Kweyol Greetings

It's the back-to- business period before we begin the lead-up to Christmas and Carnival festivities. In some of the islands, it's time to assert our Kweyol identity, in music, song and culinary festivities. Simon Lee celebrates the heritage of the French Antilles, Haiti, Dominica and St Lucia

  • King and Queen of the Festival of St Rose of Lima (Fét La Woz), a flower festival held in August. The Feast of La Marguerite, another popular flower festival, is held in October. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Celebrating St Lucia‘s Kweyol heritage at Fét La Woz. Photograph by Chris Huxley

Sakafet? No this isn’t a misprint for sack of fate, so don’t adjust your eyeballs, contact lenses or even your reading glasses; your mind set and ears will do. I’m just slipping into something comfortable for Caribbean communication: Creole, or French Patois, the language spoken by most islanders in the French Antilles, Haiti, Dominica and St Lucia.

Kweyol (as it is really pronounced — the abrasive Gallic ”cr“ does not exist in this musically sweet indigenous tongue) was the contact language developed between African slaves and their French masters, an organic mix of  French vocabulary and African structures. Over the years it became an instrument of secrecy and resistance, a medium of folklore and oral history, ribaldry and proverbial humour and a wellspring of creativity and Caribbean identity. There’s stuff in Kweyol that just won’t translate into Standard English, like the saying “every pig has its Saturday”, which we could attempt to render as “even smart asses get their come uppance” (Saturday traditionally being slaughter day). Work that one out.

So: Sakafet? Which is the customary Kweyol greeting: How’s it going? To which you can reply like a born islander: Mwen la — I’m there. Or you could really make a good impression with the Haitian riposte: Map bouillay (literally, “I’m boiling”, or “I’m really hot”, which is more about metaphorical heat than body temperature. “I’m cool”, would be the hip North American reply, just to confuse things a little further).

Guidance mi breds, as they say in Jamaica, I’m not telling you all this to “tie up yuh head” as they say in Trinidad, nor indeed to “tief yuh mind” (to fool or confuse you) so “doh dig no horrors” (don’t worry), I’m just giving you a warm Caribbean welcome. Thanks for flying in. The Kweyol may come in handy as both St Lucia and Dominica celebrate their Kweyol heritage in October.

In fact if you’re in Roseau, Dominica’s tiny capital, on Creole Day at the end of October, Kweyol is all you’ll hear being spoken on the streets, to the extraordinary musical accompaniment of jing ping bands. There we are, three treasures all in one spot. Forget reggae, calypso, salsa and zouk, jing ping is the real thing.

Let me tell you about it. Back in late 1997 I was returning not exactly to my “pays natal” as Aimé Césaire puts it, but certainly to one of my spiritual homelands. I had sailed with the Carib Amerindians from their reservation on Dominica’s north-east coast down the islands in a dugout canoe the year before — that’s a whole story in itself, but the upshot was that I was made an honorary Carib and member of the Over-40 Carib cricket team. What can I tell you? If you’re anywhere near Dominica in September, head to the Carib Territory for their week of celebrations and send them my love.

Anyway, I returned to the Nature Island to see my tribe and to attend the inaugural World Creole Music festival and drink as much Kubuli beer as possible. The festival was staggering, not just because it ran for three consecutive nights from nightfall till long after sun-up, nor even for the torrent of kadans, konpas, soukous and bouyon (music not drinks) which flowed, but mostly for the jing ping.

This Dominican folk music played on accordion, shallow tanbou drum, boom boom (length of bamboo) bass and gwaj-or metal scraper, had me bazodee (crazy) as Trinidadians say. But then, I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t had the same reaction. The syncopated rhythms, ancestral voices of Africa underpinning the melodies of old European dances like the quadrille, polka and mazurka, sank into my bone marrow, warmed parts I didn’t know existed and had me dancing the heel-and-toe like a born “Nican”. Jing ping is as Creole as it gets.

This music which takes its onomatopoeic name from the sound of the metal scraper, is soul food extraordinaire; it also does wonders for the feet, pelvis and anything else you feel to move. I’ve eaten frogs legs to it (“mountain chicken” is a Dominican delicacy) and nearly been snaffled up myself, because of it. During the second World Creole Music festival I got carried away by a jing ping band playing at my guesthouse; danced till I fell asleep on the verandah outside my room and would have been gobbled up by a couple of guard dogs if it hadn’t  been for my good friend the comedian, who woke me gently, gave the dogs the evil eye and got me inside in one piece. He’s a jing ping man, too.

Before we leave the jing ping, my favourite songs are Solomon Woolay‚ (about a magistrate whose carriage rolled — woolayed — off a cliff), and Erica‚ (known for sticking her boom boom — anatomical rather than the instrument — outside, much to the consternation of her boyfriend). “Erica why yuh want to put yuh boom boom outside?”.

Since we’ve been on a musical note and it’s September/October, I’ll close with the trademark call of one of my favourite Trini calypsonians, The Mighty Spoiler: “Ah wanna fall”. We don’t have a  fall season in the Caribbean (you’ve arrived midway through the Wet Season) and, anyway, Spoiler was a surrealist — check out his classic Magistrate Try Heself. When yuh doh see me Ah gorn.