied and varying cultural elements
that has the power to bring people together in celebration of a death. In many ways
the wake can be counted as an emphatic example of the process of cultural
localization that Appadurai describes. It creates a nexus of social relationships
through which cultural understandings are continuously reformulated. The ensuing
discussion is divided into three main sections, each of which is intended to create
a series of interwoven perspectival and experiential contrasts regarding the wake.
In the first I attempt to grasp the sense of the night's events as a totality, pulling out
different strands that make up the overall flow. In the second section I have
transcribed a segment of speech (a few minutes) from the end of a wake. The third
section extends our understanding of the characters presented in this taped dia-
logue and suggests ways in which they are both shapers of and shaped by the
wake's aesthetic parameters.
The nine night as a totality
Form and content in traditional song performance are notoriously difficult to
disentangle. Part of this has to do with the enmeshing of the simply musical with
the broadly and complexly personal and social. Nine nights are not merely a
staged opportunity to sing, but have multiple other functions (individual and social).
Partly also there is the 'interference' of meaning with form, in the sense that the
significance of certain songs sung at certain times, initiated by particular people,
has effects on the performance of the wake as a whole. The wake sequence has
its own form and flow, though in this article I am largely concerned with the one or
two big nights of singing and dancing the aesthetics of arrival and departure, of
making your voice heard, of joining in and counter-phrasing, of forcing movement
and cooling things down...
The Jamaican wake is structured very much on a principle of enlightened
anarchy; there are no strict leaders though people come to the fore as instigators
of certain activities. The integral feature is the performance of song: a mix of hymn
book and traditional, untexted lyrics. This in turn is shaped by the desires of the
group of singers, the time of night and the availability of sustenance (alcoholic or
otherwise). Each event is different, but there is always singing and drink and
dancing which, alongside the specific activities in relation to the ghost, are the
principal markers of a Jamaican wake proper. Under these particular conditions of
performance, song, especially its initiation, becomes a delicate balancing of subjec-
tive desire and collective will. The form is provided by space (people round a table)
and time (night into morning). Content is provided by the lyrics (sung or synco-
pated) and the activity of performance (leaving to one side for a moment other
activities, such as the playing of dominoes). Whether the two cohere is a function
of the will and musical ability of the group.
The performance repertoire consists of a mixture of songs general to the
Revivalist canon, and some popular traditionall' with a relevance more particular
to the wake. The former type are largely 'book' hymns, (for example; "There is a
green hill far away"), many of which have already been chosen by the family (along
with the psalms and Bible readings) or are chosen in situ.. In order to sing a hymn,
someone is delegated to read out the first line, then another will find the key and
people join in as they wish. The tunes are usually similar (though there is invariably
improvization at the level of choral harmony). I once heard "A Green Hill' rendered
according to the tune that was familiar to me; but on most occasions it was
rendered to a local tune, itself adaptable to considerable variations in mood and
pitch (an obvious corollary to this is the absence of formally trained musical
accompaniment). Most of the book hymns are sung with deliberation, to a slow
rhythm (a response, in part, to the fairly slow delivery of the reader): a stark
counter-point to the oral-traditional songs, where people pick up the rhythm and
use their whole body to syncopate it.
Song lyrics of the oral-traditional type contain a wide-ranging mixture of the
topical and the general. People arriving at the wake may join in singing something
"Me say, me just are come,
Me say, me just are come,
And me don' want no botheration oh!.."
a jovial indication of the debt the family owes to its neighbours for their committed-
ness; or perhaps something from the household's point of view:
"Cookie in the kitchen,
And she grumble say
she 'want go home'......
Some old standards of this sort have direct relevance to the difficulties thrown up
by death (and may have a particular resonance for individual bereaved):
"And when me father die,
He never make no will,
But he left one cow,
For the three of we,
But the bigger brother,
Him thief it 'way from we,
Glory to God!, glory to God!,
Glory to God!"
Despite different contents, all these oral-traditional songs have a distinctly popular
character and usually accompany the burlesquing and joking laughter which invari-
ably counterpoints that serious, formal (in the sense of 'proper') aspect of affairs
which is also part of the rite (and of everyday life, cf Abrahams 1983:57). The
images presented in these songs of course suggest the archetypical nature of the
roles and behaviours played out and are hence at once a self-commentary on
current behaviour and a statement about how things might be or have been done.
This counter-pointing of the serious and the jocular reflects a number of circum-
stances, amongst which is the fact that the purpose of the wake from the point of
view of the visitors is that they be fed and given opportunity to drink, sing and
generally have a good time. From the point of view of the family, on the other hand,
the occasion has more to do with fulfilling those requirements that will make the
spirit of the dead person leave peacefully. If this represents a conflict of interests
in the performance of the wake, then it is one which the reciprocities set up in the
rite are engaged to resolve in cathartic fashion, whether the means deployed are
economic, moral or, most importantly, aesthetic. Given the extensive demands
placed on families by death, it may seem surprising that wakes are such peaceful
occasions when compared to the practice of everyday life but in general, this is the
With the arrival of the neighbourhood, a melodic line is created which will
be drawn out into the first hours of the morning, with stops, starts, moments of
elevation and of dissipation. The chief organizing feature of this melodic line, as
already mentioned, is the distinction between book and oral hymns, each of which
combine different feeling-tones. Book hymns are usually slow and sombre, 'folk'
hymns are largely lively and jubilant. After attending a number of wakes it becomes
clear that it is the melodic line, loud or quiet, that creates an aural focus and which
keeps activity in the yard moving forward against the continuous background of
dominoes, drinking and conversation. Overall, maintaining any melodic progress is
something that has to be forcibly engaged with, rather than being, simply, given by
the presence of a number of voices. This is why singing is frequently curtailed by
disputes over the direction the melody is taking, for instance; which key has been,
or should be, established as guide and (on the basis of how it has started) whether
the song is likely to progress well or not. There are almost always present one or
two musically adept persons who will attempt to create a melodic direction for the
Rhythm is central to the movement of the wake; and again there are
moments of break-down and re-inception within a general theme of slowly synco-
pated formal music counterpointing rousingly rhythmed folk song. In a broader
sense, however, a rhythm has to be established in the wake which goes beyond
syncopating the melodic line. The musical rhythm is, in a way, a subset of the
broader performance in the yard enclosure, where there are rhythms established
which are simultaneously continuous (conversation, dominoes), intermittent (Bible
readings, stops for food or drink) and cumulative (the whole ritual, musical pattern
building up towards the morning). Rhythm is actively produced by the people
present as a kind of vigorous compromise, the singers demanding a certain quality
of musical progress, the dominoes or checkers players expecting uninterrupted
play and the family hoping for the time and space in which to prepare food and to
interpose the necessary elements of the rite into the wake. In the wake, just as
formality tends to give way to burlesque as the night progresses, so lyricism gives
way to rhythm, a kind of correlation that is well documented for rite in general
(Leach 1961:135-136). The rhythms established by the group reinvent the family
yard as a sort of venture directed at communal (sometimes divergent) ends; each
portion of the yard is filled with activity towards the morning, when the spirit will
have been released or the funeral will take place.
There is no point prior to the moment of action that the final character of the
wake will have been formalized. The outcome can be anticipated, but the gestalt
remains unpredictable. This is because the wake is continuously being stitched
together out of its own loose, traditional elements as the performance progresses.
There is the stitching of melody and there is also the collocation of segments of oral
poetry and the written poetry of the psalms. The verse forms of the oral material
are typically powerful and simple (as the above instances demonstrate), often
alliterating and repeating, and contain a strong visual imagery, far removed from
any abstract philosophical religious discussion eg:
"Zion have a key to open sinners heart,
Don't you trouble Zion..."
In the choosing of songs and the choice of psalms the singers rhapsodize a wide
assemblage of poetic elements of this kind and hence singing is entirely open to a
serendipitious collision of sound, poetic image and gesture. It will be seen in the
ensuing section that the affinities that persons bring to the wake temper the whole
performative quality of the singing: each individual rhapsodizing freely from his own
poetic musical experience; the 'dead yard' and the night given form and content by
a rhapsodic effect produced collectively.
One of the songs that struck me most in the wake repertoire contained
lyrics, the meaning of which never became fully clear to me:
"We are riding on the wire!
We are riding on the wire!
We are riding on the wire,
The wire, the wire,
When I asked my friend Pat about the significance of the "revival wire", and its
relation to the popular Revival Zion church, she simply laughed and said that she
didn't know and that she doubted whether the people who sung the song knew
either. An interpretation which occurred to me (a purely intuitive one) is that riding
the wire in this case suggests poetically those rhapsodic, melodic and rhythmical
enactions that project the ritual into the future as a collective performance. In this
way, as we have seen, while it might be said in the famous phrase that these songs
represent 'a story' that the Jamaicans wish 'to tell themselves about themselves'
(Geertz 1993:448), it should also be added that they also enact something that they
want to feel about themselves. That is to say they represent a physical or sensible
enactment as well as a cognitive expression.
A closer examination of the dynamics of the wake
Up to now I have emphasized unities and boundaries involved in the nine
night. That these represent my own activity on the material experienced is obvious;
but it also seems clear that there is a sense of unity and boundary that is brought
to these events by the participants as co-authors and co-actors and it is on this
sense of individual engagement in ritual practice that the discussion here is
premised. In the ritual, a fluid exchange between people is developed which is
directed towards formative ends. Each wake is the summation of a life lived and (in
the aesthetic sense explained in the introduction) the authorship by the participants
of a soul. Because each event happens under different personal and social
circumstances, each performance will vary a great deal, but the necessity for
performance will remain so long as it expresses some significant common sense
for the individuals involved. Some of the more contingent features of a wake are
shown up here by examining one excerpt from a single event, The accepted,
common-sensical quality of this kind of performance is also made evident. Later I
look at a case where this 'common sense' is contested; here I am more interested
in the dynamics of singing and lyricism as they occur in the immediate situation.
