On Wednesday August 7th, 2019, I attended a reception at Government House on the occasion of the official visit of His Excellency, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya. Government House is built on land that reflects many narratives. Kalinago and Taino peoples may have lived here up to 8000 years before European contact. They may have met and cohabited with African travelers for centuries before 1492. This land was also Quaker property in early enslavement history. The Quakers, non-conformists to enslavement, were ‘unwelcomed’, and they left. After centuries of enslavement and colonial history, I arrived at this place as a citizen of a post-colonial, post-independent progressive Barbados, expectant.
Re-directed to the side entrance, I waited with others on the main grounds while the Barbados Symphony Orchestra (BSO) played classical music.
Then, the National Anthem of Kenya, (beautifully arranged) and the Barbados National Anthem played, signalling the beginning of the reception. From the see-through tent we saw our Governor General, the President, our Prime Minister and entourage all standing in the balcony. Then, the official party ‘descended’ to the grounds. Her Excellency, the Governor General, proceeded to greet and introduce His Excellency, the President to various people. Alas, the recolonizing exercise was all but complete. However, it was music that redeemed. Offering the ultimate contradiction, the late part of BSOs set provided renditions of Caribbean melodies. Understated, yet viscerally poignant, these familiar melodies swept through the audience. It was an expert Caribbean Suite: indigenous songs with an international flavour. Kudos to arranger Roger Gittens, conductor Joy Knight and the BSO! Next, the Pompasetters strolled through the audience, using tuk-band waltz and ‘fassi’ rhythms to titillate. The infectious rhythms, transpositions of polytonal West-African drum music on European instruments, affected even the most resistant. As Karl (penny whistle), Corey (snare drum) and Rydell (‘bum-bum’ drum) “played”, heads nodded, knees bobbed, spines bent and hips twisted, reconnecting that African/Bajan instinctive relationship between music and skeletal structure that indicates our common histories and experiences.
The tuk-band music became a wonderful space disruptor. Bodies became more relaxed. Bobbing began to look like “sea”. Even those who were sitting had to sway. As Karl, Corey and Rydell passed some women began to move up to the musicians in a familiar way.
After that, the NCF Combined Schools Steel Orchestra was “tagged” to play. No pretence here! Warmed up from before, the audience responded to the steelpans’ unapologetic 20th century revolutionary sound. A ritual rhythmic pan beat promised you an enticing musical sacrament, whether it be calypso, reggae or another genre. Bodies responded in a way that could only be described as “thaw”, loosening the colonial rigidity and swaying to the music. By this time the President and our Prime Minister came closer to the band to enjoy and move to the music. Our culture ‘bubbled’: music became a revolutionary tool that night. Redeemed by the power of the arts, I made my exit (through the side entrance of course).
Culture Clinic is a weekly column crafted by Dr. John Hunte.