Word of mouth (September/October 2014)

Celebrating Divali in Trinidad, St Lucia’s creole heritage, and the legacy of Jamaica’s Miss Lou

  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph courtesy The St Lucia Tourist Board
  • Louise Bennett-Coverly. Photograph courtesy The Jamaica Information Service

Share the light

Philip Sander explains why Trinidadians of all faiths prize a Divali invitation from Hindu friends and neighbours

With perfect timing, I arrive just at sunset, as the pink-streaked sky fades quickly into deep indigo. Around the L-shaped garden of the big house, family members and guests, chatting and laughing, begin lighting the small clay lamps arranged in geometrical patterns on the ground, on bamboo arches. Everyone wears festive dress, saris and shalwars and kurtas decorated with bright embroidery. There is music in the air, and delicious scents waft across the scene from the nearby kitchen. It is the night of Divali, the biggest holiday of the year for Trinidad’s Hindu population.

As every Trinidadian and Tobagonian schoolchild knows, Divali — falling on 23 October this year — is the “festival of lights,” when Hindus around the world celebrate the symbolic victory of light over darkness, and venerate Mother Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. Here, as in the many other parts of the world where Divali is observed, the day itself is preceded by public religious and cultural activities of all kinds: prayer ceremonies and concerts, exhibitions and performances. But the climax is always this ritual of domestic celebration: decorating the family home, preparing an elaborate feast, the solemn puja (prayers), and then the opening of the house to relatives, friends, and neighbours, to share the bounty of goodwill. Trinidadians of all faiths take this tradition of hospitality seriously, prizing an invitation from Hindu friends to join the Divali celebrations (the less well-bred may even turn up unannounced). The year’s calendar doesn’t seem complete without joining in the cheer of a communal Divali meal.

But first, at my friends’ house, I help with the pleasant chore of lighting the deyas, the traditional small clay lamps, filled with coconut oil. With a crew of dozens pitching in, the garden is soon lit up by hundreds of tiny flickering lights among the ixoras and hibiscus. Passersby on the pavement outside — and even a few cars on the busy street — stop to gawk, and I take a vicarious pride in the elaborate display. It is the task of a whole evening to keep the deyas lit, topping them up with coconut oil and replacing burnt-out wicks (with the occasional singed finger or skirt hem thrown in to keep things lively).

But now I’m being beckoned away to the makeshift dining room set up in the covered driveway outside the kitchen, where the first round of feasters are making way for latecomers. A long table is covered with platters of roti, vats of curried vegetables, and a few specialities of the house — like my friend’s celebrated biryani. Youngsters of the household carry trays of sweets — kurma, gulab jamun — already bagged for guests to take home.

If you aren’t lucky enough to be invited to a family Divali celebration, all is not lost. Public deya displays in parks and other open spaces welcome visitors. Many Port of Spain residents head to the community Divali display in Adam Smith Square — in Woodbrook, west of downtown — where numerous non-Hindu children get their first chance to light a deya. And in almost every household in the country, the day’s menu is curry — whether homemade or ordered from the local roti shop.


From Sent Lisi with love

St Lucia’s Jounen Kwéyòl, the annual celebration of creole culture, is always evolving, John Robert Lee explains, but it’s more popular than ever with citizens young and old

It is the last Friday in October. All over St Lucia, streets, shops, and schools are a parade of creatively designed madras wear. Pin-on tokens, wrap-around skirts, fancy shirts and ties are on view in bank queues, at bus stops, everywhere around the island. If you didn’t know it before, you know now: St Lucia, Sent Lisi, really is a Creole Caribbean country.

2014 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of St Lucia’s Jounen Kwéyòl — Creole Day. The celebration of International Creole Day was started by the Folk Research Centre in 1983, with radio programmes linked to other creole-speaking countries, like Martinique and Dominica. The following year, organised celebrations took place in culturally vibrant Mon Repos, with creole food, music, dancing, exhibitions of traditional customs, and Kwéyòl spoken everywhere. Three decades later, it’s grown into a mass community activity celebrated all over the island.

To avoid the traffic nightmares and massive crowds that have become a feature of the event’s national success, many St Lucians now organise Jounen Kwéyòl fetes in their neighbourhoods and homes. The official Jounen Kwéyòl, the last Sunday in October, is the climax of Creole Heritage month, and by the preceding Friday, St Lucians from all walks of life are already decked out in traditional colourful madras.

So huge has the event grown — with all the logistical headaches of traffic control, outdoor cooking, and community access — that the government has given serious thought to creating a festivals committee to plan the famous St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival, Carnival, National Day, Independence activities, and Jounen Kwéyòl. The costs of organising Creole Day have spiralled. But the day grows in popularity, because it is also very profitable for food vendors, dressmakers, and other entrepreneurs who can exploit, positively, the creole heritage.

And as with numerous other Caribbean Carnivals and music festivals, citizens and visitors are not put off by traffic lines or huge crowds. The atmosphere is sheer fun, a chance to meet old friends — many visiting home for this occasion. One can be Kwéyòl in a way that the modern pressures of life, economics, social boundaries of class and language do not allow for ordinarily.

Many older St Lucians regret the declining exhibition of traditional artefacts, and the uncomfortable prevalence of fried chicken and pizza in the midst of the pigtail bouillon, cornmeal bread wrapped in banana leaf, coconut tablet, even manicou. But younger St Lucians see Creole culture not only as a matter of things of an tan lontan — time past — but as a contemporary dynamic, a meaningful identity to be waved with the madras rags. It gives them a personal marker in their milieu of hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, the Kardashians. So the new kaisos in kwéyòl, zouk from Martinique and Guadeloupe, konpa from Haiti, all sit comfortably alongside the older folk groups, the fantastic traditional dresses, and the sexy madras wear sported by young belles.

So the feast of Jounen Kwéyòl is evolving, but remains hugely popular. If you can, come see and hear the Creole St Lucia loved by her poets, artists, and citizens; come feel, taste, and experience the Kwéyòl culture of St Lucia. All over. Everywhere. Tou patou an Sent Lisi.


Tenky, Miss Lou

Kellie Magnus previews the birthday celebrations for Jamaica’s iconic poet and performer, the late Louise Bennett-Coverly

Even eight years after her death, the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley, OJ — known simply as “Miss Lou” to generations of loyal fans — is Jamaica’s most revered poet and proponent of local language and culture. As a writer, performer, teacher, and community educator, through multiple volumes of poetry in Jamaican dialect, a weekly newspaper column, a radio show, a children’s television show, and appearances in nearly twenty pantomimes — annual Christmas musicals steeped in Jamaican culture, five of which she also co-authored — Bennett brought her passion for Jamaican culture to Jamaicans of all ages, classes, and races and to a wider international audience.

Though Miss Lou died in 2006, her memory lives on in the work of a younger generation of poets and storytellers — both those, like Faith D’Aguilar, who perform in character as her, and others, like storytellers Joan Andrea Hutchinson and Amina Blackwood Meeks, who are inspired by her work. Her poems are performed regularly in the annual festival competitions hosted by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), an agency under Jamaica’s Ministry of Youth and Culture, and celebrations honouring her birth are a fixed part of the JCDC’s calendar.

So it’s fitting that Jamaica pauses in September to celebrate the ninety-fifth anniversary of the birth of this Jamaican icon, born on 7 September, 1919. This year, the Ministry of Youth and Culture kicked off the celebrations early, hosting the Auntie Roachy Festival, a daylong celebration of the dramatic, literary, visual, and musical arts, on 5 August, the day before Jamaica’s Independence Day. The festival is named after a fictional folk character popularised by Miss Lou in her poems and essays, and on her radio show, which bore the title Auntie Roachy Seh. The venue, coincidentally, the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, is named for Bennett’s longtime collaborator, affectionately called “Mas Ran.”

The celebrations continue in earnest in September. Each parish has activities coordinated by JCDC staff and local committees — ranging from concerts to exhibits and panel discussions featuring local artists and poets. Similar events take place at the national level at the Louise Bennett Garden Theatre in Kingston, a space at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, and include critical discussions of Miss Lou’s work.

According to Stephen Davidson of the JCDC, the national footprint of events is essential to preserve Bennett’s memory. “Miss Lou is a cultural icon,” he says. “As one of the leading agencies in culture in the Ministry of Youth and Culture, it’s important to us to celebrate our icons in a special way.”

This year’s events are expected to include Jamaica’s newly minted Poet Laureate, Mervyn Morris, whose book Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture was released in the Caribbean in April this year by Ian Randle Publishers. Part biography, part critical assessment of her poetry, essays, pantomimes, and legacy, the slim volume shines brightest in filling out the backstory of the beloved and familiar figure.

“Jamaica needed Louise Bennett when her talents emerged,” Morris writes. “[Her] nationalism did not seek to exclude. Its mission was to deepen self-recognition and to encourage respect.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when Jamaica needed her more.

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