The ensuing transcription represents a moment at the ending of a very
lively wake. The characters round the table are a mixture of old friends, relatives
and people who are meeting for the first time. Other people have gone to their
beds, but these individuals have been up all night and are enjoying the fact. The
dialogue taking place is perhaps peripheral to the central concerns of the wake, but
in many ways it demonstrates quite effectively many of the issues suggested in the
broader descriptive analysis presented earlier. We notice to start with how ele-
ments of written language, verbal rhetoric, story and song are rhapsodized in the
overall movement towards the 'closing' of 'the table' (the ritual end-point of the
wake). It can be seen that each person brings their own rhythm of speech, musical
ability, and physical presence to bear on the proceedings; that their personality is
being developed both for and against the group. Finally we note the containment
of performance within certain accepted boundaries.
What the transcription also shows is a group of people caught up, in their
various ways, in the spirit of the singing, its rhythms, religious meanings and
satirical subversions. The example is neither chosen because of the especial
talent of the people involved, nor because it encapsulates the whole meaning of a
wake night, but simply because it represents something typical of the interactions
involved. I am interested here in the level of anarchic individuality expressed, but
also the ways in which activities are validated and meanings established and
shared in the pursuit of certain co-operative aims. The priestess leading the
ceremonies tries to close them. Madden and Banjo-man read psalms of their own
choosing and some religious debate follows. The priestess begins to tell a story
about her young cousin and some musicians up in St. Mary where she grew up.
The account breaks off into a general swapping of information about St. Mary and
the musicians concerned. The priestess finally finishes her digression with a rather
muffled rendering of the rude song that her cousin had heard the musicians play
that day. This is taken up and turned into a general chorus by all present.
It is the early hours of the morning. Group singing is now largely finished.
The priestess is trying to fulfil what she sees as the necessary procedures in order
to bring the wake to an end ('close the table'). Several of those present are friends,
come from another singing none is particularly eager to leave.
PRIESTESS : Now friends!, Now friends! Now friends! Now friends!; at
this point of the morning ("is not the morning' now y'know..." says Aunt P), I do
believe I have twenty five minute past six, and let us say, we are going to give -
anybody in the crowd can do it we are going to give...the close...
LEE: (singing satirically) You can count on me...
PRIESTESS : Darlin' please! (cries of "wait! wait! wait!" a voice against
the noisy crowd) ...we are going to give a closing prayer for the deceased' family,
and, quite likely, if you want to sing 'till twelve o'clock later, ("after that" "yes!,yes!"),
that leave to you ("me alone" says a man affirmatively, "yeh man" says Aunt P).
MADDEN: I want to read ... I want to read one scripture...
PRIESTESS: You going to read a scripture? ("yes, yes, go ahead man"
says Banjo man "Respect you" says another. "O.K, well, you are free" says Aunt
P) well this brother going to read a scripture let him read a scripture and after
(A man comes to the table bearing glasses of rum "White rum!", "right here"
responds one of the singers; general shouts of "no noise be orderly! be orderly!"
"behave! behave! behave!")
MADDEN: This is the word ofGgod, let we have respect upon it, I going to
read Psalms 128 read thus "Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord ("true,
true") that walked in his way, for thou shalt eat the labour of thine hand. Happily
shalt thou be and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as faithful vine by the
side of house. Thy children, like olive plant round about thy table. Behold that thou
shall be the man be blessed, that feareth the Lord. The Lord shall bless thee out of
Zion and thou shalt ... and thou shalt see the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy
life. Yea, thou shalt see thy children's children and peace upon" ("upon the
world", interjects Aunt P)...
ALL:... Glory be to the father, and to the son and to the Holy Ghost, as was
the beginning now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
TARZAN: According hear sir...
BANJO-MAN: Order, hold on, a point of order a next psalm is coming up
here too you know, gentlemen; a hundred and fifty psalms...
PREISTESS: Another psalm?
BANJO-MAN: Yes, one more.
PRIESTESS: Before the prayer?
BANJO-MAN: Yes mmm,..for the musician mmm,..for the musician, a
hundred and fifty psalms ... ("ah, look at this one too" says Tarzan)
BANJO-MAN: Praise him with the timbrel and the dance. Praise him with
... ("authority" suggests Lee).., praise him with string instrument and organs, praise
him upon the loud cymbals, praise him upon high sounding cymbal. Let everything
that have breath praise the Lord ("Praise ye the Lord!")...
ALL: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost world
without end, amen...
BANJO-MAN: Now beg pardon brother and sister; him say praise him
upon cymbal, praise him also upon the harp, praise him on the instrument of string
-praise him in the singing and in the DANCE! ... (shouts of"must dance!")
PRIESTESS: Hold on, hold on my brother... don't you know that which of
the psalms say?; 'how beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of them that slept?'
MADDEN: Pan, yes.
PRIESTESS:(approvingly) G'along! ... your strings of music here is coming
from your heart, is coming from your thought and it will be, and it is praise by God
-me don't care what me nor you, nor that man want to say is coming from praise
of God me know when me are girl pickney at St. Mary...
[I know when I was a child at St Mary]
BANJO-MAN: And me mummy have boy pickney at St. Mary ... [my mother
had a boy child at..].
PRIESTESS: Hold on!...
CHARLES: Me mummy have boy pickney at St. Mary too!...
PRIESTESS:... We have one little man named Son John and the music.
like how we are go talk about him have him bamboo fife...
BANJO-MAN: Where them something there?... [where/when was this?]
PRIESTESS: Orcabessa days, born in St. Mary...[when I lived in Orca-
bessa, I was born in St. Mary]
CHARLES: Jesus Christ!
BANJO-MAN: What about Hampstead?...
PRIESTESS:Hampstead up there so ... [Hampstead is also up in those
TARZAN: Hold on, hold on, ay, ay! Are wha' you take man for? ... [what do
you take people for?]
PRIESTESS:... And him have him little bamboo fife ... (more shouts of
"hold on", "are wha'you take man for? cool out!"; "Is there me coming from"
comments Banjo-man) ... him little bamboo fife ... and him blow him something, me
no know what them thing there did name and the other one are blow one other one
there so me no know where the whole of them did come from the whole of them
did there upon the platform...
BANJO-MAN: Jessicy; my gulley 'pon the gate... [ie they came from
Jessicy, where I live at the gate]
PRIESTESS: (in recognition) Jessicy!
BANJO-MAN:... my gulley 'pon the gate
PRIESTESS: Awo!...And them blow them little something...
BANJO-MAN: George Stone, Geoffrey Stone, Barclay Stone...
CHARLES: Gail, Gail...
PRIESTESS: And them blow them little something...
PRIESTESS: Yes, yes; Gail, up at St. Mary...
CHARLES:... Gail Bottlestone...
LEE: (to Charles) Hold on now man...
PRIESTESS: Hear me now... One time, me have one ... g'along there;
hear me..,me are tell one little joke ("retreat!"); me have one little cousin him never
know what the music are play say -and it was a Independent day, which we call first
of August you know, we no know about...
BANJO-MAN: First of August we know about man...
PRIESTESS: And hear my cousin 'Son John are say' (she starts to sing)
'Son John say him no want no dirty pud'n'
Yoshun say him no want no yaba!...'
and so him lick him something and me say from them day there, the brother are sin!
("are what kind of music that?" says Charles)...
BANJO-MAN: (picking up the tune on his banjo and singing)
Black man say, im no want no dirty oonoo, [oonoo=something]
White man say, if he want it he will take it .... (Lee, Charles and B-man start
riffing streams of "do da do dadum dum de diddy...")
... Oh miss
Maggie! Take out the
pud'n .... Every boy say; Push
in the pud'n, Take it out,
push it in! Oh miss
Maggie!...Take out, push in!
Take out, push in!
(Tarzan's song is accompanied with a Slim Gaillard style chorus of,- "Bbrrrrrrr!,
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! "from the others. Meanwhile Aunt P and her sister C
render me a less abridged version of the Priestess' song.)
AUNT P, SISTER C:
White man say him no want no marga meagree] fishy.
Black man say, if he get it he will take it;
him work good and make the fishy fleshy
PRIESTESS: (after the singing has ended, shouting over the resultant
laughter) Now listen friends, when I say that ... is just to show you the theme of
Ritual, drama and the transcription of performance
Transcription breaks speech up into speeches, but actually dialogue is
notable for its lack of breaks and endings; one utterance initiating another, with the
overall movement towards cacophony ameliorated only by rhythmic imperatives;
"behave!, behave!, behave!". Dialogue can largely be analysed without distinctive
reference to the semantics involved; the use of language here has more to do with
the phatic carrying-through of a project than with the obligation of words to things.
In transcribing the rhythmic, rhapsodic and verbally phatic elements of a wake
(even a short section such as this) into text, the contradiction between the values
of oral production and the analytical, self-referential and logically cohesive qualities
of written language are at their most apparent. However, this may present itself
both as an advantage and as a disadvantage. The transcription may suggest a
hoped-for veracity which is then denied; but it may also display facets of dialogue
that would otherwise be invisible.
However, transcription is perhaps only one aspect of a general problem in
the analysis of ritual. As Bell (1992:115) shows, theorists of ritual are usually clear
enough about what 'ritual' does; very often much less clear about why it does it.
Overall, this 'why?' of the anthropologist is a little like asking why a sentence has
significance for people when it is simply a string of phonemes or grammatically
ordered words. In fact the question has to be answered by the looking at the
intentions and desires of the actors themselves. My own suggestion, in the case of
the Jamaican wake, is that this ritual involves an aesthetic investment by the
people who are involved. Drink and singing have obvious effects on people at a
somatic level, but besides this (much underestimated by theorists such as Bloch
1974, it seems to me) ritual as a form, or form-in-the-making, engages people's
Initial themes emerge here: the continuity of dialogue, rhythm and music,
the necessary elements of ritual pressed forward by the priestess and their contin-
gent subversion by laughter and joking (even by herself), the use of the Bible by
members of the party as a means of reflexive reference and affirmation, the
harmonization of collective amens and the role of chorus; all part of an abstract
theme of an individualistic collectivity creatively constructing (or contesting) the
limits of a form. Some of these issues will be addressed in detail, then the picture
will be broadened to see these singular features once again as part of a wider field
of human relations.
Rhythm, musicality and personality
PRIESTESS: Another psalm?
BANJO-MAN. Yes, one more
PRIESTESS: Before the prayer?
