Culture Festivals Religion

New Year’s Traditions in Suriname

The following report appears in Repeating Islands, Jan. 2, 2013.

Many thanks to Peter Jordens for the translation from the original “Owru yari wasi geen Marrontraditie” by Audry Wajwakana (De Ware Tijd). This post explains some of Suriname’s year-end and New Year’s traditions. Jordens provides clarification for key points.

On the last day of the calendar year, people in Suriname will put all worries aside and look forward to the new year with confidence. In keeping with (Afro-)Surinamese tradition, on this day hundreds of people go to Elly Purperhart on Independence Square for their annual swit watra wasi [sweet water cleanse].

[Swit watra consists of water to which aromatic liquids, herbs and flowers have been added. People either receive the swit watra from a gourd to wash their hands, arms, neck and face on the spot or take a bottle home for washing or bathing. In this way they enter the new year in a clean(sed) manner.]

Anthropologist Solomon Emanuels from the Santigron Maroon village says that this tradition diverges from Maroon culture, in which the ritual cleanse is not performed on New Year’s Eve. “Such rituals are performed one week before Christmas. This enables the individuals or families who live in discord with one another to settle their disputes before the holidays,” Emanuels explains. These rituals are also a way of bidding the old year farewell. “But because of integration into Surinamese society, you will get Maroons who do a wasi on Independence Square. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not the tradition among Maroons.” There are specific Maroon rituals to welcome the new year. In the first week of the new year, a family member makes a libation to the gods and the ancestors in their Gaado oso [place of sacrifice]. This is accompanied by singing and people also bring rum and pangi [traditional cloth used as a wrap].

An important part of denyung yari [New Year] among the Maroons is the kromanti dance. Kromanti is the god of nature who consists of the elements water, fire and air. The dance is performed in the kromanti oso [place of worship], with much dancing and singing. “Some people may enter into a trance, allowing their body to be taken over by Kromanti who reveals whether they behaved well of badly last year and who instructs them to improve their habits in the new year. During this ritual predictions may also be made.”

According to Emanuels, more rituals used to be performed around New Year’s, but because of the changing times and integration into Suriname’s multi-cultural society, these have been lost. “Some Maroon communities do not even maintain their Gaado oso.” Emanuels says that this is an indication that society is changing and that the importance of religion is declining.

For the original article (in Dutch), see

See also: New Year’s Traditions in Suriname « Repeating Islands.

Festivals Religion

Kingston festival “Kingston Pon Di River”

The following report, written by Vinette K. Pryce, was published in Caribbean Life News on May 9, 2012.

The second annual staging of a cultural assembly billed “Kingston Pon Di River” reintroduced an African aspect of Jamaica’s culture previously ignored or shunned at mainstream celebrations and heritage festivals.

The literary, arts and music festival held at Boone Hall last week featured The St. Thomas Revival Band, a group that were neither promoted nor announced on the billing.

Introduced by Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, the island’s high commissioner to England who emceed an evening offering of drumming featuring talents from Cuba and Jamaica, the added attraction marshaled tourists, visitors and nationals to experience what is usually a private religious ceremony practiced to pay homage to Africa, the regarded Holy Land of the Pocomania sect.

Following the instrumental feast, a procession of men, women and children dressed in red, white and blue emerged from the dark, grassy, hillside setting into the light of the moon where awe-struck patrons watched with curiosity.

With heads tied to fashion a turban, their red, plaid, bandana fabric represented the national cloth and signified a unity between religion and country.

The members of the group seemed entranced by their music as they walked to a white tent where a long table prepared an altar and became the central focus for what ensued as a spirited, ritualistic, revival ceremony.

“The Indians share their culture; the Chinese, Syrians and Jews too, we as Jamaicans should embrace our total heritage,” Dollis Campbell, one of the three promoters representing Dynamic Event Services said.

It was at her urging that the Yallahs-based church group found a welcoming audience at the riverside, weekend fest.

Far from somber, the serious worshippers proved to be missionaries of their faith, ancestry and country.

Without engaging recruitment tactics to patrons, they impressed a number of guests who remained riveted until the midnight end of the ceremony.

Dressed similarly to a Roman Catholic Pope, his head to feet ceremonial dress distinguished him from his congregation and other religious believers in the group.

