Archive for the 'Jumbie ethnography' Category


The End of Progress

I have been working and thinking about this particular project, featured below, for a while now. It is my newest “open source music video” featuring a Trinidadian calypso by King Austin (Austin Lewis), from 1980. I owe King Austin an enormous debt. I first heard this song in the pub of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, one afternoon in mid-August of 1990. It sucked the wind out of me from the very first time, and the song has stayed in my head ever since then. It shaped my approach to the study of international relations, specifically critiques of the Eurocentricity of international developmentalism, as propagated then by Dr. Herb Addo at UWI. It was further fed by the works of George Aseneiro and then Ashis Nandy. Layered with these extra readings and schools of thought, it eventually formed part of the basis for me to enter anthropology (although it was almost literally a toss up between anthropology and sociology that would make my final choice).

The song is a critique of the ideology and practice of progress, from the vantage points of environmental unsustainability, exploitation, inequality, and the resultant social strife. At least part of the vision is inspired by Christian teaching. Yet, his vision is one that has come to be strongly supported by recent scientific research. Indeed, in the days leading up to my concluding work on this video, a striking item was published by the BBC: “Earth on Course for ‘Eco-Crunch’.” It seems that we will need two planets to sustain our current level of consumption, environmental degradation, and growth in population.

Austin Lewis is a modest, unassuming man, who has made the most and very best of the learning made available to him. He says in an interview, “I love every human being very much. It doesn’t matter where you are from. I love all the people and I want to tell them, God bless and have a happy new year.” King Austin asks, as you will hear, some of the primary questions of philosophical importance in what has become an urgent project of utopistics. You can read the complete transcription of the lyrics, as usual, at Guanaguanare’s site, where she also links the message of the song to Steel Pulse’s “Earth Crisis” (you can see the video there, or in my vodpod).

Enough from me, or at least enough text:


Alien Abduction: Doing Calypso “the Right Way” in the USA

Given all of the posts that dealt with Trinidadian “wining” (here, there, and over there), I felt it necessary to introduce some sense of balance, a sense of decorum, of good old fashioned propriety. I want to first send my big thanks and a big hug to my inspiring friend Guanaguanare who has undertaken her own archaeological dig of YouTube, using it as a cultural database for an ethnohistoric investigation, using YouTube as a popular, global improvement on what we in anthropology knew as the “Human Resource Area Files.” She discovered that Calypso was once a craze in the cultural history of the U.S., and that before Jamaica assumed the role of emblem for the Caribbean, Trinidad was featured in American films — you will see videos on her page of Judy Garland as “Minnie from Trinidad,” Rita Hayworth as the “Trinidad Lady,” Louis Armstrong singing a calypso about “high society” in Rhode Island, and a calypso that is part of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and we have already heard the Andrews Sisters singing the Trinidadian-authored “Rum and Coca Cola” on this blog. Just as interesting is American actor Robert Mitchum singing calypso, imitating Trinidadian speech very skillfully, and showing his love for the art form. In fact Mitchum thus poses one path of cultural learning that we consider in this discussion, imitation not as mockery (as Guanaguanare points out, saying this is more imitation as flattery) but as a means of really immersing himself in a culture and acquiring its distinctive ways, trying to be as authentic as possible in his rendition. Guanaguanare posts her own notes after each video, and they are worth reading.

What I have below today is what Guanaguanare titled “Calypso Dance (the Right Way).” I was amazed by this, it really felt like spying on aliens who had performed surveillance on unsuspecting natives and were trying to breakdown, map, and acquire the nuts and bolts of the natives’ strange dance. They could also be melittologists who are charting the dance patterns of bees. There is more to the story than just getting some amusement. Nonetheless I hope you enjoy this video, it is remarkable:

Simply laughing at what we see makes us miss some important points I think. Dancing in formation, and the abrupt jump cut might be artificial elements that provoke amusement, especially as the video segment resembles a mocking vignette that one might find in a satirical documentary. If I were to do a cultural critique á la Michael Moore, or Borat, I would probably use this piece. As I said, I think we would miss something by doing that, which is what I want to explore below.

