The month of February is one of two periods in the year when the country’s African heritage is brought into focus in Guyana. While February is designated “African History Month” (sometimes called Black History Month), the focus is renewed in August because of the anniversary of Emancipation in that month, and the narrow interpretation that the abolition of slavery is of exclusive ‘African’ significance. During these periods there are several references to ‘African culture’ and, generally, a concentration on performing arts which are considered African.
This Guyanese African celebration, however, is hardly as rich as it could easily be because it is usually accompanied by a range of misconceptions and a fair degree of superficiality in many quarters. African culture generally, and African culture in a Guyanese context, have much wider meaning and significance than is normally appreciated. Too often, the impression is given that we are referring to a homogenous mass from one continent and one culture. Then, there is a tendency to limit this African focus to what may be contained in artistic performance. (In Guyanese English, a ‘culture show’ means a concert with a variety of music, dance and drama, while a “cultural item” is a theatrical performance.)
In the context of the African heritage, it is not difficult to understand this confinement to the arts. In Africa and the diaspora, the people maintain a tradition of expressing most elements of their existence through art, oral literature and theatrical performance. As it is for everyone else, art is entertainment, but it also has very powerful religious functions in addition to the secular. It is not reserved for special occasions only, but is a part of everyday life and has an important social context. Art has roles in the life cycle, in rites of passage, religion, social control and cosmology. Therefore, the African artistic expression is steeped in symbolism, spirituality and icons, and serious rituals take the form of theatrical performances. That apart, African culture is certainly not restricted to artistic exhibition. It covers the ways of life of many peoples, ranging from architecture to clothing, food, agriculture and manners. These cultural traditions as previously practised by Africans transplanted to Guyana and maintained by their descendants have faded drastically, through natural processes, socialization, acculturation and human action.
During slavery, the plantocracy orchestrated the suppression of many customs and traditions, especially language and those practices that threatened the security of the system and its ruling class. They were suspicious of whatever they did not understand. However, some theatrical acts that they considered harmless were, in fact, insurrectionary, while others had very violent rivalry among the black practitioners and were aimed, not at the white colonialists, but against each other. Through successive combinations of legislation, criminalization, political suppression, natural processes of language change, language death and acculturation, several traditions disappeared.
Despite the part played by such forces, one effective cause of the decline in African cultural traditions in Guyana was self-inflicted. This is the affliction known as self-contempt. Through centuries of socialization including a hierarchy or race and class, many blacks came to regard their own culture as inferior and degrading; as something to be ashamed of. As a result, they themselves suppressed it, severely reducing its passage down to succeeding generations.
Ignorance or indifference filled the gaps, including the notion of homogeneity, which ignores the existence of many different cultures in Africa North and South of the Sahara, including the white, the Arab and the Islamic. This particular vacancy in knowledge of the African culture has led to misrepresentation and superficiality. It is common for both audience and performers to believe that any drum or any drumming is “African,” notwithstanding the loud presence of the tassa and tabla in Guyana. The same goes for dance, where performing a choreographed program with vigorous, pelvic movements to the music of drums is enough to make it “African.”
There are, however, several different types of African drums, the most common in Guyana being the congo, bongo, “boom” (used in the masquerade) funde, batta and bass. The “kittle” used in the masquerade is actually a version of the “kettle” known in the European military. The African rhythms are even more varied and have actual, distinguishing characteristics. They are, of course, highly tonal. Tonality is the key to understanding the famous “talking drums” of the Akan. Most rhythms are combinations of two or more drums of different tones accompanied by other percussion instruments such as the “katta stick.” In addition, these rhythms are often attached to religious ritual with distinct sounds related to specific deities and ceremonies. Examples of these are kumfa (cumfa), yamapele and the gumbay formerly associated with the obeah dances. Contrary to popular misapplication, the kwe kwe (queh queh) dance is not accompanied by drums. The pounding of the feet against the ground keeps time and rhythm. The basic ‘high life’ time, which is secular party music, is the root of the soca.
Many other rhythms have deep ritual or religious significance and have to be studied by the drummers since they are used to communicate with deities and to induce spirit possession. African drumming is therefore a learnt, if not a specialist, art and not any rhythm played on a Guyanese folk drum is “African.” The dances, too, include the religious and the ritualistic, although it must be stressed that some of them have become secularized and no longer hold any cosmic significance for those who practice them today. A very good example of this is the masquerade whose original symbolism is no longer meaningful to the contemporary dancers.
In these African traditions, too, dress or costume holds some significance, which most often is not understood by onlookers or those wishing to perform them. Those dances that are ritualistic use colours which are important. For example, in those with Yoruba roots, bright red is symbolic of the god, Shango, dark wineûred is for Ogun, god or iron, war and the road, while blue is for the goddess Oya. Many persons performing `African’ dance are unaware of the colour symbolism, which extends to several other aspects of the performance. Also in the costuming are different head-ties and waist bands, all bearing specific meaning. These aspects of the African performance are always ignored and some items thus become rather arbitrary with no particular “Africanness.”
Yet another important misconception about African performance and custom, leads to pejorative attitudes and negative stereotyping. One of these has to do with sexuality. Many performance traditions are sexually suggestive because exhibitions of sexuality, including some degree of explicitness, are symbolic of fertility, continuance of the life cycle, manhood or marriage. Ever since slavery and colonial times these displays were condemned as lewd, vulgar and gratuitous. A good example well known today is the kwe kwe, which thrives on sexual reference in words and gesture. This is often judged as a sign of the AfricanÆs liberal way of life. It is a stigma attached to the Guyanese folk songs as well.
Ironically, however, the kwe kwe, like the folk songs, is didactic and is a tradition which upholds moral behaviour, chastizes promiscuity, celebrates chastity and brings African ‘nations’ together through a strong marriage tradition. It instructs bride and groom and serves as a means of social control. Another stereotype is the myth that Africans have no interest or skills in business. Yet in African traditions bargaining is an art and it is considered an insult to lose in a bargain. Moreover, African men are judged according to their industry, material productivity and wealth, accumulated through work.
One problem is that true knowledge of such African custom does exist in many villages and among individuals in Guyana. These remain unresearched by “African” organizations whose over-riding interest seems to be political. They gravitate towards partisan politics rather than a quest for knowledge of African traditions. At the same time many who feel committed to perform the arts, end up in pseudo û African exhibitions, shallow and arbitrary in form and content.
What is of great importance is that this nation is Guyana, not Ghana, Nigeria or Zimbabwe and should strive first for a national identity, not imitate a foreign one. This can easily be achieved by gaining as much knowledge as possible about the Guyanese African heritage. Guyana is enriched by its multi-cultural existence. Such ethnic groups as the East Indian, Portuguese, Amerindian and African have strong traditions which have evolved in Guyana. Each is Guyanese. It is nonsense to try to mix or merge them although there are important and interesting hybrid forms that have developed naturally. The African heritage has been localized, creolized or indigenized in Guyana and is therefore a part of the national culture.