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Wanted: Respect for African Culture

By Ayanna
February 19, 2005

Re: Wanted: Respect for Indian Cultural Persistence - Stephen Kangal

I have grown used, to the point of weary disgust, to people who conveniently play the "Trini card". Whenever questions of race and ethnic identification, or cultural persistence and adaptation come up, insecure Africans and Indians, as well as those who surreptitiously conceal their own political agendas, love to assert that we should not see ourselves as Africans or Indians. They love to make a variety of silly claims. My personal 'favourites' are "If you went to Africa or India they would not accept you" and "We need to stop looking to the past and embrace the future and love our own Trini culture". Many pseudo-intellectuals see these statements as patriotism and progressive identity formation. Many members of the African community pat themselves on the back at their "Trini-ness" and titter at the divisiveness of Indians for seeing themselves as Indian. Indians in turn conveniently claim their "Trini-ness" while knowing full well that they see themselves as proud East Indians. Many however would be quick to accuse Africans of divisiveness if they too proclaimed their Africanness.

Now while this whole muddle may seem, by some, to be a senseless argument, one that we have long passed as a society and one that really does not have any large effect on the day-to-day movement of society, I draw attention to an article by Stephen Kangal - 'Wanted: Respect for Indian Cultural Persistence'. While much of the article chastised Marion O'Callahan for what he perceived as her disrespect for Chutney artiste Massive Gosine, the Chutney Soca art form and Indian culture in general, having not read Ms. O' Callahan's article, what drew my attention was Kangal's comment, "May I state categorically that the calypso art form/steel band originated in TT. There is no need to Africanise our indigenous music to support some obscure theory of "African cultural retentions." This simple line really cuts to the heart of the matter and underscores a critical point: Ones seem to be quite comfortable with speaking of cultural retention and cultural debt once it does not appear to be African in origin. The demonization and debilitation of African culture and history has created a malaise where to declare something to be African is to trivialize, taint and de-emphasise its merit. Because of this de-emphasis by the mass media, the pseudo intelligentsia and the academic community, people are able to make these absurd statements and get away with it, as the public is often not sufficiently informed on the history to ensure that these lies are not bandied about as truth.

I have read many letters to the editor, comments in the media and various articles that always seem to surface around Carnival time stating that Carnival was in fact a European festival, that was mimicked and taken over by African slaves and has now become debased and eroticised by a cultureless and loose society. I really wish that people would do some more research before making such silly statements on the origins of carnival. But then again even if ones did their homework and discovered the real African origins of ALL world carnival celebrations they would be quite keen to dismiss them anyway for fear of eroding their racist and distorted ethnocentric views of history. However, I will reserve the telling of that history for another time.

Even a cursory student of Trinidad history and the calypso art form can make the vital link between the role of the calypsonian and the West African Griot. The Griot was the keeper of history, the one who was integral to holding the history of the clan intact and would orally retain and recite its history. Notably the Griot was the one who could keep the ruler in check, and who was able in song and in jest to tell the ruler of the displeasure of the community and implore him to make changes in policies set. Just as one can now trace vital grassroots history of Trinidad by analysis of its calypso and its major players, many have also called the calypsonian, the real 'opposition' in Trinidad and Tobago. Raymond Quevado, known in the calypso world as Atilla the Hun, detailed the origins of the word kaiso in his book Atilla's Kaiso, as a cry of commendation on the slave plantations in response to excellent performances by early calypsonians. This was more than simple entertainment but the preservation of valuable cultural forms. I am also certain that ones have heard of the continuation of Jali Man and Chantuelle traditions and the uniquely African call and response tradition of the Kalinda, also developed by African slaves on plantations and in free societies in Trinidad as well as the rest of the Caribbean.

Ones should consult elders such as JaJa Oga Onilu who gave a detailed perspective on the origin of the tamboo bamboo and the steel band and how they follow directly from the African drum. I observed a programme on Gayelle recently where Onilu spoke of the early instruments that some Africans slaves recreated on the plantations as well as those brought to Trinidad by significant numbers of Yoruba, Congo, Rada and Igbo immigrants who came to Trinidad as free indentured labourers. This history is certainly readily available so I find it quite ludicrous that at this late stage, after elders have gone through so much to educate the population on these matters, that people can really still be saying that calypso and steel band etc are not African and are 'indigenous' to Trinidad.

On this note, the concept of something being indigenous is really also one that people conveniently misunderstand. African people not born on the continent are indeed no less African than those born on the continent; in Trinidad and elsewhere, we are simply Africans abroad and part of the wider African Diaspora. Cultural forms that may be unique to an area outside of the continent are no less African if Africans create them; they become part of the rich heritage of African diasporic culture. I am certain however that Mr Kangal would be greatly incensed if I denied the Indian element of Chutney music. There is also a tendency to disregard the anthropological distinction between cultural persistence and retention, wholesale cultural transplantation and the creation of wholly new cultural forms. Cultural art forms like calypso and steel band and Trinidad styled carnival, though in many ways unique to Trinidad, are also part of the continuum of African cultural persistence and retention. In these cultural forms there are elements of African culture that have been retained in essence and form, but have been adapted to circumstances existing in the new space.

