Fad­ing drums in Sand­voort as re­li­gion stumps cul­ture

Stabroek News: Lifestyle - - Front Page - Jan­nelle Wil­liams

Much like a ba­ton in a re­lay race, cul­tural tra­di­tions are passed from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. But what hap­pens when some­one re­fuses to carry the ba­ton? Quite sim­ply, the run­ners are elim­i­nated from the race en­tirely. As in a re­lay, gen­er­a­tions must work col­lab­o­ra­tively hand­ing the ba­ton of cul­tural tra­di­tions on to the next and the next. It is not a re­lay if one run­ner re­fuses to pass the ba­ton or to col­lect it, more es­pe­cially if it is dropped. The vil­lage of Sand­voort in West Canje, Ber­bice was once known for its rich African cul­tural her­itage, drum­ming tra­di­tions and its overt an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion. But to­day, it seems that some­one has dropped the ba­ton and pos­ter­ity will be bereft of these con­nec­tions.

Shortly af­ter the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, the en­tire area which is now known as Sand­voort was es­tab­lished as a self-gov­ern­ing vil­lage. It was di­vided into two sec­tions: the Dutch Quar­ter and English Quar­ter. Later a third sec­tion was es­tab­lished, known as Congo Town. Res­i­dents were known de­scen­dants of three African groups: Oku, Quashy and Congo. They passed on their cul­ture of drum­ming, singing, danc­ing and sto­ry­telling which they brought with them from Africa. How­ever, this once main­tained tra­di­tion has died an un­nat­u­ral death, the vil­lage el­ders be­lieve. Agnes Levi, 76, who has spent all her life in Sand­voort, in an in­ter­view with Lifestyle rem­i­nisced about grow­ing up in the vil­lage. “The cul­ture was rich. All like how Eman­ci­pa­tion com­ing up, the men would clean the vil­lage from the burial ground right down to Ris­ing Sun [a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage, now aban­doned].” This, she said, was in prepa­ra­tion for the cel­e­bra­tions to come. “Dur­ing the week, we had spe­cial drum men, who would start with the drum­ming to liven up the vil­lage and as school­child­ren, af­ter school fin­ish we would run, and go there and lis­ten and do we lil danc­ing,” she said. Levi re­called that balata bleed­ers ‘Dada’ Bas­com and David Carmichael along with oth­ers were re­spon­si­ble for the drum­ming. Se­ri­ous drum­ming, how­ever, would com­mence on the eve of Eman­ci­pa­tion Day and con­tinue through­out the night straight into the new day. At 5 am on Eman­ci­pa­tion Day, vil­lagers would con­gre­gate at the now dis­man­tled Or­ange Chapel Church in the vil­lage for ser­vice. No­body would eat home on Eman­ci­pa­tion Day, she said, as the men “would kill a bull or two, ac­cord­ing to its size, and they would cook on the land which is now oc­cu­pied by the school.” It was cus­tom­ary for the men to cook while the women and chil­dren at­tended a spe­cial ser­vice, af­ter which the whole day was spent to­gether eat­ing and mak­ing merry. “From the ser­vice we would march and go to Ris­ing Sun where we had the big sun koker tree, where the men use to make tents and we would sit there and have our tea con­sist­ing of cas­sava bread, quinches [a sweet cas­sava cake with dyed shred­ded co­conut in the mid­dle], cas­sava pone, sweet bread… all the things our an­ces­tors were de­nied dur­ing slav­ery,” Levi said. Break­fast was the pre­cur­sor for the day’s main event which saw vil­lagers dress­ing in their fin­ery to par­tic­i­pate in a cer­e­mo­ni­ous pro­ces­sion, in­volv­ing two queens: the Dutch queen and the English queen. “Where I am liv­ing is the Dutch Quar­ter and we would march and go and meet the Dutch queen and then we would form a pro­ces­sion and march straight to the turn where the English queen would be wait­ing us there,” Levi ex­plained. The Dutch queen was Mrs La Fleur and the English queen was Mrs Wayne. Both were African-Guyanese women, but the English queen was lighter skinned. Levi does not know how those two women came to be cast as the queens for the yearly events, but noted that they played the roles with­out fail for sev­eral years. The queens would em­brace each other and per­form a sym­bolic greet­ing in­volv­ing the use of a scep­tre and they would walk side by side with their re­spec­tive loyal sub­jects— res­i­dents from the Dutch and English quar­ters—trail­ing be­hind them wav­ing flags and singing songs. Her eyes glaz­ing over and with a far­away gaze, Levi be­gan to sing one of the songs: Oh Africa awaken, The morn­ing is at hand, No more are thou for­saken, Oh boun­teous mother­land, From far thy sons and daugh­ters Are has­ten­ing back to thee, Their cries ring for the wa­ters, Oh Africa must be free. She re­mem­bered part of another one: Ethiopia the land of our fathers,

