As the Barbadian identity shifts and evolves, so do its expressions of culture. Notable artforms like dance, music and theatre, documented through stages of pre- and post-Emancipation, pre-Independence and finally post-Independence, help tell the story of our evolution as a country.
“With the coming of the colonial space to the Caribbean, who we were would change,” reflects Sonia Williams, accomplished theatre director, writer and lecturer at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill campus.
She tells how African descendents were welcome only as seat-holders in the halls where travelling professional theatres from Europe and North America would perform for the plantocracy.
“Enslaved people did their performances under the trees by the side of the dock, by the sea. We had quartets singing, and the tuk band and Landship; all of this is theatre. We also had the man of words, who used a speechifying form with a lot of big Latin words. It mimicked the Europeans while making fun of them.”
Post-Emancipation, the tuk band continued to flourish, according to Dr Stefan Walcott, adjunct lecturer in the music programme at UWI Cave Hill, music blogger and leader of the 1688 Collective.
“Each village would have a tuk band, so for Christmas these tukmen would walk around the villages playing and asking for drinks. At that time, no one had radios or TVs so it provided entertainment in the communities. People might come dance in the street or follow them around; it was really community based.
“Tuk’s heydey was pre-Independence into the 70s, but as Barbados became more suburbanised with people moving out of the various communities, tuk experienced a serious lack of engagement,” he explains.
As for dance, leading up to the 1970s, Barbadians wanted to align themselves with European dance, according to Jennifer Sealy, Artistic Director, Educator and Director of Dancin’ Africa.
“The higher echelons of society frowned upon things like the Landship. We looked to European dance like ballet for respectability and it was taught at the flourishing groups of the time,” she says.
However, a shift in Barbadian identity and cultural expression came with the launch of Yoruba House at Fontabelle, St Michael, by culturalist Elton Elombe Mottley, which catalysed a conscious shift towards indigenous and Afro-centred performance.
“There, you had these African drums and people like us dancing and really kicking up a storm, so on one side you had that balletic modern quality and the other side saw what was true dance trying to birth itself,” says Sealy.
Since then, Afrocentric forms continued to emerge, seen in Dance National Afrique and, later, Dancin’ Africa. A range of local groups performing African dance and Caribbean folkform continue in that vein to this day.
Theatre had already gone through the same thing, with local amateur theatre companies and other groups leaning towards Shakespeare or other classic plays. However, as Williams points out, by the 1950s, Joyce Stuart’s Revuedevilles showcased Caribbean folk traditions of comedy, storytelling and other performances. And with the later Yoruba House movement, she says playwright Anthony Hinkson embraced this even more.
“Hinkson used local material – this is the indigenisation process of theatre. Hinkson wrote in dialect about the lower class, middle class and institutions. From there, we had Talk Tent, a tent for sketches and local skits. After that, there were many more performances with a Caribbean context, like Laff-It-Off, Barbados’ longest consecutive running show.”
All this time, tastes for local musical genres were evolving. After the tuk and folk music came the rise of spouge in the 70s, and the 80s brought the forms of soca that Barbadians popularised.
“We had soca from the 80s, then ringbang, coming out of Eddy Grant’s studio, then ragga soca in the 90s and [the original] bashment soca, then Bajan dub, then bashment soca, the second [iteration],” Dr Walcott says.
Since other Caribbean countries are no longer getting involved with spouge, Dr Walcott isn’t hopeful for its revival, and although calypso is not an indigenous genre, he indicates the local culture around calypso tents has shifted.
“Calypso tents have been struggling financially. The heydey of tents was the 80s into the 90s, but as Crop Over changed to be based around the bigger soca fetes, calypso began to wane in popularity.”
As for tuk, he says although it has gained national acceptance, it has lost its meaning within the community.
“Tuk will be played at major events, but before that tuk was working-class culture. When Princess Margaret visited [in 1955], there was no sign of tuk bands welcoming her, like they would today. Men can get paid playing tuk, so that’s a gain, but now there are about 50 tuk men on the island instead of in every community. If not for government programmes teaching folk traditions, tuk would be on its very last legs.”
Similarly, Sealy says the inclusion of the Landship at the 1966 Independence Day ceremony helped cement it as a fixture, aided by the continued promotion by the National Cultural Foundation. But she recognises it no longer plays the same role.
“Landship was not just about performance, it was a whole organisation that looked after its members. Nowadays, we have one Landship. But I think the Landship is going to grow from strength to strength. Mr Jean Carson has now created a dance technique out of Landship and that is going to flourish; it’s a beautiful sight.”
Williams agrees with Sealy that while the future of the performance industries is bright, with younger generations forging exciting paths, they require more institutional and financial support to maintain their sustainability.
And regardless of what form it takes, Dr Walcott believes artforms like music will continue documenting the Barbadian story.
“Music does not function in isolation; all of it is how we perform our identity and what ideas are in circulation at the time. So, music will change as ideas are introduced or become redundant. Music changes, society changes, Bajans change,” he says. (DB)
This article appears in the November 29 edition of the Independence publication. Read the full publication here