Festival Beat: the Drums of Carriacou

In one of the Caribbean's tiniest communities, Simon Lee finds that the rhythms of history still stir the blood and move the spirit

Photography by Jenni Francis, Carriacou Maroon Music Festival/ Grenada Board of TourismPhotography by Jenni Francis, Carriacou Maroon Music Festival/ Grenada Board of TourismPhotography by Jenni Francis, Carriacou Maroon Music Festival/ Grenada Board of TourismPhotography by Jenni Francis, Carriacou Maroon Music Festival/ Grenada Board of Tourism

On an April night, on the speck of land in the southern Caribbean that is the Grenadine island of Carriacou, the grounds of Belair Park reverberate to the distinctive call of African drums. Polyrhythms uncoil, gathering to a momentum that summons spirits from far across the Atlantic, as well as those whose bones mingle with the island’s dry soil.

The drums call the living together as well: home-based Kyaks (as the islanders refer to themselves) from the villages of L’Esterre, Windward, Six Roads, Bogles, Dover and Dumfries; those returning from migratory employment in London or New York; dancers from neighbouring Petite Martinique, and musicians from Grenada and Dominica.

Jack Iron 180-proof rum fuels the festive mood. Old men banter with the mischievous delight of boyhood friends — “Yuh come on the donkey or wha?” “How yuh want me come then?” — while their grandchildren romp through the park. Greetings and messages are passed on from the metropolises. The atmosphere of an extended family reunion prevails.

A change in rhythm, overlaid with the staccato cry of a cutter lead drum, alerts the gathering. A human circle forms itself in front of the drummers. Two women in the Big Drum costume of bright head-wraps, white lace-embroidered blouses, and full skirts matching their headpieces, aided by aman less conspicuously dressed, dance into the ring carrying a wooden tray heavy with baked chicken, stewed pork, coo-coo, rice balls, pigeon peas, and bread. This is the saraca, or food offering for the “Old Parents”, the ancestral spirits whose presence the drums invoke.

Several other trays, prepared by different villages, are “danced” into the ring, to the continuous beating of the drums, before an enthusiastic cry rises simultaneously from the crowd: “Wet de ring! Wet de ring!” As the rhythms change again, bottles of Jack Iron, Coca-Cola and water are danced into the ring to be poured onto the earth as libations to the spirits.

For anyone who’s attended a Haitian vaudou ceremony, a santeria toque in Cuba, or an Orisha feast in Trinidad, the libation is as familiar as the drumming, although in each territory the rhythms are unique. The common thread is African-derived ancestor worship, brought to the Caribbean in the holds of slave ships from the 17th century onwards.

Carriacou is unique in the south-east Caribbean for its retention of authentic African ancestor worship, which takes the form of the African Nation or Big Drum Dance. Although the island’s total area is a mere 13 square miles, culturally Kyaks can hold their own with Cubans or Haitians. It is precisely because of Carriacou’s size, its relative isolation (23 miles north-east of its parent island, Grenada) and a tradition of absentee landlords during the colonial era, that the Big Drum culture has survived. Here the songs, dances and rhythms of the various West African tribes or “nations” (as they’re known locally) which supplied the island with its slaves have survived to an extent one otherwise encounters only in Haiti’s oldest vaudou rituals or the santeria toques and bembes of Cuba.

At a maroon or community thanksgiving, the songs and dances of the nations (Kromanti, Arada, Hausa, Mandingo, Akan, Temne, Banda and Ibo) as well as old secular Creole dances like the Gwa bele, Bongo, Kalenda, and Juba, and more recent “frivolous” dances like the Cherrup, Pike, and Chiffone, are performed to the accompaniment of a trio of drums made from goatskin and old rum casks. The trio is composed of the cot or cutter lead drum improvising over two lower-pitched bula (also known as “babble” or “fule”), which maintain a specific nation beat.

Songs sung in a mixture of tribal language and French and English Creole start with the chantwell’s (lead singer’s) introduction, followed by the chorus, the bula drums with the repeated nation beat, the improvising cot, and then the dancer’s entrance. From this point it is the lead dancer who dictates the pace, dancing in front of the trio of drums, which match her movements with their delivery. It is the lead dancer too who brings the song to conclusion, touching the cot with the hem of her skirt.

I’m in Carricaou for the inaugural maroon festival, a three-day showcase of indigenous culture, which has been mounted, in the words of local calypsonian Jay Sky Stafford, to “save, enhance, and expose our disappearing culture.” While the term
“maroon” is used throughout the Caribbean to refer to runaway slaves and their descendants who established clandestine settlements and a culture of resistance from Cuba all the way down to Suriname, in Carriacou “maroon” also refers specifically to any social gathering, from a wedding to a wake, harvest celebration or boat launching.

The maroon and its music are fundamental to Carriacou’s predominantly African culture. As cultural activist Christine David (who has been intrumental in documenting and encouraging the transmission of the Big Drum tradition) puts it, the maroon “implements social bonds” between the living and the dead.

Once the festival gets underway with the two opening rituals (the saraca and the wetting of the ring), the grounds of hilltop Belair Park, the former district officer’s residence, echo to Carriacou’s extraordinary music for three consecutive nights. It’s no coincidence that no fewer than four CDs in the Rounder Records Caribbean Voyage series, originally recorded by legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in 1962, are devoted to Carriacou.

What comes as a pleasant surprise is that some of the musicians who played on these old recordings are still around to give classic performances at the festival. Notably, there is the 86-year-old violinist Canute Caliste (Carriacou’s Renaissance
man, multi-instrumentalist and world-renowned naïf painter), who leads the quadrille dancers from his village of Lesterre with his zesty fiddle.

Besides the unique Big Drum dances and the quadrille, an Africanised version of the popular European ballroom dance, we are treated to string bands, the Solar Symphony steelband, as well as the contemporary sounds of Grenada’s roots reggae band Roots Revivalists, and Dominica’s carnival band WCK.

The first official maroon festival in 2001 may have been small, but by the 2002 edition it had grown in both size and prestige, opened by the Grenadian prime minister and attended by cultural and heritage activists from around the world.

As Kyak cultural activist Christine David says, “We need to preserve and protect our heritage, otherwise our forefathers would have beaten their drums in vain.” The maroon festival is a heartening sign that a unique aspect of Caribbean culture is being saved for future generations.