Rex Nettleford: A Voice From the Caribbean

Jamaica's Rex Nettleford, one of the most influential figures in the cultural and intellectual life of the Caribbean, talks about his bold new book

  • Author Rex Nettleford
  • Stretch and reach: Jamaica's National Dance Theatre Company
  • St Lucia's Sir Arthur Lewis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979
  • Caribbean intellectual leaders like Jamaica's Marcus Garvey overturned conventional thinking on subjects from race through cricket to the economics of slavery
  • Caribbean intellectual leaders like Trinidad and Tobago's Eric Williams overturned conventional thinking on subjects from race through cricket to the economics of slavery. Photograph by the Ministry of Information
  • Caribbean intellectual leaders like Trinidad and Tobago's CLR James overturned conventional thinking on subjects from race through cricket to the economics of slavery. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Figures as diverse as St Lucia's Derek Walcott show the world-class quality of Caribbean arts. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • The influence of deep-rooted religions like the Spiritual Baptists can be seen in Caribbean dance performances. Photograph by Bruce Paddington
  • Figures as diverse as Trinidad's master calypsonian, show the world-class quality of Caribbean arts. Photograph by Cyan Studios
  • In Trinidad's Hosay festival, enormous moons are danced on the shoulders of chosen dancers, accompanied by thunderous tassa drums, and symbolise the martyred grandsons of the Prophet Mohammed. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Carnival figures ath the Caribbean Festival Arts Exhibition in St Louis, Missouri. Photograph by Rex Nettleford
  • Outward reach: Rex Nettleford dancing in the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica's production of Kumina. Nettleford is the company's founder and principal choreographer. Photograph by Jacqueline Gannie
  • Festivals are a vital part of the Caribbean: Jonkonnu, for example, has been celebrated in Jamaica and (as here) in the Bahamas since the 18th century. Photograph by Maria La Yacona
  • -

In a major new book of essays, Inward Stretch Outward Reach: A Voice From the Caribbean, the Jamaican writer and artist Rex Nettleford continues his argument for Caribbean intellectual and cultural independence. In this wide-ranging interview about the issues and the people covered by the book, he begins by explaining the title.

It comes from the imagery of dance and of sport, which are both concerned with movement and the carving of designs in space. “Stretch” and “reach” are words from the enterprise of dance or athletics; the dancer’s or athlete’s body is constantly in training for the conquest of space. “Inward” and “outward” are spatial categories needed by all of us who battle to become “self against all the obstacles which prevent self-actualization.

I would like to think that it is my Caribbean that I inhabit, rather than the backyard of some superpower or a piece of rented real estate “owned” by the IMF or commercial banks.

So, as I have said in the book, if much of the past was endured on the basis of “inward stretch”, the future must expand on this by way of “outward reach”.

Do you see this process taking place in the Caribbean?

To some extent, through the exercise of the creative intellect and the creative imagination.

For a region of a mere five million people (speaking only of the English-speaking Caribbean), look at what we have produced. Caribbean festival arts, to begin with, are quite something.

Jonkonnu, Trinidad Carnival and Hosay, all recently celebrated by the St Louis (Missouri) Museum in a stunning exhibition later shared with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and museums in Seattle, Brooklyn, Minneapolis and Toronto breaking attendance records in all but one of these places. Our people are collectively serious creators of living arts, as a genius like Peter Minshall, the Trinidadian carnival designer, will agree. Derek Walcott, our recent Nobel Laureate, understands this deeply and would acknowledge his debt to this source of energy in his own native region, not just St Lucia where he was born.

Perhaps Caribbean music above all shows how much is happening.

To be sure! Look at how the region has influenced world music. First there was the calypso of Trinidad, with Kitchener, Spoiler and the Mighty Sparrow. Then there were the “songs of the islands”, sung by Jamaican Harry Belafonte — whose publicists labelled them all “calypso” but which were largely the traditional mentos of Jamaica with a few Trinidadian calypsos thrown in for good measure.

His composer/arranger, Irving Burgie of Barbadian descent, did compose a number of tunes in the spirit of “the islands”, making Island in the Sun a kind of “national anthem” of the region’s tourist resorts.

Then followed the reggae of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and the many others who have conquered all corners of the planet, making way for latter day dancehall artists like Shabba Ranks, Stitchie, Buju Banton, Tiger and others. “Cadence”, which the Dominicans and the St Lucians would claim, has also captured the imagination of parts of Europe.

