DARA E HEALY
“Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard won respect.”
– Former US president Barack Obama on the passing of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul
IN THE 1960s and 70s, artists like Aretha used the power of their music to speak out against racism, war and inequality. In TT and across the Caribbean, the civil rights movement influenced Black Traditions in Art, represented by powerful street theatre by playwrights like Eintou Springer, African-influenced dances by Astor Johnson and local traditions and values as encapsulated in the writings of Merle Hodge.
In the previous decade, literary giants like CLR James and VS Naipaul used their writings to better understand their Caribbeanness against the backdrop of a dominant colonial structure.
The year 2018 finds us at some levels still searching to discover who we are as artists and cultural practitioners and to define our unique identity through culture and the arts. Slowly, we are hearing more Lord Kitchener on the radio, soca artists are looking beyond wining instructions, while books, spoken word, Pitchakaree and other cultural forms are drilling below the surface to discover a TT experience through culture and the arts.
It is an important quest. In 2011, during the temporary state of emergency, a number of places in our main city centres were declared as hotspots of crime. From Port of Spain, to San Fernando, Arima and San Juan, at least 70 communities were identified as danger zones and placed under curfew rules. Whether one agrees or not with the terminology, the description “hotspot” has stuck, with its connotations of dysfunction and risk.
But what if we could turn that notion of hotspot on its head? What if we searched below the rhetoric and the negative hype, and looked at certain parts of our country with new eyes? What if we could define our TT experience through our culture in the powerful way that artists like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, the Beatles and Bob Marley did for their countries?
Over the coming weeks, we will examine the cultural groundings in some of the so-called hotspots. The purpose is to go beneath the surface, to discover their true cultural orientation and through this process redefine our TT experience.
San Juan – No doubt the name came from a church put up in the 1600s by Capuchin missionaries from Spain called San Juan Bautista – St John the Baptist.
Nnamdi Hodge, an expert in the Trinidad Patois language, explained that “sah wah” is actually a Patois pronunciation of the Spanish words San Juan. Given our history, it makes sense.
Although Trinidad was under Spanish rule, in 1783, the Cedula of Population allowed French plantation owners from other Caribbean islands to come here with their enslaved people as a means of encouraging development of agriculture and other industries. The language of our country was transformed from that point, as French words and sayings became integrated with African phraseology and English words. So, the junction that we call the “quay zay” is from the French “croisee,” to cross.
On passing through the Croisee, it is hard to believe looking at this dilapidated space that there is a river in San Juan. Research indicates that San Juan was established over what was then called the river Aricagua. In the 1870s, the village was the first station on the steam-train line from Port of Spain to Arima, allowing it to grow from a few hundred people to about 30,000 in the 1960s.
Culturally, San Juan or lower Santa Cruz is the proud location of the spiritual black Indian mas, a combination of African and First Peoples traditions of masquerade. The feathers are taken from dead corbeaux which the practitioners of the artform believe to have strong spiritual energy.
Anderson Patrick, fondly called Andy, currently makes, performs and teaches the art of black Indian mas. This masquerade has its own language which evolved from the combination of languages from our indigenous peoples, the Africans who came and French. Like Patois, this unique language was used as a form of protection and resistance to various forms of oppression.
We Say a little Prayer for Aretha and others who used their creative genius to help define our world. Stay with me on this journey as we continue to explore through our communities some of the cultural secrets of TT.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN