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Griot to Grime

Calypsonian Aldwyn Roberts aka Lord Kitchener

Aldwyn Roberts aka Lord Kitchener was born in Trinidad. His father helped him to develop his singing and guitar skills. His first job as a musician was playing guitar for labourers laying pipes in the San Fernando Valley. But after winning the Arima borough council's calypso competition five times between 1938 and 1942, there was no stopping him.

In 1943, he moved to Port of Spain where he met calypsonian, Growling Tiger, and took the name Lord Kitchener, later shortened to “Kitch”.

While on a tour to Jamaica with Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) and Lord Woodbine (Harold Phillips), he heard about the Empire Windrush’s impending voyage to Britain. The three decided to book their passage along with hundreds of Caribbeans. He inadvertently came to symbolise the naive optimism on board when he performed the calypso song, London is the Place for Me, on the ship for Pathé News.

Kitch’s first residency was at a pub in Brixton, South London. He played a significant role in the popularity of calypso in the UK during the 1950s, becoming a regular on BBC Radio and having a residency at The Sunset Club in London. Later, he opened The Reno, a nightclub in Manchester.

Kitch returned to Trinidad in 1962, winning the country's infamous Road March competitions 10 times between 1963-1976; more so than any other calypsonian.

For 30 years, he ran his own calypso tent, Calypso Revue.  Kitchener's compositions always proved popular as the chosen selections for steel bands to perform at the annual National Panorama competition during Trinidad Carnival.

Kitchener adopted the new soca genre on several albums from the mid-1970s. His most commercially successful song, and one of the earliest major soca hits, was ‘Sugar Bum Bum’ in 1978.

He is honoured with a statue in Port of Spain. A bust is also on display in Arima.

 

Windrush Foundation 

Windrush Foundation 

Griot to Grime

A Brother and Sister in Grime

Grime, UK garage, lovers rock, hip hop and R&B gave Black talents a reason to dance on through life's journey. British music history has to include Niomi McLean Daley who performs under the stage name, Ms. Dynamite. 

Born and raised in Archway, North London, Ms. Dynamite has a Jamaican father and Scottish mother. At the age of 13, she helped to support her younger siblings as her mother developed breast cancer. 

Niomi started nurturing her skills as a performer and vocalist when a family friend offered her a slot as a presenter on a pirate radio station called Raw FM. It was difficult at the time for a female to break through a male dominated music scene but Ms. Dynamite did it. She released her debut album A Little Deeper in 2002 and attracted interest from British labels.

She was the first Black female solo artist to win a Mercury Music Prize and also won three MOBO awards, two Brit awards and an MBE. She is widely regarded as a pioneering force in British music history. 

Music runs in Niomi's family genes as her younger brother, Akala (Kingslee Daley) has also had great musical success. He released his debut album It's Not a Rumour in 2006. He went on to win a MOBO Award for Best hip hop act. Akala has gone on to be an author and a major voice in the movement to "decolonise" the curriculum. His book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire is part autobiography and part history book but fully captures the experience of growing up Black in the UK. 

Akala cites much of his success and critical thinking to attending an African-centred supplementary Saturday school in his childhood. He says this gave him a more extensive education and sense of identity; something that was missing from mainstream schooling. 

 

Griot to Grime

The History of Calypso

Music was a way in which enslaved people expressed their feelings and emotions; be it sorrow, joy, inspiration or hope. Additionally, enslaved people from all walks of life, tribes and cultures used music as a tool for communication. These songs were influenced by African and religious traditions and would later form the basis for what is known as Calypso.

Calypso music emanated in the 18th century within Trinidad when West Africans were brought into the Caribbean islands to work on sugar plantations. It is believed that it evolved from the West African word “Kaiso”. The genre emerged in tents where the enslaved, who were forbidden to speak to one another, would discreetly communicate and satirically mock their enslaver. 

A Calypso would be performed by a singer known as a “Griot”, a captivating poet who would tell stories and make social commentaries. The music was sometimes accompanied with traditional dances, including hand and foot clapping. 

Over time, Calypso evolved to include English, African, French and Spanish influences. Calypso peaked in the early 1900s with the birth of the first documented recording by Lovey’s String Band. The recording dates back to 1912 when the band was visiting New York. Eventually, other Calypsonians such as Atilla the Hun, Lord Kitchener, Macbeth the Great, Growling Tiger and Harry Belafonte emerged.

When Trinidad gained independence from Britain in 1962, Calypsonians started using their songs to critique politicians, expose societal ills and offer solutions. Singing Sandra, for example addresses economic, political and sexual exploitation of the vulnerable. Others also became more involved with the politics of the time standing alongside leaders and political parties. 

Calypso is an evergreen musical genre; even Manchester United football fans chant a calypso composed by Edric Connor  in 1957 called Manchester United.

 

Griot to Grime

Grime, Jungle and Drum & Bass

From its birth around 1994, UK garage has had a massive impact on contemporary music in the UK.

Artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, The Streets and Ms Dynamite have been influenced by and worked within a number of musical genres. 

Garage was developed by American DJ Todd Edwards. He would remix regular tracks, manipulating vocal samples. His style rapidly made its way across the Atlantic and caught the ears of Londoners. 

DJs such as Armand Van Helden, MJ Cole and Grant Nelson began playing the remixes at an even faster tempo, resulting in the emergence of UK speed garage. Jungle was a popular genre at the time but was arguably replaced by garage because it appealed to larger audiences. 

Constant airplay on pirate radio stations and clubs pushed the genre into mainstream and music charts. 

Garage is characterised by deep rolling basslines, a slower but insistent beat of approximately 130 beats per minute and MCs rhyming to the music. This is again a technique that can trace its roots to Jamaican reggae and dancehall and was used in Jungle and Drum & Bass. 

In 2002, the genre fell suddenly out of favour with dance music fans. It had been undermined by the harder breakbeats and darker tones of grime and dubstep. Although artists such as Zed Bias, Craig David and Jamie XX tried to revive garage in the 2010s, it has never reached the dizzy heights of its time.

 

Griot to Grime

The History of Grime

Grime is a fusion of hardcore drum and bass, techno influences, electric 
sounds, UK accents and an intense lyrical flow. One major characteristic 
of grime music includes a bpm (beats per minute) of around 144 and 
recurrent phrases. 