The land where the gods used to be, As storm clouds now sud­denly gather, Our armies are rush­ing to thee, We must in the fight be vic­to­ri­ous… The pro­ces­sion would con­clude at the cen­tre of the vil­lage, on the plot of land which now houses the only school in the area and the com­mu­nity li­brary. “We go in and when the men are ready with the food, the chil­dren eat first, and the adults af­ter. We had all the food you can think about,” the el­derly woman said. These events for Levi were some of the best times of her life, as she got to truly learn about her cul­ture. “We would spend the re­main­der of the day there hear­ing about life back in Africa from sto­ries passed down by our fore­par­ents, do­ing our tra­di­tional dances, singing our folk songs, and learn­ing how to do the head wraps and stuff,” she said. Un­for­tu­nately, over the years, “Those peo­ple who use to keep the cul­ture go­ing, they start die out,” she said, and it be­came dif­fi­cult to con­tinue the tra­di­tion. Even­tu­ally, the an­nual eman­ci­pa­tion cel­e­bra­tion which served as the hub to pass down the African cul­ture, down­graded to a once ev­ery cou­ple of years event, as vil­lagers grad­u­ally lost in­ter­est. “We have a few per­sons who still know what to do but now the peo­ple do­ing it for gain, which shouldn’t hap­pen, and since we don’t have the unity we had in the past, it don’t hap­pen now,” Levi lamented. Fur­ther, she said the cel­e­bra­tions in the vil­lage have now be­come com­mer­cial­ized, so much so that out­siders are com­ing into the vil­lage to cap­i­tal­ize on its tra­di­tion by host­ing so-called eman­ci­pa­tion events and selling African del­i­ca­cies, an act she ve­he­mently ob­jects to. “You are not sup­posed to sell any­thing on that day. Ev­ery­body is sup­posed to unite as one and come to the school to eat, drink and make merry with drum­ming and danc­ing as we re­mem­ber we broke free from the chains of slav­ery,” she de­clared. Levi be­lieves eman­ci­pa­tion cel­e­bra­tions have ceased to have any sig­nif­i­cant mean­ing and are no longer a “real cel­e­bra­tion, be­cause ev­ery­body do­ing it for a gain now. Peo­ple will come in and sell their beer and Malta and Smalta.” Another res­i­dent, Juliet Mo­riah, who is one of the few vil­lagers still try­ing to pre­serve the African cul­ture, was un­apolo­getic in blam­ing the Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tist move­ment that has taken over the vil­lage for the death of its cul­tural her­itage. “They are not in­ter­ested in learn­ing about their cul­ture any­more,” she said re­fer­ring to the younger gen­er­a­tion in the vil­lage. She went on to ex­plain that “since the vil­lage turned Ad­ven­tist, they don’t want the chil­dren dance and so if they can’t dance, how can they learn their cul­ture?” While at the school level, the chil­dren are taught how to do the dances, so they can rep­re­sent the school at the Mashra­mani com­pe­ti­tions, ac­cord­ing to Mo­riah this is not done in de­tail. “The last time we had a pro­gramme and we had the girls danc­ing, the church mem­bers come and put them on a bench to sit down and since then we never had another pro­gramme,” she re­called. Con­tribut­ing to the grad­ual death of what was once a very rich cul­ture is the gen­uine dis­in­ter­est to­wards it shown by the vil­lage youth. “Most of these young peo­ple they wouldn’t come to prac­tice, so they don’t know the songs, and dances and sto­ries,” Mo­riah said. The ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this were felt last year when the vil­lage at­tempted to host an eman­ci­pa­tion pro­gramme and it was ob­served that the youths had no idea about what to do. Sub­se­quently, a com­mit­tee was formed to re­vive the cul­ture. But ac­cord­ing to Mo­riah, who spends a lot of time with her grand­chil­dren, the chances of the com­mit­tee be­ing suc­cess­ful are min­i­mal. As she sees it, “If the young peo­ple not in­ter­ested to learn they cul­ture, how could we shove it down their throat?” Aside from blam­ing the Ad­ven­tists for pulling per­sons away from their cul­ture, Mo­riah also lays some blame at the feet of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. “They [the young peo­ple] get their cell­phones with their ear­phones in their ears and they are on Face­book all the time, so they have no time for other stuff.” One of the as­pects of the African cul­ture Mo­riah misses is

