Jean-Léon Destiné, Haitian Dancer and Choreographer, Dies at 94

In the following New York Times article, Margalit Fox reports on the passing of renowned Haitian dancer and choregrapher, Jean-Léon Destiné.

Jean-Léon Destiné, a Haitian dancer and choreographer who brought his country’s traditional music and dance to concert stages around the world, died on Jan. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Considered the father of Haitian professional dance, Mr. Destiné first came to international attention in the 1940s and remained prominent for decades afterward.

As a dancer, he performed well into old age. In 2003, reviewing a program at Symphony Space in New York in which he appeared, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Destiné’s number stopped the show. She added, “He looked agile and nuanced, mesmerizing in a bent-legged solo.”

As a choreographer, he directed own ensemble, which came to be known as the Destiné Afro-Haitian Dance Company.

The company, which presented work from throughout the Caribbean, was devoted in particular to dances from Haiti. Accompanied by vibrant drumming — Mr. Destiné collaborated for many years with the distinguished Haitian drummer Alphonse Cimber — these dances were often infused with elements of voodoo tradition.

As reviewers noted, Mr. Destiné and company could dance, to all appearances, as if possessed.

Much of Mr. Destiné’s work also functioned as commentary on Haiti’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. In “Slave Dance,” a solo piece he choreographed and performed, the dancer begins in bondage only to emerge, in astonished joy, a free man.

In “Bal Champêtre” (“Country Ball”), among the most famous works choreographed by Mr. Destiné, the foppish customs of Haiti’s French colonists are satirized through sly subervsions of a Baroque minuet.

In the United States, Mr. Destiné was seen on Broadway; at the New York City Opera, where in 1949 he was a featured dancer in the world premiere of William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island,” set in Haiti; and, as a performer and teacher, with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. He also taught at New York University and elsewhere.

Jean-Léon Destiné was born on March 26, 1918, in Saint-Marc, Haiti, to a middle-class family: his father was a local government official, his mother a seamstress. After his parents divorced when he was a boy, he moved with his mother to the capital, Port-au-Prince, where they lived in reduced circumstances.

From a very early age, Jean-Léon was captivated by Haitian music and drumming. As a youth, he learned traditional dance by attending the religious rituals and other celebrations of which it had long been an integral part. He also sang in the folkloric ensemble directed by Lina Mathon Blanchet, a prominent Haitian musician.

In the 1940s, the young Mr. Destiné received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study printing and journalism in the United States. After taking classes at Howard University in Washington, he moved to New York, where he learned to operate and maintain linotype machines, then used to cast type for printing newspapers other publications.

Mr. Destiné, who eventually became an American citizen, also continued dancing. In the late ’40s he spent several years with the company of Katherine Dunham, considered the matriarch of black dance in the United States.

With Ms. Dunham’s company, he danced on Broadway in the revue “Bal Negre” at the Belasco Theater in 1946.

Returning to Haiti for a time in the late ’40s, Mr. Destiné founded a national dance company there at the behest of the Haitian government. By the early ’50s he had established his own company in New York.

Mr. Destiné’s survivors include three sons, Gérard, Ernest and Carlo, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For the original article: Jean-Léon Destiné, Haitian Dancer and Choreographer, Dies at 94 – NYTimes.com.

Kwe Kwe Nite’ in Brooklyn

Lin-Jay Harry-Voglezon reports on a traditional Afro-Guyanese premarital ceremony, Caribbean Life, September 14, 2012.

On Friday, Aug. 31 the St. Stephen’s Church Auditorium in Newkirk Avenue, Brooklyn, was a hive of dramatic moments and laughter, as emigrant Guyanese acted out Kwe Kwe ceremonies. Traditionally, Kwe Kwe is a premarital ceremony, the night before marriage, done mainly by the rural Afro community in Guyana. It’s a night when the prospective bride is hidden away and the prospect groom has to find her, as the beating of drums to the rhythm of folk songs charge the atmosphere. On finding her, their family processions meet and the prospective husband and wife are soon encircled. The tempo of the drums intensifies, and the songs become increasingly rhythmical, brazen in extemporaneous composition, and romantic suggestiveness. Among other things, the prospective bride and groom, individually and collectively are asked to “show me yuh ‘science’”; they have to wine. Onlookers are amused, impressed or disappointed and accordingly speculate on the couples’ romantic capabilities and potential outcomes.