That there is an intimate connection between social personality and rhythm is an
idea most associated with the work of Mauss (1979). Employing the notion of
habitus, Mauss demonstrates that personality is intimately rhythmical because it
represents the self in harmony with, or counter-point to, an understanding of the
collective. The workings of rhythm can also be understood in Bakhtinian terms as
the establishment, or testing out, of shared aesthetic parameters. This interchange
between Banjo-man and the Priestess gives an indication of the confrontation of
personality at this kind of purely rhythmic, or synpraxic, level, her voice lifts up
questionably at the end of each sentence, while his remains intransigently stable
(once again simple transliteration cannot easily show us this quality).
BANJO-MAN: Yes mmn,..for the musician mmm, .
Banjo-man's slightly hesitant intervention at this point is quite striking: he obviously
has something in mind. Having already been diverted by Madden, the priestess is
reluctant to bow to this further request but, equally, has no reason to refuse. In
turn, Banjo-man grasps the opportunity for a rather entertaining piece of self-pro-
motion in the light of the scriptures: "Now beg pardon brother and sister: him
say...praise him on the instrument of string..."; the written word elegantly traverses
his actual part in the wake and justifies it and his short speech ends by rousing all
concerned to praise God in the "singing and in the dance!" (in reality there is no
need for instrumentalists to be present at a singing). The priestess then grasps the
opportunity for a reassertion of leadership over the proceedings: "...hold on my
brother: don't you know that..." and after displaying her own scriptural dexterity,
makes a priestly observation "your strings of music here is coming from your heart,
is coming from your thought..."and, while drawing on the possibly adverse singular
responses which may have arisen out of what Banjo-man has said ("me don't care
what me nor you, nor that man want say..."), points to the collective representation
of which his individual words and music are part; "is coming from praise of God".
What also emerges here is that joking, and its opposite, the appeal to the serious,
is one of the most important and complex dynamics of this ritual. The nature of
laughter as a non-violent kind of reproof is well established (Bergson 1913). Here
we note Lee's comical interjection, the priestess' own story and the double enten-
dres of Tarzan and Banjo-man's song. Joking demonstrates a kind of personality,
but also enforces a mood of reverse social order or method of social control,
through the quelling effect on un-selfconscious egotism of group laughter. 'Princi-
pled behaviour, on the other hand, seems to argue for the formal necessity present
in the wake as a ritual performance. As I have already noted, these two are
foremost amongst the kinds of moral evocations that occur in the wake. In either
case, it is particular persons that take on the authoritative voice and others who
harmonize their voice with the potentially subversive aims of the group, by joking or
by other means. There are people who 'joke' and there are people who are
'serious' as Madden's appeal shows; "This is the word of God let we have respect
upon it". These propensities of everyday life, towards burlesque or its opposite, are
enhanced to their fullest part in the singing.
The voices transcribed demonstrate then, on a small scale, the rhythm and
tone of personality in dialogue as it moves between moments of musical efflores-
cence and barely resolved discord: the priestess with her deliberately refined
speech "...I do believe I have twenty five minute past six...... Lee's musical satire,
biblical citations from two of the more authoritative characters present, communal
spiritual affirmations, re-iterated demands for better behaviour, a long-winded story
interrupted by Charles' merrily intoxicated inconsequence, this finally becoming a
collectively syncopated song; all of these illustrating, as the priestess suggests, the
"theme of livity", by which, I take her to mean the theme of 'being alive'. Herein lies
the 'surplus of meaning', referred to at the beginning of the chapter. We could also
call it an affective surplus; the contributions of the individuals concerned combine
to make something that, in its appeal to the universal ("praise of God"), is more than
the affective and meaningful sum of its individual parts.
The wake is unusual in the Kingstonian context in the degree of freedom
people have to express themselves, without the event turning into a situation of
direct conflict. The aesthetic boundaries created by the accepted nature of the
event promulgate the kind of amicable relations that make the development of
personality possible and desirable: the priestess in her perorating priestliness, the
banjo-player as musical voice of the Lord, each person developing a history which
explains their style of enactment even Charles' drunken incoherence or the
unspeaking, ear-phoned presence of myself, the ethnographer. It is the ritual as an
aesthetic milieu which allows the suspension of self-directed individuality and
provides those unities in which personality for others may ripen. Such formal
assertions of personality will subsequently colour the kind of exchanges that people
establish between themselves in the everyday (and vice versa).
Personality in this sense finds its own musicality in relation to others; not
simply in terms of individual technical ability and aplomb, but also with regard to the
harmonization of the kind of values which make for respect, trust or the possibility
of fellowship. The participants at a wake come from varying parts of the community
and localities out-side it (often from abroad), they all bring their own local traditions
and personal expectations, a fact which makes the establishment of personality
and collective rhythm even more significant within the constraints of time and space
available. It is interesting to view the seemingly inconsequential discussion of the
geography of St. Mary in this light; as the simple assertion of self ("Is there me
coming from"), but also as the situating of personality within shared frames of
reference. These shared references become, for those present, a kind of musical
lingua franca through which other contingent differences can be incorporated and
the performance moved forward, something that is worth noting when it comes to
establishing the significance of the wake in the overall pattern of civil institutions in
An opportunity for a surplus of amity to be developed, the suspension for a
moment of interpersonal disbelief, the creative engagement in character and
chorus: these are some of the possibilities that the boundaries of ritual performance
allow. A kind of egalitarian co-authorship exists in the wake. It is not simply that
the participants empathize or collectively effervesce in order that a representation
of soul and society should emerge. Such a representation is actively created by
each. This is shown most clearly where the dialogue itself is open to inspection as
here, and is not reduced to an abstracted description of the event; each person is
seen to contribute to the overall authority of rhythm punctuated by formalizing
Contingency, individuality and rhapsody are then key features of the nine
night. However these are categories which are still extremely difficult to theorize
within the standard tenets of ritual and aesthetic anthropology. From Van Gennep
onwards (particularly through Victor Tumer's earlier work eg 1969) much more
weight has been given to progress through a pre-established form than to open-
endedness and immediacy in ritual. Again, the anthropology of aesthetics has
considerable difficulty in getting close to the sense of events for the actors involved.
In less (Bloch 1974) and more (Gell 1990) sophisticated ways aesthetics is ulti-
mately seen as a form of mystification which cannot, and should not, be treated on
its own terms. My presentation here by contrast, pursues the re-evaluation of ritual
in the directions laid out by Bruner (1986), re-emphasizing expression, individuality
It is in performance of an expression that we
re-experience, re-live, re-create, re-tell, re-con-
struct, and re-fashion our culture. Thew perform-
ance does not release a pre-existing meaning
that lies dormant in the text... Rather. the perform-
ance itself is constitutive. Meaning is always in
the present, in the here-and-now, not in such past
manifestations as historical origins or authors in-
tentions. (Bruner 1986:11)
If the emphasis for Bruner is on Dilthey as the progenitor of that redirection then the
use here of another neo-Kantian, Bakhtin, runs parallel to that project. Likewise,
Appadurai's focus on the role of ritual in localizing our experience is complemen-
tary with this Bakhtinian approach. As the temporary meeting point of diasporic
networks of human relationship the nine night allows for the continuous aesthetic
reformulation of Jamaican cultural experience. It is the open-ended qualities of the
wake, its eclectic cultural materials, its loose and egalitarian social organization,
that make it such a powerful shared institution. But the application of Bakhtin to the
nine night also raises a question about how we are to express the essence of the
wake in written form. In this post-Derridean age the business of thinking through
the rhythmic and formalizing qualities of ritual into text is an extraordinarily sensitive
one (Bruner ibid: 11). Our efforts at mimesis have the perhaps impossible goal of
bridging the gap between text and bodily action, text and orality, text and intuitive
understanding. The aesthetics of event has to find a compromise with the aesthet-
ics of the written. Extended discussion of that issue is beyond the scope of this
article, but by stressing a conception of aesthetics that can be applied both to a
reader's relationship to a text and an experience's relationship to an event Bakhtin
goes some way towards that synthesis.
My deployment of Bakhtin in this article can be seen in terms of an
extended exegesis of the quotation I began with directed to a specific kind of event;
the celebration, through song dance and play, of the life of a dead individual
(someone often only distantly known to the participants). Bakhtin centres his
notion of the aesthetic in the idea of 'co-experience': the notion that a life is only
knowable as 'a life' when it becomes the object of other people's aesthetic activity:
it is we who round out a life by introducing values that come from outside it (from
our own experience). Seen in this light, the activity of the wake can be understood
as endowing the spirit with a rhythmic and spatial context a musicality that also
has its effects on the participants in terms of the kinds of personality they develop
The wake is comprised out of the stitching together of utterance drawn from genres
that each actor understands in his or her own way
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Creole Culture. London: John Hopkins University Press
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Diversity of Knowledge. London. Routledge.
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versity of Texas Press
Bakhtin, M.M 1994: 'The Problem of Speech Genres', in Emerson, C. and Holquist, M. (eds.),
Speech Genres an Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas.
Beckwith, M. 1929. Black Roadways A study in Jamaican Folk Life. Chapel Hill: University of North
Bell, C. 1992: Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bergson, H !912: Laughter. London. Macmillan
Besson. J. 1997: 'Religion as Resistance in Jamaican Peasant Life: The Baptist Church, Revival
Worldview and Rastafari Movement', in Chevannes (ed.) Rastafari and Other Afro-Caribbean
Worldviews. London: Macmillan, Institute of Social Studies.
Bloch, M 1974. 'Symbol, Song, Dance and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of
Traditional Authority?' Archives Europienes de Sociologie, 15(l). 55-81
Bourdieu, P. 1977: Outline of a 7heory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, P. 1984: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste London. Routledge,
Kegan and Paul.
Bruner, E.M 1986: 'Experience and Its Expressions', in V.W Turner and E M Bruner (eds ). The An-
thropology of Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois.
Cassidy, F.G 1961 Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. Lon-
Geertz, C 1993: The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Fontana
Gell. A. 1990: 'The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology', in J. Coole
and A. Shelton (eds.) Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford. Clarendon.
Guano, E 1994: 'Revival Zion: An Afro-Christian Religion in Jamaica', Anthropos, 89: 517-528
Hertz, R 1960; Death and the Right Hand Aberdeen Cohen and West.