It gained popularity throughout the early 2000’s through pirate radio 
stations (stations that do not have legal licenses) and live events on the 
underground scene. At the forefront of the genre were Dizzee Rascal, 
Wiley, Kano, Skepta, and Lethal Bizzle. Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy in Da Corner’ 
album, which won a Mercury prize, becoming the first major award for 
grime music.

Just as it seemed grime was reaching its peak, suddenly the genre had a 
significant decline. The genre had become associated with gang culture 
and many live performances lead to significant fights amongst the audience. The introduction of the P696, a controversial police document 
that required clubs to fill out risk assessments of each artist meant that a lot of grime artists were not allowed to play live events because the risk 
of danger was too high. This document was in place until 2017. 

The evolution of grime continued and a new sound was born; a more 
accessible and poppy sound that could be listened to at home. This gave  rise to a new artist who would make grime a mainstream genre. 
London-based grime MC of Ghanaian heritage, real name Michael Owuo, 
better known as Stormzy made a swift rise to fame, and has become one 
of the UK's most critically-acclaimed artists. 

In 2018, his album ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ took home British Album of the 
Year and British Male Solo Artist of the Year at the Brit Awards. Stormzy 
also became the first grime artist to headline Glastonbury Festival in 
2019. He took the opportunity to discuss the inequalities young Black 
people faced in the UK. 

Grime has often been used to express political views, and Stormzy has 
embraced this and used his position to endorse left-wing politicians in 
the UK. He famously used his BRIT Awards performance to call out the 
government for their handling of the Grenfell disaster, and donates 
significant amounts to social justice causes regularly.

 

Griot to Grime

Harold Phillips and The Beatles

Harold Phillips, aka Lord Woodbine, joined the Royal Air Force when he was just 14. After faking his age, he travelled to Lancashire to train. 

After the war, Harold returned to Trinidad, but after hearing about the Empire Windrush’s upcoming voyage in 1948 whilst on tour with calypso stars Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, he decided to travel to England and form his own band, Lord Woodbine and his Trinidadians.

In 1958, he fronted the All-Steel Caribbean Band, which had a regular residency at Liverpool's Jacaranda club, owned by Allan Williams, The Beatles’ first manager.

Harold became The Beatles’ early promoter and mentor after they began attending his gigs. For John Lennon and Paul McCartney, he was the first singer-songwriter that the young musicians had met and they were, for a while, referred to as “Woodbine's Boys”.

With the Trinidadian pannist (steel drum player) Gerald Gobin, Harold helped oversee The Beatles’ breakthrough trip to Hamburg. Then a four-piece guitar group, The Beatles believed that strings alone were enough to provide the rhythm section. As a percussionist, Harold disagreed and urged them to recruit a drummer, which led to the arrival of Pete Best in August 1960. Allan Williams and Harold booked The Beatles to perform in Germany, with Harold driving the van taking the band to Hamburg.

Despite this and McCartney’s own reference to ‘his old friend Woodbine’, Harold barely figures in The Beatles’ story. Were it not for journalist Tony Henry, who accompanied him on a trip to Trinidad in 1998, making a radio documentary about him, most of us would never have heard of Harold’s extraordinary life. Tragically, Harold perished in a house fire in Liverpool in 2000.

 

Windrush Foundation 

Windrush Foundation 

Griot to Grime

Island Records

For more than six decades, Island Records has arguably been one of the top record labels in the world. Formed in Jamaica by Chris Blackwell, Leslie Kong and Graeme Goodall in 1959, the name "Island" was taken from Alec Waugh's novel, Island In The Sun. Island Records was created with a particular focus on the music and artists emerging in the Caribbean. 

The record label would go on to become an outlet for introducing Jamaican records to immigrant communities throughout the UK. To further its aims and objectives of selling the music, Chris Blackwell relocated the label to the UK in May 1962. Distribution was targeted at West Indian immigrant communities in Manchester, Birmingham and London. 

In 1964, Blackwell and Island Records landed their first UK hit. It was a ska cover of Barbie Gaye's 50's hit, My Boy Lollipop. It was sung by Jamaican teenager Millie Small. Blackwell also established Black Swan and Jump Up for Ska and Trinidadian Calypsos respectively.

In the mid 1970s, Island became the world's top reggae label with artists like Bob Marley who became the label's best-selling musician.

July 1989 saw Blackwell selling Island to Polygram. In 1998, Polygram was bought by Seagrams thus making Island Records a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. Since then, Island has been home to many great artists such as Janet Jackson, Lionel Richie, Sean Paul, Elton John, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Bieber.

 

Griot to Grime

Lovers Rock

Lovers rock is a genre of music that is heavily influenced by Jamaica but originated in the UK as part of the Black British experience.  As a subgenre of Reggae, it is heavily constructed with romantic themes and a slow rhythm designed for partner dancing in a sensual manner. The songs are essentially smooth rhythmic poems or stories that were the soundtrack for a generation of young Caribbeans during the ‘60s, '70s and '80s. 

Seminal punk/rock/ska/reggae crossover band The Clash had a song called Lover's Rock on their 1979 signature double LP, London Calling which popularised the term, introducing it to a wider audience. 

The 70s also saw a rise in women having a voice in the music industry. Young female singers such as Janet Kay, Sandra Cross and Louisa Marks came out with songs like Silly Games and Caught Up in A Lie. Janet Kay’s Silly Games peaked at No. 2, the highest chart placing for a Black British woman at the time in the UK. Artists such as Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Freddie McGregor all gave prominence to lovers rock in the UK. 

The genre of lovers rock has heavily influenced the R&B, hip hop and pop music scenes since its genesis in the 1960s and 1970s. Songs incorporating a mixture of love and romance, politics and reggae-inspired sounds have become a familiar trend in music.

 

Griot to Grime

Pirate Radio

The advent of pirate radio has unequivocally been the backbone of numerous music genres of British origin. Pirate radio beamed the sounds of a new musical generation from the living rooms of houses to ships and forts around the coast. The likes of grime, garage, jungle, reggae dancehall and calypso are all heavily influenced by the inception of pirate radio in the UK.

The first pirate radio station was Ronan O'Rahilly's Radio Caroline which started regular broadcasting on Saturday 28 March 1964, off the coast of Felixstowe. Pirate radio is one that broadcasts without a valid license and fails to observe copyright law. Pirate radio stations had an immediate impact on government policies, listeners and the music industry.