First, one really can see what Bloch was saying about most humans being anthropologists — this group of people, like Robert Mitchum, has studied a culture’s art form, has learned, and is trying to acquire and participate in native ways, but not in the form of direct imitation. Sure, some of the technique might make Trinidadians chuckle (Guanaguanare notes the rigid arms), but these people are obviously trying to learn something new while adjusting it to what is familiar to them. So if it is an “alien abduction,” it could be that these “aliens” were abducted by calypso, rather than, or almost as much as, the other way around.

Second, “cultural appropriation” is sometimes a two-way street, and what all of the videos and songs found by Guanaguanare above show are in fact one of the paradoxes of imperialism — that domination can be “sticky” and drags back all sorts of cultural influences from the dominated back into the mother country, so that dominator is not free of the dominated, even if maintaining the upper hand. One recurring figure in British literature is of the officer returned from many years of service in India, who dresses as a “Hindoo,” decorates his home to look entirely Indian on the inside, eats only Indian dishes, has an imported Indian “manservant,” and basically transforms himself into some kind of Essex Rajah. In the U.S., African, Caribbean, Latin American, and Native Indian cultural elements have so deeply penetrated American culture, interlacing themselves with European-derived cultural practices of the descendants of settlers, that they are often taken for granted and pass unnoticed. (And there are other Caribbean dynamics that have penetrated American culture and politics that Guanaguanare could have noted, not just Navajo steelpan as I mentioned previously, but the extent to which “Black Power” owes its origins and development to Caribbean inputs, beyond “Calypso Louis” Farrakhan who is himself of Caribbean parentage.)

Third, among many other points that readers could raise: the ladies in the video above are performing a form of cultural syncretism, one might even call it creolization. They are trying to filter “calypso dancing” through the modes and norms of what is appropriate for their culture, and for ladies of their generation in that culture. Had they done otherwise, had they started to ferociously “wine down de place” and “mash up de party,” then that would have been shocking — out of place. They are trying instead to reconcile different forms, trying to mold somewhat incompatible body movements, into a new whole with which they are comfortable. It is not imitation, but then again even Mitchum felt forced to imitate with as much fidelity as possible since American record companies wanted to sign him, and not all the Trinidadian calypsonians he met and boasted about to the companies, and so he had to take up their mantle for them. What he produced as a result is quite amazing.

One last observation: the video above and those collected by Guanaguanare show me something about what (perhaps even how) students should be taught about Caribbean culture. The subject matter should “go” where the culture goes, so that studying elderly American ladies in a dance class on Main Street USA, or listening to Robert Mitchum sing, should be considered as much a part of “Caribbean culture” as anything else, even while clearly noting the erosion of any boundaries between the Caribbean and the wider world. In other words, an ethnography of Caribbean culture does not even need to be done in the Caribbean, or even among Caribbean persons.

Recommended for further reading:

Creole Social and Cultural Studies: popular culture, concepts, bibliography.

Hannerz, Ulf. (1992). Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. (1996). Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge.


Show Me Your Motion! (Of Mentors, Peers, and Mimesis and Alterity in Trinidad)

True scientific knowledge, on the contrary, demands abandonment to the very life of the object
— G.W.F. Hegel, Preface, The Phenomenology of Mind

Discourse of all kind is heavily embedded with speech that has previously occurred, typically in the form of the first person direct quotation.
— Joel Sherzer, quoted in Michael Taussig (1993, p. 109), quoted here.

Another installment of “Monday Morning Madness,” a double feature in fact, that begins with a song/performance that I very much enjoyed the first time I witnessed it on Dimanche Gras in 1992 in Trinidad, during the Calypso Monarch finals in Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain. I was pretty sure that I was one of very few people who thought the performance by Singing Sonia was enjoyable and distinctive, so I am thankful that a Trinidadian “youtuber” seems to have picked this for uploading, among the dozens and even hundreds of candidates from years gone by.