Kerr, M. 1963 Personality and Conflict in Jamaica. London. Collins.
Leach, E. 1961: Rethinking Anthropology. London: Athlone Press
Luria. A.R. and F. la Yudovich. 1972 Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the
Child Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mauss. M 1985 'The Notion of Body Techniques', in Mauss, M. Sociology and Psychology- Essays
London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.
Seaga, E. 1969: 'Revival Cults in Jamaica: Notes Towards a Sociology of Religion', Jamaica Journal
Simpson, G.E. 1956. 'Jamaican Revivalist Cults', Social and Economic Studies, 5(4) 321-442.
Simpson, G.E. 1957: 'The Nine Night Ceremony in Jamaica', Journal of American Folklore, 70:
Simpson, G.E. 1980. Religious Cults of the Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and Haiti. Puerto Rico:
Institute of Caribbean Studies.
Turner, V. 1969: The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London: Routledge, Kegan and
Tyler, S.A. 1992: 'On Being Out of Words', in G.E. Marcus (ed.), Rereading Cultural Anthropology.
Durham: Duke University Press.
Van Gennep. 1960; The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul.
Caribbean Music and The Discourses of AIDS
AIDS music and youth culture in the Caribbean represents a rich site for
further enquiry. Although adolescents and youth constitute a high risk group for
AIDS, AIDS discourse in the Caribbean has not yet put into perspective the
relationship between music leisure practices and the disease. In this respect I
believe that this paper in its broadest application will facilitate a much-needed,
wider discourse on the disease. In particular, it should serve as a critical resource
document for the Caribbean, on account of its interventionist engagement within
(what to my mind and best knowledge is) a domain of discursive silence.
Within the first decade since the discovery of AIDS, there was the percep-
tion in the Caribbean that the lack of information and awareness about AIDS
globally, meant that youth were in risk of perpetuating the transmission of the
disease through homosexual activity, unprotected sex, intravenous drug use and
the sharing of needles. An opinion, which is still current in popular belief, is that the
music of youth culture supports the very practices which can lead to AIDS. This
popular belief can be heard on radio call-in programmes, in the press and in
everyday conversation. But to date 'serious' cultural studies investigation has not
sought to discuss the nature of the interface between music, music culture and
AIDS. What I want to do in this article is to present what is a preliminary discussion
on this interface. Firstly, I want to explore the shifting attitudes in Caribbean society
to the virus over the past fifteen years, as reflected through music and its culture.
What becomes evident after investigation is that as the awareness of AIDS has
been heightened through education and a greater flow of information, there has
been an accompanying shift in the attitude, tone and message about AIDS in the
music of popular culture. Caribbean popular music has itself been impacting on the
AIDS phenomenon in many respects too. So that in the second instance, and
lastly, I will examine the tendency of enlisting culture forms like music and popular
icons in the 'fight against AIDS'. I will also examine apparent contradictions which
arise from the use of these pop culture symbols: The relationship between the
music, its message and the lifestyles of popular artists in the Caribbean is a rich
area for critical debate. In this article I will focus on the music and culture of the
The decade of the 1980s represented a period of ignorance and curiosity
about AIDS in the Caribbean. AIDS has always been a mysterious and hence a
mistrusted disease within Caribbean society. Although it was being suggested by
the medical profession that the disease could only be spread through the exchange
of blood or semen, there still loomed a societal skepticism, which was based largely
on the perception that researchers themselves world-wide, had been unable to
come to terms with the nature of the disease. Since it was initially propagated in
the Caribbean that the AIDS virus was transmitted primarily (only?) by homosexual
contact, AIDS was perceived to be a disease of homosexual men. Although this
view is not held as commonly as it used to be, there is still the lingering suspicion
in the region that it is this homosexual practice which is responsible for the
widespread scourge of AIDS.
The reaction to AIDS within the music of popular culture in the Caribbean
in the 1980s in many respects reflected this larger societal ignorance and skepti-
cism about the disease. On his 1985 album A Touch of Class1, Sparrow treats the
topic of AIDS in the song "Ah Fraid the AIDS". The song reflects both fear and
mistrust of the disease. It expresses the perception that the disease was started by
homosexuals. There is a fear that it is endangering romance. The lyrics also make
reference to the impact of the disease on all and sundry, like Rock Hudson, who is
seen to have been justly rewarded for his homosexual proclivity. Sparrow's song
therefore reflects a number of concerns which were being felt within Caribbean
society. His title, carefully chosen, conveys the message of caution and trepidation
at this post-modern epidemic.
Also in 1985, in the neighboring island of Barbados, a fellow calypsonian,
Viper, tackled the disease of AIDS. Unlike Sparrow's song, his did not focus on the
AIDS epidemic solely. The song "Jesus" nonetheless analyzed the body social,
spiritual and political of the Caribbean and concluded that the panacea was Jesus.
Next to Gabby's "De List", which I want to make mention of subsequently, Viper's
song has sparked the most debate and controversy on the AIDS question in the
Kaiso genre in the 1980s.
In the manner of picong, Viper's persona refers to an earlier question by
Trinidad's Winston "Gypsy" Peters of :-'where do we go from here?', an enquiry
which reflected the general lament of social degradation in the region. The growing
drug problem, and unemployment were major concerns. There has undoubtedly
been greater commentary on the drug problem in the Caribbean than there has
been on AIDS. Whereas the drug problem has been viewed as an overt menace
to society, as being the central instigator of the whole range of ills in society, AIDS
has been viewed as the "silent killer"; since its means of transmission has been
considered to be almost exclusively through sexual contact. AIDS has largely been
perceived in the 1980s as a domestic, 'private' affair. So as a result, there has
been a general reaction of fear, condemnation and silence with respect to the
disease, especially in the public domain. That is why Viper's song is so vital to our
examination of AIDS in popular Caribbean music discourse. Whereas clerics were
in large numbers condemnatory of promiscuous sexual activity and some criticized
homosexual activity, few were as committed and overtly forthright as Viper's
persona. I have made this reference to religion since Viper's song proposes to
enter the debate at that level. It remains as one of the most outspoken, and
committed songs on sexual practices, AIDS, and its irradication, within the domain
of Caribbean popular music in the 1980s period. It enters this discourse when
Caribbean gospel music proper was still flirting with cover versions of North
American gospel by Amy Grant, Petra, Sandi Patti, and the Imperials. It enters the
discourse some ten years before other gospel artists would begin to touch the
subject of the AIDS disease. There did not exist then and there still does not exist
in Caribbean gospel the lyrics of 'local'/social awareness. It is within this back-
ground and context therefore that Viper's song enters the discourse on socio-relig-
ious issues within Caribbean society. The discomfort which some felt about this
song also had to do with it being performed in the calypso forum. Was it gospel?
Was it calypso? Where was its place? This was another aspect of this song's
Dem homosexuals such undesirables that we
have down in de city
Contaminating and destableizing all de youths
with them philosophies
Dem prostituting worse than the women
So let we shun them or better yet bun them
Aids is a problem and we don't want them
If yuh get de point help me clear de joint
cause we don't need prostitution we don't need
woman don't sell your body for no kinda kicks
we don't want blue movie we don't need sex show
woman respect your body don't do um no more2
In the song's controversial second verse, its persona clearly associates the
spreading of the AIDS virus with homosexual and prostitution activity. A primary
concern is with the effect of the sexual practices (which it treats) on the bodies and
minds of the young within society: a point which in the mid-1980s was lost within
the song, though. When one examines the overall structure of the song, of which I
have only re-presented its second verse here, the song is seen to be built on stating
the problem, noting its effects and positing a solution. It is the solution of'shunning'
homosexuals and their activity or 'bun[ningl' them which commanded the greatest
interest in the song. At the level of 'high' national debate this attitude was deemed
to be distasteful At the informal level, Viper's presentation represented the phi-
losophy of many more individuals. This attitude was rooted in the "local values that
have been shaped by a fundamentalist reading of biblical scriptures."3
In a sense there have been these two disparate levels of discourse on
AIDS within Caribbean society. One which is carried by the agencies of govern-
ment and the medical fraternity, the other which is conveyed in public every day by
individuals and some sections of the press and by artistes and performers. It is
only in the mid-1990s through greater education in a number of media that there
would begin to be some degree of synthesis between these two contending poles
of the discourse.
For a long time the unofficial discourse on AIDS, which is the 'discourse of
the people', sought to reflect their concerns, pose their questions and also to
challenge the claims of the official organizations within the Caribbean. Viper's
song brought more clearly into focus the existence of these discursive poles. It
proposed to be the carrier of the feelings of the general populace. This reading of
the song and its discursive polemics was lost in the fray of heated discussions on
the rights and wrongs of 'bun[ning]' human beings
Many 'official' commentators on Gabby's song "De List" in the 1980s have
also deemed it to be in poor taste. It has been suggested that the song was
ill-conceived and just like the rumour on which it was built, the song's function has
primarily been destructive What many of these criticisms have not taken into
consideration though is the context, the time at which the song appeared (that is, in
the years of almost total ignorance concerning AIDS). Other calypso specialist
critics read the Gabby song purely and literally as an historical documentation.
Few, if any, have seen it as a warning, and as being (representative of a cry of a
helpless susceptible populace: somewhat in the vein of Viper's "Jesus". Fewer still
have. considered it as a plea on behalf of the populace, for a much more candid
and informed exposition by all agencies on the question of AIDS.