By 1989, there were over 60 pirate radio stations such as Kool Fm, Rinse FM, Flex FM, Dream FM and Eruption FM. The stations catered for a changing attitude especially amongst young folks, towards the place of popular culture in the life of the UK. 

Of course pirates received hostility from people such as Tony Benn, who was responsible for administration of broadcasting in the UK from 1964 to 1966. He vehemently opposed pirate radio stations until finally accepting that young people wanted new music and a new atmosphere.  

In an attempt to reduce the number of pirate stations, the British government introduced a statutory instrument, the “Marine, &.c, Broadcasting (Offences) Act" in 1967. However, they were not entirely successful in banning pirate radio as some stations still operated regardless.

 

Griot to Grime

The Arrival of Reggae in the UK

The Windrush generation arrived on the shores of Britain on the HMS Windrush in 1948. They did not come alone. With them they brought food, art and music. The sounds they brought, especially, have left an indelible mark on British music culture. The story of reggae is a rich one, one that has managed to influence so many artists from so many backgrounds. 

Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. The birth of reggae stems from Ska and Rocksteady which, in turn, were influenced by traditional Caribbean Mento and Calypso. 

Ska arose in Jamaican studios in the late 1950s. In 1962, when Jamaica gained independence, Ska became the identity of the newly autonomous country.

Desmond Dekker's 1968 reggae hit ‘The Israelites’ was among the earliest songs that heralded the onslaught of Jamaican popular music.

Reggae is closely tied to the Rastafarian religion and movement. Many reggae artists often include Rastafari spiritual or social justice themes in their songs. The most famous reggae artist and probably the most well-known Rasta was Bob Marley. He formed his band in 1963 but it took over ten years for them to reach an international audience. 

In the 1980s, Dancehall music gained more popularity in the Jamaican diaspora. An offshoot of reggae, it featured more sparse, digitally recorded music and encouraged people to dance like their lives depended on it. The 1990s saw the rise of many dancehall names including Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and, of course, Buju Banton. 

 

Griot to Grime

Leslie "Teacher" Palmer and Jamaican Sound Systems

In 1973, a Trinidadian community activist and teacher by the name of Leslie “Teacher” Palmer revolutionised the Caribbean-styled Notting Hill Carnival.

Originally, Notting Hill Carnival had been a smaller, local celebration, but under Palmer’s leadership it became a nationally recognised event. A big part of this was the introduction of sound systems. 

Sound systems in this format were influenced by Jamaican migrants to the UK who brought this style of entertainment with them during waves of immigration. This unique style completely transformed the UK music scene, popularising reggae and then leading to the creation of garage and even grime music today. Before this, only a limited number of people were able to hear a band play during the Notting Hill carnival - sound systems changed this entirely. 

In his role as director of the carnival, Palmer revolutionised what is now a phenomenal event drawing people from around the world. He managed to: obtain colourful costumes; convince local black-owned businesses to let bands use their electricity; set up food and drink stalls and retained the use of massive trucks with massive music acts. Most importantly though, he persuaded the many islands of the Caribbean to come and celebrate their unique island cultures right there in this corner of London.  

Palmer encouraged the installation of large sound systems to allow the music to reach as many people as possible. Initially, the entire event began to be broadcast on national radio and attracted more than 50,000 visitors. Three years later that number was up to 250,000. 

It was Leslie Palmer, who has now received an MBE in recognition for his service to music and the Jamaican sound systems, who radically changed the Notting Hill Carnival and allowed it to grow into Europe’s largest street festival.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

Notting Hill Carnival

Ten years since the so-called “Windrush Generation” had been invited to the UK to work and help rebuild its economy, racial tensions were high. During the 1950s groups like Oswald Mosely’s Union Movement were stoking the fires of racist bigotry among the white population. 

During the summer of 1958, racially motivated riots erupted across Notting Hill, where approximately 5,000 Black people had settled. White working-class Teddy Boys from London’s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene, participated in acts of violence and hostility towards the local Black community. Black residents barricaded themselves into their homes as they were descended upon by the mobs.

A year on, racial tensions were still running high when a gang of white men murdered Antiguan carpenter and aspiring lawyer, Kelso Cochrane. With over 1,200 people in attendance at his funeral and a reported police cover-up, there was a surge in community activism in response to his murder.

In 1959 Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian human rights activist, produced an indoor ‘Caribbean Carnival’ event at St Pancras’ Townhall. This was broadcast on the BBC and led to many successful indoor Caribbean events springing up around London during the sixties. This is often sighted as the beginnings of Notting Hill Carnival.

In 1966 the first outdoor festival took place in Notting Hill. Social worker and local resident of Russian and Native American descent, Rhaune Laslett, created an event for local children. With the aim to include Caribbean residents, she invited the well-known Russ Henderson Steel Band.

As intended, many local Caribbean people joined the event and a spontaneous trail of dancing and music wove itself through the streets. Notting Hill Carnival was born.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

Origins of Carnival in the Caribbean

Much debate exists over whether Caribbean carnival originated in Europe and spread to the islands during the enslavement period, or whether it came from an older spiritual tradition beginning in Africa.

Historian, Dr Ian Smith argues that Carnival was an ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) festival to welcome in spring, fertility and life. It featured dances with canes that are still practised today and can be seen engraved in friezes in Egypt. Smith states that Romans came across this festival and adopted it as their own, using it as a moment to bid farewell to the devil and vanity, before entering into fasting. The name “Carnival” comes from the Italian “carne vale” which literally translates  as “flesh farewell”. Other sources support the idea of Carnival as a pagan festival that was later accepted by Christians as the two-day celebration before Lent.

Some historians argue that Carnival was brought over to the Caribbean by Europeans during the trade of enslaved Africans. There are records of Carnival initially being a festival celebrated by only the upper-classes. Following the emancipation of the enslaved populations, Carnival became open to the recently freed. It was here that it became infused with African character, music and drumming. Carnival transformed from an aristocratic celebration, to a party open to all. Through masquerade, dance and music, Carnival was a clandestine way that free Black people could mock the plantation owners and pass comment on island politics.