“People think we are about obeah…but we light candles, sing and praise our Lord…that’s all we do,” Pastor Jonathan Williams said.

To see the way he sprayed mouthfuls of water or liquor into the air can only be described as artistic and perhaps akin to rituals performed in Brazil or Haiti.

He seemed to direct the motions of the lively, musical revivalists who segued from each song singing the gospel of their faith.

They employed the tenets of the festival to deliver literature, art and music to an audience perhaps un-familiar with their mode of worship.

Allegedly rooted in West African traditions, revivalist culture is mostly regarded as an underground religious rite practiced by a segment of the society known as Pocomanianians.

The authentic Afro-Christian religious folk form evolved during the eighteenth to nineteenth century and was regarded in traditional religious circles as a vehicle of rebellion in colonial times. Pocomania reportedly emerged during the 1860s in churches which exuberantly fused African and Protestant performance styles, images, and traditions.

The ritual meetings involve prayers, dances, and rhythmic drumming.

Participants often go into a trance.

However, on the Saturday night that celebrated the 140th anniversary of the capital, Caribbean city, an abbreviated ritual minus magic offered a glimpse into Jamaica’s African ancestral tradition.

A long table filled with fruits of every kind, Duck bread (special ceremonial dough) colored candles, flowers, and beverages formed the central focus of attention.

Ceremoniously staged to thank the ancestors for granting powers of healing and life, the gifts to the spirits are later shared among a congregation.

Each colored candle allegedly represented a significant aspect of the ceremony.

For first-time witnesses it was the candles that captivated the most attention when the preacher indicated that when lit, they could be the vehicle to goodwill and hoped-for wishes.

Individuals voluntarily lit particular candles they hoped will provide fulfillments the pastor allegedly relayed to ancestors. A number of prior skeptics and cynics allayed their fears and proceeded to the altar in order to seek positive enticements.

“This is my first time seeing this but I am totally impressed and proud of my country and culture. I am happy I came, I have learnt a great deal,” Norma Davis said after the ceremony.

With a band of musicians constantly fueling infectious sounds, the entire audience joined the revelry and embraced the nation’s cultural heritage.

Janet Silvera, Dollis Campbell, and Millicent Lynch are the three founders of DES credited for enlightening the sophisticated, elite patronage to their milestone anniversary feature and event championing the historic dateline.

Perhaps, the highlight of the festival, this presentation is being hailed with appreciation by nationals and visitors alike.

Kingston has had its allure but until recently few visitors could boast the privilege of sitting up close to witness the legacy and rich, African tradition still practiced by revivalists in modern day Jamaica.

For the original report: Kingston festival attracts visitors and locals alike • Caribbean Life.

Music Religion

Cuban Music Still Thriving, Still Unheard in U.S.

The following interview, initially published in New America Media and reproduced in Repeating Islands, presents some insights into the popular music culture of Cuba.