The song focuses on a much rumoured list of male partners which an AIDS
patient allegedly made before he died The song reputes the victim as being a
Nuse Babbleow say yuh won't believe it
They try to keep de thing a secret
But that don't suit Bajan character
Dem know we mout ain't have no cover
Big names popular names
Make love to de boy at least that is what he claims
So now even married women saying they insist
De hospital show them all de names pun de list4
The song seems to locate the point of initial impact for the spreading of
AIDS in homosexual relations The insistence by married women that they see 'de
names on de list' however, is a reflection of the realization (which comes to popular
song in 1985), that the spread of AIDS is not restricted to any single form of sexual
contact. The futility which the song conveys surrounding the request to see 'all' the
names, further signifies the clandestine constitution of the virus. For me, this
represents the perception of an epidemic gone wild. Hence the cutting pains 'like
razor blades' correspond with the lethal incisions within the body social of the
Caribbean, and the innate psychological fear and suspicion which the insidious
AIDS disease has created at the heart of Caribbean society. In retrospect, some
ten years after the dissemination of this song, it must be assigned this new reading,
in light of the overall development of the discourse on AIDS in the music of popular
Caribbean culture. I am suggesting that its use of satire, the excursions into
rumour only mask the underlying intent of this song. It is a text of bodeful
proportions, not a joke as most critiques preferred to read it. These literary
methods therefore form a critical interface operating 'sequentially' with the sub-
merged mournful, portentious strings, such 'samples' which themselves belie the
song's deceptively spirited musical arrangement. Politicians, doctors, cricketers,
calypsonians are all short-listed. The song hints at abstinence or curtailment of
sexual activities, at least. But it deliberately does not focus on the solution, as
Sparrow's or Viper's song might have. It conversely employs the strategy of
throwing the discourse unconcluded into the public domain. That is the strength of
this song, its creator has dealt an insidious artistic incision.
By the late 1980s, there began to be a shift in popular Caribbean music in
terms of the treatment of AIDS, at least more so in the calypso domain. There
began to be a shift away from the earlier association of AIDS and homosexuality.
There now seemed to be a proliferation of songs which (if only in passing) carried
a message of warning. These were tending not towards pointing an accusatory
finger, rather they were beginning to see AIDS as another of the region's social
problems. Hence songs were assigning a number of lines specifically to the AIDS
debate as opposed to focusing solely on AIDS as Gabby and Sparrow might have
done in the mid-1980s. So by the late 1980s and early 1990s, AIDS was being
integrated as yet another of the region's social ills. Songs like Arrow's "Death for
Sale" on his 1991 Zombi Soca 5 album were therefore cryptically cautioning "don't
buy death in sex", as it went on and dealt also with other social problems like drugs,
unemployment and materialism.
Although one might read the calypso art form to have been reflecting this
kind of shift in its discourse on AIDS, the point should be made that within its (then)
co-genre of soca, there was not this similar shift generally. Soca has for the most
part held closely to its stated imperative. That of engaging with the lyrics of 'party'.
In this regard it has always espoused the imperative of 'jam' and 'fete', what many
of its detractors have re-interpreted to mean 'slack' behaviour, sex, and total
abandon. No study, however, has paid attention to a further sub-genre of soca
which has for a considerable time now in St Lucia, Trinidad and Barbados been
subverting these assumptions of soca proper, by reinscribing 'conscious' lyrics
within the music of soca. Some of its exponents are Gypsy, Sparrow, Stalin, Pep,
Tricky, R.P.R., Gabby, Observer....
Dancehall has been much more notorious than any other Caribbean popu-
lar music form in terms of its perceived supporting of activities which can give rise
to the AIDS epidemic. 'Slackness' and dancehall have been synonymously asso-
ciated in mainstream perception. The recent slating of a show in St Lucia with the
dancehall queen Patra and its ensuing debate, is reflective of the attitudes which
society holds towards dancehall, and some of its artistes. The Patra controversy
brought to the fore the lingering perception in mainstream society that such acts
like Patra are the promoters of promiscuity, illicit sex and by extension AIDS. The
calypsonian, the Professor, commented on this in his 1995 song "Patra":
Patra they balling
Patra all that I hearing
She wears nothing under
When yuh come over you show us
The things that you do encouraging raper
Show some decency anytime you come to this country
If you want money employment here man ain't easy
I work with sanitation and I cleaning
The streets of corruption. 6
There has tended to be much emphasis on the themes of sex and drugs,
and on abusive language throughout the history of dancehall and its derivative
ragga. When this emphasis is compounded with the apotheosis of the play of
bodies in the actual dancehall context, then one begins to better situate main-
stream perception of the relations between the lyric and the act in the actual
performative context. Looking through the catalogue of an artist like, say, Shabba
Ranks, one could identify many songs which this conservative reading of popular
music culture might regard as supporting lyrical tracks for the perpetuation of
practices which lead to AIDS: "Twice my age", "Love Punany Bad", "Girls Wine",
"Kill Me Dead", "Wicked in Bed", "Mr Loverman", "Hardcore Lovin" to list a few.7
Although this has been the general perception of dancehall and its function
within popular culture, dancehall artists have been particularly tough and homopho-
bic when it comes to what they see as mis/placed sexual proclivities. In a sense
these artists have maintained what has been called their 'fundamentalist' reading of
homosexuality. This many of them still perceive as being punishable by death, and
one way through the AIDS disease.
Buju Banton's song "Boom Bye Bye" is emblematic of this attitude. It has
attracted many comments both favourable and negative. In the international world
of music and business the response has been negative. When Shabba Ranks
appeared on international television in support of this view on homosexuality and
AIDS, after his signing to Epic, he too was threatened with being taken off tour and
was forced to retreat to a much more amicable and politically correct position on
homosexuality and AIDS:
"Boom bye bye in a battle boy head
Rude boy no promote nuh nasty man dem ha fe
In the mid-1990s Caribbean music was continuing to reveal a further shift in
its treatment of and attitude to the AIDS epidemic. Although some elements of
roots reggae and dance-hall held fast to the 1980s popular outlook and attitude, by
and large Caribbean music tended towards a more 'sober' attitude. So that a larger
number of songs were beginning to reflect the thrust towards what was being
popularly called AIDS awareness and education. Songs were therefore increas-
ingly promoting caution, and safe sex. Even within the Caribbean's most conser-
vative music form genre, gospel, a group like Ambassadores out of Jamaica were
tackling the issue on their recent album. The song which best exemplified this new
attitudinal orientation though, was done by the band "Touch" out of St Vincent, on
their highly infectious song "A Sex World."
Sex education make it a part of our productive
And this one it should be planned
School's where they meeting there's where they
There is where most dating begins among other
Teachers likewise parents have a role to play
In preparing the children for the cruel world out
This knowledge is vital all the way.
Not now when the fact they likely to get in trouble
On this course of life you one responsible
You'll feel the more they know the more they'll
want to experiment
Hey, they'll find out some how don't keep them
No, no. 9
I have made reference to this song because I think it offers a notable
contrast with the earlier song by Viper, especially in terms of lyrical and performa-
tive tone. Viper's lyrics are loaded with fear and revulsion, his persona would
distance him/herself from what s/he perceives to be the 'AIDS culture'. Touch's
song appears much more controlled and its persona situates him/herself inevitably
as being part of the culture which AIDS impacts: 'our. curriculum'; 'A Sex World ...
we're living in'. Whereas Viper's attitude is tough and militant, almost, Touch
assumes the voice of the sage teacher who is in control of the subject matter and
By the mid-1i 990s dance hall artists were also with greater frequency taking
on this role as teachers, messengers in educating about the prevention of AIDS.
The growing list of such performances has been noticeable over the years. Peter
Ram's "Dangerous Disease" can be said to be representative of this trend: "It's a
dangerous disease that your body can't test/- AIDS ......
It is significant that the music of the Caribbean began to reflect this new
attitude, one which arguably, was facilitated by an increased awareness about
AIDS through governmental and institutional awareness campaigns. Through
lectures, radio and television programmes, through satellite and other technologi-
cal media whose proliferation within the Caribbean contributed to an overall height-
ening of awareness if not anything else.
Within the international world of pop music there have been a number of
significant interfaces between pop artists and anti-AIDS agencies. These have
resulted in concerts in benefit of AIDS victims and research. In the international
world the most recent trends in terms of this interface between the music industry
and AIDS awareness campaigns point to two major initiatives. Organizations like
the US-based Lifebeat, a music industry AIDS charity, have gone the route of
raising, funds through star-studded charity events like cocktail parties. This organi-
zation has raised in excess of US$3 million since its founding in 1992. Such funds
have been ear-marked for AIDS research and prevention. The alternative ap-
proach of Red Hot organization is based on what its founder John Carlin deems to
be its objective of providing 'preventive education in the guise of popular culture.'
Red Hot has been producing a number of benefit compilations whose profits are
divided 80% for AIDS efforts and 20% for overhead and administration. From
these projects they also get the benefit of disseminating preventive messages by
targeting specific youth audiences through rap, alternative and dance.
As with most other phenomena which are practised in the body social and
culture of the USA, this Industry AIDS interface has also trickled down into the
Caribbean. This has seen some artists being enlisted to perform in conjunction
with anti-AIDS agencies, to promote 'safe sex' through the use of condoms. Buju
Banton assumed this role of superstar/teacher in 1996 where his "Operation Willy"
(the title of his 1993 AIDS awareness song) became the slogan for shows within
Ragamuffin don't be silly
Rubbers pun you willy
AIDS a go round and we don't want catch it. 10
In spite of the popularity of the show among youths at one such show held
in Barbados, it was still felt by a significant portion of the mainstream of the
population that there exists a serious contradiction between the stated objective of
such concerts and the underlying signification of dancehall's iconographies. The
skepticism about this method stems partly from the residual feeling of lack (of
power) which Caribbean society still feels in the face of AIDS. It is also reflective of
the diverse views which the Caribbean region holds with regards to social prac-
tices, youth culture, music and music culture.
When one acknowledges that the lack of information about AIDS still is a
Caribbean reality, and that an even greater lack of awareness exists about Carib-
bean music and culture, then the present merger of both phenomena is invariably
fraught with contentious issues, and much fragmentation. A particular danger in
my estimation surrounds the blind implementation of similar strategies as the
international world. I would contend that in the Caribbean, agencies would need to
assess Caribbean music nationally and regionally in terms of their dynamics,
'politics' and ideological signification before they embark on any such programmes
of AIDS education through the use of this music. I am not speaking of cursory
analyses of the music, identifying who is popular and enlisting him or her. This
cannot be the way. Future ventures in this direction must come to terms with the
realities of the cultures of the region: their histories, transformation, dynamics.
AIDS awareness planners must interface also with texts and experts, aficionados
of the music and music cultures of the region instead of blindly enlisting 'big-up'
names in the commonly called 'fight against AIDS'.