Many assert that the first modern Carnival originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the late eighteenth century, when French settlers brought Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) with them. Carnival became a well-established annual festival celebrated throughout the island. However, in 1881 there were a series of uprisings known as the Canboulay riots (Cannes Brulées), as colonial police tried, unsuccessfully, to restrict festivities. These radical acts of resistance are still re-enacted today to celebrate freedom from slavery.

So, whether a Christian celebration before Lent or an ancient African festival, Caribbean Carnival has its roots in cultural exchange. A dialogue that has been taking place over millennia.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

The remarkable career of Sonny Ramadhin

The West Indies Cricket Team emerged in the 1890s and represented a sporting federation of English-speaking Caribbean countries. The team was regulated by the West Indies Cricket Board commonly known as “The Windies”. The team secured their first test series victory against England in 1950 through Sonny Ramadhin, when West Indies defeated England on home turf for the first time. 

Sonny Ramadhin, born in St Charles village, Trinidad on 1 May 1929, was a West Indies cricketer of Indian descent. He had no first name and was commonly known as “boy” until he was identified as Sonny, Sonny Ramadhin in the world of cricket. Before then, he would use the initial “KT” during his first international series. The 5 foot 4 ace cricketer was ushered into the game at the Canadian Mission School in Duncan Village, Trinidad. He developed as an off-spinner under his captain Oscar Roach.

He played with fellow Jamaican spinner, Alf Valentine, and the two were considered the most profound West Indian spin bowling duo in all of cricket. The 1950 win against England was celebrated by Egbert Moore in the famous “Victory Calypso”. Egbert performed with the stage name Lord Beginner and the song was originally authored by Lord Kitchener, a famous Calypsonian. 

After giving the Caribbean fans plenty to cheer about, Sonny went on to play for Lancashire in 1964-1965 and then for Lincolnshire between 1968 and 1972. His remarkable cricket career came to a halt when he decided to retire after Lance Gibbs took over the mantle as lead spinner. This happened in the epic Test Series against Australia in 1960-1961. He made 43 international appearances and claimed 158 wickets. He went on to serve as president for Friarmere Cricket Club for a number of years. 

After retiring, Ramadhin settled with his wife June where they operated “The White Lion pub” in Delph for 25 years. Sonny died on 27th February 2022.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

African Yoga

Heated debate surrounds the origins of yoga as more people argue the case for its African roots.

The word “yoga” is from the Sanskrit and means “to join” or “to unite”. Through breathwork and postures, Yoga practice aims to create harmony between mind and body.

Today, in most gyms Hatha or Vinyasa yoga is practised, which explore movement between postures and controlled breathing. Although yoga continues to transform itself for different contexts - from Pranayama (breath focussed) to Yuktahara (diet focussed).

Until recently, it was widely agreed that yoga began thousands of years ago in India. There have been numerous seals and fossils discovered in the Indus Valley, displaying figures in yoga positions. Dr. Ishwar V. Basavaraddi states that this suggests the presence of yoga in ancient India. He adds that yoga is believed to have started with the dawn of civilization.

Nowadays more people are arguing for the ancient African origins, known as “Smai Tawi”, meaning the "union of two lands". Hailing from Kemet, “land of the Blacks” (now known as Egypt), this practice primarily focuses on breathing and the seven body chakras (energy points in the body from the base of the spine up to the head). These are often represented in hieroglyphs by two serpents interweaving like DNA. Some sources suggest hieroglyphs depicting yoga poses and serpents are proof of the African origins. They claim that these pre-date Indian artefacts.

Many Kemetic yoga classes have sprung up around the globe, introducing new Black audiences to the power of this ancient, ever-evolving tradition.

Could yoga be a science that began with humankind, in an attempt to understand our bodies and how we connect with the world? As it spread across the world in multiple places at once, it connected cultures and philosophies. Today it remains a powerful technique for cultivating harmony between body and mind. A useful tool for everyone.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

Dance as Teacher: Spirituality, Resistance and Celebration

From the Dougie to the Dutty Whine, Merengue to Morris dancing. Dance is an important part of many cultures, connecting countries to their history and imbuing celebrations with festive fun. From the Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul to the voudoun (voodoo) of Africa and the Caribbean, dance has also been part of spiritual practices, teaching methods and an act of resistance.

The Limbo - popularised in Trinidad - is thought to be inspired by the experiences of enslaved Africans on cramped ships as they were forced to exercise on deck. The Cakewalk was a covert way to ridicule plantation owners. The Bamboula dance of enslaved Africans has been described in a way that is comparable to breakdancing today. Through the exchange between African and Caribbean cultures new dances and practices have evolved.

The Moko Jumbie dancers first originated in West Africa. "Moko", meaning healer and “Jumbie”, which was added as the tradition passed over to the Caribbean, meaning ghost or spirit. These masquerade characters wear brightly coloured costumes and teeter atop 9 foot high stilts, enabling them to see and ward off evil spirits from afar. They feature at festivals and carnivals as good omens. The Moko Jumbie is sight to behold and represents a spiritual tradition that is hundreds of years old.

Dance as a teacher is always being innovated. In the 1950s, on the Ivory Coast in West Africa, a dance called the Zaouli was invented. Inspired by a beautiful girl named Djela Lou Zaouli, this dance recounts seven legends, depending on which of the seven masks is worn. The Zaouli is performed by men at special events and celebrates feminine beauty. It involves lots of complex footwork, with the arms in an almost stationary position. In some ways similar to Irish dancing.

Today, we see many viral dance crazes that have become part of British identity have their roots in Black diaspora cultures. Rwandan-British choreographer Sherrie Silver introduced the UK to South Africa’s Gwara Gwara dance through the music video for Childish Gambino’s This is America music video.  In 2015, the dance of Atlanta was being performed by young people across Britain. And even a Cuban classic, the Conga, features at parties with young and old alike.

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

Caribbean Myths and Storytelling

Storytelling has been part of Caribbean culture for hundreds of years. Many myths and folk tales originated in Africa and were brought to the islands by enslaved Africans. Not written down, but passed down through the generations, told and retold under starlight. These stories were influenced by Native American, European and East Indian legends, continuing to change with each retelling. But how do you tell a good story, Caribbean style?