And, as seen below, I think a lot is going on in Sonia’s performance, teaching anthropology and social theory at every step.

Sonia in the Shadow of the Mighty Finds Originality

The ever charming Singing Sonia performs a piece called, “Professional Advice” — the advice coming from The Mighty Shadow, who is the author of the song, and this is just the start of the tension between learning and creation, between originality and mimesis. First let me say the performance was, as far as I can tell, unprecedented, and nothing similar has been done since. The melody has a Ska beat, with some of the big brass of modern calypso, featuring dramatic bursts that might remind one of theme music for a James Bond film, interspersed with a staccato rhythm and an innocent looking bird dance to suit. During calypso monarch finals, and given the finite number of standard calypso melodies (and only one for ex tempo performances — you can get a sample of that here), yes, definitely not part of the crowd. Also “original” was the fact that she was impersonating another calypsonian, and doing it very well, adopting his voice, his mannerisms, his dance. Singing Sonia did not win the crown, by the way, so perhaps the judges frowned on innovation, even when it bore the imprimatur of a figure as great as The Mighty Shadow, who put in an appearance in the performance itself, as seen in the first video below.

The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power. In an older language, this is “sympathetic magic,” and I believe it as necessary to the very process of knowing as it is to the construction and subsequent naturalization of identities.
Michael Taussig (1993, pp. xiii-xiv)

First, about the singing. Sonia sings with her hands, so one should look at them as she sings — they punctuate. Note also the very smooth voices of her backup singers, who play in the role of the girls in the circle … I have yet to explain that one. Sonia sings in two voices, mirrored by her split costume. On her right, she sings mimicking Shadow, the darker side of her (without suggesting any moral quality here). On her left, she sings in her own voice, the lighter side, and she seems to have chosen a dress that resembles a wedding gown.

The chanter chanting creates and occupies a strange position, inside and outside. …This is not to be confused with liminality because it is both positions at one and the same time.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. 111)

Sonia has become the shadow of The Shadow, a corporeal photograph, and in that there is magic, for as Taussig tells us, among the Cuna of Panama their notion of “purpa” (spiritual doubles) includes the shadow and the photograph (1993, p. 101).

Sonia even borrows Shadow’s “ay-yay-yay” line, singing it in his heavy voice, and then alternating with her own broad voice. She claims to be learning, to be taking the professional advice, and boasts of her originality, and does this by dividing herself, and always seeking out her master. The mimetic faculty, as Taussig (1993, p. xviii) argues, involves the compulsion to become the Other — Sonia is here performing an attempt at shamanic / anthropological crossing into the Other, into the Shadow. By imitating Shadow, she acquires Shadow.

the chanter chants [herself] into the scene. [She] exists not just as a subject but also as a mimeticised Other. In this way, as both chanter and person chanted about, as demonstrator and demonstrated, [she] creates the bridge between original and copy that brings a new force, the third force of magical power, to intervene in the human world.
Michael Taussig (1993, p. 106)

Is Sonia’s performance a statement on the classic education pattern of the colonial, West Indian, “Afro-Saxon”? Or is it something much more fundamental?

Now the strange thing about this silly if not desperate place between the real and the really made-up is that it appears to be where most of us spend most of our time as epistemically correct, socially created, and occasionally creative beings. We dissimulate. We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm.
— Michael Taussig (1993, p. xvii)

Second, I would ask the viewer to pay attention to Sonia’s dance. Her dance visually mimics the staccato of the music, but also the famous up-and-down bounce of her mentor, The Mighty Shadow, who in a culture of elaborate “wining” restricted his movements to a kind of skip-rope style, going against the grain. She takes that on for this song, and adds a dance routine of her own, performed when she is not singing. I am calling it a bird dance since it seems to mimic some of the movements of a bird. She dances around the stage like a lone, lost, little birdie, her little wings attempting to fly, and look at how she steps out in the darkness of the stage looking for orientation, scouting for her parent. The dance also conveys innocence, and Sonia never ceases to smile. There is no point in seeking and being open to advice if you do not have some “innocence.”

