Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Big Drum Dance


Coming from Carriacou, the big drum was adopted by people of West African descent as a cultural expression that just made sense.

It was in the mid-1970s that I last saw André Beddoe. I went along with some friends to a shango for a "lime" (term used in Trinidad for hanging out). We drove to Laventille, the hilly eastern end of the city that had been settled by African peoples since the 1800s. I made sure that I brought a bottle of brandy and a carton of cigarettes as offerings, old habits die hard, I suppose.
We drove up to the top of "the hill" and I realised that we were going to a yard that I knew, next to Rudolph Charles' grandmother's house. Our small crowd of five or six was led by the young man who had been invited. I followed with my packages. The yard was crowded with children, goats, neighbours, well-wishers, practitioners and a dozen or so Guinea fowls woken up by the noise and bright lights.
I found André Beddoe telling "Big Snake" stories to some sisters, and with a nod and a wink the presents disappeared. A little later I sat quietly just inside the main door of the house. There was a candle burning in a corner and the atmosphere was peaceful and quiet. He didn't see me as he was coming in, shuffling his big feet that seldom had shoes. His hair was now completely white and his once muscular frame had become soft and bent with age.
He sighed as he walked and sat in a corner just under two boulas and a gran tambour hanging from the wall. From inside his shirt, he took a small drum and a little bent stick with which he began to beat. Offbeat at first, then quickening into a skipping, tripping, happy-sounding song, the words of which he sang at first in a raspy whisper and, as they came to him better, in a sweet low melodious voice of his early youth. He sang:
"Papa Llegba, ouvri barrier po'moin ago ye Azima Llegba guvri barrier po'moin - ouvri barrier po'moin aogo - ye - e ..."
I sat and watched and listened, and all of a sudden I realised that a strange and wonderful thing was taking place. André grew young before my eyes! He straightened up, became tall and slim. His face, unlined now, was aglow as he smiled and sang and whispered to Atibo Llegba to remove the barrier that he may pass, so that when he would come back he would salute the loas and thank the loa Abobo.
His voice evoked the memory of ancestors long dead on other islands; his quick-stepping drum went round and down to the most ancient ones beyond the gate. I looked on with amazement as André assumed with beauty the form of his beloved ancestor.

The big drum dance of Carriacou contains three main aspects. The first, most important and most sacred, which opens the ritual, is devoted to the ancestors. The second expresses dances and songs that were established before emancipation, and the third innovative and more syncretic stems from the long twilight of the post-emancipation period. In those days, the islands of the Grenadines lay almost unknown to the yachties and the outside world - which included place like Trinidad and Barbados.
The big drum dance contains songs that relate to slavery days and are sung in Patois. It would appear that they were well-evolved by the time emancipation came in 1838. Dance, song and drumming came aboard the swift windjammers built on Carriacou to Trinidad in the 1840s. The importation of the big drum was of great significance to Trinidad's black population.
Slavery had been brought to Trinidad with the French who arrived by virtue of the Cedula of Population of 1780s. Prior to their immigration, there were a few African people in the Spanish island. With the French and their slaves came an active syncretic movement, joining Catholicism to animism and to an ancestral cult, which was expressed as shango.
With the British capture of the island in 1797, there was an overall clamp-down on drumming and public African dancing. By 1799, the French planters had influenced the British authorities to think that a black insurrection of the type experienced in Haiti was imminent. This led to executions, banishment and beatings of the slaves on a large scale.
African culture in terms of religion, dance, song and drumming went  underground to a considerable extent. Stifled by regulations, broken up with police action and socially condemned by the planters, dark days had started for the drum.
With the passing of the period of the military governors from 1797 to 1813, a different and more insidious repression commenced under the first civil British governors. Respectability became the yardstick to acceptance, applied chiefly to free blacks and people of colour. Drumming became even less respectable, as the coloured folks wanted to distinguish themselves  clearly from their African slaves.
With emancipation in 1838 came a collapse of the economy. The former slaves left the estates, never to return. Seeking labour from the other British West Indian possessions, the planters and the administration encouraged a first wave of West Indian immigration on a large scale. Among the thousands who landed at the lighthouse jetty in Port of Spain were the men and women of the Grenadines. They brought with them the big drum dance of Carriacou and the big drum itself.
By its very nature, the big drum dance is accommodating. It celebrates all tribes; Yoruba, Congo, Coromant, Banda, Chamba, Moko Bange, Temné, Ibo are welcome to sing, to dance, to drum, and to express their relationship with a time out of mind. Joy and ecstasy are formed in another world. The dream memory of ancestors evoke powers to transcend this time.
Père Labat wrote in the 1720s:
"They use two drums hollowed to unequal lengths. One of the ends is pen, the other covered with a sheepskin or goatskin without hair, scraped like parchment. The largest of these two drums which they simply call the big drum ('grand tambour') may measure 3 or 4 feet in length with a diameter of about fifteen inches. The smaller one, which is called the baboula, is about the same length with a diameter of 8 or 9 inches.
Those who beat the drums to work the beat of the dance put them between their legs or sit on them and strike them with the flat of the four fingers of each hand. The man who plays the large drum strikes it deliberately and rhytmically, but the baboula player drums as fast as he can, hardly keeping the rhythm, and as the sound of the baboula is much quieter than that of the big drum and is very penetrating, its only use is to make noise without working the beat of the dance or the movements of the dancers."

For more information and pictures of the present-day big drum dance, you can visit http://www.grenadines.net/carriacou/carriacouBIGDRUM.htm

Lorna McDaniel is the founding editor of the journal "New Directions: Readings in African Diaspora Music". You can find McDaniel's articles in the journals "The Black Perspective in Music" and "Black Music Research Journal". She was a lecturer at the University of Michigan, the University of Nigeria, and Cheyney University.
For more information on Lorna McDaniel's book on the big drum dance, visit http://www.upf.com/Fall1998/mcdaniel.html.

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