Kwe Kwe Nite” as promoted by the Guyana Cultural Association of New York, Inc., is another attempt at helping the Guyanese emigrant community to retain elements of their culture. Earlier this summer it sponsored a Heritage Camp where children were taught Masquerade among other things.

For original report: Kwe Kwe Nite’ in Brooklyn • Caribbean Life.

Les Enfants celebrates 50 years of dance

The following article was written by Reshma Ragoonath and published in Trinidad Guardian, July 12, 2012.

The phenomenal Joyce Kirton, considered to be the “Grand Dame” of dance in San Fernando, celebrates her golden jubilee in dance and the formation of her dance company, Les Enfants, this month. She has planned a weekend of special events at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando to commemorate the symbolic occasion. The festivities will begin with a prayer session today at 10 am and will culminate with a dance concert on Sunday at 6 pm. An all day dance workshop has been carded for Friday and a gala awards ceremony on Saturday night. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Kirton said the celebration is a way of “thanking God for the 50 years at Les Enfants. Thanking him in song in movement and in word.”

Over the years
She extended an open invitation for all dance lovers to be part of the celebrations. Looking back over the past 50 years, Kirton said she is proud of her legacy of dance and of her hundreds of dance students.  She said dance began as a hobby but quickly became an all encompassing part of her life.  “Why do people like singing? Why do people like anything? I just like dance. This is my way of expressing myself. It was something I was drawn to,” she said. At the age of 19 while attending the Teachers’ Training College she was bitten by the dance bug.  “I had some very good teachers at Training College. Beryl Mc Bernie and another English teacher. Between these two women they really turned me on to dance,” she said.  As T&T was making its first foot steps into nationhood in 1962 Kirton said she was making her first steps into forming the Les Enfants Dance company. She started with small classes at the St Paul’s Anglican Church, Harris Promenade.  “It was a lot of fun, a lot of adventure. Every Independence we would be excited. Children would have been performing in rallies. There were a lot of organisations coming up at that time. The San Fernando Borough Council did a lot of stuff and we were also involved in a lot of their projects.”

Back then, she said, the society was very different.  “When people came to see our shows they paid $3 per show and they were filled. Now shows cost $350. We do not have a very big dance audience in San Fernando. People do not support the dance very willingly. They prefer to go to comedy shows,” she said.  She lamented that interest in dance has been declining and invitations to perform at functions being with it requests for “jump up and wave” entertainment.  “Arts are not being respected. They (people) go for superficial. They do not go for what you produce. When you produce any piece of art it is a piece of yourself, whether it is a painting or performing in a play. You are making a statement about yourself and your country,” Kirton said.  She said students at Les Enfants were not only taught movement but also about T&T culture through the art of dance.  “Dance is a way to reach an audience, to tell a story. That story may be sad, maybe happy. It might be fearful. You also want to make a comment about the things that go on to your society or keep the culture going,” she said.  “We have a very rich heritage and everyone who occupied this country left a story and very often when we are dancing we are telling their stories, the African, the Indian. They all left their mark in society.”

For the original report: Les Enfants

RASIN GINEN: THE AFRICAN ROOTS

Ayiti Fasafas and Center for Traditional Music and Dance in partnership with El Museo del Barrio present:

A New York Haitian Dance Showcase honoring Jean-Léon Destiné

Saturday, July 14th, 7:30PM
El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th
New York City
$9 suggested donation at door

Center for Traditional Music and Dance and Ayiti Fasafas in partnership with El
Museo del Barrio present Rasin Ginen (The African Roots), a showcase of some of
New York’s finest Haitian traditional dance groups, coming together to water the
ancestral roots of Haitian traditional dance, with a special tribute to Haitian
dance educator and elder, Jean-Léon Destiné.  Five companies will perform at El
Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street in Manhattan, on Saturday,
July 14, at 7:30 p.m. The program is presented in conjunction with El Museo’s “CARIBBEAN:
Crossroads of the World” exhibition, on display through January 6, 2013 and is the
third and final event in the “Louvri Baryè:  Opening the Gates” Haitian concert
series, developed by Ayiti Fasafas and Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