One of the key elements of the song is the repetition of “girl, show me your motion!” People who went to school in the Caribbean would immediately recognize where that line comes from. It is about learning and performing in the school yard, encouraged by peer spectator-participants, in a ring game. What happens is that little school girls, as shown in the second of today’s videos, form a circle, with one girl in the centre. Those forming the circle sing: “There’s a brown girl in the ring, tra la la la, and she looks like a sugar and a plum, plum, plum. Girl show me your motion!” Then the girl in the centre is supposed to make some physical movement, a motion.

Protean Sonia appears split into two, one side her master, the other side her emergent self. In her dance at the end, as the crowd erupts in applause as Shadow appears on stage, she dances over to meet him. They then part — he takes the centre of the ring, conveniently provided by the logo of Carib beer. She dances around the perimeter. From the girl in the ring she has now become a moon orbiting Shadow, a satellite that is half illuminated by him, copier revolving around copied. The bird dance has now turned into a playful enactment of centre and periphery. The divided self, resulting from a child that has undergone mentoring, is one that exists in a state of tension between originality and mimicry. The blurred dividing line between learning and mimicry places a question mark over authenticity, originality, and even sovereignty. The self becomes impossible without the other, by viewing oneself in the eyes of the other. And their relationship spans the spectrum as tutoring begins to resemble fathering which then mutates into a subtle courtship, and finally a partnership (the collaboration between the two artists). And courtship is not far fetched here, as we shall see below.

Shadow and Sonia do not teach social theory, they chart it out in dance, and practice it through sung metaphor. And as Taussig argues, they show us one critical motion: that any representational act cannot possibly be achieved without the intervention of the mimetic faculty. It also puts the currently dominant, orthodox notions of “copying” in a different light, revealing them as pompous misunderstandings that arise from aspiring monopolists who can never own that which comes distributed to begin with.

Sonia, show me your motion

The quality is not the best, yours ears will hopefully filter out the static after some time, and you may need to increase the volume.

Pulling you this way and that, mimesis plays this trick of dancing between the very same and the very different. An impossible but necessary, indeed and everyday affair, mimesis registers both sameness and difference, of being like, and of being Other. Creating stability from this instability is no small task, yet all identity formation is engaged in this habitually bracing activity in which the issue is not so much staying the same, but maintaining sameness through alterity.
Michael Taussig (1993, p. 129)

Brown Girl in the Ring

Alan Lomax, J.D. Elder and Bess Lomax Hawe’s There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring, featuring an anthology of Eastern Caribbean song games, suggest that ring games are children’s precursor to adult courtship. Indeed, the second video, a Jamaican one, shows the “grown up girls,” doing altogether different motions, and you can see examples of the Butterfly Dance in that video. Lomax, Elder & Hawe explained that in the ring game the players form a ring by holding hands, then one girl goes into the middle of the ring and dances around to the song, exactly like we see Sonia do at the end of her video. At some point, the girl in the centre is then told “show me your motion”, and she does her favourite dance moves as explained above. The authors here note that she may be asked “show me your partner”, in which case she picks a friend to join her in the circle. In Sonia’s case above, she picked Shadow.

There has been some discussion about the use of the phrase “brown girl.” Some think this is an internalization of the colour-coded hierarchy inherited from colonialism. Others argue, that in such a festive, positive, joyful setting, “brown girl” enhances self-esteem. In fact, it helps to form solidarity as well, by exclusion — no mention of “white girl.”

Brown Girl in the Ring


Hegel, G.W.F. (1807). Phenomenology of Mind.

Lomax, Alan; Elder, J.D.; and Lomax Hawe Bess. (1997). There’s a Brown Girl in the Ring. New York: Random House.

Taussig, Michael. (1993). Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge.


A few more notes on “wining”

Following up on the last post that featured wining, a Trinidadian blogger in the UK, Sheree Mack, who authors the Every Day Creativity blog, has posted two items on wining. One is a simple poem, akin to a soca road march at Carnival time, and with some key lyrics that coincidentally will reappear in my post for tomorrow. The second lists the various wining moves that one commonly hears called for in soca tunes:

Wine up: to wine vigorously
Wine down: to wine while lowering the bottom to the ground in a squat
Wine around: to wine in a circular motion, or to move around while wining
Tief a wine: to creep up behind or in front of someone and wine on them surreptitiously
Give (someone) a wine: to allow someone to wine on you; a pity wine
Wine back: to actively participate in a wine initiated by someone else
Small wine: a short wine
Hard wine: a particularly vigorous wine, usually on someone
Slow wine: a wine to a slow song, or on every other beat
Sweet wine: a wine that feels good, arousing


Monday Morning “Mor Tor”: Wine it up just so…for the Video Notes from the Indian Diaspora, Part 2

I need this video as background for at least two coming posts, especially for readers unfamiliar with Trinidadian or Indo-Caribbean cultures, with their dances, and some of the terminology that is used. This post follows the previous (Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora.

This video, featuring Rikki Jai, begins with an Indian wedding. The idea of teaching a bride how to “wine,” shown in this video, comes up later. So what is “wining”? It is not connected with dining, nor is it a misspelling of “whining.” It is a way of gyrating the hips, and more than that, the bottom, or what some Trinidadians call a “boomsie.” The really good winer is the one who can virtually unhinge her boomsie — showing that the boomsie is working it up, as if all on its own, can be emphasized by dancing with a bottle on one’s head. The bottle stays in place, the boomsie does not. Wining of the kind you see here is dancing reserved for women only. Women who do this professionally and regularly appear in commercial venues may be known as “winer girls.”

Some will claim, in the cultural politics of inter-group competition, that wining originates with East Indians. That may or may not have some truth, but let’s put it this way: if they are not monopolists the video shows they can be specialists. There is also a very thin girl in a mid riff and bright green shorts in the video — that is an example of a “tiny winy,” that will come up again. Many chutney soca performances are accompanied by expert “winer girls,” and in a cultural milieu where women’s bottoms are highly valued, their motions count.

There are different wining motions, and even speeds, but one of the classic motions involves doing a (sideways figure eight) motion with one’s bottom, as if washing windows. I will leave viewers to detect other motions in the video. And one more hint, “show me your motion” will be the centrepiece of another coming post.

Finally, note that this example of chutney soca is sung in both English and Hindi, which shows, to some extent, the success of the revitalization of Indian culture. Even those of us on the outside get to learn some Hindi thanks to these musical productions, the way I recently learned from youtubing my way through Bollywood that “bindiya chamke” means “glittering dot,” as one example.


(Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora, Part 1: Responding to Modernity and the Tyranny of Tradition

I have to begin by thanking Guanaguanare, one of the Trinidadian bloggers I admire most, for having already done such an excellent job discussing the popular Trinidadian music video below, Sumintra. I will distill some of those notes and add a few comments and sources of my own. So, yes, this is a “derivative” work (or collaboration by relay) that hopefully does as much justice to Sumintra.

“Sumintra” is the title of a well known song in Trinidad performed by the chutney soca artist, Rikki Jai, written by Gregory Ballantyne. I mentioned Rikki Jai at the start of this week, and as I said then, he is brilliance on two legs. There is an important point behind my gushing praises — both Rikki Jai/Ballantyne and Guanaguanare are doing their own engaged anthropology concerning cultural transformations in their home society, with Jai devising a tool, a response, the song Sumintra itself, for dealing with those transformations, and Guanaguanare producing a public commentary on her respected blog. Neither he nor she respectively call themselves anthropologists as far as I know, even though I am aware of some cultural activists in the UK who choose to label themselves “cultural anthropologists” without necessarily suggesting that they have any degree in that field.


Before beginning the description/translation and discussion (along with some recommended sources for further reading) let’s look at the video of a young Rikki Jai, with scenes of dancing on top of Naparima Hill overlooking San Fernando (the hill also happens to be a sacred site of the Warao in the nearby Orinoco Delta of Venezuela).

Here are some of the key passages from the text of the video:

Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Tickle me with a lavway, soca me till I sesay
But hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha.

Lata Mangeshkar (लता मंगेशकर) is a famous singer in India who has starred in countless Bollywood movies and even sings classic bhajans and ghazals (I am lucky enough to have one of her sets of tapes). For modern traditionalist Indians in Trinidad, respecting much of what comes from the Indian motherland and sourcing it as part of their impressive cultural revitalization in Trinidad which has lasted for generations, a figure such as Mangeshkar is revered. And, as I said, she is also a tremendous singer, and more than just a symbolic figure.

(Trinidad’s Indian cultural revitalization was a subject of interest to Morton Klass, anthropologist at Columbia University who passed away in 2001. His first book on Indians in Trinidad titled East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural Persistence and published in 1961, really brought the subject of Indian revitalization to the fore, even to the point that he was publicly castigated by the historian and independence leader of Trinidad, Eric Williams, for lending legitimacy to the divisive ethnic claims of what Williams called a “hostile and recalcitrant minority.”)

Sumintra is not hostile and recalcitrant. She is what the traditionalists dread, a defector. She pledges allegiance to a “Trinbagonian” identity (the word is a composite of Trinidadian and Tobagonian). She tells Rikki to hold the Lata Mangeshkar, she wants soca music instead. And there is a silent, or muffled story of cultural creolization right there, since many doubt that soca developed without the input of East Indian musical influences. Even if the creolization theme had been made obvious at this point, it would not lessen the dread for the traditionalists/purists, some of whom have famously gone on record in protesting that creolization is tantamount to genocide.

Sumintra is explicitly against ethnic politics, making this video quite subversive in the Trinidadian context of political antagonism and sometimes even residential segregation dividing those of East Indian ancestry from those of African ancestry, with both forming roughly equal portions of the overall national population. Sumintra has the courage to say:

Sumintra charge me [Rikki Jai] for being racist
And tell mi doh take dem chance wid she
Doh let mih catch you in dat foolishness
Trying to reach de Indian in me
Like you into politics, boy, you comin on dem tricks
Boy, I’m Trinbagonian, I like soca action
Take your Mohammed Rafi and bring Scrunter [soca star] or Bally [Gregory Ballantyne, the author of this very song]
Only then you’d be talkin to me. Yes, Rikki

Sumintra charges Rikki with racism! Why? For trying to maintain her within the fold, for trying to capture her for tradition, for trying to “reach the Indian” inside her. He’s speaking like any of the other ethno-political boys of what is now known as the United National Congress. She will have none of it. Sumintra wants “soca action”. “Tickle me with a lavway” she says — lavway is a creolized version of two French words, most likely “la voix” (the voice), a reference to the call and response form of early calypso music, the progenitor of soca. (I never found anyone who could tell me what “sesay” means.) “Bindiya chamkegi” is the title of one of Mangeshkar’s songs (which you can see and hear, here). You can view Mangeshkar performing here. Incidentally, one can find Mangeshkar’s voice singing for this beautifully nationalistic video, Vande Mataram, the Indian national anthem. I warmly recommend it for the imagery alone, parts of which I think are inspired by epic moments of American nationalism, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

(Sumintra would have no time for me either, as I believe that Mangeshkar is a deity, and I am presently busy building an altar in her honour in my study. It is right next to the one for Amitabh Bachchan of course.)