the deep sense of to­geth­er­ness and feel­ing of be­ing one big fam­ily in the vil­lage, where ev­ery­one was each other’s keeper to safe­guard from out­side threats and be a pil­lar of sup­port in times of need. “I re­mem­ber that if some­body sick in the vil­lage, ev­ery­body use to help out be­cause we are one. If your neigh­bour come over and see you ain’t get some­thing, they would go home and bring it for you,” she said. There was also a sense of pro­tec­tion. “When young men came into the vil­lage, they used to stop them and find out where they go­ing, who they go­ing to and when they find out, they find out their whole gen­er­a­tion. Any young man who lim­ing in here, they know his whole history,” Mo­riah stated. Mourn­ing the loss of the African cul­ture, Mo­riah said, “They use to get two sets of drum­mers, a ju­nior group with the small boys and a se­nior group with the older men and Christ­mas time they use to get mas­quer­ade with peo­ple com­ing house to house.” She noted too, “When we get Queh-Queh they use to get peo­ple drum­ming. I see peo­ple danc­ing on their heads al­ready un­der the in­flu­ence of the drums. Lit­er­ally dance on their heads; peo­ple use to ketch nuff cumfa.” How­ever, with the ad­vent of Chris­tian­ity in the vil­lage, there are those “peo­ple who don’t want to hear drum beat now and so af­ter time, cer­tain things had to tone down.” Ad­di­tion­ally, the vil­lage doesn’t have “any drum beater any­more nor its own drums.” And thus, Mo­riah has stopped at­tend­ing the Eman­ci­pa­tion ser­vice. “I tell them, you can’t keep an eman­ci­pa­tion ser­vice with singing with­out any drums, like they head ain’t good. That doesn’t make any sense.” She fur­ther re­marked, “We need to keep our cul­ture alive; they have dif­fer­ent dances like queh-queh, Su-saw, and Yamapele where we wear the plan­tain bush skirt and we go­ing down and wuk up and your foot kick­ing up that we need to teach the chil­dren.” Theourold Sin­clair, 76, is re­lated to the now de­ceased drum­mers in the vil­lage, who he says were sec­ond gen­er­a­tion de­scen­dants of the three tribes in the vil­lage. “They were dif­fer­ent tribes but slav­ery brought them to­gether so much so that they had to unite to stay alive, and pass on lega­cies to their off­spring,” he said. Drum­ming, he ex­plained, was one as­pect of their shared past that helped them to unite in a for­eign land. He be­moaned the fact that now not even that bit of cul­ture has re­mained in the vil­lage. “The guys who made the drums, they pass on to the other life now and the young peo­ple not knowl­edge­able,” he said, adding that while “they might be able to beat a lit­tle, but to know the dif­fer­ent types of drum­ming and what it means and for what oc­ca­sion you would play dif­fer­ent beats, they don’t know this.” Be­sides which, he said, “The thing get con­tam­i­nated now too, with these ‘Rasta’ guys who mix up the whole thing, so you don’t have the pure drum­ming any­more.” Sin­clair re­flected on the years gone by, when “once a year, all the tribes use to come to­gether for the march and cel­e­bra­tion un­der a big tent with the singing and the drum­ming and the eat­ing and the story telling.” He said, “Story telling was some­thing we looked for­ward to. In the moon­light we would sit down wher­ever was con­ve­nient and take turns telling sto­ries. Each fam­ily would have their own sto­ries, a part of their history and ex­pe­ri­ences, some were vi­sions of the next di­men­sion, some had this nat­u­ral gift that could see be­yond this realm, and they would share their vi­sions and so on.” Per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences were also shared dur­ing these sto­ry­telling ses­sions. “They had oth­ers who had they own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences with ole higue and moongaz­ers, and these are all sto­ries they told,” Sin­clair stated. It is his belief the sto­ry­telling bonded the vil­lagers to­gether and made them more con­nected. It is a trait that is miss­ing to­day which he at­tributes to “young peo­ple hav­ing a prob­lem.” Clar­i­fy­ing his state­ment, he said “They don’t

as­so­ciate with the older folks so they can’t know, they can’t learn. Many of the things I know is be­cause I use to as­so­ciate with a lot of old peo­ple and learn. And what an old man would sit down and tell you in 15 min­utes, some­times you can’t get that ex­pe­ri­ence in 30 years of your life. “We are not like the Jews who had scribes to doc­u­ment their history. We keep it in our minds and we pass it down through sto­ry­telling. But young peo­ple don’t want to know, so there is no one we can pass on this knowl­edge to.”

The Sand­voort Pri­mary School and Com­mu­nity Li­brary which oc­cu­pies the land on which the an­nual fete used to be held.

Agnes Levi

Juliet Mo­riah

Theourold Sin­clair

The sand koker in the vil­lage

What is left of the Or­ange Chapel Church: A few years ago the orig­i­nal struc­ture was de­mol­ished and plans were be­ing made to re­build, but to this day the plans have not ma­te­ri­al­ized.

The area where the vil­lagers used to set up tents and have lunch on Eman­ci­pa­tion morn­ing

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