The traditional dances of Haiti trace their roots to West and West Central Africa.
Having survived the Middle Passage, they flourished following Haitian independence
in 1804. In the twentieth century a black consciousness movement took the dances
to the stage. Jean-Léon Destiné, born in St. Marc, Haiti, pioneered this movement
and was instrumental in the creation of the National Folkloric Troupe in 1949. The
companies that will make up the program at El Museo del Barrio carry the spirit
and vision of pioneers like Mr. Destiné into the twenty-first century, and into
the Haitian diaspora in New York. Dance anthropologist Dr. Joan Burroughs, co-author
of a forthcoming biography of Mr. Destiné, will present highlights from his career,
and the artists will join Ms. Burroughs in presenting Mr. Destiné with an award
for his contribution to Haitian art and culture.  The evening will be emceed by
New York City Haitian radio host and community activist, Lionel Legros.

The following youtube video shows one of the participating dance companies, KANu Dance Theater,
in performance.

The five participating companies display the breadth and the depth of the repertoire.
Feet of Rhythm, founded by Nadia Dieudonné in 1994, has performed in both the United
States and abroad, and many know the company for its outreach to young people in
communities throughout New York City. Haitian American Dance Theater founder Julio
Jean studied at the National School of the Arts in his native Port-au-Prince and
taught Haitian Dance at The Katherine Dunham Institute. He currently teaches at
Cumbe in Brooklyn and Ripley-Grier in Manhattan, and for over 20 years has performed
and taught in theaters and universities across the United States. KaNu Dance Theater,
established in 2003 and directed by Jessica St. Vil, blends contemporary, modern,
and Afro-Caribbean dance to promote change and peace in Haiti and around the world;
the company’s name derives from “Ka Pa Nou,” Haitian Kreyòl for “Our Situation.”
Kongo, a Brooklyn-based group of Haitian artists, musicians, and activists organized
in 1995 by Sanba lead vocalist Oneza Lafontant, weaves together drumming, guitar,
percussion, dance, and storytelling, working from the conviction that the artist
must represent the community and engage it in the cause of positive change.  Peniel
Guerrier, a dancer, choreographer, and musician, began his dance career in Haiti
with Tamboula D’Ayiti, the National Theater, and Bacoulou. Experienced in Haitian,
West African, and Brazilian dance, Mr. Guerrier aims to represent Haitian culture
worldwide through the language of dance.

Thanks to Eileen Condon for sharing the information.

Haitian dance troupe Ayikodans provide intense, thrilling performance.

The following dance review was written by Jordan Levin and published in the Miami Herald, April 26, 2012.

Physically ripped and emotionally expansive, the Haitian dance troupe Ayikodans returned to Miami and the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday evening. The swell of emotion that surrounded the troupe’s performance there a year ago, as community leaders gathered to support a company on the verge of collapse after the Haitian earthquake, has leveled off somewhat. And that made it easier to look at the troupe and its work.

Choreographer/director Jeanguy Saintus’ nine dancers perform with a physical and emotional intensity that makes them seem always about to explode. Lean, narrow-framed and muscular to a degree exceptional even for the dance world, they’re built like greyhounds — but with the ferocity of tigers. Add powerful live drumming, and Ayikodans has a terrifically intense — and at times overwhelming — impact.

Saintus created Anmwey Ayiti Manman! (Cry Haiti Mother) right after the 2010 earthquake, as he and the three dancers he was able to gather grappled with the terrible event. The mesmerizing Linda Isabelle Francois is a Haiti mother figure, but she’s no maternal tower of strength — she’s as tortured and uncertain as her trembling offspring, Johnnoirry St. Phillippe and Makenson Israel Blanchard. Barbed wire drapes the bare concrete wall at the back of the Carnival Studio Theater, and tops two walls covered with newspapers on each side (Haiti hemmed in by bad news), and the sounds of wind, ominous rumbles and singer James Germain’s plaintive vocals add to the bleakness.

This youtube video presents excerpts of “Anmwey Ayiti Manman”:

The men scramble on the floor and clutch Francois’ legs, cover their gaping mouths in a silent howl, hurl themselves at the walls and try to climb over. Francois stretches arms and legs in spasmodic pleading, then curls into a ball, unable to help herself or them. At the end she puts her neck into a noose hanging from the ceiling, then jerks it down, and hurls it to the ground in defiant, frustrated rage as the lights go out — a moment so unnerving and strange the audience didn’t know how to react. Ayiti Manman is so raw that it can seem like therapeutic more than artistic expression, an unmediated outpouring of emotion.