From charanga to son to timba, Cuba has long been a country world-renowned for its distinct musical styles and traditions. Nevertheless, people inside the United States – even the most ardent music lovers — aren’t likely to become aware of the newest Cuban artists or to hear the latest musical trends, short of paying an actual visit to the island. Greg Landau is a producer, musician and educator from the Bay Area who’s traveled to Cuba more than 30 times. New America Media editor Jacob Simas sat down with Landau in his Alameda recording studio, where they spoke about Cuban music — where it’s been, where it is now, and what it can tell us about the psychology of the people and the state of affairs on the island today.  To hear an audio version of this interview with music excerpts, click here.
Jacob Simas: You recently came back from Cuba with a stack of CD’s — new music by Cuban artists that are unavailable commercially here in the United States. What struck you about the music that is perhaps different from where Cuban music has been in the past?
Greg Landau: Well, Cuba has a long history of music and a really rich tradition that combines a lot of different elements, and what I’ve seen in every trip is how the music evolves, and how each generation takes elements that they’ve inherited and makes them into a new blend. So the process continues, and a lot of [today’s] groups are innovating, using [traditional] elements, but also the things they hear from outside the country. So you hear reggaeton, hip-hop, cumbia, roots reggae and heavy metal — all these things that are popular outside of Cuba, being interpreted by Cubans in their own way.
But what’s amazing is the level of virtuosity. Because people are able to study and gain that virtuosity because they’re playing all the time, they have time to rehearse, and they’re getting schooled in music schools.
JS: Are young people and elders today in Cuba listening to completely different types of music, or is there a shared appreciation?
GL: The music really crosses generations more than it does here, because first, dancing is common to everybody. Everybody dances [to] music that comes out on the radio, and there’s a mix of old and new. Young people are forced to learn the traditional dance styles, and they know them. They know how to do the danzon; they know the rumba. They’re taught this in school. There’s education. So it does cross generations a lot. Even most of the popular groups — a lot of them have been around for a long time — are constantly evolving. Still probably the number one group in Cuba is Los Van Van, which would translate into English as “The Go Go’s.” They’re still the number one group. They’ve changed singers and new generations of musicians have come through, but the essence of it is that they take Cuban music and combine it with contemporary elements, especially American funk, which is what’s kind of popular right now.
JS: People in the U.S. really have no easy way to hear these tunes. Do you see that changing? Do you see the music industry opening up a little bit or new avenues being created for Cuban music to be heard by people over here?
Well first of all, Cuban musical artists are popular all over the world, and especially all over Latin America. But here in the U.S. not really, because the embargo has been very efficient in stopping that flow of information, that flow of music. And also, the commercial music industry here is not really open to this music. Some of the elements of the music are a little too sophisticated for the pop music that we hear on the radio. The popular Cuban music style timba – which is kind of a modern evolution of salsa — is too fast and too complicated for many of the dancers. And a lot of the [Cuban] groups also have sophisticated messages that are very local, very much about Cuba; about the religious elements; [about] the existential crisis of a Cuban, which is very different than here (in the U.S.)
JS: Can you give an example?
GL: Well, a lot of the songs are making reference to the Afro-Cuban religions, and the fall of the Soviet Union that has caused a vacuum in Cuba, where the ideological foundation, the spiritual foundation of the society based on these communist principles, is gone. People have to fill in the void and figure out or find a way to explain why they’re here. What are we doing while we’re here on this planet? What’s our goal? What are we supposed to accomplish? How do we treat each other? Kind of the whole basis is gone.
So we can see that much of the Afro-Cuban religions come in to fill in this gap; that people start reaching back in their history and their tradition to find that social glue. A lot of the music talks about this. There are many young people making references to the Afro-Cuban religions, to this spirituality, and to this explanation that it provides. And people [ask], how did Cuba survive this long? People thought that with the fall of the Berlin wall it would be over, but it wasn’t. So people have found ways to kind of pull it together, and this is a message in a lot of the music… this new spiritual foundation that’s kind of holding things together.
JS: Music is also often a platform for political messaging. Is there a similar platform for musicians in Cuba to speak about politics, or not?
Well yeah. A lot of political debate and a lot of political discussion in Cuba goes on through the arts. People look at Cuban film. It’s very critical of government policies, many of the popular Cuban films, and it sort of opens up a gap to allow people to discuss these things that maybe can’t be discussed in other forums. Music, too. Starting with the Nueva Trova movement of the early ‘60s — it really begins in 1967 – that opens up this musical poetry, a musical poetry that kind of examines and gives people tools for understanding what’s going on around them.
There’ve been maybe eight generations since the Nueva Trova movement, of musicians that have taken this up — not necessarily playing dance music, but playing music for people to listen to, to make critiques of society, to open up dialogues. So we see, going back to Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, who are still active; Noel Nicola, Sara Gonzalez, and then the next generation that incorporates elements of rock, and then we see elements of jazz; and so they’re experimenting with not just the content but the form, and pushing the envelopes of pop music.
JS: How does the music industry work in Cuba?
GL: Well first off, I wouldn’t really describe it as an “industry.” In Cuba, many of the groups are on salary, which really creates a new dynamic. First, in a capitalist society, groups rise and fall based on their popularity and their money making capacity, where in Cuba, this is very different. Some of the groups are sustained because they’re on salary, they survive maybe even when they’re not so popular but they’re still going… because these are traditions that are preserved.
So for instance, La Orquesta Revé… Elio Revé was popular in the 1960?s, and he had a big band that played changui (a traditional Afro-Cuban musical style) from Guantanamo, and made all these different variations on it. There was changui with violins and heavy drumming, and they went through phases of being popular and not popular. And now his son has taken over the group and continued it, and they’ve incorporated new elements.
So the groups are kind of like institutions that are maintained, like a preservation hall. These forms of popular music are seen as important, and these elements in Cuban culture are maintained way past when they probably would be in a capitalist society.
JS: So, the Cuban state is subsidizing its artists. How does that impact everyday Cubans?
GL: [Cuban musicians] can go play for free in the town squares all over Cuba. Every weekend, all over Cuba, there are huge concerts in every town. So what do you do on a Saturday night? Do you go to a club? No, you go to the town square, with thousands of other people, for free, and listen to music and dance and party. This goes on very frequently. There are frequent festivals and these groups tour all over Cuba, mainly playing for free in town squares, in schools, in hospitals, army bases, farms… wherever. The idea [behind government subsidized musicians] was that one of the rights of being a citizen is the right to culture.