One of the most positive advances with regards the relationship between
popular artists and AIDS education, is the recent initiative by a group of artists who
have formed themselves into an organization called Artists Against AIDS. The first
major project undertaken by this association was the composition and recording of
a song which promotes the importance of preservation of life. A music video
accompanies the song. The video performances are not pretentious. The per-
formers are not over-presented, hence the message is foregrounded to a position
of fuller presence within the discursive space of image, sound and lyrical text.
The proceeds from the sale of the production are intended to be used in
the fight against AIDS. What is more positive about this initiative is the fact that it
is driven by the artists themselves. It therefore appears less pretentious than other
performances, like some of the ones I have mentioned before. The artists in this
most recent venture appear more credible and hence appeal much more to the
sensibilities of those who hear and see them. The more traditional AIDS aware-
ness organizations could do well to facilitate the effective dissemination of their
message through a process of consultation with the artists. This would result in a
more informed group of artists who could then take the fight with them every where,
not just to selected shows which are hyped as AIDS awareness shows. Audiences
tend to know when an artist is doing a one-off show.
Few Caribbean youths are won over to AIDS awareness by the distribution
of condoms on the night of such shows. These audiences can see through the thin
synthetic covering which the performers at such shows don for the duration of the
performance. The artist must not be viewed as someone who can be used, and
used for a one night performance in hope that s/he wins over others. The artist
her/himself must be viewed as someone who can be won over. When this is done
then the kinds of initiatives which I have just alluded to will be born. These should
prove more effective in affecting awareness, education and prevention.
1. Sparrow, "Ah Fraid de Aids" A Touch Of Class B's BSR-SP 041. 1985.
2. Viper, "Jesus" c.1984.
3. Peter Manuel et a. Caribbean Currents ( Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995) p.178.
4. Gabby "De List" One In The Eye ICE BGI 1001. 1986.
5. Arrow, "Death For Sale". Zombie Soca Arrow 035 CA 1991
6. De Professor, "Patra" 1995.
7 Shabba Ranks. Caan Dun: The Best of Shabba VP Records VPCT 1450 1995.
8. Buju Banton, "Boom Bye Bye". Simply the Best vol. 9. 1993.
9. Touch, "A Sex World" C. 1993.
10. Buju Banton, "Willy" (Don't Be Silly). Voice of Jamaica Mercury 314518013-4 19931.
A Comparison of Black Street Parades in New Orleans and
Gremio Fiestas In Yucatan
CHRISTINA BOLKE TURNER
Festivals are intrinsically paradoxical and multidimensional emphasizing
contradictory functions as the specific cultural moment dictates. Festival traditions
allow for historical continuity while they help incorporate societal change. They are
a means of flexible adaptation while maintaining the social solidarity and the status
quo. Festivals support hierarchical, closed caste/class systems while fostering
status and prestige building within that class system through consensus and co-
operation. The very act of role reversal delineates the dominant status role.
Despite the various forms that festivals traditions may take and the sometimes
vastly different historical paths that lead to them, they are similar in function and
Thus, Glenda Joy Driskell (1981:15) writes in the introduction to her
ethnomusicological exploration of the festival tradition in Yucatan that, "the fiesta
has been variously extolled as a source of cultural continuity, a foundation of village
integration, and a bulwark against exploitation by wealthy Yucatecans. It has also
been condemned by economists as an impediment to economic progress and as a
mechanism of colonial control."
In a similar vein, Olga Najera Ramirez (1988: 146-147) discusses how
"festival represents a different world view because it encourages multiple dia-
logues, allows for alternatives to be expressed and therefore has revolutionary
tendencies. From this perspective, it becomes more clear why the dominant
society tries to control or repress traditional festivals."
Francisco Fernandez (1994:78) has found that "the function of social
reproduction can operate as a parallelism or reflex of the social order (as is the
case of the fiestas of Yucatan) or through rituals of reversal (as in the carnival)."
Festivals serve as an integrating mechanism between social classes and compet-
ing economic systems. Specific to his study of patronal festivals in MWrida, Fernan-
dez concludes (1994:vii-viii) that:
[t]he fiesta also expresses different levels of iden-
tity according to the context in which it is per-
formed. Special attention is given to the fact that
as a collective phenomenon, specific identities
are constituted in a process of social contrast.
The analysis also establishes the relations be-
tween the socio-economic conditions of the
places studied here with the population's interest
in the fiesta as a social event and as an economic
As distant in historical origin and festival style as New Orleans' Black social
aide and pleasure clubs might seem in form and genesis, they are comparable
functionally and structurally with the primary object of Fernandez' recent study, the
gremio (trade guild) fiestas in Yucatan. This article illustrates this point and
suggests that at least part of the similarity stems from similar socio-economic
forces influencing the carriers of the two traditions in Yucatn and New Orleans.
Social aide and pleasure clubs, like other voluntary associations, are
organized around two basic principles of association. One is the idea of shared
commitment, and the other is dedication to the achievement of some stated end.
As these ideas are continuously being refined and redefined, they adapt to the
on-going changes in historical circumstance. Donald Warren (1975:74) notes that
while these types of mutual aid societies have changed and adapted through time,
they have maintained a concern with: 1) integration or societal cohesion, 2) a
prestige-conferring role, 3) a problem-solving role, and 4) expressive activities.
Fernandez finds similar functions maintained by gremios in Merida, that is, an
economic function, a social integration function, an identity function, and a prestige
function. The interplay between economic, political, and/or ideological factors that
shape the clubs' or gremios' organizations are revealed vividly in the changing
festival style and performance emphases.
It is with this in mind that I discuss the history of New Orleans' benevolent
societies, their functions and adaptations to the larger society, their shared struc-
ture and ethos and the shifting ideologies that are occurring much as they are
occurring in the gremio organizations in Yucatan. I will be exploring not only the
latent economic functions but also the functions of social integration, identity, and
prestige of the two festival traditions (Rodriguez 1991). The article first explores
the traditions' historical continuity, growth, and adaptation to events in the larger
world system and then focuses on comparisons in function and structure between
the two traditions in the areas of group structure and membership, co-opera-
tion/competition between groups, parade behaviour and symbolism, and expres-
sions of embedded identity.
Historical Continuity, Growth, and Integration1
New Orleans is a city with a long cultural tradition of festival celebrations
spanning the calendar year. There are a number of festival traditions maintained
by various ethnic groups, but the Black social aide and pleasure clubs are the
subjects of the current comparison with gremio organizations in Yucatan.
In New Orleans, the Black social aide and pleasure clubs are an outgrowth
of the earlier mutual aid societies common among African-American populations.
Several authors argue that the earliest associations began sometime in the late
eighteenth century (Walker 1936:34, cited in Jacobs 1988:22; Myrdal
1962:317). These clubs, also known as marching clubs or second line clubs,
have a long history in New Orleans, indeed throughout the U.S. and West African
countries (Lee 1913; Blassingame 1973; Berkeley 1985; Jacobs 1988; Little 1988).
The organization of Black mutual aid societies proliferated after Emancipa-
tion in 1863 as there was little institutional support for the freed slaves and Free
Blacks. They were often excluded from buying land and suffered some economic
losses through the immigration of new skilled craftsmen and tradesmen. Addition-
ally, freed slaves were most often uneducated, which limited their abilities and
effectiveness in dealing with former slave owners and taking advantage of what
new economic opportunities there were. The intensification of mutual aid societies
was an adaptive response to changing circumstances, as was the formation of the
White League, The Order of the White Camilla, and the Ku Klux Klan among the
White population (O'Brien 1973; Gill 1997).
In the days before the rise of Black insurance companies, Black benevo-
lent societies provided the major form of social security against sickness, death,
and poverty. They aided orphan asylums, Negro veterans, and the indigent; gave
religious education to children; and fought against segregation and for racial uplift.
For individual Negroes the societies provided status, a sense of belonging, some
form of organized social life, a guarantee of aid to the sick and to the children and
widows of deceased members. They also assured members an impressive and
proper burial by paying for the bands to lead funeral processions, taking care of
burial expenses, holding special rites over the body, marching in special regalia in
the funeral procession, and wearing mourning badges for the deceased (Blassin-
By the late nineteenth century these societies had become an integral part
of life in the city for both Blacks and Whites. At the turn of the century "an estimated
four-fifths of the local (Black] population belonged to benevolent societies... moree
than any other types of voluntary associations except churches" (Jacobs 1988.22).
Thus, "of the eighty-three benevolent associations for which Harry Walker found
dates of incorporation, fifty-seven per cent were organized prior to 1900" (Jacobs
1988:23, see Walker 1936:20). In addition, Jacobs found that "the books of the
Girod Street Cemetery and Saint Louis Cemetery Number Two showed approxi-
mately two hundred benevolent societies building tombs in these two burial
grounds alone" (Jacobs 1988:23).
In the 1930s, through persuasion and intimidation, Governor Huey Long
forged Louisiana's present welfare state which, with the institutionalization of a
state-wide charity hospital system, shifted Black concern for social security. This
undermined the primary purpose for joining a benevolent society (Jacobs 1980)
and other benevolent associations, such as the Irish, Italian, an other insurance
and burial societies, simply disappeared (Niehaus 1965). However, African-Ameri-
cans in New Orleans adapted those associations that functioned as miniature life
and health insurance companies to another purpose. The emphasis shifted from
social aid to pleasure (Jankowiak, Regis, and Turner 1990).
The transformation of benevolent associations into their modern form, the
pleasure club, promoted a variety of social activities that provided the larger
community (i.e., non-club members) with an on-going cycle of social events. That
shift, however, was more of degree than kind. Since the early nineteenth century,
if not earlier, there has been similar festival celebrations unfolding in New Orleans
streets. Louis Armstrong (1986 :225) comments in his autobiography that:
to watch those clubs parade was an irresistible
and absolutely unique experience. All the mem-
bers wore full dress uniforms and those beautiful
silk ribbons streaming from their shoulders they
were a magnificent sight. At the head of the
parade rode the aides, in full dress and mounted
on fine horses with ribbons around their heads.