Of course, this Caribbean outward reach into the wide world, as far as music is concerned, is nothing new. At the turn of the present century we had the Cuban “son” which was followed by the rhumba, mambo, samba (and here Brazil is part of the wider Caribbean), the meringue, salsa, and myriad variations finding new forms in the Caribbean diaspora in the North Atlantic. And if we dare take in New Orleans, which is culturally part of the Caribbean, then we will have to include jazz.

That outward reach has been the result of our traditional inward stretch which we have long used for our survival.

What do you mean?

I mean the retreat into inner sanctums, into areas beyond the reach of the oppressor. Religion, the creative arts, exercise of the intellect. We have been rather good at these things, successfully resisting our overlords, whether in slavery, under colonialism or under the post-independence folly of some of our own rulers.

What “post-independence folly?”

Well, look how often contemporary governments have tried to ban calypso or reggae creations, in addition to all the other iniquities I leave to the politician-bashers to chronicle! The politicians may be able to ban the lyrics; they can’t ban the tune. The use of the body to dance is beyond the obscenity of repression. Need I bemoan the fact that we have allowed a multi-million-dollar music industry to virtually slip out of our hands, while our decision-makers look elsewhere for the investment capital needed for “development”?

Early on, even the Cuban revolution felt suspicious about unorthodoxies that fell naturally outside its programmes; but it could not stop them. Today, santeria prospers, as do other products of the collective imagination of “the people from below” — to borrow George Lamming’s phrase to describe of the mass of our population, the ones Norman Manley referred to as “the real people”

You mention Cuba’s traditional religion, santeria. Parallel belief systems exist in many parts of the Caribbean – how do they fit into your argument?

We are speaking of shango in Trinidad, kumina and pukkumina in Jamaica, cumfa in Guyana, candomble in north-eastern Brazil, Zion revivalism all over, and more recent variations that are taking on new life and vigour, ably assisted by those fire-and- brimstone televangelists of the United States. Such inward stretch remains the fuel for the outward reach that cannot be escaped by our Caribbean people.

As colonials, feeling the greed of imperial mercantilist Europe, we in the Caribbean have always lived in a globalised economy. That experience has merely deepened and become more intense, which means that our own responses have got to be more focused and intense.

And are they?

You bet many of them are. We have become congenital debtors, client appendages of the North Atlantic. There are even some people in Jamaica who would have us become an American state. Many of the region’s dependencies, whether Dutch, French, British or American, now look at Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados and confuse sequence with consequence. For them, penury follows political independence. They fear economic depression and prefer to prosper under some form of dependence rather than exist in liberated poverty. But perhaps I am being unfair on the matter of how these dependencies see themselves for the future.


Well, I do sense a yearning for cultural certitude, cultural autonomy, hence the expressed need on the part of many of these dependencies to establish cultural links with the Caricom Caribbean, which is seen as more culturally vibrant than our sister territories in the rest of the region. Relations between countries of the Caricom Caribbean and Cuba during the seventies took on a strong cultural bias. Casa de las Americas, Cuba’s House of Culture, encouraged literary exchanges. The performing arts flourished and Jamaicans, Guyanese, Trinidadians and others discovered Wifredo Lam, the great Cuban painter, as well as Nicolas Guillen, the revolution’s poet laureate.

And did Cuba discover any of our own Caricom Caribbean artists?

Most certainly! The annual literary prize awarded by Casa has been won by such Anglophone Caribbean writers as Jimmy Carnegie, Austin Clarke, Kamau Braithwaite, Andrew Salkey and Velma Pollard. Hispanic writers like Anna Lydia Vega of Puerto Rico and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba have been translated into English — and much more translation needs to be done across the linguistic divide. We need to share writers like Walcott and Braithwaite, Naipaul and Selvon, Martin Carter and Lorna Goodison, with our Caribbean cousins. Within the Caricom Caribbean itself, people are already claiming story- tellers Louise Bennett of Jamaica and Paul Keens-Douglas of Grenada as their own.

And think of the riches which exist outside the Anglophone Caribbean. Edouard Glissant of Martinique, Maryse Conde of Guadeloupe, Alejo Carpentier of Cuba, Price Mars of Haiti.

You speak of the “creative intellect” making a difference. What do you mean by that phrase?

