LITTLE BAY – “Volcano at 20 – Discerning Shifting Rhythms and Beat” was the focus of the 2015 Annual St. Patrick’s Lecture organised by the University of the West Indies Open Campus on Thursday, March 12.
Open Campus Director Ms Gracelyn Cassell provided the context through which to understand the importance of the St. Patrick’s Festival and the reason why the lecture was key to sharing elements of our story which have been lost through time and error. Hon. Minister of Agriculture Claude Hogan was the evening’s facilitator and he acknowledged the role that the lecturer had played in his own education and championing of causes through the years.
Professor V. Clarice Barnes was the guest lecturer, who presented for about 60 minutes on how music and dance traditions helped Montserrat to cope with old and new tragedies such as the 1768 slave uprising and the 1995 volcanic eruption.
Dr Barnes discussed how ancestral memories of the middle passage and slavery continue to affect how we show up in the world and that the cultural dances such as masquerade and the jumbie dance allow us to cope but also could be contributing to our inability to move forward in healthy ways.
Barnes framed her presentation within the context of Rhythms of Catastrophe. These being African Enslavement, St Patrick’s Uprising on March 17, 1768, Post Emancipation Sufferings, and Natural Disasters.
Singing a few lines from the Mighty Arrow’s “Man mus live”, she noted that humans devise ways to deal with violence and catastrophes. “The volcano stands as the most important power on Montserrat,” Dr Barnes said. Volcanic eruptions brought loss of homes, the capital of Plymouth, churches. “The volcano dictated the rhythm and we had to do something about it. We needed a way to cope.”
The two types of coping strategies that were employed by Montserratians through the years can be labelled under problem-focused or emotion-focused coping.
Problem-focused coping saw people evacuated from South to North then relocated overseas, noted the researcher. Emotion-focused coping involved trying to reduce the negative emotional responses associated with stress. Some ways of doing this according to Dr Barnes were through the “telling of stories, making jokes, prayer, keeping busy, letting off steam, distracting yourself with television, eating, sex, and dancing.”
Religious coping is one of the main ways that Montserratians used during the disaster, she claimed. Dr. Barnes revealed that eating ice cream was her way of coping during the crisis. She said due to lack of privacy, people were known to leave the shelters to go back into the unsafe zone to have sex .
The lecturer went on to suggest that culture has been one of the main mechanisms that people use to cope with catastrophe. “The jumbie dance and masquerade rituals approximate the social situation at critical eras of Montserrat’s history,” she added.
Jumbie dancing was considered a folk religion, which offered social support, trance dancing, divination, herbs, healing, and a way of connecting with ancestors. This dance was also only done by women in private, while the masquerade was done by men publicly.
Masquerade saw a reversal of roles with men playing women’s parts. “They became captain, male, queen, warrior. They were signifying and pappyshowing. We doing it for fun; mimicking the masters, taking on the regality, a chance to be the leader and to operate in a structure.”
She noted that this masquerade has continued to this day, not only as a cultural dance, but in the fact that so many people were given opportunities to be elevated and become something which they probably did not aspire to or would not have attained if not for the volcanic crisis. Many people who fled the island were able to receive advanced degrees in North America and the United Kingdom. Many who stayed were given more high ranking positions due to the gaps left vacant by those who emigrated.
Dr Barnes said elements of the masquerade greeting march are rooted in the European military march and was a way for the dancers to reclaim their power. She added that the dance also has connections to some of the African warrior martial arts she’s seen in her travels. This mimicking she called anansification, after the folk tale character Anansi the Spider who was crafty and always found a way to get one over on others.
The masquerade dance also mimics other quadrilles of the enslavers. Added to this, within the masquerade troupe there is a queen, which Barnes notes is to acknowledge that some slaves came from royal bloodlines.
Dr Barnes is now part of a female masquerade troupe on island and she notes “now women dance masquerade” with no need for role reversal.
At the closing of the lecture the professor questioned whether the continued masquerading is healthy and if the recurring concept of “resilience” is not a cover for wounds which have not been allowed to heal. Is Montserrat a nation which continues to wear masks rather than confront the system which has caused us to desire to identify with our Irish slave masters rather than our African ancestors?
“If your identity is decimated during the Middle Passage and if your people are massacred for trying to take back control, it is natural to perceive it as safer to want to be more like your master,” she noted. This could be one of the reasons we lay claim more to our Irish heritage than our African in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
Several audience members commended Dr Barnes for the presentation and called for schools to have access to a curriculum that would inform students fully of their history.
The St. Patrick’s Lecture is one of the many events which take place during the annual cultural festival each March.