Dancers Performing in the Street at Holetown Festival, St. James, Barbados Pocket Guide

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The Explosion of Culture

There are many definitions and interpretations of culture - from the basic beliefs and behaviours of the society, to all forms of creative expression, including music, dance, theatre, film, visual arts and craft, culinary and literary arts.  In Barbados, there has been a veritable explosion of culture of every form since Independence.  In the past, the largely European cultural forms of theatre and music existed at one level, while African idiom, folk practices, some musical forms and dance operated at another level. Creolisation refers to the synthesis seen in the Caribbean, and iconic Bajan examples are our dialect (fusion of English and African, with unique variations) , tuk band (music often accompanied by costumed revellers), landship (dance and other cultural syncretions), food (pudding and souse, conkies), architecture (the chattel house) and the Cropover festival.


Before Independence, many aspects of cultural expression were the results of passionate pioneers, such as Joyce Stuart and Madame Ifill (step mother of National Hero Errol Walton Barrow, and adopted mother of Sir Henry Forde), promotors and teachers of dance; Frank Collymore and Therold Barnes (actors and writers); and Golde White, Briggs Clarke, Kathleen Hawkins, Robert McCloud and Ivan Payne (Artists) and Karl Broodhagen (sculptor and artist). Our successful authors - George Lamming, Geoffrey Drayton and Austin “Tom” Clarke, and poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite,  wrote and made their names and reputations overseas as did brilliant singers like soprano Nell Hall.  Clubs like the Green Room Theatre performed plays, largely by European playwrights, while low key, amateur groups shared interests in photography, art or dance. Traditional folk singing, tuk band and Landship performances operated widely across the island at community level, and especially at celebrations and “bank holidays”, and perhaps the outstanding national musical performances were concerts by the Barbados Police Band, which also received considerable international recognition performing at the Edinburgh Festival.  


The spirit of creativity was almost certainly inspired by Independence, but again there were individual, passionate pioneers who led the field in the post-independence era. Theatre, art, music and dance blossomed.  Daphne Joseph-Hackett’s leadership in theatre was followed by the dynamic Stage One Theatre Productions, led by doyen of theatre Cynthia Wilson and the late, great director Earl Warner.  African elements of theatre and dance were promoted by the Yoruba Foundation, launched by the charismatic Elombe Mottley, with wide-ranging cultural events at the Yoruba Yard in Fontabelle, including visual arts, dance, literature (including poetry) and music, especially drumming, and later the Pinelands Creative Workshop, while comedy productions established a tradition for themselves, such as Laff it off and Pampalam.  Modern dance was introduced with the formation by Mary Stevens, in 1968, of the Barbados Dance Theatre Company, while Richard Stoute has been the passionate promoter of talent in the field of singing and music, over many decades.


The Barbados Arts Council and their gallery at Pelican Village, and the establishment of groups like DEPAM (De People’s Art Movement) led by artist Omowale Stuart, brought many young artists into the limelight, and this coincided with the birth of the Barbados Community College and its Fine Arts Department, and the establishment of a number of commercial art galleries. Indrani Whittingham’s art workshops have produced a cohort of enthusiastic artists, benefitting from inspiring teaching without formal college tuition. The Barbados Art Collection Foundation / Barbados Gallery of Art was a major catalyst to high quality work, and created a hugely increased interest in art by the general public and collectors, and the possibility of more artists making a living in whole or in part from their work.  


While our greatest - Karl Broodhagen - has passed away, as have Gordon Parkinson and Oliver Burnett, this is a field with a genuine explosion.  Outstanding among our big names are Arthur Atkinson, Fielding Babb, Virgil Broodhagen, Ras Ishi Butcher, Alison Chapman-Andrews, Wayne Branch, Vanita Commissiong , Joyce Daniel, Annalee Davis, Bill Grace, Neville Legall, Clairmont Mapp, Corrie Scott, Lilian Sten-Nicholson, Ras Akyem Ramsay, Margaret Rodriguez, Heather Dawn Scott, Omowale Stewart, Norma Talma and many, many others of considerable distinction, but far too numerous to mention.  They are profiled in the splendid new Barbados Art Directory, by Corrie Scott and Kathy Yearwood. Akyem has been particularly successful in exhibiting and winning international awards, while Stanley Greaves (Guyanese born) has made a major contribution here.  Water colourist Goldie Spieler has also developed an extraordinary ceramics studio and commercial enterprise, while there have been many young ceramicists, in parallel with the traditional Chalky Mount pottery .


But without any doubt, the major catalyst to the explosion of creativity and blossoming of so many fields of creative endeavour have been the National Cultural Foundation (NCF), launched in 1973, and our hosting of CARIFESTA in 1981, coordinated by Senior Cultural Officer Nigel Harper. Indeed, as so aptly put by Antonio “Boo” Rudder, in his splendid book Marching to a different drummer: Elements of Barbadian culture: “The years prior to CARIFESTA IV were steeped in a sense of almost coercive apology for the vaunted myth that we in Barbados had no culture … The exposure that local audiences and artists gained from being immersed in this revolution of cultural expression called CARIFESTA, served to shatter the shackles of so-called cultural inferiority and prepare the way for the acceptance of an ethos that was increasingly being articulated by local cultural activists.”  


It would be fair to say that Barbados had its fair share of creative people in every field, but several factors perhaps contributed to the somewhat superior remarks of our Caribbean contemporaries in Jamaica and Trinidad about our so-called lack of arts and culture – the fact that many of our best and brightest resorted to making their living and their names in London or New York, the fact that we were perceived as a culture of cricket (and justifiably so) and sugar production, and the dominance of cricket in every aspect of life, conversation and entertainment, to the apparent neglect of other cultural activities.


But CARIFESTA helped to create a new dynamic. Again I must quote “Boo” Rudder: “In 1981 CARIFESTA blew all over Barbados like a virus. It was infectious but in a very positive sense… The artists who participated in CARIFESTA IV captured the hearts of thousands of Barbadians, daring them to dream and to have a vision - a vision that said we could act similarly.”  And we have not looked back.


The annual National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) is organized by the NCF. The festival takes place every November and there are seven disciplines: Dance, Drama/Speech, Music, Literary Arts, Culinary Arts, Visual Arts and Craft, and Photography.  Other festivals that promote a variety of arts are the Holder’s festival (which can be a mix of “high-brow” - opera, theatre and classical music and “middle-brow brow” - jazz and popular music). Cropover is the a cross between the traditional plantation end-of-crop revelry and Carnival masquerade, while the Holetown Festival is a mix of heritage, music, arts and crafts, and the Oistins Festival is more about fish and food! But NIFCA, with backing of and financing from the Ministry of Culture, with its competitions, promotion among young people, prizes in every category, and associated publicity, has been the energy behind the explosion, especially in music, dance and literature. While Cropover has focused on a heavy / rich diet of calypso, NIFCA has promoted the widest possible engagement, from dialect performances to novels. Regrettably, although CBC-TV has played a big part, it has not always capitalised on the huge possibilities that film and television provide, but the recent explosion of Barbadian film making is an exciting happening, and both CBC and many artists and fine art photographer, such as Bob Kiss and Rasheed Boodhoo, are now highly sensitive to our architecture, so ignored in the past, and now recognised with the inscription of Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


In terms of training, the UWI has recently entered the sphere in a more meaningful way, while fine arts teaching has been left to the Barbados Community College. The most recent catalyst to our cultural explosion is the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination, the centre for the arts at the UWI Cave Hill Campus. And the steady beat of our musicians - tuk bands, steel bands, folk, singers and calypsonians, the Merrymen, Jackie Opel and the Draytons 2, The Blue Rhythm Combo, Art Tappin and so many others, and finally Rihanna, trumpet and proclaim Barbados at home and abroad - but that story is a whole big book! Truly, we are in the midst of an explosion of culture.


Professor Fraser is Past President of the Barbados National Trust, and past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI.


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