“Every rope gat two ends.” ("Every story has two sides" - Guyanese proverb)

Firstly, you want to make sure your story has multiple meanings. A storyteller may speak about The Headless Dance as a way to understand the beginning of the world. We may hear about a clever old woman and her starfruit tree, as a way to explain why we have misery in the world. Or better understand the importance of bravery and problem solving through a little girls’ scary adventure with The Moongazer. Just like a proverb, your story must teach us something.

“Anansi rope tie him masa.” ("Be careful that you are not caught in the traps you set for others" - Jamaican proverb)

Secondly, have you included a trickster? A lot of Caribbean tales have this type of character. Whether it is the calculated spider Anansi from African folklore, the vindictive Jackroy from Jamaica, or the talented Ti Jean from St Lucia. A trickster creates the perfect ruse to help your tale unfold.

“Hand go, hand come.” ("As you give, so shall you receive" - Bahamian proverb) 

Lastly, audience involvement is essential to a good tale. This is done through call and response. The audience will pass judgement and make comments throughout. Often the storyteller will announce a story is about to begin by saying “Crick!” (“kwik” in creole). The audience responds with, “Crack!” (“kwak” in creole). The Crick-Crack tradition is popular on islands such as Grenada and Trinidad. At the end of a story there is normally a declaration to clear any participants of guilt for telling tales.

“Jack Mandora, me nuh chose none” (Jac"k Mandora-keeper of stories- I have told the story the way I heard it" - Jamaican saying).

 

Carnival Culture to Cricket

The Jab Jab Whip Masters of Trinidad

What are the origins of the Jab Jab style of carnival participation? Across the different Caribbean islands, there are different traditions. In Trinidad however, there are elements of East Indian celebrations, although certain elements of the Jab Jab costume, such as the protective mirrors, were also present in African stick fight attire.

Between 1845 and 1917 almost 144,000 East Indians migrated to Trinidad under the system of Indian indentureship, introduced after emancipation. The vast majority of East Indians who came were Hindus, while a smaller proportion were Muslim. 

Proffesor Hollis Liverpool wrote in his book Rituals of Power and Rebellion:

'Despite the trying conditions experienced under the indenture system, about 90% of the Indian immigrants chose, at the end of their contracted periods of indenture, to make Trinidad their permanent home.” 

The presence of Jab Jab, he adds, really began to be noted in the 1880s.

The participation of East Indians in the masquerade carnival also contained an element of resistance. They began to protest the unsanitary living conditions in their rural barrack yards, as well as unfair restrictions on personal movement and dehumanising legislation enacted by the colonial government.

For the Africans, the devil mas or jab molassie masquerade was one way to recall the trauma of enslavement, when the enslaved would have, at times, fallen into the huge boiling vats of molasses used in the production of rum. The Jab Jab masquerade was another form of devil mas played primarily by East Indians and not to be confused with the jab molassie masquerade.

Not surprisingly, the various ethnic groups began to assimilate traditional masquerade and cultural forms from each other into their Carnival portrayals. For instance, jab jab costumes feature the stockings and three-quarter pants with suspended bells from the stickfighter’s costume, as well as the heart-shaped addition on the outside of the costume on the chest area.

The Jab Jab Whip masters are more spiritual than we realise. On the days before Carnival they fast, do not drink alcohol and abstain from sex. The night before, they bathe themselves in a bath of special herbs as part of the many rituals they partake in as part of being a true whip master. This all culminates in the morning of each master accepting a hard lash from a whip across their back to ascertain whether they are strong enough to perform on the road. The Jab Jab Whip Masters do not permit themselves to dance with women (whine) during the carnival season.

While the correct practice is to have a clean whip made of plant fibres, some whip masters have been known to lace their whips with hooks, nails or broken glass in order to overcome their opponents. 

The incredible wealth of Carnival traditions is something which is still being unpicked by academics and participants alike. We still do not know all of the secrets of the Carnival cliques, including the Jab Jab Masters.

 

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

Fiona Compton - Know Your Caribbean

A Taste of Home

Black Cake or The Empire Christmas Pudding

In 1926, the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) was struggling to encourage the public to buy more expensive Empire products. They needed a way to capture the public’s imagination and they did this with a pudding. This pudding was promoted as a way to save the Empire through popularising ingredients from each colony.

The recipe for the Empire Christmas Pudding was written by King George V’s chef André Cédard, with ingredients that map a history of colonial rule: rum from the Caribbean, brandy from Cyprus, currants from Australia, cinnamon from India, cloves from Zanzibar, South African raisins and apples from Canada. 

Black cake reflects the history of colonial British presence in the Caribbean and the world. It illustrates an entwined cultural exchange. Originally created in England as a primarily brandy-based cake, whose high alcohol content could preserve fruits for enjoyment over the British winter. Black cake is a reimagined Empire Christmas Pudding in a Caribbean context. 

Dark in colour, dense in texture and intensely flavoured by rum-soaked fruits such as currants and sultanas, Black cake is eaten over the Christmas period and can involve the whole family in its preparation. From mixing the batter, to soaking the fruits in rum, or mixing icing, each person can contribute. 

For many from the Caribbean diaspora, the nostalgic flavour of Christmas is a spoonful of black cake, washed down with a bright red, cinnamon and clove infused sorrel drink (aka hibiscus).

 

A Taste of Home

Breadfruit

The breadfruit is a remarkable green spiky fruit, the size of an ostrich egg. It has existed for over 3,000 years and travelled the world, from the tropics to the UK. It can now be found in many marketplaces, but its journey to the UK was plagued with deception and terror.

In the late 1700s Sir Joseph Banks, botanical advisor for Kew Gardens, returned from an expedition with Captain James Cook to Tahiti. Here, he’d encountered breadfruit and was amazed by its productivity. From food to building materials, medicine to glue, it was used widely. He recommended it to King George III as an easy to grow sustenance for enslaved captives.

At the behest of the King, Lieutenant William Bligh, captain of the HMS Bounty, first attempted to bring breadfruit from the Southern Pacific Islands to the Caribbean. His initial attempt was thwarted, due to the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, which saw crew member (Fletcher Christian) throw Bligh and a few other men into a small boat mid-ocean. Christian also jettisoned a boatload of breadfruit saplings into the sea.

After managing to navigate his way back to land, several years later, Bligh set sail again. This time he successfully brought hundreds of saplings to the Caribbean and the King’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London. At least one original tree is rumoured to still be living.