Danse de l’araignee (Dance of the Spider), a new work commissioned by Arsht Center, was passionate in a more physical and exhilarating way. Inspired by Gede Zarenyen, a Haitian vodou spirit, and by spiders themselves. Saintus doesn’t shy from creepy-crawly imagery or movement — Danse de L’Araignee seethes with aggressive, coiling, unthinking energy, and even touches of cartoony horror. The nine dancers wear ghostly grey-black lip and eye makeup, and early on carry metal bowls on their heads, where reflected red lights look like buggy eyes. (Al Crawford, lighting designer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, donated his talent for dramatic lighting.)

But what mostly emerges from Araignee is a surging collective power, driven by five drummers pounding out incendiary, rapid and complex rhythms, and Germain’s soaring, moaning, raw gospel voice. The dancers, in Malou Cadet and Miko Guillaume’s tight briefs or slinky black dresses, writhe and crawl and roll over each other, reaching hands clutched like claws, taut legs snaking up by their ears, eager to attack or merge. The women — Francois, Cassandra Woolley Dolce, and Sephora Germain — stalk and snake their torsos. Steven Vilsaint and Emmanuel Pierre hang from a suspended ladder, seeming to turn themselves inside out. The dancers explode in leaps and (in the case of the astonishing Vilsaint) flips in the air, then rocket to the floor. The dancers’ intensity and force are spectacular, and Saintus brings them and Araignee to a wild level of animal intensity and energy. It’s thrilling — breathtaking even — but also exhausting, like a ritual that lifts you up even as it wrings you out.

For original post: Haitian dance troupe Ayikodans provide intense, thrilling performance – Entertainment – MiamiHerald.com.

See also: Repeating Islands

National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica celebrates 50th anniversary

Marcia Rowe, Jamaica Gleaner writer, reports on the observation of the 50th anniversary of the Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company.

In 1961, at the invitation of Norman Manley, 18 leading dancers from different dance schools were thrown together to form the Jamaica Dance Company. They had no repertoire. The following year, 1962, under the same name, they danced at Jamaica’s Independence celebration. But, in September of that year, all the dancers left the original schools that they were part of; and decided to establish themselves as the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).

Fast forward 50 years later with an extensive repertoire, many international tours, a studio of their own, a feeder school, many new faces, the NDTC celebrates its 50th year of existence.

“None among them [the founding members] could have predicted that the company would have accomplished all that it has,” said Barry Moncriefe, NDTC artistic director, at the Company’s 50th anniversary launch last Thursday.

“The company has managed to sustain interest in and support for Jamaican dance theatre over five decades, and is revered as one of Jamaica’s most loved cultural treasures. It is for this reason that we remain resolute to our vision to forge out of the Jamaican and Caribbean culture and life, an art form faithful to reality while being a part of a wider world and universal landscape of the creative arts,” continued the longstanding company member.

Barbara Gloudon, in her capacity as chairman of the Little Theatre Movement (LTM), lightened the mood at the NDTC Studio, saying: “I am not going to be formal and stiff.”

“The LTM and NDTC relationship speaks for itself, we need each other,” she said, before continuing to creatively embroider her personal experiences with the NDTC into her speech.

First overseas tour

She recounted her first overseas tour with NDTC to Canada as a young journalist at The Gleaner.

“The first tour was a birth of what happened after – to travel the world.” There were to be numerous adventures along the way including a “nice time in Atlanta”.

With an imaginary glass raised, she said, “We celebrate a part of Jamaica that cannot be destroyed, what a joy you have brought to this country.”

With the dance floor of the NDTC studio as the stage, the delightful evening’s programme flowed with a message from the chairman of the Rex Nettleford Foundation, Carlton Davis, a vote of thanks from NDTC Musical Director, Marjorie Whylie, and excerpts from the company’s’ repertoire. The dances were performed by the now generation of dancers.

The dances ranged from works from the young choreographer to the old, from the classic to the contemporary.

The entertainment package danced off with Oneil Pryce-choreographed Barre Talk. It was followed by Clive Thompson’s Phases of the Moon. Sandwiched between two of Netleford’s works, The Crossing and Odyssey, was a lovely presentation from the NDTC Singers.

Living founding member

Some time later, after the formalities, The Gleaner caught up with one of the seven living, founding members of NDTC, Bert Rose.

