In the Caribbean there are several cultural forms and events that tend to associate themselves with the First of August. Others gravitate around Emancipation either because they celebrate it, they have their origins in Emancipation or its anniversary, or because they have themes which touch on liberation, African slavery or their vestiges.
In Guyana many of these and related activities tend to have a link with the Village Movement. Many of the post-Emancipation villages regard their African heritage with great pride and still have activities to celebrate liberation with a focus on the Eve of Emancipation on the night of July 31. These include such festivities as soirees in Litchfield or Hopetown, which today are simply street and village fetes for recreation. But their symbolic, historical and ancestral roots (now faded, vague and half-remembered) are significant.
Some villages still have a programme of performances and other events on that night carrying over into the morning, followed by games and other festivities during the day. Libations are poured at midnight to mark the break of Emancipation Day as well as to retain one of the few remaining ritualistic links to the past. Libations are rituals of thanksgiving, offerings to or communication with deities, ancestors or ancestral spirits and in these large communal contexts need to be performed by knowledgeable persons. Such individuals seem to be in short supply in twenty-first century Guyana, and it is very interesting that for well over a decade John Carty Caesar, a Ghanaian academic resident in Guyana has been called upon to perform this rite based on his knowledge of what is practised in Ghana, and through his scientific curiosity, other versions performed elsewhere.
But there is a range of larger events and cultural forms across the Caribbean related to Emancipation whether thematically, historically, spiritually or based on the calendar. Among the most memorable poems that highlight these traditions and sharply (even bitterly) lament that they are forgotten is Verse In August by Trinidadian poet (born in Tobago) Eric Roach (1915-1975). The poem focuses on the spiritual quality of the traditions and their social/communal/cosmic functions. He mentions the “bongo Macedonia” and the “dancing/ trampling” of “the death farewell,” spiritual mourning rituals once prominent in Trinidad and Tobago. Relevant to these are some of them in Guyana such as the kumfa (Cumfa) and the wake rituals. The kumfa, a version of the African Feasts known in Guyana and Trinidad has been driven underground by various factors. It is a ritual used for multiple purposes, a dance driven by learnt drum rhythms involving spirit possession which brings about cathartic healing or causes the subjects to prosper. Although wakes are held the spiritual purpose which used to involve the same invitations to spirits to participate in the ritual is lost.
Yet these highly spiritual associations in events around the wider reach of the Emancipation period are important, even though today, they are mainly symbolic. In Grenada and Carriacou there is the Big Drum festival in which these echoes resonate. In Jamaica there are traditional dances including brukins (bruckings) and the goombay (gumbay) whose traditions cover different interconnected components. Brukings gets its name from the nature of the dance while the goombay still carries the name of a kind of drum with spiritual origins. These dances mix a celebration of liberation in 1838 with praise of Queen Victoria and the celebration of her Golden Jubilee which was very popular in the Caribbean in 1887-1888. This is where the traditional song ‘August Morning’ comes from. August morning come again / August morning Jubilee / Queen Victoria set we free / Jubilee Jubilee. The drums used in goombay are those from the spiritual roots of the junkanoo (maskarade) and obeah.
To a large extent they are just echoes, and the same goes for those with spiritual undercurrents as well as for others rooted in history or symbol. In St Lucia the La Rose (Lawoz) festival is a very interesting tradition with a strong thematic and calendar link. It is named in honour of Santa Rosa de Lima. The legend from which it comes is about Rose who worked in the Great House and had great sympathy for her relatives and comrades who were very badly treated field workers. She was in the habit of hiding loaves of bread in her apron and taking them out at night to feed these people. But she was found out and the guards set to catch her one night. They confronted her and ordered her to open her apron in which several loaves were hidden. However, she was saved by a miracle because when she opened the apron not bread, but bunches of roses fell out. It is an anti-slavery story of struggle and liberation which is celebrated in the La Rose around August 31 each year in St Lucia
The Barbados national festival Crop-Over has similar historical, symbolic, thematic links as well as calendar association since it coincides with Emancipa-tion on August 1. Further, the original end-of-crop celebration used to take place on sugar plantations in Barbados in the 18th century. This harvest festival gradually evolved into a mark of liberation because of the symbolic “burning of Mr Harding.” In modern Crop-Overs this ritual used to take place at the end of Kadooment Day when a large effigy of an English planter (Mr Harding) was set afire on the street to symbolize freedom from slavery and the plantation system. Crop-Over in its present form was virtually inaugurated in the 1970s, taking the shape of a carnival. But it was a re-invention of the old tradition. Certain links with that are prominent in the crowning of a King and Queen of the festival who are chosen from workers, formerly sugar estate workers. Even the Calypso Monarch competition is still known as the “Pick O The Crop.”
As it also happens, Jamaica’s Independence Anniversary is August 6, and the celebrations take in Emancipation Day. The themes of independence and liberation coincide as well as the nature of the national festival known as The Jamaica Festival or “Festival.” Because of the timing, the festival has incorporated several of the traditions formerly used to celebrate Emancipation. Although the folk musical tradition called Mento is hugely swamped by reggae and dance hall it gets some life at this time along with other traditional performances that re-emerge for Festival, independence and emancipation.
As it also happens, these celebrations will reverberate with extra resonance in 2012 because it will be the 50th Anniversary of Indepen-dence for Jamaica on August 6, and Trinidad and Tobago on August 31. Although the concentration of Trinidadian performance traditions is carnival time in February, in Jamaica it is at this time. So the extra burst of ‘freedom’ activities may be expected this week.
However, historical records indicate that many traditional theatrical performances, masques, mummeries, and satires were known to have appeared on the streets to celebrate Emancipation time. Items were carried over from carnival to August 1. Clearly it is these that Eric Roach refers to in the poem Verse In August. “let all time jig / a kalinda and reel / these August freedom days.” He presents the August season as a time rich in the old traditions with exhibitions of heroic deeds as well as a recognition of the spiritualism that added character. “I saw br’angas once / kneel under killing blows / his poui warding death”. It is memories from the stick fight which the poet felt gave meaning to the August celebrations. He makes further reference to the kalinda, the musical tradition that accompanies the stick fighting: “rum drums and singing men / gambash in the gayelle / carray! ah bois garcon!”
But whether in carnival or in August to mark “these August freedom days” the traditions are forgotten as Roach asks “who’ll dance my death farewell? / who’ll trample me a rhythm on my grave? . . . not my tall sons / they have not seen nor heard”.