The operative word is “creative”. I respect work-a-day academics in good standing. And there are scores scattered throughout the region on campuses and outside. But I am thinking of something more seminal, more organic! Someone like C. L. R. James comes immediately to mind. But so does Marcus Mosiah Garvey. And Nobel Laureate Arthur Lewis, a world class intellect — admittedly now out of fashion, now in, among Caribbean economists, but someone who cannot be ignored.

They were themselves the beneficiaries of a vibrant intellectual tradition dating back to the 19th century. That tradition was to fuel the intellects of 20th-century founding fathers like Eric Williams, Norman Manley, and Garvey himself. My generation and the one that follows are certainly the richer for following those who went before.

And the difference that the University of the West Indies has made to West Indian life these past 40 years and more could not have happened without the tradition of intellectual excellence nurtured by people like Philip Sherlock, Elsa Goveia, M. G. Smith, Lloyd Braithwaite, George Roberts, Roy Augier and many others who helped to shape the discourse for Caribbean development in the forties and fifties.

And in the rest of the region, who can fail to acknowledge Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon of Martinique, Ortiz and Fraginals of Cuba? Hopefully these are not mere “names” to our readers.

Of course, intellectuals in the service of political activism are more in the Latin tradition. But Guyanese and “black power” liberationists will understandably celebrate the memory of Walter Rodney. And we mustn’t forget that a whole host of other Caribbean integrationists emerged from the New World Group of social scientists operating out of the Mona Campus of the University during the sixties. Lloyd Best, who produces that excellent journal The Trinidad and Tobago Review was one of them. We may even be cultivating creative intellectuals in the field of science and technology. Time will tell.

You are very strong on Caribbean achievers. Have you no fears for, or reservations about, the present and the future?

You bet I have! My position is best described as “hope-in-despair”, which is how I think the great West Indian commentators portray the essence of our society, from Arthur Lewis to Walter Rodney and the Rastafarians, from Sparrow, Marley and Tosh to Walcott, Braithwaite and Lamming.

There is cause to worry. The “recolonisation of self” is a real possibility. And for this I say no thanks to the threatening intellectual indolence evident among too many of our brightest and best; no thanks, as well, to the refusal by many of our political leaders to engage the mass of the population in meaningful dialogue about their self-worth and development. I say no thanks to the senseless violence by some of our young people all over the region, part of the destabilisation of self and society, when opportunities for constructive, creative contributions to social development and the shaping of civil society are very much in our grasp.

No thanks to the sad sight of commission agents masquerading as Fords and Rockefellers before they are themselves. Such folks cannot be expected to be the engine of development in our mad pursuit of free-enterprise development. And no thanks to that chronic lack of self-confidence which fuels the powerlessness and alienation that is so obvious in so many places I would prefer not to mention.

But you are still an optimist?

Naturally. I can see what the people of this region have so far done and can still do. Being able to unlock that potential is the greatest challenge for us as a people, and especially for those who exercise leadership roles in every field.

Need I stress the urgency of the region getting together? It is time for action indeed! Only so, I think, will we be able to cope with what we are already seeing of the 21st century, with its European Single Market (decked out with its own Third World in Eastern Europe), NAFTA and the Pacific Rim. Old enthusiasms for people like ourselves are likely to be transformed into indifference.

Despite the tireless cultural penetration of places like the Caribbean?

As to that, I hope we follow our instincts and provide ourselves with appropriate alternatives from our own soil to cope with satellite dishes, cable television and all else that comes with the might of the new communications technology revolution. Even on this I am hopeful: do you see people abandoning Carnival or Test cricket to stay and watch CNN?

Though you might tell me that basketball’s Michael Jordan is better known among West Indian youths than cricketers Viv Richards and Brian Lara or Merlene Ottey on the athletics track!

Which would undermine your argument.

Heaven forbid! C. L. R. James once reminded all of us who are serious about our chaotic, challenging, irritating and exciting Caribbean — he said: “To establish his own identity, Caliban after three centuries must pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.” What more could I say to my fellow-Calibans!

Read your book, maybe?

I wouldn’t disagree!


Rex Nettleford, a former Rhodes Scholar, is Professor of Continuing Studies and a Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. He is the founder, artistic director and principal choreographer of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica and the author of several books. Inward Stretch Outward Reach is published by Macmillan Caribbean in the UK

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.