Saraca - Funerary Music of Carriacou

Caribbean Voyage: Various Artists

Rounder 1726


Edith Hector: I Have a Sword in My Hand; Chorus: Near the Cross; Gone to Nineveh; Be on Time; Newton Joseph: Timi, Timi, Zewon; Jean, Ay, Jean; Kwa-Mwen Bwoule; Charlie Bristol: Mbadi-o, Dem Dei-o; Yard-o, Yard-o; Ring Down Below; Martha Dick: I Promise the Lord; O, the Angels; Daniel Aikens: Humble-o; Sugar Adams, Daniel Aikens & Caddy Lazarus John: Cromanti; Juba; Quilbe; Jemima Joseph & May Fortune: Juba Noel, Juba-Lo (Bongo); Mmwe Malade Ayo (Gwa bèlé); Jemima Joseph: Anansi-o-e (Cromanti); Maiwaz-o (Old People’s Bongo); Di Ye Mwe ‘Rivé (Old People’s Kalenda); May Fortune: Djerika-o (Arada); Neg-La-Rivé, Oué A Kende (Cromanti); Saraca: (Interview)

This is the second of a projected three CDs drawn from Alan Lomax’s 1962 visit to Carriacou, the little island at the south end of the Grenadines, just above Grenada.  The first, Carriacou Calaloo, (Rounder 1722) is a sampler of the island’s rich and diverse musical culture, while the forthcoming Tombstone Feast will form a companion to the present volume, since both of them are concerned with the rituals and practices associated with death and remembrance.  Cover pictureLomax was aiming to document what he perceived as a ‘common creole style’ underlying the varied musics of Afro-Caribbean communities, and although he cast his net more widely, also making splendid recordings of Trinidadian East Indian music, for example, Carriacou was an exceptionally fertile ground for investigating the interaction of African and European cultures.  As Donald Hill writes in the accompanying booklet, ‘Up until the 1970s, most Carriacouans could trace their ancestry to specific African regions and ethnic groups… Mythic identification with an African nation tied groups of families or lineages together in a common ancestry, and this sense of a common African identity served as the glue that held the society together.’ This quotation, and other comments in the booklet, hint at changes in recent years, and if I write here about Carriacouan social organisation and music in the present tense, it’s with an uneasy feeling that satellite TV, tourism, reggae and soca have probably made ‘was’ a more appropriate verb.

An important component of this social glue has been reverence for the ‘Old Parents,’ the Eighteenth Century ancestors who constructed the social order which has sustained Carriacouans through slavery, and then through the migrant labour system which has been an economic necessity since Emancipation.  The more recent dead are also continuing participants in the world of the living, appearing in dreams and asking for special food - the Saraca (feast) which gives the CD its title - and for entertainment, in the shape of the Big Drum dance, hymns and other music, and folktales.  The ancestors also give advice to the living in dreams.  Accordingly, funeral rites, and other rituals associated with death, play an important part in helping the dead to make the transition from this world to the next, and in encouraging them to return and help the living.  Carriacouan society thus implicitly rejects notions of the social contract, since only a living person can make a contract.  Instead primary weight and power are granted to the wisdom which accumulates from the collective experience of history, and tradition is to be consulted first when decisions have to be made.  I expect that this system is also an effective way of imposing limits, of defining what may not be done as well, as what may and must be done, but if so, it’s no different from many another social order developed to hold a fragile community together.

Donald Hill’s notes, based on his 1971 research, state that after the wake and the burial (which have numerous necessary rituals and procedures of their own, in addition to those of orthodox Christianity), the close relatives of the dead are obliged to make a Saraca in the deceased’s bedroom on any or all of the Third, Nine and Forty Nights (ie the third, ninth and fortieth nights after death), and to hold a prayer meeting or Big Drum dance on at least one of them.  In practice, when the prayer meeting is held, and indeed whether one or more of the Nights takes place, depends on ‘whether money was available, when relatives would arrive from abroad, who was available to help, and the time of year,’ with the Nine Night being most common.  Hill gives a detailed account of a Nine Night he attended; briefly, the event involves the singing of hymns and later the livelier anthems of the Spiritual Baptists, the drinking of 180 proof jack rum, conversation, cards, dominos, and the distribution of food.  In former days, Nancy stories were told from about 11 pm, but this was rare even in 1962.  The importance of these events in binding together the community - including those relatives who have emigrated, and returned for the occasion - is obvious.  Also present, of course, is the dead person, whose finest clothes are laid out in his or her room to wear when the returning spirit partakes of the food laid out on the Parents’ Plate.  Thereafter, the memory of the departed must be honoured each year (with the method - Mass, Parents’ Plate, prayer meeting or Big Drum - often specified by the deceased in a dream visitation), until funds allow for the erection of a gravestone, when the Tombstone Feast is held.