When one traces the origin and history of the steel band one can see that each percussive creation by Africans from the tamboo bamboo, to the biscuit drum to the steel band was in response to the banning of the Africa drum and each new invention attempted to recreate the banned drum in a way that would not be condemned by colonial authorities. Onilu asserts that the early steel pan was in fact called the steel drum and was two sided - on one end the original African drum and the other the sunken steel, the precursor of the pan. He suggests that these functioned for the African as two sides of creation - masculine and feminine, past and present. To me it is a beautiful metaphor of African resistance - natural syncretism and guile, survival and rebellion. The steel band is a creation and a product of a long line of African cultural persistence. While it is not an instrument transplanted wholesale from West Africa, that its roots are as much there as in the yards of Laventille is undeniable. To ignore this would be to ignore the origin of its very creators and the fact that many grassroots Africans in Trinidad in the steel band era were steeped in African survivalisms in their own communities whether they were aware of it themselves or not. There is as much an indelible line of descent from the African drum to the steel band, as there is between the Jali Man and the Griot to the Chantuelle and the calypsonian as there is from ancient African Fertility Festivals to the present day Carnival tradition as changed as it may be.

It would appear that Mr Kangal has not only not done his homework to understand this vital piece of history that also has direct bearing on himself as an East Indian, but he seems to attempt to trivialize all attempts at African cultural persistence. Mr Kangal further states, "Ms O'Callaghan uses the term cultural "retentions" in place of the more established concept of cultural persistence. It is the latter concept that permanently links current Indian diasporic traditions with original Indian civilisation. These are qualitatively and quantitatively different from African "retentions" and long pre-dated these pseudo-retentions." Mr. Kangal here either seems to have bought wholesale the racist European misconception of the cultureless African who came to the West Indies or seems to believe that Africans are so void of sense that they have not been able to also retain elements of their culture despite the brutal opposition not only by the former colonial governments (and their present day neo-colonial agents) but by a concerted attempt by academic, religions and political bodies to deny and misrepresent the history and culture of African people.

Despite the fact that many Africans were forced to conceal, adapt and abandon their aboriginal cultures under pressure by a hostile European society, and that Africans today who do practice and promote their indigenous culture are seen as second class citizens, there are indelible, tangible links and influences that remain and individuals who have made it their life's work to promote these links and keep African culture alive in its Diaspora. We must note the absence of African programming on the state media and the struggle of a few who saw their own independent efforts to ensure that African programming was brought to the masses curtailed and fought against by influential people in the media and business community. We must note this alongside the granting of several radio stations and television programs to promote East Indian culture. Mr Kangal seems to be ignorant of the fact that anthropologists, historians, filmmakers, artists and writers have significantly noted African cultural survivalisms within the African Diaspora. Studies have shown furthermore that these survivalisms also exist within the global African community that includes non-Africans whom owe Africa the debt of the genesis of many of their cultural forms. Or maybe he simply places no value on the cultural richness of the African community.

Many Africans have been brainwashed by an oppressive Euroccentric domination of cultural discourse; so have many Indians. However it is statements like these uttered by Mr. Kangal that reveal a now blatant agenda to de-Africanize elements of our culture that are obviously and notably African while asserting the illusion of cultural superiority of East Indians. If he believes that East Indian cultural survivalisms are "qualitatively and quantitatively different from African "retentions" and long pre-dated these pseudo-retentions" then I would certainly like to see some historical proof of this statement and a significant breakdown of how he has come to this conclusion. The irony of his entire article is that he is now guilty of the same crime of which he accuses Ms. O'Callahan. In this case Mr. Kangal in my view displays not only gross ignorance, but also gross disrespect for the survival of African culture in the Diaspora despite tremendous hostility. People who claim to be about the preservation of ancestral cultures and so called national unity should really be concerned with considerable revision to racist academic discourse and correcting of the imbalance currently in the local media. This is not a matter of the agenda of a particular ethnic group, but in a country that is in many ways deeply polarised between the two major ethnic groups we cannot afford to have such misunderstanding and ignorance about our common origins and cultures.

Mr. Amon Hotep has explained repeatedly that truth is not a democracy determined by how many people can get together and agree on it. Whether people choose to develop their understanding of African history, which is in fact our collective common history, and recognize that this understanding is part of their own mental health or not is really up to them. All people are free to choose, even if they choose ignorance; but it certainly does not change the facts of history. All people would do well to note these statements made by a growing number of pseudo intellectuals and choose to become better informed about themselves. We really should not leave our education in the hands of fools.