The brass band followed, shouting a hot swing
march as everyone jumped for joy. The members
of the club marched behind the band wearing
white felt hats, white silk shirts (the very best silk)
and mohair trousers. I had spent my life in New
Orleans, but every time one of those clubs pa-
raded I would second-line them all day long.
He continues by observing that "when all them clubs paraded it took nearly
all day to see them pass, but one never got tired watching" (1986:226).
Throughout their history, the clubs have undergone change and adaptation
matching the changing social/economic climate of the larger European-American
society. These have been realistic reactions to specific structural changes but
have had little effect on the basic function and ideology shared by all the clubs.
At the current time all the clubs share a strong democratic, creative,
community-based world view, as they have had historically. This has not changed
and is in contrast to elite white clubs in the city whose ethos is based on wealth,
family, exclusion, and stratification (Edmonson 1956; Raabe 1973; O'Brien 1973;
Gill 1997). On this basis alone, the decision of which marching club to join would
be a simple matter of neighbourhood demography or personal friendship networks.
While this is true to an extent, there are other traditional spheres of ideals -
benevolence, tradition, innovation, and creativity new ideas of wealth and con-
spicuous consumption that are forging a new synthesis of these opposing ethos. In
this shifting, regrouping, and realigning of conflicting ideals, the clubs offer an array
of gradations from which the individual may choose to suit his or her self-identifica-
tion and beliefs. It is also these shifting ideals that are responsible for the creation
of new clubs and some fissioning of established clubs (Jankowiak, Regis, and
Yucatan is also the inheritor of two "great traditions" and is similar to New
Orleans in the sense that both areas have a history of isolation from the main-
stream experience of the modern states to which they belong (Redfield 1941).
New Orleans is a port city facing the Caribbean, and Yucatan is an insular
peninsula thrusting into the Caribbean. Similar to New Orleans's experience of
delayed integration until after the Civil War, Yucatan was not fully integrated into
the larger nation until after the end of the Caste War (Reed 1964). Part of the
difficulty in controlling the area was due to its geographic isolation from the heart of
the conquista, part to the imposing, uninviting landscape, and part to the well-de-
veloped, albeit diffuse, social organization of the indigenous Maya.
Fernandez (1994:2) notes that "in spite of the processes of conquest and
colonization experienced by the New World and by Yucatan in particular, the Maya
world view was not destroyed; rather the Maya adopted social and cultural survival
strategies that enabled them to exist as a group through the colonial period and up
to the present." This idea has been explored by a number of scholars and it is clear
that the Maya have been able to conserve aspects of their original cultural forms
within the predominant modern Hispanic world (Farriss 1984; Bartolom6 1988; and
Hanks 1990; see also Meyers and Hopkins 1988).
According to Fernandez: (1994:97), "The introduction of patronal fiestas to
Yucatan was part of the politics of European colonization in America which im-
posed mechanisms of ideological control on the indigenous population. Neverthe-
less, the native population, the African slaves and later the mestizo population were
sufficiently able to appropriate the festive structure to allow its cultural survival." As
with the social aide and pleasure clubs, the religious organizations contributed to
maintaining the cohesion of indigenous groups and paradoxically allowed the
continuity of a historical perspective and a particular culture.
Organization forms founded in colonial times today represent one of the
clearest manifestations of popular religion in Mesoamerica (Stephen and Dow
1990). Originally formed as occupational guilds in that they structurally resembled
brotherhoods, the gremios are important features of the social organization of
Mesoamerica today (Redfield 1941:71, Press 1975:89). In fact, these groups may
be said to be the stewards of the Catholic faith throughout Yucatan (Press
However, the Church exerts little control over these organizational forms
and in many cases there is no participation of the Church in these fiestas. The
socioe-conomic situation of the community also shapes the organizational struc-
ture of the fiesta. And, as Driskell (1981:17) points out, gremio members (espe-
cially males) often make their one annual tribute to the Catholic religion by
monetary or other contributions to fiestas. "In this way patronal fiestas have
become a process culturally controlled by social groups outside the Church and at
the same time this process of appropriation has made these groups define and
express their identity though the fiestas. In other words, the process of appropria-
tion of the phenomena of patronal fiestas is nowadays one of the definitional axis
of the identity of many Mesoamerican societies" (Fernandez 1994:89).
During the colonial period in Yucatan the cofradias, rather than gremios,
were the principal organizations in charge of celebrating the fiestas patronales.
The gremios functioned primarily as craft-guilds that sometimes organized their
own cofradias and who helped to sponsor the fiestas patronales in the State of
Yucatan.2 Because of the insularity of Yucatan from the remainder of Mexico, the
gremios and their cofradias came to support the community and the local priest.
The larger church hierarchy came to view the gremios as a threat both religiously
and economically. The gremio cofradia system of community organization was
seen as benefiting only the local community and not the main hierarchy of church
structure. Accordingly, the cofradias were abolished and their economic assets
were sold. However, they were encouraged to quietly maintain their religious
aspects and the gremios continued as viable institutions between 1820 and 1875.
With the rise of the national dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in 1876, which
brought a measure of peace and stability and the economic revival with the
exportation of henequen, the gremios were reorganized and reconstituted within
the Church (Fernandez 1994:105). When the gremios re-emerged in 1875, it was
their religious aspects that were emphasized, rather then their economic and social
aspects. They also came to serve as social aid clubs for their communities working
directly or indirectly with the Church, but independent of it (Fernandez 1994:100-
The primary difference between the gremios and other Church organiza-
tions is their close relationship with the groups that form the social panorama of
their respective communities. This includes an historical, organized means of
celebrating the founding of the communities through the worship of their particular
saint through its image, an important celebration throughout Latin America, but
especially so in Yucatan.
The fiesta patronal varies somewhat in the extent of the celebration and
the elaborateness of the preparations, depending upon the community itself, the
dominant economic base, and the rural/urban continuum. Communities with di-
verse means of livelihood and varied interests are more likely to have diverse
gremios. Rural areas have more limited opportunities for entertainment and are
more likely to produce a full-fledged, extended fiesta that includes all of the sacred
and profane elements. Thus, in Merida there are a number of different gremios, but
the profane aspect of sponsoring a bull fight is absent. For the purpose of
comparison, this paper focuses on the sacred aspects represented by the gremios
in the urban environment of Merida. It should be kept in mind however, that "the
socio-economic composition of the gremios of all the fiestas ... is important be-
cause not only does it reveal the participation of different sectors of population in
the fiesta but also explains the characteristics that the fiesta expresses in terms of
the modalities adopted and the role they play within the community" (Fernandez:
Comparison of Function and Structure
Group Structure and Membership
In New Orleans, Black marching clubs are loose-knit organizations that
meet as a group year round, usually in a neighborhood bar or at the Elk's Hall on
Harmony St. They are responsible for a number of socially responsible activities as
well as purely social events. They organize jazz funerals for their membership and
special friends of the clubs. During their primary seasonal round, from August to
December, each club "comes out" one Sunday afternoon and throws a neighbour-
hood street parade complete with a second-line brass band and second-line street
dancing. The "first-line" is the club itself while "second-line" refers to both the style
of music and dance and the neighbourhood participants who join in and follow the
Unlike block associations that often draw members from different educa-
tional and economic backgrounds (Warren 1975), the social clubs' membership is
relatively homogeneous. Poorer African-Americans in New Orleans have the
aesthetic option of "masking" as Mardi Gras Indians and wealthier African-Ameri-
cans tend to participate in mainstream Mardi Gras or the Black Creole version of
the same. The remaining African-American population that may join a club has a
range of lower to higher middle class incomes. The clubs' members have varied
occupations, some are employed in the city's civil service, some are successful
private entrepreneurs (e.g., own their own bar, food service company, and so
forth), and some are employed as masons, dock workers, bus drivers, gardeners,
in the dry cleaning industry, or are retired. However, although there are people with
different income levels, social distinction is played down in favour of an egalitarian
Despite their egalitarian nature, members must be "financial" in order to
maintain membership as there are dues collected, fines levied, functions spon-
sored, and necessary parade dress and equipment paid for aside from the annual
charitable contribution. The only criterion for loss of membership is becoming
"non-financial." Various members are often behind and may be carried for months
if it is perceived that they will become "financial" again. For many African-Ameri-
cans, identification with the club is such an integral aspect of their identity that even
after they have dropped out and/or the club has disbanded, they continue to talk,
sometimes three or four years after leaving a club, of their intentions of rejoining or
starting a new club (Jankowiak, Regis, and Turner 1990).
In modern Yucatan, the changes in the fiesta system have led to a
distinction between it and the better known cargo system. According to John
Chance, "a cargo system is a hierarchy of ranked offices which individuals or
male-female couples ascend, and ... a fiesta system [is one] in which prestige is
attained through ceremonial sponsorship in the absence of any fixed hierarchy of
positions" (quoted in Stephen and Dow 1990:10). This second model best de-
scribes the situation in Yucatan and Fernandez used it for his 1994 analysis.
Fernandez (1994:93) found that "gremios are typical of Yucatecan fiestas
and through them some parallels with other patronal fiestas may be established.
Their internal organization is the same, their organization and structure corre-
sponds to the second type proposed by Chance (1990), although the responsibili-
ties for the gremio are more limited since they do not organize the whole fiesta but
only one part of its sacred aspect."
Originally the gremios were groupings of people of the same trade al-
though some exceptions were made as to the limit on the number and gender of the
membership. Usually the most important membership criteria were the embracing
of the Catholic faith and living an honest life. In some cases, the gremios were
organized around class position such as the Gremio of Tradesmen and Hacen-
dados or Gremio of [society] Ladies. Other gremios forced membership through
automatic salary deductions (1994:125). In her study, Driskell (1981.17-18) found
that membership in some gremios was limited to males, others to females with
further distinctions of age and marital status. "Technically, membership is by
invitation only, but generally, it is open to all persons who are willing to pay the
annual dues of $10-$15, substantial amounts by Yucatecan standards... For this
reason, a person's membership is usually confined to only one gremio; however, a
person may belong to more than one." As with the marching clubs, there have also
been changes in the gremios through the fission and fusion of different groups. For
example, today gremios are not necessarily based on occupation. There are
gremios for children, young people, and women. Anyone who wants to cooperate
with a gremio is welcome to join (Fernandez 1994:164).