This is a lot of preamble, but it’s necessary to give an idea of the importance and complexity of Carriacouan funerary rituals.  It won’t come as a surprise that among the evidence of that importance is the splendour of the music associated with the events.  The first half of the CD contains hymns, anthems, Nancy songs (used to introduce folktales), a Nancy story, and sea chanteys.  It’s harder than usual to choose illustrative clips, for the range of music and its high quality mean that whatever is played, something else remarkable has to be left aside.  play Sound ClipIt’s impossible, though, to omit the anthem Gone to Nineveh, with its multiple call-and-response lines, and the use of trumping (also called doption) to supply rhythm. (sound clip)  (Trumping is a rhythmic inhalation, used by the Spiritual Baptists to induce trance, but it should be noted that trumping is not customary at prayer meetings for the dead, which are not Spiritual Baptist services; Lomax was able to record at a Tombstone Feast, but not, it appears, at a prayer meeting.)  A similar rhythmic energy informs the Nancy songs like Mbadi-o, Dem Dei-o, whose resemblance to the ring shouts which Lomax had recorded in southern Louisiana in the thirties lends support, in my view, to his notion of a common creole culture.  It should not be thought that Carriacouan music is uniformly based on forceful rhythms, however; here is I Promise the Lord, by Martha Dick and a chorus, which gives a good idea of the forthright harmonies of Carriacou, play Sound Clipdefinitely functional, but with an exciting, dissonant edge.  The song seems to be a version of the sacred original from which Hand Me Down My Walking Cane derives, although even here a secular lyric is trying to join the party towards the end of the song. (sound clip)

The Big Drum which is heard on tracks 12 to 22 of the CD (the final two tracks are a song from a Tombstone Feast, and an interview about the Saraca) is ‘the most prestigious and remarkable music in Carriacou’ (Hill).  Its dances have been classified as Nation, Creole and Frivolous; the latter two groups have African elements, but were developed in the Caribbean, but the Nation dances (Cromanti, Arada, Manding, Kongo, Ibo and so on) are believed to be inherited from specific African ethnic groups.  play Sound ClipThe tracks called Cromanti, Juba and Quilbe on this CD are clearly intended as demonstrations of the different Nation rhythms, rather than documenting public performance, but they still manage to be very exciting.  Here’s the start of Quilbe to prove it. (sound clip)

The Big Drum music is played on three open-ended barrel drums, two boulas playing the nation beat, and a higher pitched, improvising cut drum with a rattling snare across the head, plus a shac-shac (maracas).  play Sound ClipUnfortunately, there isn’t enough bandwidth to illustrate the way the songs start, with staggered entries by the chantwell (lead singer), chorus, boulas and cut drum; instead, here is an ensemble in full flight on the Cromanti song Anansi-o-e, which invokes the well known trickster god. (sound clip)

This is a splendid compilation of recordings, made when great Carriacouan musicians like Sugar Adams (who was also a grave digger, and thus doubly in touch with the spirit world) and his companion, May Fortune, were still making great music.  The tradition continues in the hands of such as Lucien Duncan, heard as a young woman in this disc’s Big Drum choruses, and now May Fortune’s successor as Carriacou’s best Big Drum dancer and singer; but we must be grateful that Alan Lomax’s bloodhound instinct for where things were happening musically resulted in the making of these remarkable sound documents.  Virtually all of them are issued here for the first time, nearly 40 years after they were made.  That’s too long a wait, but at least it’s now over.

Chris Smith - 1.2.01

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