In his log, Bligh refers to indigenous people baking breadfruit until the skin was black. It was then peeled to reveal a thin crust and soft white crumb. This would be good to eat for 24 hours before becoming stale. It’s compared to a “penny loaf” – an indication of why the British named the plant breadfruit.

Today breadfruit is eaten in a variety of ways across the Caribbean and is a staple in many households from the diaspora. From the creamy “oil down” national dish of Grenada, to the zesty roasted breadfruit and fried Jackfish of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for many breadfruit is the taste of home.

 

A Taste of Home

The history of jerk - tasty, spicy barbecue seasoning

In 2018, when a famous British chef released his microwavable “punchy” jerk rice seasoning, he became the focus of amused incredulity, a plethora of memes and incredible disdain. How dare he attempt to appropriate a Caribbean culture that is very sensitive to such things? A British MP of Jamaican heritage, Dawn Butler, even took to Twitter to tell him “Your jerk rice is not OK.”

Food historians often have a difficult time tracking down the origins of dishes. This is especially the case with many Caribbean dishes as the involuntary movement of more than ten million people from across a number of countries in Africa to the Americas, led to a mixing of cultures that without the trade in enslaved Africans would not have happened. 

One important historical aspect of the jerk seasoning style is understanding that hot countries invariably developed, independently, seasonings that would help to preserve meats in hotter climates. This is part of the reason why African, South Asian and South American seasoning styles often feature salts, peppers and vinegars as a way to preserve the fish or meat. 

It is generally agreed that jerk developed in Jamaica. It is thought that the Jamaican Maroons played a big part in the creation of this style of marinade and barbecue. The Maroons were formerly enslaved who, once they had escaped from their plantations, made a life for themselves deep in the forested interior of Jamaica. Here, they were able to live as they wanted, free from the brutality of European overseers. 

The Maroons would have mixed with the Indigenous Taino peoples of Jamaica, who predated both the African and European people who arrived afterwards. The Taino spoke Arawak and were descended from South American travellers. The Taino were eventually driven to extinction by European diseases and enslavement. 

For a good jerk marinade, it is generally agreed that the ingredients should be oil, pimento, thyme, smoked paprika and of course, scotch bonnet peppers. Blended and slathered over chicken or pork (not rice, never rice!) as a marinade it gives a rich, spicy flavour that is nowadays enjoyed around the world like many other Jamaican exports. 


 

 

A Taste of Home

Jollof Wars

Mention Jollof rice amongst people of the West African diaspora and you may find yourself entering a friendly feud. Who makes the best Jollof is a point of contention. The main protagonists in this foodie debate are Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. But what is this fragrant, tasty dish that causes so much light-hearted banter?

The way Jollof rice is made varies. As a general rule, it’s a combination of well-seasoned braised meat, sweet onions and a spicy, smoky, rich tomato sauce. Flavours depend on which ingredient you add first and each household has its own style. Ghanaians use basmati rice to add extra flavour, whereas Nigerians claim long-grain rice absorbs more flavour from the sauce. Liberians add dried fish and some Gambians add snails.

The Jollof rice originators were of the Wolof Empire (also known as Jolof Empire) and the dish can be traced back to the 1300s. As the Wolof people migrated and settled in regions across West Africa, they took this delicious dish with them. 

It is worth noting that the national boundaries within Africa did not exist until the Berlin Conference of 1884, where Europe set the rules for colonising Africa. Before then communities were more fluid and defined themselves through cultural customs, language and spiritual practices. So, although the Wolof Empire was situated in today’s Senegal, each country has a long-established relationship to Jollof and its hearty flavours.

You can even see how this West African dish has a home with the Gullah people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina, whose ancestors brought rice growing expertise to the US during the enslavement period. The Gullah has preserved many traditions, one of which is a Jollof style rice dish, known as Gullah red rice (although a dish in its own right).

So, although the ongoing Jollof debate is real, it is all spoken with a loving heart; a way of bonding and connecting across the world, through shared culture and appreciation of flavour. 

 

A Taste of Home

Rum Wars

Rum controversy struck in 2021 when actor Michael B. Jordan released his own US brand of rum trademarked J’Ouvert, after the Trinidadian carnival tradition. Without a connection to the country, he received much criticism. He quickly announced plans to rename. 

Rum is an important part of Caribbean heritage. Each Island has their own preferred brand and method for distillation, with histories that span hundreds of years. There are even some contemporary brands that have self-empowerment and ethical trade at their core.

Frederick H. Smith states in his book, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History that alcohol has been made from sugarcane prior to the European presence in the Caribbean. The sugarcane plant existed at least 2,500 years ago across Asia. However, its enormous profitability took off during the enslavement period in the Caribbean. It became very important to sailors, not only as a staple drink, but a currency for trading in people.

Originally called Mount Gilboa, Mount Gay rum has been produced for over three centuries in Barbados; the ‘birthplace’ of rum. In Saint Lucia Admiral Rodney and Chairman’s Reserve are very popular, produced on the island by St Lucia Distillers. African-American woman, Joy Spence, is the master blender of the much-celebrated Wray & Nephew (now a subsidiary of Campari) in Jamaica. Haiti’s most popular rum, Barbancourt, has been made on the island for over 150 years. 

In the UK, we have several Black-owned rum brands that commemorate our shared history. Equiano Rum claims to be the world’s first African and Caribbean rum. Whereas Mantugga Rum is the UK’s first Black female-owned distillery, handcrafted in Scotland with African ingredients. 

On most Caribbean islands, though, a homemade local overproof variety can be found in rooms filled with large barrels, where you bring your own bottle to fill up. These fiery fermentations are not exported and often drunk with fresh coconut water or used in festive punch.

 

A Taste of Home

The History of Saltfish

From the icy waters of the Atlantic to the warm Caribbean Sea, a dried salty cod connects cultures. A tale of adventure, transformation and enslavement peppers a vast history that sets sail with the Vikings in the late ninth century. 

Viking shipbuilders needed a way to preserve their food provisions and ensure that they survived their voyages, so “stockfish” was created through a drying process. This was soon not just popular amongst the Vikings. The preserved fish spread to Newfoundland (Canada) and became popular with the seafaring Basques, and through them reached across Europe.

In 1497, navigator and explorer John Cabot re-discovered Newfoundland and the most plentiful supply of codfish in the known world. Aware of stockfish’s immense popularity in Europe, he knew he had stumbled across a money-making opportunity. But he faced a significant challenge before he could get his business off the ground: the climate. 