He described the journey of the company as wonderful.

“Nettleford had a vision. When we started, we never knew that we would have celebrated 50 years. Only seven of us are still alive out of 18,” said Rose.

He further explained that “Eddy Thomas and Rex Nettleford were the two main choreographers. Rex wanted to do something that was Jamaican. And we were not going to copy. So he started with our own folk forms as a source for choreography. We use the Graham principles and the Jamaican style and mix them together to create a Jamaican technique. We do not know if we have gotten it yet, we are still growing.”

“Eddy Thomas’ first choreography was called Legendary Lovers Leap, and Rex did a piece called Plantation Revelry,” Rose said, of the beginnings of the company.

Rose also went on to explain some of the challenges of development the company faced.

“We swept the stage, we painted the backdrop, ironed our clothes, ran box office,” Rose said.

“There is no need for the now generation to do that anymore.”

As the company developed, they got someone to wash the costumes and hired a costume mistress.

“We had to build a company. They are coming into a readymade company and so things are different now.”

Other noted changes over the years are the shift in the choice of musical genre and the incorporation of international choreographers like Cuban-born Edwardo Rivero Walker.

Davis was the MC for the evening. Just a couple weeks into the position, he explained that one of his reasons for accepting the post was his belief that this sort of cultural organisation should be supported.

It represents the best of Jamaica. And what is to be expected under his stewardship?

“One of the things I am trying to do is to put it at a better financial position, on a more long term basis, get people to make commitment.”

The year-long NDTC 50th anniversary celebration will continue with the usual calendar events as well as some new ones. The evening was also used to launch the NDTC website.

For original report: NDTC begins celebration of its 50th – Entertainment – Jamaica Gleaner – Tuesday | February 7, 2012.

Preserving folk culture:

Malick Folk Performing Company stages nostalgic and futuristic expressions.

The following article was written by Cherisse Moe and published in the Trinidad Guardian, Oct. 12, 2011.

The Malick Folk Performing Company has been working assiduously to bring the indigenous art form of folk music to the forefront since 1979. With a long list of accolades to its name and no signs of slowing down, the local group, which received the 2004 Chaconia Medal Silver for its outstanding contribution in the field of culture, is now gearing up to stage yet another exciting production, titled, Nostalgic & Futuristic Expressions, at the Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s, on November 6.

Secretary/public relations officer, Jemma Jordan said the production, directed by Louis Mc Williams and Norvan Fullerton, promised to be one to remember and featured some of the nation’s brightest stars, including the Shiv Shakti Dance Company, the Lydian Singers, Los Alumnos de San Juan and African dance ensemble, Wasa Foli. “The production highlights Malick through the years so its nostalgic in that it showcases the senior members and futuristic because we have a junior company,” she explained. “We are going to give them a taste of our indigenous culture in T&T in a very theatrical production with beautiful music and dance.”

Members of the Malick Folk Performing Company put on a show for the recently concluded Best Village Dance Finals at the National Arts and Performing Academy.

Recognition

With Jamaican and American genres such as dancehall and hip hop the music of choice among the nation’s youth, Jordan said local genres like folk music was not gaining the recognition it deserved. And while the performing company—which holds the record for being the only folk group to win the Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition on ten occasions—was doing its part to keep the tradition alive, Jordan stated that the time had come to do more. “A people without a culture is like a people without a soul,” she asserted. “We feel that it’s important that our young people know our culture and take pride in what is our own. They must know what we created as a result of us being colonised. They must know where we came from in order to know where they are going.”

Runs deep

Having toured extensively with the music group over the years throughout the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, Brazil and the Caribbean, Jordan’s love for country runs deep. She said her main goal remained putting T&T on the global map and helping to preserve the country’s dying culture. Also an integral part of Carnival for the past 21 years, the Diego Martin resident who has worked as an announcer for local events such as Dimanche Gras and  The National Steelband Panorama, as well internationally for New York’s Labour Day Celebrations, disclosed that the group was on a “recruitment drive” to attract new members. She noted that interested individuals should be “committed and dedicated,” have an interest in the performing arts and “be prepared to work hard.”

More Info

The production—Nostalgic & Futuristic Expressions starts promptly at 4:30pm  on November 6 at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. Adult admission is $100 and $50 for children 12 and under.

For original report: Preserving folk culture | The Trinidad Guardian.

