DANCER, poet, chanter, storyteller, community and cultural activist Sista Ava will become the first woman to receive the Keeper of the Tradition Award from the Emancipation Support Committee of TT (ESCTT). The presentation of the award is one highlight of the tenth anniversary of Yoruba Village Drum Festival, scheduled for Saturday at the Yoruba Village Square, at Piccadilly Street, opposite the new Besson Street Police Station.
The rapso queen delivers her messages both on stage and among the people in various communities to ensure that her listeners are enlightened and empowered by her words and actions.
Asked how she felt about being the first woman selected for the award Sista Ava said, "Really good. It's a great achievement not only for me but for the rapso movement and the other women in it. I see myself standing there for every woman who has worked tirelessly to achieve their objectives. I am so accustomed to it now. This cultural work is second nature to me so I don't see it like work."
The Keeper of the Tradition Award is presented annually to someone who has worked diligently to preserve and develop African art forms and traditions in the community. This year's recipient, Ruth Ava Sam Shallow, aka Sista Ava, grew up in an environment with strong African spiritual influences. Her mother was the founder and matriarch of a Spiritual Baptist healing school and Ava lived next door to the Ile of Egbe Onisin Eledumare, where she was initiated into the African spiritual tradition of the Orisha and is now youth arm officer.
Sista Ava, who is also a qualified nurse, has worked with women and children within communities from Port of Spain to Petit Valley to Point Fortin to Valencia. In the Yoruba Village (East Port of Spain and environs) she has worked at the Credo Centre for Boys, the St Dominic’s Children’s Home and in the Belmont, Beetham, and Charford Court communities, ensuring the retention of the African tradition. In these communities she assisted young people in the development of skills in construction and drumming, and in the oral traditions including rapso and storytelling. Her outreach has also included the prisons where she worked with inmates to also develop skills in the oral tradition as part of the Prison Rehabilitation Programme.
For her, what she does is a labour of love which she carries out by the grace of God. Asked if she receives financial support for her outreach programmes Sista Ava said, "No. Nothing. Zilch."
So how does she carry out her work?
"I say by the grace of God."
She said her outreach programme, Man Know Thyself, is supported by members of the Network Community Support Group in collaboration with the indigenous Warao people of Trinidad.
"So you really have to love it to do it. You can't make a fortune out of it. I am only praying now that a door can be opened for investors to do the needy because this is no fly-by-night programme, it is legitimate."
Sista Ava is the recipient of awards from the Diego Martin Regional Corporation as well as Servol in recognition of the work she has done and continues to do.
Her cultural journey began as a pannist with Merrytones Steel Orchestra of Diego Martin. While residing in Laventille, her father facilitated her involvement in the Best Village competitions as a dancer and dramatist, first with the Lower Laventille Folk Performers and then the Reflex Dance Company, where she became the lead dancer. She went on to work with the Pamberi Steel Orchestra as a rapso artiste and in 1995, she was initiated into the rapso movement as a solo performer and member of the Network Rapso Riddim Band, with Brother Resistance (Lutalo Masimba) at the helm.
Sista Ava has also taken her rapso performances to the calypso tents, including Kaiso House, Klassic Ruso and the Divas Calypso Cabaret. She will perform and hold workshops in St Vincent and the Grenadines in July, Grenada in August and Tobago in September.
Tomorrow's drum festival, where she will be honoured, is held annually on the day before Father's Day, in tribute to fathers. It is also in recognition of ancestors of the community, the Yoruba-speaking population, who lived there from the 19th century, when the community was known as Yoruba Village and Yoruba Town.
The Yoruba people who were rescued from the ships of British, French and Spanish plunderers after the abolition of the slave trade were brought to that part of Port of Spain, where they lived as free men and women. They came originally mainly from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo. Today the only remnant of the town’s history and existence is the Yoruba Village Square.
"It is from this community of highly spiritual and inventive Yoruba people that the steelband, calypso and many aspects of Carnival traditions originated," the ESC said.