“I ain gwine be paat of no revolution da ain got no drums!”
Well, the homecoming of the Gullah/Geechee Famlee to Barbados was truly revolutionary because throughout the journey there was music, dancing, and rhythms done via the drums! From the time I danced my way out of the airport until the final evening at dinner, I heard music.
As I danced my way back home, the sound of the drums immediately connected with my soul and as I always, I started to dance. Moving with the Tuk and Mother Sally reminded me of when I danced with the Junkanoo in the Bahamas and the Gombey in Bermuda. As we rode the island, I became more intrigued with knowing the background of the drumming tradition on this island.
I found out that the name “tuk” came from the Scottish people. They have a word “touk” which means to beat or tap a drum. Discovering this reminded me of when I was featured on the cover of The Scotsman newspaper in Scotland. I had no idea that there would be a historic link between our cultures.
Just as the 1740 Slave Code in South Carolina made it illegal for Africans to play the drums in the southern plantations of the colonies that became the United States, the drums were banned amongst the Africans in Barbados as well. The 1739 Stono Rebellion was the cause of this ban in Carolina. However, there was an uprising in 1675 on the island of Barbados that led to the ban there. The enslaved Africans used conch shells, horns and drums to communicate. So in 1688, the Barbadian enslavers banned the use of drums by law. They then burned and banned all drums and loud instruments. Later on the Scottish fife and marching drum were put in place as what was “acceptable” in the same way folks tried to take away the Gullah language and give us English as the “acceptable” thing to speak and to do. They had the drummers and fife players do military drills in a British fashion to try to assimilate and “discipline” them. Aaah, but hunnuh caan broke de spirit! Wha GAWD mek gwine stand! So, just as we dedicated ourselves in the Gullah/Geechee Nation to polyrhythms by hands, feet, and stamping sticks, our Bajan family adapted these European instruments and started making them and playing their own rhythms upon them.
Both in Barbados and on the Sea Islands, Africans used drums to talk to each other from location to location and plantation to plantation. Each tone had a different meaning. Codes were embedded therein as they were in the Spirituals which are the official music of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and the state of South Carolina. So, the homecoming celebration included not only drumming and dance, but the spirituals as well.
The evening of our welcoming celebration called “An Evening With We Gullah/Geechee Famlee” at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society was a time in which the num drum and the kettle drum of the tuk band was set aside and the drums that our people of the Caribbean continue to make from the materials around them came forth-the steel pan! As folks entered the venue, the steel pans played wonderful rhythms that seemed to match the flow of the evening.
The evening was one of Sankofa in that we went back to go forward as the African traditional drums which the enslavers had long since wanted all of us to stop playing, but that our ancestors continued to make from goat and cow skins over the perfectly chosen and carved pieces of wood, came forth to officially open the stage.
As the lights came up on the stage, we heard the whistle blowing and the rhythm of the tuk band once again. From the side of the stage emerged sailors dressed for the Landship dance. Every movement they did I felt in my soul since I come from a fishing family that builds boats. I wanted to get up and sail away with them!
The Barbados Landship dance emerges from mirroring the British Navy’s spirit and comradery on the ocean. The crew wears uniforms that are similar to those worn in the navy and they are trained and disciplined like the military down to the point of using the language of the seafarers of the merchant marine and Royal Navy who were called “Jack Tars.” The land-based version was created by Moses Ward, a Barbadian who served in the Royal Navy and is based on the passage of ships through rough seas. The dance incorporates a number of different drills and moves. We all were held in awe as we saw what we had grown up doing in the Gullah/Geechee Nation-gwine round de Maypole! Aaah, dem churn could do um ya!
If we thought we had seen it all when the crew effortlessly got through the Maypole dance, Dancing Africa emerged and showed some disciplined moved themselves. They flowed across the stage effortlessly taking us on a journey all the way back to the Motherland throughout the Caribbean and back into the Atlantic Ocean landing our spirits on Barbados! It was all I could do to stay seated and watch instead of getting up and emulating the moves with the young ladies whose smiles lit the room even more than the stage lights!
The youth of Barbados truly showed their talents and their abilities to retain these very important folk traditions, but that was no surprise given that they are walking and dancing in the steps of artists like Winston Farrell and The Mighty Gabby who both offered outstanding performances that seem to be the bow on the box of the gifted poetry that had already been offered. Each poem that I heard throughout the journey home to Barbados were pieces of hot coals that ignited and kept burning the fire of uprising that was no doubt started with the first conch that blew to an African drum tone back in the 1600s.
Never once in South Carolina’s educational institutions were we told of the revolutionary spirits of the island of Barbados. We were never told of the uprising of 1675. Knowing this now makes me wonder if our family members rose up to fight for us that were taken from the island and placed on the Sea Islands and forced to build Charlestown which is now “Charleston, SC” where our ancestors blood, sweat, and tears flows beneath the cobblestones, asphalt, and concrete. I wondered what type of mindset would have been instilled in our family throughout the African Diaspora and the Gullah/Geechee Diaspora if we had known that there was no sweetness that they had found amidst all the sugar cane. In fact, they took the sugar cane fields and used them as places to be lit by rebellion and burned and then they burned songs and dances to sustain themselves and our African traditions into the hearts and minds of the people as they took to the roads and streets with the drums and with their feet pounding out rhythms that others had long since thought they had put away.
Tenk GAWD de we bin yeddi de drums! De sound of de drums bring we home ta we Bajan Famlee! Freedum fighters we gwine always be! Disya a bless up journey!