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Purely Dominica

Purely Dominica

Editor’s note: This post was written by Dennis Joseph and published in the Feb 2nd,09 issue of The Sun Newspaper.

Her performance was superb. She appeared at first as a very well-bosomed lady of the motherland and then through her presentation as like we do with an onion she stripped herself of layers of colourful clothing until at last she stood before us as a sensual beautiful princess of Africa.

Forty-something Kijana Wiseman, M.Ed, is a versatile performer of theatrical and communicative arts. An award-winning lyric coloratura soprano with a 3.5 octave range. In other words she has a bell-like voice; Kijana has been performing since she was four years old professionally since the age of nine. She has won the City of Houston Talent Competition and been named the national APCA 2002 Best College Performing Artist of the Year.

Kijana lived in Liberia, for 6 years, working and performing with the National Liberian Cultural Troupe. She sang with Mariam Makeba, Hugh Masakela and, upon returning to America, for several years with the Houston Symphony Chorus. Her most famous work is her interactive one-woman show, ‘The Griot,’ which has been named the Best College Diversity Program for 2001 and 2002 performed at over 300 venues in America and Europe and that is what riveted my attention on a chilly afternoon in America.

Kijana, as ‘The Griot’, through poetry, music and stages of dress which create a setting for the different stories takes the audience on a time trip back to the dawn of existence while portraying many different types of women in history: an African maiden, slave, gospel choir director, preacher, toddler, jazz, blues, vaudeville rock and even opera singer— celebrating our common ancestral musical heritage. At the end of her show she gave out money to five in the audience and for reasons I cannot explain she handed me a dollar bill.

After the performance I was caught in a discussion with an elderly African man from the Gold Coast who was not as impressed with African music portrayals as I was. He said, “You can call me an old fart, a grumpy loser who whines all day, but I hate to hear these songs of Africa which only sing of suffering. There were millions who were stolen and brought to America as slaves, but there were many millions more who never were enslaved. What about their music, what about their poems eh? So instead of sitting on your bleep and for a dollar listening to sad presentations, get up and do a reality check.” Well that got my attention. I was now the new dollar man.

In the sixties when I toured with the Gaylords Power Union, an African friend told me a story about another young African man in a Mercedes sales shop. The blacks and greys of the showroom walls strongly contrasted his bright red tracksuit pants and white ‘Free Mandela’ t-shirt. He seemed to be provocatively trying various driving positions in the 15,000 British sterling pounds cars that he couldn’t possibly afford, among stares of distaste from the other customers. He was secure in the fact that no one will dare damage the cultural correctness of the place by suggesting he leave.

However as soon as he stepped out of the showroom, it was no coincidence that the attendant was ordered to vacuum the carpet around the cars. As he walked out he had this big grin all over his face as if he knew what was going on behind him and then he burst into African song and a bit of a dance. “You see,” my friend said “we Africans effectively define our feelings in African music and poetry.”

The African concept of music is totally different to the Western one as traditional African musicians do not seek to combine sounds in a manner pleasing to the ear. Their aim is simply to express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound. The African musician does not merely attempt to imitate nature by music, but reverses the procedure by taking natural sounds, including spoken language, and incorporate them into the music. To be meaningful, African music must be studied within the context of African life which is what Kijana tried to do on that stage.

Griot is the term used throughout West Africa to designate professional musicians. The role of the ‘Griot’ extends far beyond the realm of music and magic. He or she is the relater of history, philosophy and mythology, the archive of the peoples’ traditions.

Calypso was heavily influenced by African work songs and the role of calypsonians can be likened to the role of the Griot in West African society. Every year at carnival time we cherish the work of our calypsonians. But where are our poets? Not too long before today, I recall doing morning shows on radio, on which I would take telephone calls from listeners who wanted to read a poem on air. I also recall collections of the writings of our local poets being presented to the station. As I watched the performance of Kijana, I could not help but think that here again is an opportunity for the Ministry of Culture to.

keep the minds of our youth engaged. Frequent poetry contests could be a way to document and highlight the movements within our small nation the sorrow, joy, pain, love and more that make us what we are or will explain to future generations why we became what we became.

Our speech writers and speech makers often quote the works of outside poets to give credence to their points of view, even of late I hear quotes from the great Maya Angelou whose inspiration comes from the civil rights struggle in the USA, but very rarely do they mention one quote from a local poet. We can change this starting in the schools.

When I was a boy I could recite all of Alexander Selkirk, The Death of Sir John Moore, large sections of a poem which begins “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ and with a big silly grin sound out with pride ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears’ but were it not for a God given gift, I would not be able to write a line of poetry for myself. Our students are experts at ‘Mary had a little lamb’ but have no idea why ‘its fleece was white as snow.’

The poetic symbolism in the Bible is difficult for those who never understood the fanciful lyrics of poetry and they surrender by declaring the Garden of Eden a real place and giving the talking serpent a real voice which caused Eve to sin and Adam to sleepwalk into the mess. Poetry, music and dance are the most revealing forms of expression of the soul.

At this time of an increasingly violent youth, we need our poets who can reach deeper than any national address or any hastily convened government appointed committee meeting, but where have they gone? And I did not write this because Kijana Wiseman gave me a dollar.

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Editor’s note:This is a guest post from Danielle Edwards – a Literature and History student and an aspiring Journalist.

Evil exists, no doubt. But do we sometimes feel so haunted by the threat of evil that we allow our minds and bodies to be controlled by unsubstantiated beliefs…?

It is rumoured that some Haitians claim the practice of Obeah is more prevalent in Dominica than Haiti! – I must say I would be very surprised if this were to be proven. In a nation of so many Christians, it is necessary to wonder why superstitious beliefs are so rampant, and why they exert such a powerful force on our lives. There must be a reason why people hold on to such beliefs, even when they profess that Christ is in control- or do these beliefs hold on to the people?

Do Superstitious beliefs in the Caribbean exert a sort of mental slavery on our people, the way our colonizers once did, particularly in rural communities- or have WE allowed ourselves to be enslaved by unquestioning belief in irrational myths?

Think of the number of Dominicans who have testified to seeing a ‘soucouyant’ or ‘la diablesse’ in the forest, or a ‘jumby’ dancing late at night in Roseau. They are not alone- many Jamaicans believe in the ‘Ol’ Higue’ who is fabled ‘to be a witch or sorceress, who enjoys humans and preys especially on infants.’ She bears an uncanny similarity to out local soucouyant. Some Jamaicans also believe that when a person dies, his ‘earthly spirit remains for three days in the coffin with the body, where it may escape if proper precautions are not taken, and appear as a duppy’, or ghost.

I’ve heard so many soucouyant stories from persons of all walks of life- from varying backgrounds, degrees of education, communities and ages- that I’ve come to the conclusion that some of these things really do exist- and I’m not being sarcastic. How could so many people be wrong? Our grandparents and great aunts and uncles are such keen-sighted people, I would hate to think that NONE of them know what they’re talking about.

But perhaps this is the root of the problem- that superstitious beliefs have been allowed to seep into all generations- and classes- so they will never die.

Many West Indians, educated and uneducated, acknowledge that legendary folkloric characters, many of whom originated from West Africa, really do exist. Even Bob Marley expressed his belief, in ‘Duppy Conqueror’. A thrill comes from knowing supernatural creatures exist, and the exciting stories of the deeds of the Obeahmen in numerous rural communities can certainly be magnetic. In fact, any student of the arts ideally should have some level of appreciation for superstition- it makes a fine subject of fantasy for painters and poets, and a great subject for theatre, dance and music.

Superstition has given such vibrancy and colour to our culture: We have been warned to beware of who gets a slice of our wedding cake- because some people allegedly have the power to destroy a marriage before it starts. And to be wary also of the people who hide consecrated bread under their tongues during the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I once heard a tale of a person who placed the names of his enemies in a paper bag with rotten eggs in a coffin at a funeral ceremony. I was even told a story, 9 years ago, of a polling station that mysteriously became filled with candles, all ablaze on the eve of an election- soon after it was dead-bolted. More recently, I have heard stories of people who eat garlic and bathe in jays to keep ‘soucouyants’ away. And when you’re about to construct your next house, do not be surprised at the number or Dominicans who may be willing and ready to sprinkle the blood of a dead chicken on your foundation.

I must say these stories and superstitions are all quite interesting, even if some of them are unbelievable. I certainly don’t find them all ridiculous. Like I said, our older and wiser citizens can’t all be at fault. And when it comes to dreams, I’ve personally found many of them reliable and meaningful.

While superstition is one of the few aspects of our life which is dominated by African heritage, it has made too many of our people vulnerable to mind-control –not least by Obeahmen. I don’t think there is a logical explanation for everything in this world, so it’s sometimes necessary to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I think if some of us took the time out to recognize that many of these beliefs are really shackles on our minds, we would be able to learn from our mistakes instead of blaming them on ‘bad mind people’.

And we would realize, ironically, that we have more power over our lives without adhering to superstitious beliefs than when we submit to the Obeahmen who propose they have a remedy for everything.


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