WHAT IF there was no steelpan, sitar, African drums or tassa?
“Well,” I hear you say, “if they were never invented then we would not miss them.”
I would agree with you, but then I would say that if we did not have those forms of music, then some other type of instrument would have been invented. The history of the steelpan tells me I am right.
When African drums were banned, our ancestors discovered music in long pieces of bamboo. The ping pong emerged for a similar reason, making sounds on the covers of paint tins or other containers as another way to make music.
And I would continue to bait you. What if we had no Andre, Beryl, Tito, Berkeley, Jit, Astor, Professor, Shorty, Cito, Shadow (no Shadow?)? Your argument would most likely be similar, that every era is characterised by the artists who help to make it memorable.
So if Bob, Shakespeare, Michael, Beethoven, Yeates, Whitney, Miles, Frida, Baryshnikov, Louise, Bowie or Sparrow had not emerged, someone else would have painted, danced or written poems that force us to confront our feelings and assess our world.
Petroglyphs, or ancient drawings by indigenous peoples, described their lives, their challenges and dreams. It was the same when man lived in caves. They wanted to communicate and document their lives, so they used art. Further, the instinct to sing, dance and play music is integral to our human experience. It is seen when a mother sings to calm her baby, when we dance in celebration or rhyme words to express love.
I pondered all of this as I read the angry Facebook posts about the non-payment of some artists for Carifesta. I empathised, as I am one of those suffering from bewilderment and anger over the disrespect and silence. Worse, the non-payment has also affected some 80 or so performers and crew who worked with us during the festival. It has taken me this long to address it as any previous efforts may have resulted in a column that was unprintable.
For me, it was important to wait until I could strip away the emotion and treat with the issue of non-payment in a philosophical way.
Almost 50 years ago, Caribbean people gathered in Guyana for the first Caribbean Festival of Arts or Carifesta, as it became known. The failure of regional political unity in 1962 and economic unity in 1972 meant that Carifesta represented more than a celebration of our diverse cultures.
At the Suriname festival, Caricom secretary general Edwin Carrington declared that “Carifesta celebrates our Caribbean being in a way that no other single event can.”
Put another way, artists represented many of the hopes and aspirations of our region.
The 2019 festival was no different. The family atmosphere resonated with everyone who came into the Grand Market. They were awed by the spectacular replicas of iconic Caribbean buildings and the overflowing of talent in every sphere from craft to fashion, music and food. The tents, stages, and amazing structures are now dismantled; the city has moved on.
This week, I engaged with members of the local and international community as we tried to find solutions for integrating migrants into our society. And I saw Port of Spain being designated as a UNESCO City of Music, focusing on “creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.”
Increasingly, culture and the arts are being linked to concepts of alternative growth, social inclusion and entrepreneurship. As we continue to grapple with development challenges such as excessive traffic and environmental decline, culture and the arts will become more central to an improved quality of life for all citizens. A regional festival of the arts will be an important aspect of this vision.
But what if all artists went silent, refused to create? No poetry, murals, theatre, music, dance or film. Would radio stations survive? What about religious institutions? Or businesses that depend on entertainment to attract customers? Could we celebrate Christmas without parang? And what would happen to Carnival?
Our ancients drew on rocks, carved images into stone and communicated through the arts. Undeniably, all living beings eventually find their voice. It is why a caged bird will send her voice beyond the bars. It is her way of declaring, “I am here.”
Similarly, for the artist, the act of creation is what really matters. We create therefore we are. It is our way of saying, “Our art is a primal, transcendent force. Look at us; we are still here.”
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICA