Caribbean Beat Magazine

Celebrating our heritage

Simon Lee looks at the various heritage festivals throughout the region in September and October

  • Photograph courtesy Christine Randle
  • Arthur Springer. Photograph courtesy Arthur Springer
  • Sam Michael Austin. Photograph courtesy Dr. Albert and Suzanne Haloute
  • Illustration by Dew/ Dunstan E. Williams
  • Meringue mama! Photograph by Simon Lee

Although there’s no fall or even autumn in the Caribbean (we’re strictly a two-season territory, so when we we’re not wet, we’re dry), throughout the region September and October provide occasions both for reflection on the past and the celebration of various cultural heritages. Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, Curaçao and French Guiana all hold heritage days in October, while St Lucia and Dominica celebrate International Creole Day on 28 October.

But we’re leaping ahead both historically and chronologically, so before we get tangled up obscuropiffisticallly speaking as the Mighty Sparrow might say, let’s go back to the beginning and my good friends the Caribs.

We’re not talking about beers now, but of the original inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles, the people who were here already when Chris Columbus arrived and made the biggest mistake of his life, thinking he’d reached the East Indies. If you’ve ever doubted the tricks that history plays, especially in the Caribbean, just stop for a moment and consider that 500 years after Columbus, there are over a million descendants of East Indians living in the region, including a president in Guyana and a prime minister in Trinidad.

The Caribs were in the wrong place at the wrong time and bore the full brunt of western expansion. By the end of the 18th century, they’d largely been wiped out by enforced labour, disease or slaughter, as the haunting Carib lament I came across in St Thomas’s Fort St Christian records:

Tooking ma kanari

Minara tanara manaricou

Kimabouisi cana kivacou . . .  

Destroyed our strength; myself without birthright, food or weapon

Without strength my plants, our land and water; without weapons I am destroyed

Our strength is without defences, fortress or land.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the only sizeable Carib community to have survived in the region contains some 3,000 plus who live on a reserve on the rugged rainforested north-east coast of Dominica. Carib Week in September celebrates their survival and culture, an ideal opportunity to meet the original Caribbean people and their chief on their own turf and see their traditional skills like basket weaving and building dugout canoes from a single gommier tree.

In 1997 I travelled with the Dominican Caribs in the 35-ft Gli Gli canoe from St Vincent to Trinidad, on their voyage of rediscovery back to their ancestral homelands in north-west Guyana, and can vouch for the canoe’s seaworthiness and for the amazing navigational and seafaring skills of the Caribs.

You’re unlikely to hear more than a few words of the old Carib language among Dominica’s Kalinago, or island Caribs, as they call themselves. For them, as for most Dominicans, St Lucians, Haitians, Martiniquans and Guadelou-peans, the lingua franca is Kwéyol. French Creole is the contact language born of necessity between African slaves and their French masters during colonial times; it utilises French vocabulary and linguistic structures derived from Wolof, Fon, Mandingo and Ewe tribal languages.

For the slaves and their descendants, Kwéyol was their language of resistance, ritual, oral history, storytelling and humour. Although denigrated by colonial masters, since independence in St Lucia and Dominica, Kwéyol has increasingly become the focus for Creole or Caribbean identity and traditions, despite English being the official language.

If you want an insight into Kwéyol culture and its stories, music, food and traditions, try to get to St Lucia for Jounen Kweyol Enternassional on 28 October, or head for Dominica’s World Creole Music Festival in late October where, besides Kwéyol, you may encounter delicious mountain chicken (think frogs) legs, soukous music from West Africa, zouk from the French Antilles and Dominica’s unique jing ping folk music and dances.

Since we’ve been delving into heritage and history, let’s not forget two Caribbean heroes whose deaths are commemorated in October. The end of Ernesto “Che“ Guevara, the asthmatic Argentinian doctor who made guerrilla warfare glamorous, is marked in his adopted Cuba on 8 October, while on the 17th, Haiti remembers the assassination of Jean Jacques Dessalines, the ex-slave who led his country to victory over the French and into history as the first independent former slave colony in 1804.

Sporting types need not despair. In September, you can choose from Grenada’s Grand Anse Yacht Race, Jamaica’s Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament and Fossils Open Polo Tournament, St Lucia’s Bill Fish Tournament and Trinidad’s Great Race for powerboats, across to the sister island of Tobago. In October you can reach for your paddle and join the Great Canoe Race in Jamaica, or take to the skies at Antigua’s Hot Air Balloon Festival.

If all this is just too serious, try October’s Comedy Festival in Barbados, which in the same month will also be launching the largest film festival in the English Caribbean, with contributions from Cuba and West Africa.

As for me, I’m undecided. Should it be the Merengue Festival in the Dominican Republic’s Puerta Plata or the Plantain Festival in Puerto Rico? Either way, hope to see you there.

Born to fly

Sam Michael Austin flies so much you’d think he was born with wings. Sam is the first child to earn 30,000 miles — Platinum status — with BWIA West Indies Airways. According to his grandmother, Suzanne Haloute, the four-year-old took to the air when he was three weeks old. “He’s really a nice child to fly with,” she said, “from the time he was a baby, he doesn’t cry.” Haloute and Sam’s grandfather, Dr Albert Haloute, are half the reason Sam flies so much. The other half is his parents, Drs Christopher (her son from a previous marriage) and Sinead Austin, who, like Sam, love to visit Barbados as often as they can from their home in Ireland.

Might Sam be among the next generation of BWIA pilots? “Well, he tells you he’s a doctor already,” responds Sam’s grandmother. “He likes them {BWIA} to fly him.”

Robert Sandiford

Still flying high

When Barbadian Arthur Springer got his first job with British West Indies Airways back in 1957, he may not have been quite on Cloud 9.  Forty-four years on the job with the airline, however, and he’s probably as close as anyone can be.

“There was a vacancy in the accounts department,” recalled Springer, 66, “and I started off as a junior accountant.” Within two years Springer was at Seawell Airport (now Grantley Adams International Airport) working his way up from mail and cargo agent to customer service manager. Today, he’s a customer service agent under contract. ”I’m very particular about customer service, making sure the customers are comfortable,” said the soft-spoken Springer, who has no intention of retiring just yet. “I’ve always stressed on the motto, ‘make sure the passenger leaves here satisfied.’”

Robert Sandiford

Reggae Runnings

“Jamaica is going to produce an Olympic marathon winner very soon,” says Glendon Nam, “Perhaps in the next ten years.” A half-filled bottle of Red Stripe crashes dramatically to the tiled patio floor of the Courtleigh Hotel, apparently anxious to support his claim.

Glendon is part of a club of young and not-so-young Kingston professionals who run together under the name Jamdammers. They are planning to add a particularly alluring event to the world marathon calendar — the Reggae Marathon, to be held in Negril, Jamaica,  on December 8. Negril being the headquarters of Jamaican hedonism, and the course running along the coastline to the tireless thump of reggae, this is likely to be a marathon with character.

Their name Jamdammers is an amalgam of Jamaica and dam —  the Mona Dam in Kingston, to be precise, where these dedicated runners first met. They now meet at different venues religiously every Saturday morning and most weekdays too. “There is a  camaraderie in distance running that only marathoners can explain,” says Glendon, accepting a replacement Red Stripe.

But you can find camaraderie without toiling for 26 miles non-stop. The Jamdammers are serious about their running: they have been to many of the world’s best-known marathons  —  New York, Chicago, London, San Diego, even Venice. They travel at their own expense, seeking to better their own personal bests and to deepen their involvement in the international marathon fraternity. For many of them, however, the motivation is sheer exhilaration, the strange excitement that comes from the pursuit of an addiction.

Christine Randle is a typical Jamdammer. A lawyer by training, she manages her own company, the Caribbean Law Publishing. But her passion is running. She has already run marathons in North America. She travels to Frankfurt in October for the Frankfurt International Bookfair, then plunges directly into the Medien marathon in Munich. “How can I explain it?” she says. “Marathoning is life.”

The Reggae Marathon is the group’s most ambitious project to date. They have been warming up by organising a few long distance races locally in Jamaica, but they have no illusions about the logistical nightmare ahead. Accommodation has to be available for the 3,000 or so runners they expect; medical services; entertainment; security . . . They have already  enlisted the help of an American-based consultant, and have secured support from the Jamaica Tourist Board and other sponsors.

And the marathon these days is not just a 26-mile race; it’s an experience. Marathons have become showpieces for corporate sponsors, and the Jamdammers are making theirs a showcase of all that is authentically and uniquely Jamaican — arts, crafts, food, dance, music. Hosting the marathon in Negril is part of that statement. The experience includes golf and volleyball tournaments, village bashments (parties), and, of course, unlimited amounts of reggae.  Glendon says: “We intend the Reggae Marathon to capture and promote the Spirit of Jamaica”.

The spirit of Jamaica has certainly soaked into the marketing and promotion. Reggae Marathon promotional booths at the various expos over the past year have had one cardinal rule — no sitting down. Once you’re manning the booth, you dance. With rasta wigs on their heads and reggae music blasting, the Jamdammers have made their booth an event in itself. The Reggae Marathon, warn Christine and Glendon, will be a marathon like no other. It is about fun, camaraderie and participation. A thousand runners had already signed up by late June, via the American Heart Association.

For serious marathon runners, the latest technology will record individual times via a chip attached to your running shoes. For those more concerned with finishing than with personal records,  Jamdammers will extend the close-off limit from the normal five hours to eight.

Even someone as unfit as me ought to finish 26 miles in that time. Even if I walk.

Ken Jaikaransingh