Sumintra is also cast as a woman who has experienced modernity and multiple cultures, far from her birthplace, a shack in the Trinidadian village of Debe, mostly populated by Indians. Rikki Jai says of her:

Must be University or dem trips to Miami
That make she draw a border between roots and culture
She’s a liberated soul, Trinbago in she passport

University. Foreign travel. Her roots are distinct from her culture, just as the tree is larger and broader than the roots from which it sprang. It’s explicit here, she is “liberated,” a “Trinbagonian.” Rikki feels small now, and she even tells him, “Sport, you come short.” (Excuse me miss, please let that be the last time you belittle my beloved little Rikki.)

Rikki is not about to roll over and die. He comes up with a plan. He wants Indian, she wants soca. In comes chutney soca, a partial reindianization, and a creolized reinidanization at that, of something that emerged in part from Indian influences to begin with. He says:

I still believe the best gift is music
’Cause music is the food of love
But now I had to come up with new tricks
For Sumintra to get involve

Is soca yuh want eh?
I go give you what you want.
Lavway! Sesay!


Guanaguanare is right (see “A Note from the Gull” midway down that page), this is a song one heard in the background of everyday life in Trinidad, and some of us were late in realizing the genius of the song. Guanaguanare also has a love for Mangeshkar, but understands Sumintra’s desire to transcend the binding bonds of the past and experience freedom. In a powerful paragraph, Guanaguanare writes:

While this speaking to difference may be excused or even essential in less open societies, here in Trinbago, it is often quickly seen for what it is – a ploy and often a divisive one that pits one “group” against another, whether these be distinguished by religion, ethnicity, gender, class, political affiliation. We identify the trickery by recognizing that we are being flattened, simplified, categorized, reduced to one dimensionality. We defend our multi-dimensionality by asking ourselves the questions, “Why am I not being addressed as an individual and a human being and a man or woman or child and a Trinbagonian? What aspect or aspects of my being and my life in this country am I expected to neglect, to betray? Why are these artificial distinctions being solidified?” Whether the object(s) of these strategies choose, like Sumintra, to protest, or to play along, depends on if there is the perception of benefits to be received. We are entitiled always it would seem, to sell ourselves to the highest bidder.

Do I detect some bitterness in that instrumentalist view of personal strategies? I may not be following Guanaguanare, and perhaps she will offer a clarification either here or at new collaborative blog some of us are planning (more later).

My questions about the video/song are:

Does the song preach against ethno-political divisions, or does it in fact practice division? Notice that Sumintra is to be the role model of the dominant, national, creolized identity, one that apparently leaves little room for East Indians except perhaps as background influence that is rarely acknowledged.

Does the song obscure the Indian origins of soca, and buy into the traditionalist and purist fears of creolization?

Were Indians in Trinidad ever so marginalized and alienated as some of their most prominent political leaders (for example, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday) have claimed?


Readers who wish to read more along this line of discussion should see these works by Viranjini Munasinghe, anthropologist at Cornell University:

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2003). Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2002). “Nationalism in Hybrid Spaces: The Production of Impurity out of Purity.” American Ethnologist, August 29 (3): 663-692.

Speaking in an interview, Munasinghe identifies some of the leading food metaphors in the politics of national identity in Trinidad. Callaloo is a stew made from dasheen. Tossed salad requires no explanation, unless the reader has been on a meat-only diet since birth. Munasinghe says:

many Indo-Trinidadian cultural and political activists I spoke with during my fieldwork in 1999 and 2000 took exception to this metaphor for the Trinidad nation. They argued that since the ingredients making up the “callaloo” are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one homogeneous taste. They disapproved of this metaphor because it represented an extreme level of blending or “mixture.” Instead they opted for the metaphor of the “tossed salad“–an image which also signified diversity but one where, unlike the callaloo, each diverse ingredient maintained its originally distinct and unique identity. Thus the food metaphors of the callaloo and the tossed salad for the nation of Trinidad and Tobago convey very different ideas of mixture — callaloo depicting a process of mixture that produces homogeneity and tossed salad signifying the co-existence of diverse elements in pluralism.

Munasinghe does a great job of condensing discussion of India-Trinidad exchange and the emergence of an Indian cultural revitalization movement in Trinidad:

Identification with India heightened in the 1930s when the independence movement in India added vigor to the Indo-Trinidadian consciousness. As early as the 1930s, young Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals began staging island-wide demonstrations in support of India’s demand for freedom. Public meetings held in Indo-Trinidadian majority areas opened and closed with Indian patriotic songs and “Vande Matram,” the Indian national anthem. Many of the Indo-Trinidadian organizations formed during this period, like the India Club, were intent on spreading knowledge about India and things Indian. Wealthy Indo-Trinidadians visited India and contributed generously to famine relief funds. Visits from a host of Indian missionaries and cultural leaders generated new interest, especially among the Indo-Trinidadian middle class, in the language and culture of their “mother country.” The first Indian movie, “Bala Joban” was shown to enthralled audiences in Trinidad in 1935.

The role of the Indian mass media, especially its powerful film and music industry has been critical, and this is the backdrop against which Rikki Jai must define himself in the video above.

Munasinghe continues in that interview by discussing creolization, colonialism and racism, and contemporary ethnic politics. It is a good synopsis of the range of material she dicusses in her book listed above. With respect to creolization, and the dominant metaphor of creolization has been the callaloo, she says that this historically worked to exclude East Indians:

Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words “criar” (to create, to imagine) and “colon” (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements, thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is significant for Indo-Trinidadians.

Munasinghe does not explain how a cultural process, which certainly did include Indians, as in the case of soca, and moreso chutney soca, excluded them. What she is leaving out of the discussion is that political representations of creolization can and have emphasized the figure of the “Afro-Saxon” as representative of creole society, but she also should add that, like the people Sumintra rejects, some Indian nationalists are self-excluding, and disavow any ownership of the creole cultural forms that they themselves helped to create.

Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all persons and things “Creole” signified native status in Trinidad, and by extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.

Here is the “hostile and recalcitrant” notion at work again. This is largely true, but let us also remember self-exclusion as well, where mixture was equated with genocide by Indo-Trinidadian political and religious leaders (the process known as “douglarization” — a dougla being the offspring of one Indian and one African parent). Even more contentious have been the occasional claims by some Indo-Trinidadian politicians that black men come to central Trinidad, where most Indians reside, in order to rape Indian women. Suddenly, the discussion has become quite ugly.

Munasinghe also explains how colonial policies of racial division continue into the present, in ways that echoe with what we saw in the video above:

Colonial policies and racial theories continue to influence contemporary politics on the island. The division between the two major ethnic groups comprising Trinidad’s population, the Afro-Trinidadian and the Indo-Trinidadian, which is marked and reproduced by race rhetoric and ethnic stereotypes with both groups jealously guarding what they believe to be their legitimate terrain, can be traced to colonial policy. East Indians were brought to Trinidad as “scab labor” to drive down the bargaining power of the Afro-Trinidadians. Thus, East Indians from the beginning occupied a structurally antagonistic position to Afro-Trinidadians.

The profligate “Negro” and the thrifty Indian are caricatures that survive to this day and inform some of the “outrage” that surrounds some of the music videos will shall be seeing:

Caricatures of the luxury-loving, lazy, immoral Negro and of the docile, hardworking and cunning Indian abound in planter discourses of the period soon after emancipation. Many of these derogatory racial stereotypes continue to this day as the two groups use these same caricatures to undermine one another. Unfortunately, as is the case with ethnic/racial stereotypes, these negative racial traits are thought to signify natural characteristics of the respective groups and the specific colonial history that led to the creation of such discourse is forgotten or remains unacknowledged.

In Part 2 of this series, I will continue by discussing, and showing, “wining”. See you then.



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October 2017
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