The Big Drum or Nation Dance ( also at one time called called Gwa Tambu) is a traditional religious and social ritual that has been sustained on Carriacou, Grenada since the slave era and the early importation of Cromanti people. It teaches history and reinforces knowledge, family lineage, and tradition in our time.
Though an English speaking country, modern Carriacou inherited French Patois song words, a nineteen century European costume mode, and an African drumming and vocal style in the Big Drum. One gleans from this formula an early African and French cultural syncretism. The French took ownership of Carriacou in 1650 and kept it until 1763, when it was taken by the British. France repossessed the island from 1779- 1883 when it was again taken by the English. Carriacou was a French colony for only 117 years, but despite the relatively short period and the remoteness in time, aspects of French culture exist other than language in the texts of the Big Drum.
The Big Drum ritual survives as a community event hosted by any family that wishes to celebrate or toast good luck in the dedication of a new house, the launching of a new boat, a wedding, a memorial or any event that improves the social status of the host family. With food, rum, ritual behavior, the Big Drum performance holds religious and social meaning in the songs, drumming, and dances.
The Chantwell and
her troop of about 12 singers, surrounded by the crowd of guests who form
a circle around them, dance and sing the repertoire with the drum trio
All Big Drum songs begin with the Chantwell (or a soloist from the troop) who sings the initial sound heard. The song is stated by the Leader only through one or two repetitions before it is taken up by the chorus in a call and response form. After the chorus enters and continues to sing, the drums enter. First, the two bass drums (the Boulas) play a nation theme (which will be explained later) and at the next reiteration the solo drum (Kata) enters with a heated improvisation.
This entry pattern, strikingly similar to the entry progress in the European fugue, is what I call the cyclephonic structure. The fugal exposition differs from the cyclephonic entry pattern in that the same theme is stated by each voice. In the multi- theme cyclephonic pattern the order is 1. Chantwell 2. Chorus response 3. Boulas 4. Kata 5. the Dancer. The Chac- chac maraca, played by the Leader, may enter at any time. A diagram of the process follows.
Each of the entering musical themes of the song has meaning, either of historical consequence or of musical value. The first statement is both grounded in history and highly musical for the zestful song, sung in Patois, is often intermixed with untranslatable words that I have traced to African or Carriacouan Gods, Ancestors or Spirits.
Nine West African groups, speaking various languages, were brought into slavery on Carriacou. The Cromanti nation, made up of mixed Akan groups (Fanti, Asanti, Akwapim) was named after the Dutch-built Gold Coast slave castle Kormantin and exited Africa from that site (Meredith 1812:130). We suggest, given structural cues from the songs, that The Cromanti were, most likely, the nation that established the Big Drum, as the largest and most influential of those enslaved on Carriacou (McDaniel 1998: 42). And as other people were traded and sold, the Igbo, Manding, Chamba, Temne, Banda, Arada, Moko, and Kongo repertoires were appended to the ritual, with their peoples forming a nine nation congress of multinational representation (Pearse 1978-79:638).
The nine nations of Carriacou remained somewhat in tact exhibiting a historical, political/cultural sensibility in their society. The oldest, most treasured, and spiritual Nation items of the Cromanti, Igbo, and Manding are set at the beginning of the event with the other 6 Nation dances performed later intermixed with secular dances. Here we outline the complete repertoire of song and dance types divided by age into Nation Songs (18th century), Creole Songs (19th century), and Frivolous Songs (early 20th century). Some song types are lost, like Scotch Igbo, Scotch Kongo, Dama, and Ladderis (Pearse 1978-79:638). We speculate that the Scotch songs represent people of mixed parentage.
The songs that are classified in these three eras, while representing a distance in time away from the home of enslaved Africans, also represent periods during slavery and post-slavery. The Nation group, as most songs, carry the call and response form with Patois texts but also mysterious African names. Because of their ancient origin one finds history, geography, religious themes and folklore rising from these songs from the 18th century.
We find ancestral petition prominent in the oldest texts, social concerns in the Creole songs, and a call to enjoyment and dance in the Frivolous poetry. Anancy is not a mysterious name, but one of a well known and provocative deity, a spider with uncommon stealth and trickery. Anancy is known in many West African cultures, and here it belongs to the first nation, the Cromanti, with word phrases that may be Hausa.
In the transcription below find a cylephonic clef with g on the second line that reminds us of the separate entrances and texture of the ensemble.
Hear : Acoustic illustration ANANCY-O Carriacou Callaloo, enreg. Alan Lomax (mp3, 323 Ko)
Oko is a Yoruba god, a member of the Nigerian Orisha pantheon, guardian of crops and fertility. But Yorubas did not enter Carriacou as a group. How did his/her name enter Big Drum songs? The answer testifies tp the historical information that is harvested through the study of these songs. Virtually forgotten within the Nigerian Orisa ritual of Trinidad, the memory of Oko wandered. The enslaved population of Trinidad thought it absurd to entreat the god of agriculture and fecundity to work in the favor of the colonialists, increasing their holdings and wealth ( Simpson 1962:1217). However, the Yoruba deity, Oko, was appropriated by those who traveled away from the drought-ridden landscape of Carriacou and worked in the cane fields of Trinidad soon after the end of slavery in 1838 (Hill 1973:23). The people’s need for a more gracious environment is perceived from the many early 20th century colonial letters, reports, and newspaper articles that refer to the lack of rain and the dependence upon Grenada for food and water. Free Carriacouan people appropriated Oko for their developing ritual.
An Igbo song follows. “Ovid-o Bagade,” a social metaphor, tells of the fear faced by a paranoid farmer, Ovid, who plants and yields unexpected evil. “Bagarde, Don’t be afraid,” sings the chorus.
The next song, “Mary and Martha,” a Frivolous Cheerup is , as most Cheerups, performed for the dancers’ delight in dance and the guest’s pleasure at the “winen’” of the dancers’ hips. This song or a related song is also sung in the young people’s game of pass play. The meaning in this song is based upon a topical occurrence from the past that is difficult to retrieve over the years.
: Acoustic illustrationMARY
AND MARTHA Carriacou Callaloo, enreg. Alan Lomax (mp3,