ITS Creole Heritage Month, launched by the Folk Research Centre last weekend, and culminating in the celebration of Jounen Kwéyòl on Sunday, October 30.
Jounen Kwéyòl is our biggest cultural expression, and some think its celebration has long surpassed the traditional celebration of Christmas. Like Christmas, Jounen Kwéyòl comes only once a year, but unlike Christmas, which is a celebration at the end of a year of religious activity by the faithful, Creole Heritage Month and Jounen Kwéyòl arrive unannounced other than by La Wòz and La Magwit.
It was interesting therefore to hear the recent comment from the Folk Research Centre lamenting the difficulty of maintaining the La Wòz celebration as many of those older persons who had shouldered the responsibility for it had passed on. Interesting as well to hear the comment during that interview that a number of the more formal Kwéyòl words were being lost through lack of usage, and that even during Jounen Kwéyòl celebrations it was difficult to get people to speak Kwéyòl.
Our culture is evolving, and doing so more rapidly now with our instant communications and 24 hour TV. Cultural penetration is what our activists call it, the imposition of another culture on ours so that gradually we come to adopt the expressions of that culture in preference to our own. Bad news for La Wòz, La Magwit, and for Kwéyòl too.
It was on La Wòz day also that we managed to listen to one of our cultural icons on a talk show as he lamented the fact that Kwéyòl music, and St. Lucian music in general, received so little airplay, while we were bombarded by music from other places. When the host of that talk show however questioned the quality of St. Lucian music and whether that was responsible for its infrequent airplay, Boo’s restraint was admirable.
The question that we might want to address though is how the “good” quality of that external music which makes it to our airwaves is determined, by whom, and to what end. Because, as listeners, we know that very often it is only after repeatedly hearing a tune that we come to realise that we like it, and how “good” it is. Who is telling us what “good” music is?
For the longest while we have been attempting to get an explanation as to how the dominant genre of music in our culture acquired its status and how that status is maintained, but without luck. “Country & Western” music has its origins in European music, and there is nothing wrong with listening to a song in that style. But how is it possible for that genre to have achieved the prominence that it has in St. Lucia when it is nearly impossible to hear the “classical” European music from which it was derived on our airwaves?
How is it possible that a rhythm as foreign to a Kwéyòl culture as Country & Western can come to be accepted and revered by that very Kwéyòl culture? When, not too long ago, we joked that tourists couldn’t dance to our calypso rhythms, how can a dance form associated with the culture of those very tourists become accepted as the norm for us?
Some attribute the introduction of Country & Western music here to the presence of the American base at Vieux Fort during the war years, and the beaming of this music to St. Lucia from Nashville, Tennessee during that period. Others suggest that it was brought back by our agricultural workers who had been engaged on the farm work programmes in the United States, but whatever the mechanism, St. Lucia must be the only island in the region where the 1960s version of this music not only continues to receive airplay, but is now dominant.
The irony becomes a little clearer if we briefly examine the history of Country & Western music. Developing in the deep rural south of the United States at the same time that the Blues did, early Country & Western is described as the music of rural white folk of English descent. With its roots in Irish and Scottish folk music, it has an emphasis on light, vocal music. The Blues has its origins in the American experience of slaves taken from West Africa. That experience, first of slavery, then of segregation, gave rise to the expression of the “Blues”, a form of music which is heavily drum and rhythm based.
Although the development of “Country” was influenced by the “Blues”, the styles are very different and easily distinguished. During the period of the 1920s to the 1940s, recording companies in the US marketed “race” music, or the “Blues”, to the black community, while Country, then termed “hillbilly” music, was marketed to the white community. The “Blues” evolved to “Rhythm & Blues”, while “hillbilly”, which includes honky tonk, cowboy and western styles, evolved to Country & Western. Even with those developments, however, the recording industry in the US continued to make the same ethnic distinctions between the two forms of music when marketing them – “Blues” to black people, “Country & Western” to white folk.
What then could have led a predominantly black, French influenced culture such as ours to gravitate to a distinctly white, English based form of music, complete with its dress in the form of cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and handkerchiefs? The only answer which provides a sensible explanation has to be marketing – first by the island’s then lone radio station, and later by those who saw financial opportunity in promoting it.
The result is that we have a culturally split identity, a split which cannot be expected to heal on its own, as it is those of us closest to the authentic Kwéyòl heritage who are most targeted by a rural American cultural expression of English ancestry. And so we see the advertising and holding of Country & Western dances on the Sunday on which Jounen Kwéyòl is celebrated.
And we notice the disappearance of the “Mothers and Fathers” groups, and hear from the leader of a La Wòz group in Choiseul that the members no longer have enough money for the séances, and can’t afford the costumes. Even the “community day” celebrations seem to have disappeared. Our culture is changing, but into what, we should ask ourselves.
Every year, our Government sets aside a sum of EC$40m for the marketing of tourism by the Tourist Board, some of which goes to the Jazz Festival. The Tourist Board counts the number of visitors attracted by the festival, measures how long they stay and how much they spend. Every year we’re told that the Jazz Festival loses money, but that its worth it from a marketing point of view. Yet no one measures the economic impact of Carnival, and so there’s no economic justification for investing in it, in our music, or in any other expression of our culture.
Occasionaly too, Kassav is invited to perform at our Jazz festival, and their shows are always packed to capacity. But Kassav didn’t come from “out of the blue”; they come from a rich Kwéyòl heritage which is carefully nurtured in our neighbouring French islands.
We must provide the cultural incubator for our artistes, and we must nourish them financially as we win all round when we do so. We benefit economically, we strengthen our communities, and we address some of our social dysfunction.
And we must market our culture – at home, and abroad. Every day must be Jounen Kwéyòl. Otherwise, all we’ll be left with is what those who choose to market other people’s cultures provide, and that spells death for our Flower Festivals, and eventually for our Kwéyòl culture.
Viv La Wòz! Viv La Magwit! Èk Bon Jounen Kwéyòl!