Gene Toney

dancer/choreographer/singer

Gene is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s foremost dancers, a choreographer, and troupe leader. He got involved in dancing around the time of the twin island state’s achievement of political independence from Great Britain in 1962. With the advent of the Prime Minister’s Best Village Competition in the ’60s, the Harding Place Cocorite Youth Movement was formed, and Gene embedded himself in its artistic life, particularly dance, under the leadership of the now-deceased Carlton Francis.

Through this activity, he became acquainted with some of Trinidad’s leading dancers such as: Jean Coggins, Julia Edwards, and Neville Shepherd with whom Gene performed and toured before forming his own troupe, the Ujamaa Folk Performers in 1972. Under the guidance of Gene, Ujamaa toured the Caribbean, the United States, Canada, Venezuela, and other places, performing numerous Caribbean dances including the Bele, Pique, Joropo, and the Limbo. Ujamaa has won the national limbo competition on multiple occasions.

Limbo Dance from Ken Archer on Vimeo.

In recent years Gene, together with his wife, Rosanna Toney, has taken his talents to Brooklyn New York, and assisted in the transmission of the knowledge and performance of these Caribbean dance forms among the youth, particularly those of Caribbean parentage. He has worked in the youth programs of the Sesame Flyers organization, helping to develop their dance troupe and artistic programs in general. He continues to share his cultural gifts by participation in the steelband movement, mas’ making and performance, and calypso singing.

African Dance from Ken Archer on Vimeo.

Afro-Caribbean Dance Rhythms

In the following video, Trinidadian dancer and choreographer, Gene Toney, demonstrates short examples of various Caribbean dance rhythms and songs. He is accompanied in these illustrations by his wife, Rosanna, herself a dancer, and Billy Sammy, who has been associated with Gene since his early teenage life.

Gene’s explication of the different dance genres show the continued impact of drumming, dancing, and singing of the different West African ethnic groups that populated the islands of the Caribbean during the colonial period, through slavery and post Emancipation. The first dance he speaks about is the yanvalou, an Afro-religious ritual dance of Haiti; one of the dances experienced and written about by the late Katrine Dunham during her research trips to Haiti in the 1920s and 30s.

The yanvolou is dealt with in some detail by Gerdes Fleurant in his 1996 book, Dancing Spirits: Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite. Trinidad has had its own Rada community, in Belmont for example, (see Andrew Carr’s A Rada Community in Trinidad, 1989), through which dances such as the yanvalou would become incorporated into the repertoire of dance companies.

Gene identifies the mandjani as another of the Afro-Caribbean dances and describes this dance as a “feat dance” traditionally performed during the initiation rituals to mark the passage youth into adulthood. In a comparative study of the performance of this dance in the United States and the African continent, Mark Sunkett (1995) noted that the mandiani (Sunkett) significantly influenced djimbe drumming and its style of performance in North America from the 1950s onwards.

Next Gene deals with the bele. He points out that there are different types of bele dances through out the Caribbean. This dance was observed and written about by anthropologists researching the culture of the Caribbean during the first half of the 20th century. Melville Herskovits spoke about the bele being performed at wakes as part of the burial rites for the deceased in the village of Toco, in his Trinidad Village, 1947.

bele

Cowley (1996) speaks of the bele being performed in a completely different setting for the opening of official functions of the colonial authorities in the late 19th to early 20th century. Authors on the Big Drum Dance of Grenada and Carriacou, such as Pearse (1955) and McDaniel (1998), have identified the bele as one of the dance performed in this festival.

The bele is categorized among the creole dances as opposed to opening dances of the Big Drum, which are performed in homage to the African ancestors and in memory the different West African ethnic groups from which the enslaved came. Gene’s demonstration of this revered Caribbean dance highlights these contrasting contexts within which scholars have situated it.

The Grand Bele is described by Gene as having derived from the appropriation of the French minuet by enslaved Africans, who infused it with their aesthetics. In contrast with this, Gene notes that the accompanying drum rhythms of the Congo Bele are derived from the drumming played as part of the rituals associated with Shango Orisha practice. Additionally, with the title Congo, this bele can align with those Big Drum dances that honored the African ethnicities, and the refrain “rere, rere, Congo,” which is sung, suggest the calling of a Congo ancestral spirit into the performance.