Drying fish in the humidity of Newfoundland was practically impossible. Salting had to be introduced before drying it. This process enabled it to be exported around the world and it became cheap and reliable sustenance.

Saltfish was a commodity that could nourish and easily be traded. Enslavers readily used it to feed the people they imprisoned and saltfish became a staple ingredient in what food historian, Dr Peggy Brunache, calls "slave cuisine".

Saltfish, also known as bacalhau (Portuguese), bacalao (Spanish) and kabeljauw (Dutch), was apparently named after the French word for cod, cabaillaud. These Mediterranean versions of the name would follow it to the Caribbean where it was known as both saltfish and bacalao/ bacalhau. 

Enslaved Africans created ingenious dishes that combined saltfish and the provisions they were able to grow in their gardens. Infusing the fish with rich seasonings, serving with vegetables and grains, they created nourishment that could also bring fleeting moments of joy.

To this day saltfish is a celebrated ingredient across the Black diaspora, with ackee and saltfish the esteemed national dish of Jamaica. A symbol of innovation, resilience and survival.

 

A Taste of Home

A Herb By Any Other Name

Shado beni. Chadon beni. Spiritweed. Ngo gai. Donnia. Bhandhnanya. Fitweed. Mexican coriander. Arab parsley. Saw leaf. Sea Holly. Gad. Alcapate. Wanzendill. Culantro. 

These are just a few of the many names given to the herb native to the Caribbean and Central America that is a staple in so many of our dishes and seasonings. It's also cultivated in Hawaii, as well as in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Mexico. It grows year-round in areas given to hot, humid climates.  

Shado beni’s flavour is similar to its nominal cousin cilantro, but with a stronger tone that lingers like a “shado(w)” and is the backbone of the quintessential 'green seasoning' that gives so many Caribbean dishes their distinctive taste. Especially popular in Trinidad and Tobago, it is famously found ground into a salsa for ‘bake and shark', a staple sandwich on Trinbagonian beaches. 

Shado beni was traditionally used by the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean to treat burns, earaches, fevers, hypertension, constipation, seizures, asthma, stomachache, worms, and snakebites; and studies have shown that there are indeed anthelmintic, anticonvulsant and anti-inflammatory properties in its leaf extract. Culantro is rich in calcium and is a good source of riboflavin, iron, carotene, and vitamins A, B-complex and C. 

This herb grows 'wild' in any open space in the Caribbean. How this herb went from an indigenous traditional medicine plant to the backbone of flavour in dishes across the Caribbean, Asia, and India is connected to the global impacts of colonialism, slavery and indentured servitude in the Caribbean. It remains a testament to our adaptability and resilience in the face of extreme hardship.

Today this herb will be found in any part of the world where the Caribbean diaspora exists, flavouring the savoury dishes present in Caribbean-styled restaurants globally.

 

The World We See

Hew Locke: Sculptor and Expressionist Artist

Hew Locke is a Guyanese-British sculptor and expressionist artist born in Edinburgh in 1959. After spending 15 years in Guyana, he relocated to the UK in 1980. By 1988 and 1994, Locke had earned a BA in Fine Arts and MA in Sculpture at Falmouth University and Royal College of Art respectively. 

Locke is known for assembling a gleaming body of art that explores a wide range of subject matter including colonialism, global power structures amongst many others. His work is represented in the collections of many artistic institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Gallery; the Victoria & Albert Museum Drawing Collection; Kunsthalle Bremen, Germany: the British Museum; the Brooklyn Museum and Perez Art Museum Miami. 

Locke is often featured with solo presentations in international exhibitions and Biennales. The solo shows have included Here's the Thing at Ikon Gallery Birmingham (2019), For Those in Peril on the Sea for Folkestone Triennial (2011) and The Tourists on board HMS Belfast.

In 2022, Locke has already created an exciting large-scale installation for a Tate Britain Commission. The Procession features decorated characters of all ages traveling from one end of the gallery to the other, through geography, time and culture. It evokes many kinds of procession; from celebratory to sorrowfull; practical and ceremonial; to forced and voluntary. The Procession aims to spark ideas of pilgrimage, migration, trade, carnival, protest, social celebrations or our own individual journey through life.

 

The World We See

Life Between Islands: Caribbean British Art 1950s

Life Between Islands is an artistic exhibition of culture, celebration, police brutality, identity, music, anger, resilience, protests, pleasures and above all racial inequality. It explores Caribbean-British art that spans over five decades. 

Through exhibitions organized by Tate Britain, we are introduced to the Caribbean islands, the Windrush generation of the 1950s and second-generation Caribbeans born and raised in the UK. Many of these artistic expressions touch on political issues. They also include commentary on the discrimination faced by the Caribbean-British communities.

Life Between Islands features more than 40 artists that are either Caribbean-British or heavily influenced by the Caribbean. In one exhibition, Denzil Forrester's Jah Shaka pays lively homage to music, socialization and connection within the Caribbean community. This was influenced by Isaac Julien's Territories, a 1984 film that depicts friction between carnival attendees and the police.

David A. Bailey, the curator of Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s says: ‘The show really circulates around four different generations, it was a case of trying to establish a kind of British Blackness in all its diversity.'

 

The World We See

Wifredo Lam: the Cuban Expressionist Artist

Wifredo Oscar de la Conception Lam y Castilla is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He was born on December 8, 1902 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba to a Chinese father and Congolese-Iberian (African, Indian and European descent) mother. As a Cuban artist, he sought to interpret and resuscitate Afro-Cuban spirit and culture. 

In 1916, Lam travelled to Havana to study Law but ended up developing a love for art, so he enrolled in Havana's School of Fine Arts. Lam's work encompasses many themes and styles including sorrow, divinity, social discrimination, spirituality, rebirth, Surrealism, and Cubism. His work had stirred interest in Afro-Cuban traditions. He saw the struggles of the descendants of enslaved people and realised they were still oppressed. He believed Cuba was on the verge of losing its African heritage and that motivated him to make paintings for tourism. 

In an interview with Max-Pol Fouchet, Lam said: ‘I wanted with all my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the Blacks. In this way, I could act as a Trojan horse that could spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.’

