Before each performance of the Big Drum Dance Carriacou family members
who host the event wet the ground with jack iron - a strong , strong
150 percent rum. The wetting invites the Ancestors to the festival
and feeds them as a way to honor and remember them. The pattern
of the sprinkling imitates, cerebrally, the outline of the passage
of spirit flight to the Big Drum ritual: North to South, East to
West, creating a diagram of a cross.
Years ago I
took a trip to my birthplace Antigua, West Indies, where I had never
visited. I left the Caribbean as a baby and knew nothing about Caribbean
music, language or concepts.
While there in Antigua I visited a very fine museum and met a man
from Guadeloupe who knew a great deal about the Gwo ka. Instead
of enjoying the exhibits of the museum we talked and talked about
our studies and compared the Gwo Ka to the Big Drum. I had just
begun my research on Carriacou and could not say much. I never thought
that some day I would actually be on your beautiful island representing
the tiny, island of Carriacou. I wonder if the knowledgeable gentleman
is here today. I didn't get his name, but I believe he was a worker
with and scholar of the Gwo Ka.
The Big Drum
is a ringed dance event that incorporates song, drumming, dance,
libation, food, drink. Also called the Nation Dance, this event
is staged by any family wishing to provide a social and ritual "thank
you" for good luck during the past year or present a ceremonial
response to God's goodness. At the opening of a new house, the launching
of a boat, a marriage in the family, a Big Drum may be offered.
Though an English-speaking
culture 120 Patois songs survive in the Big Drum. They continue
in a call and response form with drum accompaniment. However, meanings
have been lost to English speaking Carriacouans. Carriacou was once
French-owned with many exchanges of power between England and France.
The British finally fully possessed Carriacou in 1784. That so much
French culture survives on Carriacou after only 117 years of French
rule, occurring so long ago, is an extraordinary occurrence.
There is a chorus of 6 to 12 women who sing and double as dancers.
In the past there were also male singer- dancers, but now male dancers
from the audience, having imbibed the strong jack iron rum, jump
in the ring at the sound of the joyous music.
There are about 120 surviving songs or fragments of songs classified
in three groups:
Three male drummers
seated on low stools play 2 side drums called Boulas, and one center,
improvising drum, named Cutter. All drums are open bottomed drums,
but the Boulas are played tilted from the ground which lowers their
pitch. Unlike the Boulas the Cutter is played flat on the ground
causing the pitch to be actual pitch and with its smaller size,
higher in pitch. Across the head of the Cutter is a string with
pins tied to it to create a snare that musically cuts through the
ensemble. One shaker (a Chac-chac) is played by the leader of the
singer/dancers to control and direct the music while an iron is
used (any piece of iron or simply a spoon and bottle) to sound like
The drums that
named the ritual Big Drum are no longer big, no longer sat upon,
no longer dug out tree trunks. Its present height at 35.72 cm is
a third the size of the Antillean drums reported by Pere Labat.
Carriacou drums were once made from slats taken from the huge rum
keg that once held the strong rum, jack iron. The barrel's drain
hole is kept in place to operate as the drum's sound hole. Goat
skin heads were fastened with wiss vines and tightened with pounding
and heat. I do not believe that these construction techniques survive
today for younger drummers use screw-type manufactured drums.
denote the nine groups among the enslaved people brought to Carriacou.
These nine nations are known through rhythms kept by the Boula drums.
It is a tonal drum practice and beats are fixed to songs stated
by the chorus. In the past every song, Nation, Creole, or Frivolous
had a specific, classifying beat.
NATIONS OF CARRIACOU
(Play Cromanti Song - Ananci-o)
- We have gleaned from the drums the national roots of Carriacou
's enslaved population. Ghanaian musicologist Kwabena Nketia states
that "Songs serve as depositories of information on African
societies and their way of life, as records of histories, beliefs
, and values" ( 1974: 204). I will expand this quote to acknowledge
drums too as history keepers. "Drums serve as depositories
of information on Caribbean societies and their way of life, as
records of histories, beliefs, and values."
Lorna, The Big Drum Ritual of Carriacou: Praisesongs in Rememory
Kwabena, African Music