Identity, resistance in Tobago folk songs

Dr Rita Pemberton
Dr Rita Pemberton

Rita Pemberton

On theme which needs to be re-examined with respect to resistance in Caribbean history is cultural resistance.

This is a platform for resistance which is laden with expressions of the inner sentiments of the African workers about the conditions under which they lived and worked.

Some aspects of culture never attracted the restrictive measures of the ruling class, simply because they were dismissed as harmless pleasure songs, their coded messages not being understood. For example, black folk were always called to dance to entertain planters and their guests at the banquets and parties which were often held at the great houses of the estates, without the slightest notion of the subliminal messages being expressed in these portrayals. While the ruling-class community viewed some of the cultural expressions of the Africans as diversionary, African culture was more than that. It should not be viewed as only a form of relaxation and entertainment, and an attempt should be made to dissect the culture in order to expose its true role in the fight against enslavement and oppression.

The pre- and post-emancipation periods in Tobago were marked by resistance strategies which have become embedded in the island’s culture. One of the strategies of colonial rule was to disempower the ruled population by generating a sense of inferiority by according them subhuman status, both legally and socially. They were told Africans had no past, their religious beliefs and tales were mere superstitions and that exposure to the European world would help to make them civilised. In response, the enslaved Africans of Tobago and their descendants gave expression to their opposition to such a classification in several ways, one of which was in song – the folk songs of the island.

Folk songs provided a medium through which the Africans asserted their identity. The earliest songs, which were based on African religious music, expressed hostility to their white enslavers – the traders who uprooted them from Africa and the planters who inflicted brutality on them.

Out in the diaspora, the Africans relied on their traditional activities to preserve their African identity in face of a very hostile attempt to sever their connection with Africa. Hence the maintenance of their traditions, which were reflected in their activities from cradle to the grave, were strong indices of their own acknowledgement of their separate and distinct identity.

The nursery songs were sung to the children of the white employers by the African nannies who were employed to care for them both during and after enslavement. These songs express opposition to the prevailing social conditions and problems on the island and provide clues to black attitudes to the white ruling class.

The songs about Anansi, the West African superhero spider, reflect the reality of life for the African people of Tobago, the central issue of which is the confrontation between whites and blacks and the desire of the latter to escape from the oppressive plantation.

African folk tales and legends, which are embraced in the songs, also convey opposition to white oppression and include themes about the clashes between blacks and whites. These all reflect an acceptance of who they were and a desire to assert their identity as distinct from the people their enslavers wanted to make of them.

There were work songs which served to choreograph the digging, hauling and reaping activities to ease the individual burden of their daily labours, to promote communal activity to overcome the challenges they faced.

A song which projects the desirable aspects of social life, Pay Boy Pay Mango, while it refers to childrearing and the relationship between parents and children, stresses the importance of obedience to parents and to the importance of ancestral respect, which are central features of African culture. It also affirms the notion that those who commit wrongdoing must pay the consequences. The idea that children must pay for the wrongs done to parents and disrespect for elders parallels the present-day call for reparations.

Some songs use environmental references to draw attention to social happenings. Bell Over Yonder refers to what happens when nature and the natural law are upset. This bongo song asserts that when human activity upsets the natural balance with the environment life, unusual reversals would occur so “when you plant corn…it bear pumpkin.”

Bongo songs also refer to the heavy work demands on African workers. In Nora Nora, the exhausted seaman asks to be allowed to sleep, saying, “Nor,a Nora, don’t wake me fore day morning” – the time when work starts.

Bongo was used as an avenue to provide support for the bereaved family so that its members could laugh in the face of death, with the assurance that they would receive continual support, and new birth would eventually restore life.

The folk songs of Tobago reveal the extent of alcoholism among the planter community, which was manifested during the frequent drinking bouts which were held at the great house, while the freedom songs give expression to the deepest desire of enslaved Africans. Unwittingly, the white community facilitated the preservation of these important features of the island’s culture.

The strong desire for freedom was expressed in several freedom songs in Tobago’s folk song collection. One way by which freedom could be attained, for those who did not consume salt, was by flying back to Africa, as was done by Kanga Brown, who downed his tools and flew back to his homeland. This was a direct warning about the evils of salt intake, which remains relevant today.

Call Me Momma Gie Me is a song which clearly states a bedrock belief and practice among members of African communities on the island. It says it is a shame for a Tobago person to lock up another without trying to settle the matter “outside of the court.” This song sends an important message to those who aspire to leadership positions on the island, and, along with others in the collection, clearly indicates a desire to build their own society which serves the welfare of the wider society, following the patterns of traditional African societies.

They reflect a rejection of deculturalisation, an assertion of African identity, resistance against oppression and a determination to create the kind of society they desired.


"Identity, resistance in Tobago folk songs"

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