Tombstone Feast: Funerary Music of Carriacou

Caribbean Voyage : Various Artists

Rounder 1727


May Fortune: Tim Bwai-O; Madame Kistan; Amba, Dabia-E; Anansi, Cudjo; Ai, Salli Hunde; Lora, You No Married; Djerika-O; Maria L’Abbe.  Willie Joseph: Nu Sa Webe Nu.  Mannie James: Ovid-O Pa Garde; Banda Call Me-O.  Pashin Andrew: Igbo Ginade-O.  Unidentified lead singers: Jimmy Lunday; Tibite Gounde; Iama Diama Igbo-Lé-Lé; Igbo Ginade-O; Lazar, Ai, Lazar; C’est Mwe, Nani Moko.  Jemima Joseph & May Fortune: Amway, Beke, Mwe Ba Connet.  Glassin John & Jemima Joseph: Mwe Rivé, Joe Talmana.  Tida Lazarus: Sesé Ani-O.  (All listed artists are lead singers with chorus.)

My review of Rounder 1726, Caribbean Voyage Saraca Funerary Music of Carriacou, is on this site, and describes the importance of funeral and other death-related rituals and music to the people of Carriacou.  Carriacou is a small and impoverished community, largely sustained, since the abolition of slavery, Cover pictureby the proceeds of migrant labour, and the collective wisdom of experience, embodied in the relationship of the living to the Old Parents, has been an important element in developing and sustaining ways to survive against the odds.  Constant awareness that the past is immanent in the present has also meant that Carriacouans have retained a knowledge of individual regional and ethnic African identities, which are embodied in the different Nation dances and rhythms that are part of the Big Drum music, alongside the Creole and ‘frivolous’ rhythms, which have African elements, but were created in the Caribbean.

The Tombstone Feast is the final part of the rites associated with death and burial, and takes place when the grave of the departed is marked by the placing of a stone.  As described in the review of Rounder 1726, until this can be done (which is dependent on funds being available, and the ability of those involved to travel home for the occasion), the memory of the dead person must be honoured each year, by a mass, prayer meeting or Big Drum.  (Which of these is required is often specified by the deceased in a dream visitation, and if the commemoration is not carried out, a Beg Pardon [forgiveness ritual] will be necessary.) Once the stone is set, however, the spirit will rest comfortably.  The Tombstone Feast is thus an important ritual it maintains respect for the ancestors and the Old Parents, it unites and reunites the generations, and it brings Carriacouans who have emigrated back home to friends and relatives left behind.

The recordings on this CD were made in 1962; by 1971, when Donald Hill did his fieldwork, on which the notes are largely based, the Tombstone Feast had become shorter (one day rather than two), less elaborate and, one feels, somewhat dislodged from its position as one of the bulwarks of Carriacouan society.  In 1962, the tombstone was carried from the house to the grave on poles ‘which they rested from time to time on chairs which they also carried.  By 1971, the stone was usually placed unceremoniously in the trunk of a taxi and driven to a location near the grave site, whence it was carried to the grave on poles in the traditional manner.’ No doubt this process of cultural erosion has continued in the succeeding 30 years, as Carriacou has become more open to the outside world.  In 1962, the Big Drum dances would take place in the yard of the dead person’s home, after the placing of the tombstone, and ran from about 4 p.m.  until dawn the next day.  Over the night of August 1-2, 1962, Alan Lomax and his tape recorder were present at a Tombstone Feast in L’Esterre, and recordings from that event, all of them unissued until now, comprise this CD.

As with the Big Drum music included on Rounder 1726, the forces are lead singer and chorus, two boula drums playing the Nation rhythm, one higher pitched, improvising cut drum, and a chac-chac (maracas).  On some titles, the oldoe (old hoe), also known as the bottle and spoon or bell gong, can be heard.  The sound of this instrument is evidently generated from humble, everyday resources, play Sound Clipbut that sound is of deeply spiritual significance; used to play the Beg Pardon rhythm of each nation, the oldoe summons or dismisses the ancestors to the feast.  It can be heard here on Nu Sa Webe Nu (‘my nation, come’), sounding the Cromanti Beg Pardon. (sound clip)

The CD’s 21 performances are uniformly of a high standard, but those where May Fortune is the lead singer are outstanding, even in this company.  play Sound ClipThe four minutes and a bit of Djerika-O, a very old song whose meaning isn’t fully understood, are perhaps her finest performance, but a short extract wouldn’t do it justice.  (That’s a general truth about this music, but especially true in this case.) The beginning of Tim Bwai-O gives an idea of her abilities, though. (sound clip)  It also illustrates how Big Drum songs begin with staggered entries, successively by the lead singer, chorus, chac-chac and drummers, and gives a brief taste of May’s companion, Sugar Adams, and his ‘rolling Spanish style’ on the cut drum.  Of the three drummers heard, Caddy Lazarus John seems to have been content to stick to the boula, play Sound Clipbut Daniel Aikens takes over from Adams on cut drum at times, and it’s easy to hear why another drummer, Winston Fleary, says that Aikens was the hottest player on Carriacou.  This extract is from Mwe Rivé, Joe Talmana (sound clip), a stick fighting kalenda imported from Trinidad.  The song relates to an incident during the Carnival riots of 1881, when the police went in pursuit of Joe Talmana, the ringleader in the disturbances, whose defiant response was ‘Mwe rivé!’ (‘I am here!)

All music is culturally embedded, and experiencing traditional music from outside, as disembodied, reproduced sound, without the matrix of associations and meanings available to the participants, is always an incomplete experience.  (Believe me, a CD by a Shetland dance band doesn’t convey the experience of a Shetland dance.)  The Big Drum music of Carriacou carries a huge freight of tradition, history and social meaning, but even such a simple aspect as being unable to see the dances that the music is played for constitutes a major barrier to one’s understanding of the processes and systems involved.  (The dancer ‘conduct[s the cut drummer’s] statements with her danced rhythms [and] dictates the end of the song by touching the head of the cut drum with the hem of her skirt.’)  The drinking of jack rum, the ritual sharing of food, the ‘wetting’ (libation) of the dance area with whiskey, rice and water, the story telling, the opportunities for youngsters to flirt discreetly - all these are present in the Tombstone Feast, but absent from our experience of it.  To some extent, the booklet’s excellent words and pictures can make up for these absences, but in the end, it’s the splendour of the music itself which signals the richness of the cultural matrix which formed it, and which it has formed in turn.  Music is always much more than the noise it makes, but the noise this music makes is truly wonderful.

Chris Smith - 23.3.01

Top of page Home Page Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 31.3.01