Gremios are organized by an inner core of members referred to as direc-
tivos, or governing board, which changes annually. The election of the president of
the gremio is by popular acclamation. There are no restrictions to becoming
president although someone with a poor reputation would be unlikely to be nomi-
nated. The only requirement is the commitment to work adequately with all the
members of the gremio and to satisfactorily accomplish the activities organized by
the gremio during the fiesta (1994:163).
Parade Behaviour and Symbolism
Competition and ranking are important components among the social aide
and pleasure clubs as they are for the gremios. The ranking is partially based on
co-operation between the various groups, generosity to the community and the
church of choice, having a membership with a good reputation, and being demo-
cratic. All of these things will lend status and prestige to the group.
Every Sunday afternoon during the season a different club throws its
annual parade, all of the clubs attend each others' parade. This is done in order to
evaluate the competition, to get good, new ideas, and to make sure that the next
parade will top the current one. But it is also done in order to support the other
clubs and to show solidarity. Non-parading club members will wear their own club
colours to announce their presence and their affiliation as will friends and relatives
of the marching club.
The gremios also support each other and help each other out throughout
the year and sometimes there are visits from other gremios from other parts of the
state. The local and religious identity of each gremio is stressed. There is a
reciprocal arrangement of the same types of gremios. The more that attend, the
better each brings its own banners and flags. The aesthetic element is also
important for its success as there is a sort of competition between gremios.
However, this is a non-hierarchical type of competition and social construction in
Yucatan, unlike the cargo system with mayordomos, etc. and ranked gremios
found in the rest of Mexico.
In New Orleans, the social aide and pleasure club members meet, lineup,
and start parading from their favoured bar or meeting hall shortly after noon. The
morning is generally spent attending church in order to make a donation from the
club. Frequently, as with gremio members, this may be the only church attendance
of the year. The lineup for the parade follows a general pattern a police car, a line
of labelled luxury cars that may carry older members, queens, kings, and longtime
supporters or honorary members. All of the above is optional and varies with each
club in the extent of display and expense. Generally the honorees must pay for
their own outfits although the vehicle may be paid for by the club. Special vehicles
are sometimes used such as super-stretch limousines, Model T antiques, and
horse drawn carts.
The core of the parade consists of club members. Leading every parade
is the club's banner proclaiming the name of the club, its date of origin, and the
names of the officers. The banners are usually in the clubs' colours and they
sometimes carry a club slogan as well. The members "come out" in special
colour-co-ordinated, tailored suits carrying parade paraphernalia such as fans,
tambourines, umbrellas, baby dolls, and baskets and adorned with sashes, gloves,
cigars, doves, emblems, fezzes, or some new symbol for the club. There is a
strong emphasis on style and innovation in designing the year's tailored outfits in
order to display creativity and economic ability. The club dances (second-lines)
down the street closely followed by its second-line band. Surrounding them are
onlookers and friends who follow the band and the club through the streets and
participate actively in the second-line.
Likewise, marching club brass bands are hired to lend excitement and
energy to the parade. Depending on the club, brass bands are sought that play
traditional second-line music, can continue playing for four straight hours, and can
take current, popular music and play it in second-line fashion. The brass bands
play essentially the same type of music whether they are perceived to be innovative
or traditional. Alan Lomax (1970:181) has analyzed this style of music and finds
that "it can be seen as a typical member of one African style family, somewhat
affected by European acculturation." The same can be said about the style of
second-line dancing which clearly has stylistic roots in dances performed during
West African religious ceremonies and formerly performed by the New Orleans'
Black population on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and in Congo Square (now
Using Lomax's technique of cantometncs, Driskell (1981:61) has noted
"the similarity of the Yucatecan model to that of Western Europe, including Spain,
suggests the strong influence of Spanish culture on the music Yucatecans perform
in fiestas today. The absence of stylistic similarities with other musical cultures
suggests that Yucatecan peasant music has been otherwise resistant to externally
induced changes." Furthermore (1981:62),
leadership differentiation in the song performing
group (i.e., the social organization of the vocal
group) might be linked with a general increase of
social complexity. Yucatecan fiesta music is
characterized by simple alteration. the leader has
a clear cut. separate melodic part to sing, which
after a brief pause, is followed by a choral re-
sponse. [Alan] Lomax states that this way of dif-
ferentiating the leader's part in a song usually
indicates the presence of at least one or two
levels of extra-local political control (1976 36).
This appears to be the case in Yucatan. Feeling
alienated from state and national government,
Yucatecans place an emphasis on village and
The same can be said for the second-line songs which maintain the feature of "call
and response" which places an emphasis on the community and cultural traditions.
The fiestas of the gremios share many symbolic aspects with the marching
clubs. There are some objects whose presence is indispensable for the proces-
sions and which, at the same time, are the identifying element of the gremio in the
community. Like the marching clubs, the gremios always have a banner, called a
estandarte, that identifies the gremio, when it was founded, and where the group is
from and decorated with the image of the community's patron saint. The banners
are brightly coloured rectangles of about 1 metre by 1 5 metres and decorated with
gold fringe and designs of various colours and kinds. The gremios also carry a
pabellon, or flag of the national colours of green, white, and red. Sometimes the
national symbolic emblem is replaced with an image of something important to the
gremio such a the patron saint's image, thus linking the two identities. They also
carry a ramillete, or type of maypole with long coloured ribbons streaming from it
(Driskell 1981:24-25; Fernandez 1994-167-168; see Ingiyen 1973 53 for a good
representation of the estandarte).
The gremios announce their part in the fiesta with invitations. These
invitations generally include the name of the gremio, the date of its creation, the
names of the board members and of the associates, the programme of activities
and the dates in which they will take place a photograph or picture of the patron
saint, and the list of the delegations with which the gremio has a relationship.
Almost identical information is found on the "route sheets" given out by the individ-
ual social aide and pleasure clubs to advertise the parade's movements. In place
of a photograph, there is a drawing symbolizing the club in some way and in place
the gremio affiliations, the club usual prints a slogan supporting their annual cause
such as an anti-drug slogan or an education slogan (see Jankowiak, Regis, and
Turner 1990:85-95 for representations of actual route sheets used).
Driskell's (1981:24-25) work describes the gremio procession vividly. The
first official event of the fiesta, the procession, begins to form. While the president
goes in front, two other men follow just behind him shooting off strings of firecrack-
ers and bundles of sky rockets. The president is busy telling people where to
stand; while the men of the gremio stand in the centre with the banners, the women
take their positions on the two outside files of the men, some on the left side and
some on the right. Behind them are people from other gremios, and children are
everywhere. There are approximately 90 to 100 people present, with about equal
numbers of men and women. At around 4:30 p.m., the charanga band, at the front
of the group, gives the signal and the procession begins.
Dress is also important for the street parades during the processions. The
correct dress for women is the temo [traditional festival dress, see Irigiyen 1973:39,
40, 42 for good photos.] Even though this is not always possible to obtain a terno,
even women who do not regularly wear the huipil [traditional daily wear] do try to do
so. In the fiesta of Merida it is also common to dress the children participating in
the procession with clothes representative of the trade. Thus, the children of the
bakers will be dressed in white and with all the instruments of the trade and the
same will be done with the children of the railwaymen. In New Orleans, the club
members also dress their children and special guests in the club's parade colours
for that year and supply them with ribboned corsages.
It is also common to carry other identifying markers during the processions
so that, for example, the Gremio of Female Vegetable Sellers will carry vegetables
or the Gremio of Farm Workers and Peasants will carry corn plants from the milpa.
All of this reinforces the occupational identity of the gremio and its place in the
Expressions of Embedded Identity
People of Latin and African heritages mixed early and frequently in
colonial New Orleans. There developed a modified system of "racial" classification
that was similar to the Caribbean and Brazilian means of classifying individuals.
That is to say that the predominant U.S. method of defining anyone with a drop of
any African blood as a Negro was not utilized in New Orleans until after the Civil
War and the failure of Reconstruction (see Dominguez, 1986, for a good discussion
of racial classification in New Orleans). This has led to an interesting caste system
with social and economic exclusions made by both African-Americans and Euro-
Americans based on perceived ethnicity and social class. The social aide and
pleasure clubs represent an expression of one of the possible identities embraced
by the African-American residents of New Orleans (Kaslow 1981).
Beyond social identification, another reason for the maintenance of the
clubs is their own internal prestige system. The democratic ideal is strong but there
is also ranking between clubs. And club members do gain respect and prestige in
their communities through their club activities and affiliations. Faced with a choice
of joining mainstream festival and club traditions in a subordinate position that, as
yet, cannot be overcome, and participating and perpetuating a cultural festival
tradition that is egalitarian in ethos and that can be manipulated by achievement
rather than ascription, it is clear that a choice has been made. As Frank Charles,
former president of the Buck Jumpers said, "Join the Buck Jumpers and 'be
A similar process has occurred in peninsular Yucatan. According to
Fernandez (1994:30), "The relative isolation of Merida and Yucatan in relation to
the rest of the country, on the other hand, and the wealth generated by the
henequen industry, contributed to the formation of a complex social structure that
included a large artisanal component, which following its appearance at the
beginning of the last century, consolidated in the second half of that century."
Obviously the way of life of the Mayas became intertwined with their new
Spanish and Creole masters especially through the institutions of estancias and
haciendas, and later, with the Europeanized Yucatecan oligarchy. This proximity
to the culture of the white Europeans led to the gradual formation of the mestizo, a
different Maya identity. But as Fernandez (1994:26) points out:
the subtleties of ethnic identity reveal a close
relationship both to the characteristics of the his-
torical process and to the contemporary situation
in which the Yucatecan communities lived in the
past and live today. Thus, it is not the same to be
a Maya from the Coastal Region as it is to be a
Maya from the Henequen Growing Region or
from the Cattle Raising Region. At the same
time, the definition of categories within the classi-
fication of whitelmestizo, is extremely difficult to
One basic identity which is used to bind Catholic groups in gremios is their
occupation or trade, such as the Gremio of Painters and Carpenters. In the past
social conditions were also considered and thus special gremios for Ladies and
Young Ladies were formed and the Gremio of Tradesmen and Hacenderos