West Indians united by colonial past - Catholic Courier

West Indians united by colonial past

Whether examining current Caribbean politics, food, music or hospitality, Caribbean Catholics keep coming back to their native nations’ colonial past.

Speaking prior to the second national convention of Caribbean Catholics of North America, several Caribbean Catholics said repression and cultural blending unify the region.

Caribbean history includes such painful chapters as the bloody slaughter of native populations during Spanish conquests and the forced importation of African slaves to work in colonial plantations, as well as diverse influences from European, African and Asian traders.

When many Caribbean nations gained their independence in the 1960s, in part because of the growing price tag of imperialism, contemporary residents were free to create a post-colonial future. The rise of labor unions and intellectual leaders was one response to the colonialism, said native Trinidadian Alfred St. John, a parishioner of Rochester’s St. Monica Church and a Gates resident. The popularization of the steel drum was another response, as government repression of musical instruments was lifted, he said.

And though each new nation has its own culinary specialties, as a whole the region’s food reflects a colonial past, said Norma Thom, a Trinidadian who recently prepared a feast of Caribbean foods for the Diocese of Rochester’s annual Caribbean Mass. Caribbean cuisine uses abundant natural resources that are liberally seasoned with such spices as curry, thyme, pepper and chives to please diverse palates.

“It’s not only jerk chicken,” Thom said. “In the Caribbean, we have the tendency to season. We like our food with taste.”

According to Thom, Caribbean cooking includes fresh seafood, yams, green bananas, cabbage, bok choy, spinach and plantains, which are boiled in Trinidad and fried in Jamaica.

“Each one of the Caribbean islands has its specialty,” said Thom, noting that jerk chicken is considered a Jamaican specialty, while pelau, a dish with carmelized meat, rice and peas, is a favorite in Trinidad and Tobago.

Hospitality is another unifying trait of the Caribbean, said Trinidadian Gerald Boodoo, a professor at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. Boodoo said he will speak at the convention about how North American Caribbean Catholics entertain people and how they create community. He said he also will examine the colonial roots of contemporary geography, politics and racism.

Colonial politics and racism also played a role in the development of the steel drum, said St. John, the leader of Alfred St. John’s Trinidad & Tobago Steel Band. Also known as the pan, the steel drum is one of the only major acoustic instruments to be developed in the 20th century, he said. However, the forerunners of modern calypso music, in which the steel drum plays a key part, are much older.

“Most of it is rooted in African music — African drums — the music instruments that the players were familiar with when they were brought to the island,” said St. John, a full-time musician who moved from Trinidad to Rochester to work at General Dynamics and later at Eastman Kodak Co.

African slaves used handmade skin drums to take part in the carnival celebrations brought to Trinidad by French traders, he said. Eventually, the British colonial government banned the drums, so residents began to beat bamboo sticks on the ground. Those were banned in the 1930s due to violent band rivalries. Looking for substitutions, musicians tried hitting empty rum bottles, automobile brake drums and the bottoms of old trash cans, which produced a note. Through trial and error and later collaborations with trained musicians, St. John said that the musicians moved from trash cans to steel oil drums, and refined them to play 2¬Ω octaves worth of notes.

Acceptance of the steel drums was slow in Trinidad, as colonial rules governed when and where they could be played. Band rivalries, violence and theft of drums cemented the checkered reputations of steel-drum musicians. Now, children in Trinidad schools are taught how to play steel drums, he said.

“The music and sound of the drums is very attractive to children,” St. John said. “It’s a sound one cannot readily ignore.”

Steel drums and the calypso music they make are just one form of uniquely Caribbean music. Another is Jamaica’s reggae, which evolved out of the African Rastafarian culture and was made most famous by Bob Marley. St. John said reggae is considered more serious than the tongue-in-cheek calypso.

“Reggae music was like American blues in essence that musicians sang about suppression, revolution, sang about fighting the power and sang about the way things were,” St. John said. “They were not in control and wanted some control of their lives.”

St. John said reggae gave voice to global revolution in the 1960s.

“Everything was happening at once,” St. John said. “In a global sense, they fed one another.”

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