This youtube video shows La Orquesta Revé in performance and the joyous response of the audience as they sing and dance to the infectious music.

For the original report go to

Also: Cuban Music Still Thriving, Still Unheard in U.S. « Repeating Islands.


Celebrating our freedom to worship

The following article, written by Seeta Persad, appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, March 30, 2012.

The nation today celebrates, with a public holiday, the collective right of the people to freely worship in the religion of their choice, and specifically the struggle and eventual victory of the Spiritual and Shouter Baptist community to secure that right for themselves.

It was in 1996 that the Government granted a public holiday, called Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, in commemoration of the repeal of the prohibition act, which had prevented Spiritual and Shouter Baptists from openly practicing their religion. Trinidad and Tobago remains the only country globally that celebrates a public holiday for those following the Spiritual Baptist faith.

The doors of the Holy Faith Spiritual Baptist Tabernacle in La Horquetta will be opened for the entire day today as the faithful unite for a day of worship.

Other Baptist churches that will be marking this Holiday with prayer include Garazin Shouter and Baptist Church Ltd of Sangre Grande, Baptist Church Centre in Princes Town, Beth’aleel Fundamental Baptist Church in San Fernando, Bon Air Full Gospel Baptist Church in Mausica, Dickson’s Memorial Baptist Church in San Fernando, First Baptist Church in San Fernando, Monte Grande Baptist Church in St Augustine, Mount Hope Spiritual Baptist Church in Port-of-Spain, Mt Pisgah Spiritual Baptist Church in Santa Rosa.

According to author Hazel Ann Gibbs De Peza, who is a practising Shouter Baptist, the Spiritual Baptist Faith is the name given to the Christian religious group emerging among the Africans in the 19th century in Trinidad. In 1917 the group was outlawed by the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance against its mode of worship which was considered “too noisy” and “too African” and therefore uncivilised and unacceptable. It suffered legal persecution and prosecution until the ordinance was repealed in 1951.

For the original report: Celebrating our freedom to worship: Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday

Gene Toney sings some examples of Trumpets, short hymns sung by members of the Spiritual Baptist Faith.

Music Religion

Haitian Master Drummer Frisner Augustin Dies

In the October 2009, I had the pleasure of witnessing a riveting performance of La Troupe Makandal, led by Frisner Augustin, in Providence, Rhode Island. In the following article, published in World Music Central, A Romero announces the passing of master drummer Augustin, and gives an account of his musical journey.

Haitian musician Frisner Augustin passed away on February 28th, 2012 at Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince (Haiti). He died of a brain hemorrhage.

Frisner Augustin was the artistic director and master drummer of La Troupe Makandal.

Frisner Augustin was the artistic director and master drummer of La Troupe Makandal. “Frisner was an ountògi, a master drummer of Vodou. He was an oungan sou pwen, that is, on the point of the Vodou priesthood,” said Lois Eileen Wilcken, executive director of La Troupe Makandal.

Frisner Augustin was born March 1, 1948, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His father, Julien Augustin, was an itinerant carpenter. Most of the time his mother, Andrea Laguerre, and her mother, Rose Laguerre, raised him. Frisner’s mother occasionally produced industrial crafts and tourist items; at other times she was unemployed, and the family struggled to survive. His family could not afford to send him to school.