Gene give some brief examples of Orisha dances; specifically the dances of the deities Ogun and Shakpana. These present further evidence of how the religious ritual practices of West Africa in general, and those of the Yoruba in particular, have informed the artistic creation of dance in the Caribbean.

Clarence Curvan: Living the Love of Dance

Clarence Curvan on drums

His love for dance led Clarence Curvan from dancer to dance band leader. His entry into the world of music performance was unplanned, and may be described as accidental, but it opened the doors to an illustrious career. Following his passion for dancing, a teenage Curvan accompanied his mother and her friends to a party, which featured the Sonny Lewis Orchestra. Feeling out of place among the older crowd, he entertained himself by playing the cowbell along with the band. When he received the princely sum of $1 for his unsolicited night’s effort, he was encouraged to participate in subsequent engagements of the band on the invitation of Lewis, eventually becoming exceedingly proficient on the bongos.

His development as a bongo player sparked the interests of other bandleaders, and he was invited to join the Phil Britto Orchestra.  Part of this band engagement schedule included weekly radio appearances, and many of the arrangements highlighted the bongos. This further enhanced Curvan’s reputation as a player, and he subsequently received an invitation from famed Calypso bandleader, Cyril Diaz, to play on recordings of Slinger Francisco, the Mighty Sparrow. A tour to the French Caribbean Isles afforded him additional opportunity to showcase his skills in a production entitled “Les Bongo Nuits.”

Having acquired this respect and reputation as a percussionist in his teenage years, Curvan jumped at the chance to put together a group of young musicians to fill a performance slot on a local radio station. This led to  the formation of the Clarence Curvan Orchestra. He recalls the circumstances surrounding the band’s birth, and the musicians involved. Among them were Beverly Griffith, who played the piano and served as the band musical arranger, Stan Shaman on guitar, Kenrick George on bass, Philbert Cumminngs on percussion, and Curvan himself on drums. In early 1960, the group made its debut on the Teen Dance Party hosted in the studios of Radio Trinidad, and proved to be an instant hit, laying the foundation for the popularity and success of the band on the Trinidad dance music scene throughout the decade of the ’60s.

This engagement at Radio Trinidad was extended from a single session on Saturday morning with the addition of another in the early afternoon. A testimony to the great popularity of the radio broadcast and studio party, it also reflected the increasing admiration for the Clarence Clarence Orchestra, and fueled demand for the band at fairs and dances, almost immediately following its emergence in 1960. In the early months of the band’s entry into the musical life and psyche of the Trinidad’s dancing fraternity, Curvan solicited Emory Cook, then operating a recording studio in the Mt. Hope area of Trinidad, to record some of the band arrangements.  With the success of the the initial recording, an arrangement of Teensville that captured the imagination of the local youth, Cook recorded and released the band music regularly. Some of the tunes from these Cook sessions include:

610 Saga  (listen)Note: The title is taken from the track listing for the album, Belly to Belly: Dancing Calypso, on the Smithsonian Folkways website. However, this is erroneous. This correct title should be Royal Jail, which is given to another track on the Smithsonian’s list.

Rip Van Winkle (listen)

Portrait of My Love (listen)

Clair de Lune (listen)

In this early stage of the band’s existence, its composition included two saxes playing harmony, along with the piano, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion. Curvan notes that this sound was influenced, in part,  by the Sel Duncan band, which also incorporated two saxes and was exceedingly popular in dances at the time. The Curvan band played varied styles of music but emphasized calypsos, boleros, rhumba, and other Caribbean styles, along with the fox trot and waltz.  The different melodic instruments alternated in taking the lead, and while the saxes dominated in this regard, many of the arrangements featured the piano or guitar for extended solos.

Eventually, the band’s composition was changed to included the brass instruments. This saw the entry into the band of trumpeter, Ron Berridge, who would eventually become a respected and famed bandleader in his own right. The period of the sixties saw other young musicians, such as now-deceased Clive Bradley and Roy Cape, serve as members of the Clarence Curvan Orchestra. Saxophonist Cape eventually left to join Berridge’s band, and has led his own exceedingly successful aggregation, Roy Cape and the Calypso All Stars, for last three decades. Bradley became the pianist and arranger of the band after Griffith migrated. He too led his own unit, the Esquires, and became internationally renowned for his arrangements of steelband music.

The Clarence Curvan Orchestra has since survived some hiccups, but it still thrives in New York City and performs at balls and function across the United States.