Culture – like life – unfolds as motion and doing. If it is not protected and consciously handed down from generation to generation, it is at risk of eventually dying.
In the Barbadian community in New York, an idea birthed out of a desire of a parent and godparent to support the gifts of a son, has been adopted by a group of artists. Now, every November, they pitch a tent and proudly wave a flag of pride called Bajan Broughtupsy.
The goal of the group of authors, poets, performing artistes and Tuk drummers is to honour and pass on their Bajan heritage. Interestingly, they do not call themselves griots.
Francis Bebey, in his book African Music, A People’s Art, describes the West African griot as a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel. In particular, he says: “The Griot knows everything that is going on… He is a living archive of the people’s traditions…
He added: “The virtuoso talents of the Griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle. However, the profession is by no means a male prerogative. There are many women Griots whose talents as singers and musicians are equally remarkable.”
Bajan Broughtupsy is generational and includes both male and female artistes. Roger “Wyse” Smith is one of its early members. He is the author the books Laundromats and Lounges and Chambers of a Beating Heart. If we explore some of Smith’s work, is it possible that Bebey would consider him a Griot?
Smith’s poem, Volare: Exodus from Brooklyn, begins as follows: “Gran Gran dialing on that plantain colored rotary phone, waiting for that full stop. Who knew trees, could kiss clouds running from the root of problems and cars, could divorce traffic jams zipping away. Fire escape couches, watching alcoholics debate the potency of whiskey like presidential candidates on change. “
Listen further: “Suh the last box pun it way down? Ort den, I gine bring di chil’ren.”
Gran Gran’s accent ricocheted off empty almond apartment walls, as even the dust zips away through purposely left opened windows. In another poem Patchwork: Gran Gran V. the Cortex, Smith writes: “Everyone writes about their grandmothers, grandmas, abuelas, grand-mères… But, for you Gran-Gran, I only see hot combed silver tresses, empty Lucosade containers, and pallbearers. No recollections of lips moving in generational whispers or telling Bajan epics of raising eight, or was it six children in a distant part of Bank Hall and shelling out lashes with cou-cou stick. “
Clearly, Smith’s work suggests that he is a gatekeeper of tradition, a historian, a storyteller, and a poet. It does more. Many of his words paint familiar colours and make known sounds – the voice of Gran, the matriarch; the noisy rum shop on a Friday night; the open windows and jalousies of yesteryear; and the experience of the cou-cou stick, burning holes into khaki pants among others.
It is perhaps very African. Bebey comparing Western and African music sees a difference: “African music does not seek to combine sounds to please the ear. Their aim is simply express life in all aspects through the medium of sounds.”
Didn’t Gran Gran’s voice bounce off the walls and was heard down the gap? Awrtden!
Smith will be one of several
performers when the 3rd annual Bajan Broughtupsy takes place at the Brooklyn Music School in early November. The event will be hosted by Archie Miller, Empress Poetry and Negus Adeyemi, and will feature DI Tuk King band and dancer, novelist, poet, and playwright, Glenville Lovell
Asked about the event, Negus Adeymi, public relations spokesman and founding member of Bajan Broughtupsy, replied: “Watch the wave. In ten years, Bajan Broughtupsy will travel to the other highly Bajan populated areas in North America, and visit Barbados to work with and collaborate with the artistes.”
Clearly, Bajan Broughtupsy is destined to become troubadours – griots.