When he was a young boy, his uncle played drums and traveled throughout the Caribbean. Growing up, Augustin admired his uncle and wanted to become a drummer himself, hoping to earn enough money to help his mother and sister out of poverty. His father sent him to welding school to learn a trade. “But anytime I go to my job, my school for welding,” Augustin recalled, “I think about drumming. When I’m on the street, I clap my hands and sing…. Sometimes I’m on the job. I put some pieces together with a torch, and I keep thinking about my drumming.”

After years of watching his uncle, Augustin decided to ask one of the other drummers at a traditional Vodou ceremony if he could participate. “I ask one of the guys, ‘Can I do something?’ And I’m afraid to ask him that, because he’s bigger than me. He says, ‘Frisner, can you do it? You think you can do it?’ I say, ‘Well, let me try.’ I talk like that because I’m scared. This guy gives me the ogan. I play it, and I see that the guy doesn’t take it away from me. He still lets me play. And I say to myself, ‘I’m good.’”

This began Augustin’s apprenticeship period, during which he perfected his timing. After playing the ogan for a while, he moved on to the boula (ostinato drum) and then the segon (second drum). Augustin believed Ogou, the master spirit of the Vodou ceremony, was guiding his drumming. In a relatively short time, he learned to play everything needed for the Vodou ceremonies and was ready to advance to the maman, the master or lead drum. He was then only 10 or 11, unusually young to play lead drum. “They had to put me in the chair,” he said, “and put a rope around the chair to hold me and the drum up.”

As an apprentice maman drummer, Augustin had to go through an initiation ceremony that prepared him for the responsibilities of “making the drum talk.” The first drum he received was a burned-out mahogany shell onto which he had to attach a drum head. Putting the head on a drum is a ritual “presided over by the spirits.” A shaved, wet goat or cow skin is placed over the wooden shell and allowed to dry overnight. The next day the skin is tied and tightened around wooden pegs, and holes are cut into the drum body. Through this initiation ceremony the drummer communicates with the spirits.

Concurrent with his participation in Vodou ceremonies, Augustin continued attending welding school and was able to help support his family. In 1961, he was invited to join a drum troupe traveling to Puerto Rico and began earning his living from drumming.

In 1972 he emigrated to New York (United States of America), where he established himself as a master drummer in Vodou rituals, as a performer for Haitian community festivals, and as a drum instructor.

In 1981 Mr. Augustin took over the direction of the company La Troupe Makandal. His recordings with the Troupe, A Trip to Voodoo, Erzili, and The Drums of Vodou, feature his settings of traditional Afro-Haitian dances. He has recorded as well for jazz artist Kip Hanrahan and for the soundtrack of the film Beloved.

In addition to performing in theaters, galleries, festivals, and educational venues, Mr. Augustin taught a workshop in Haitian drumming at Hunter College, the Krik! Krak! workshop for children at three sites in Brooklyn, and classes and lecture-demonstrations through the Brooklyn Arts Council and City Lore. He also worked with the Haitian-American children’s dance company Tonel Lakay.

Clearly aware of the negative stereotyping of Vodou, Maestro Augustin used his drum to recast the mystery of the religion from a positive perspective.

Because of his dedication, he received a People’s Hall of Fame award from the cultural center City Lore, and a Certificate of Achievement from the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. In 1999 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship, the United States of America’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

For the original posting: Haitian Master Drummer Frisner Augustin Dies | World Music

Culture Music Religion

Trinidad and Tobago celebrates Black History Month in New York

Trinidad Guardian’s New York Correspondent, Dr. Glenville Ashby, reports on the event held at the Trinidad Consulate New York offices to commemorate Black History month.

Drummers ignite the large audience.

