Hai! Is speechband time

Dara E Healy -
Dara E Healy -

Culture Matters

TT Culture, Inside Out


Stop yuh bow, Mr Fiddler!

Oh ha hi

The key to ending GBV

Lies in the hand of the entire society

Gender-based violence is now a national crisis

But we still drinking we water

And minding we business

So ah we become so desensitised

That we cyah even hear the desperate cries

So throw way the water and smell the coffee

And wake up, leh we create

Ah safer T&T

Drag yuh bow, Mr Fiddler!

– De Wranglers Tobago Performing Company

THE ORAL tradition in Tobago is strong. Speechband, a very old form of oral poetry or spoken word, still serves today as a powerful vehicle to comment on political and social issues of national importance.

Rhyming is an important feature of the style, and humour or satire are often included as part of the delivery of the message. Indeed, in Tobago, games, songs, movement and dance are still significant aspects of the cultural expression of everyday life.

Speechband is inspired by the complex history and heritage of the island. Some historians trace the art form to the 1880s.

However, as we now know, the ancient tradition of storytelling and “speechifying” is much older, going back to the legacy of the griot, hundreds of years before the Middle Passage and African enslavement in the Caribbean.

The griot was a respected keeper of knowledge and adviser to royalty, famed for the ability to relate history and motivate the community through stories or speeches. Undoubtedly, this legacy would have become stronger after emancipation, when thousands of Africans came as indentured workers.

Thus, it is not surprising that in many aspects of our culture there are personalities who talk to us. Through their words, gestures and choice of costume, they offer insights into our traditional values and cultural practices. They also provide practical guidelines on personal choices, lifestyle and healthy family life.

In Trinidad, this speech tradition lives through the midnight robber in wide flowing pants, broad-brimmed hat and cape, or the pierrot in multiple layers of colourful strips of fabric, holding a bois while making his or her pronouncements.

The speechband costume is made from satin, a practice seen in other traditional costumes such as the soumaree or the top and trousers of the stickfighter. On their heads are hats shaped like ships and in their hands colourfully decorated swords, all of which recall the island’s history of battle and conquest.

The speechband music also demonstrates the influence of African and European culture, with the movement motivated by both the fiddle and the African drum. It is said that the music played on the fiddle derives from old Scottish fiddle tunes.

JD Elder was one of the early researchers of traditional cultural practices to challenge the notion that Africans simply mimicked the cultural practices of the Europeans. As he stated, “Were this assumption supported…there would have remained nothing to admire as original or unique about the arts of Afro-Caribbean peoples, let alone any claim by them to spiritual independence.”

As Prof Maureen Warner-Lewis pointed out, for the educated middle class during the colonial era, Africa “was a place of backwardness with which enlightened persons had shed associations and it was the duty of successive generations to deny or reject such links as thoroughly as possible.”

The research by Elder and others has allowed for more than the preservation of our culture. It provides context for why certain practices exist and establishes a platform for personal and national pride.

Over the past weeks I started delving a bit deeper into some of the traditional elements of our culture. I am interested in understanding their origins as well as their evolution. Why does the costume look this way, or how did the particular chants accompanying the dance develop? Importantly, I wanted to explore the idea that traditional cultural practices are not static, but have value and solutions for the challenges we face in the now.

For instance, through the Muslim festival of Hosay there is reverence for ancestors. The baby doll masquerade is being interpreted within the context of family violence and abuse of children. And the portrayal of dame Lorraine offers us an opportunity to explore preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, beyond the superficial fascination with large female body parts.

As we struggle to bring peace and meaning to our society, our traditions are the strongest way to help us to make sense of the world. Come, explore them with me – “Drag yuh bow, Mr Fiddler!”

Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"Hai! Is speechband time"

More in this section