The Trinidad and Tobago Consulate in New York was transformed into a virtual palais as members of the Orisa and Shouter faith, backed by drummers, ignited the packed audience. The occasion was Black History Month celebration, the first of its kind at the downtown Manhattan consular offices. In her opening remarks, consul General Rudrawatee Nan Ramgoolam stressed the importance of culture in the lives of people the world over. She lamented the cultural disconnect by many of the nation’s youths, and beckoned them to re-examine their rich cultural heritage and the people who have excelled in every field despite struggles and obstacles. “Too many of our youths are without positive mentors and even heroes and we feel that celebrating the great persons in our past and present will offer a point of reference,” she noted. She identified the unparalleled contribution of Dr Eric Williams, ANR Robinson, CLR James, Rudolph Charles, Boscoe Holder, Len Boogsie Sharpe, Giselle La Ronde, Janelle Commissiong, Hasley Crawford and a host of others prominent Afro-Trinidadians. She also made mention of the distinctly Afro-centric faiths that make up the twin island’s religious mosaic, and the contribution of the community to the unique island cuisine.

Her address was followed by a historical presentation by Mobutu Sekou, and a performance by Ifa priest, Mahaba Olufemi, whose rivetting poetry reading, against the backdrop of light drumming, set the tone for an explosive cultural fanfare. The event also featured dancer Lichelle Joseph, and a compelling drumming exhibition by Earl Noel and friends. The evening event was well attended and attracted leaders of the Indo-Trinidadian community, including Imam Ahmed Ali, Gopaul Lall of the East Indian Musical Academy, and Deepak Raman of the Arya Spiritual Centre. Black History Month which began in 1976, celebrates the accomplishments of the African Diaspora and is popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Consul General Nan Rudrawatee pledged its yearly observance at the Consulate. “We only tested the waters,” she said, referring to the inaugural event, “but by the look of things, we may have to get a bigger venue next year.”

For the original report: T&T celebrates Black History Month in NY | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

Music Religion

Don’t You Trouble Zion

The Spiritual Baptists faith is recognized as one of the African-derived/influenced Christian religions of the Caribbean. Its membership in the Caribbean consists primarily of people of African descent, although people of other ethnic origin have joined the faith, especially some descendants of Indians of the Asian sub-continent, who came to the Caribbean as indentured laborers. The followers of this faith have had to endure political persecution and social discrimination. For example, in 1917 public practice of the rituals of the religion was banned in Trinidad with the passage of the Shouters Ordinance by the colonial authorities.

Worshipers were forced to pursue their religious activities underground, until the repeal of the ordinance in 1951 after much struggle on the part of the Spiritual Baptist community. The respect of the faith has grown immensely over the last two decades with the declaration, in Trinidad and Tobago, of March 30th as Shouters Baptists Holiday. This is the date in 1951 when the Shouters Ordinance was repealed. In New York City over the last quarter century efforts have been made to consolidate an archdiocese.

Authors on Caribbean religions have commented upon the style of singing and overall musical performance observed among the members of Spiritual/Shouter Baptist faith in the Caribbean. This style, which incorporates hand clapping, rhythmic percussive vocal utterances, vigorous body movement, and the singing of hymns at fast paced tempos, has been recognized as embodying African and African-American musical performance traits (Herskovits 1976, Waterman 1948, Simpson 1980, Williams 1985).

In terms of repertoire, followers of the Spiritual Baptist faith have customarily sung Sanky and Moody hymns (Herskovits 1976, Waterman 1948, Glazier 1997, Williams 1985). Some of these hymns were brought to the Caribbean by the formerly enslaved, who fought on the side of the British in the war of American Independence. These ex-soldiers were granted lands in the British colonies of the Caribbean where they established villages, for example the company villages in southern Trinidad. Contemporary studies indicate that variations of traditional hymns, sung within African American churches, survived and are performed by worshipers of the Spiritual Baptist faith in the Caribbean (McDonald 1994).

The video, St. Michael’s Songs, presents examples of the hymns performed at the St. Michael’s Spiritual Baptists Church of Brooklyn, New York. Recorded in August 2006, these examples illustrate many of the stylistic features of singing that have been identified as characteristic traits within this religious community. They include:

  • Call-and-response
  • Doption (rhythmic vocalization)
  • Ululation
  • Dancing/swaying
  • clapping
  • Lining-out – (See Jeff Titon’s work on Black churches in North America)
  • Transitions from slow tempo into upbeat faster tempo
  • Shouts and moans
  • Drumming, which is not used in many of these churches but is featured at St. Michael’s

Sacred objects and ritual paraphernalia of the faith are also visible in the video.