Many of Lam's paintings are inspired by his own experiences; from meeting Pablo Picasso in 1938; to meeting other leading artists and writers such as Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret; losing his wife and son to tuberculosis in 1931; and fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. 

His notable paintings include The Jungle 1943, Self-Portrait II 1938, The Eternal Present 1944, Horse-Headed Woman 1950, Rumblings of the Earth and Zambezia, Zambezia.

Lam saw his work not just as an artistic pursuit but a political one too, saying: 

'Africa has not only been dispossessed of many of its people, but also of its historical consciousness ... I have tried to relocate Black cultural objects in terms of their own landscape and relation to their own world.'

'My painting is an act of decolonization not in a physical sense, but in a mental one.'

 

The World We See

Dionne Sparks: Diaspora Conversations

Dionne Sparks is a Black artist and teacher based in London. She graduated with First Class Honours in B.A. Fine Art from Liverpool John Moores University in 1989. A year later, Dionne created an artwork, Conversations, with shapes cut from magazines collaged onto paper merged with painting in acrylics.

The title, Conversations, is a reference to the personal and political relationships of the African Diaspora. It was made shortly after a transformative visit to Nigeria, where Dionne spent some weeks travelling and visiting Nigerian artists in their studios and homes. 

When Dionne returned to Liverpool from Nigeria in 1990, she recalled the kaleidoscopic images etched in her memory and explored her relationship with the African continent. Once, a collection of poetry by the American writer Alice Walker in which she recollects her visit as a young Black woman to East Africa, was a big influence on Dionne at this point. Conversations features motifs of sky, earth, tree, pot, cloth, pattern and a walking figure although it moves away from the purely representative into abstraction.  

In the bottom right corner, there is a printed pattern reminiscent of traditional textiles found in Nigeria which often use geometric designs. In a contrast of the time-honoured with the new, Dionne adds collage using photos of brightly-coloured, satin zipped jackets fashionable in the 1990s.  Dionne says: ‘Cloth has always been laden with meaning for me.’

Conversations was purchased by the University of Liverpool in 1990 and is regularly displayed in its Victoria Gallery and Museum. Dionne continues to develop and flourish as an artist.  She is currently studying MA Painting at the Royal College of Art in London and is a recipient of The Basil H. Alkazzi Scholarship Award 2021. 

 

Victoria Gallery & Museum

Victoria Gallery & Museum

The World We See

‘Big Bird’ by Sir Frank Bowling

Big Bird is a large oil painting in two sections featuring a white swan with its head up on the left panel, and down on the right. The artist, Sir Frank Bowling, was born in British Guyana in 1934 (known as Guyana since independence in 1966). Bowling came to Britain in 1953 when he was nineteen. Big Bird is from the early part of his long career and was painted in 1964. 

Sir Frank became intrigued by swans because they symbolised different aspects of his life in the early 1960s. Although he was successful in the artworld, his home life was complicated and Sir Frank said he felt “the stresses of domestic life”. So, like a healthy swan, he appeared serene on the outside, but inside he struggled like a distressed or injured swan resulting in a series of paintings on the theme. The swan motif also evolved from Sir Frank’s empathy with outsiders in society like beggars and others with “broken lives”. He heard people saying phrases like ‘if you don’t straighten up and fly right … you’re going to end up in the gutter like those people out there.’

In Big Bird, the left panel shows a flying swan that has been injured and has blood around its beak, while the right panel shows it falling to the ground. Despite its sad subject, Big Bird is set against a colourful backdrop laid out in a grid formation which echoes of the work of Piet Mondrian, a Dutch Modernist painter whose work Sir Frank studied at art school. 

Sir Frank studied at the prestigious Royal College of Art (RCA) in London with other now famous artists like David Hockney and Peter Blake. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 2005, awarded an OBE in 2008 and a knighthood in 2020. 

 

The World We See

Neo-Expressionist Painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960 to a Haitian-American father and Puerto Rican mother.

He loved drawing from an early age and was encouraged to explore his artistic side by his mother. Self-taught, he first started gaining attention for his graffiti in the late 1970s under the name SAMO. In his early years, he signed off his work with a crown motif, a symbol he used to celebrate Black people as majestic. 

Through his art he explored his experiences in the Black community, using his work to challenge power structures and systematic racism. His work was incredibly political; using poetry, drawing, painting, text and image to condemn colonialism and highlight class struggle. 

In the early 1980s Basquiat’s work started to receive critical acclaim and attracted the attention of the art world. At just 22 years old, he became one of the youngest artists ever to participate in the Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition of contemporary art. By the mid 80’s he had collaborated with artist Andy Warhol, put on a show in The Ivory Coast and exhibited his paintings at the Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Hanover, Germany — becoming the youngest artist to ever showcase his work there. 

However, his incredible talent, which was earning him over $1.4 million a year, came at a great cost. He struggled to cope with the sudden fame and became paranoid, unable to trust people. He started using drugs as a coping mechanism, which sadly led to his demise. At 27 he died from a heroin overdose.

He achieved so much in his short life, his legacy being credited for bringing the African American and Latino experience into the elite art world.

In 2017 he made headlines, when a Japanese billionaire broke a record when he bought Basquiat's Untitled, a 1982 painting of a skull, for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

 

The World We See

Black British Artist Sonia Boyce

Sonia Boyce was born in London in 1962. Her schoolteachers noticed that she would often doodle and draw in the margins of her books; it was her art teacher who encouraged her to go to art school. 

In the 1980s, Sonia was associated with the radical British black art movement, exploring race, gender and inequality through art. During this time, Sonia would often depict herself in her work, looking at her position as a Black woman in Britain. In 1989, together with a group of four female artists, she created The Other Story, which was the first exhibition of British African, Caribbean, and Asian Modernism. 

In the 1990s, she stopped drawing and started exploring photography, film and performance, continuing to use art as a social critique. Rather than depicting herself, she started working collaboratively with other artists. 

In 2007, she was awarded an MBE for her services to art. In February 2020, Boyce was selected by the British Council to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2022, the first black woman to do so. In April that year, Boyce won the Venice Biennale’s top Golden Lion prize with her work Feeling Her Way.

 

The World We See

Photographer Vanley Burke

Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica and moved to Birmingham in 1965 to be reunited with his mother, who had moved to Britain to become a nurse. She gifted him his first camera, a box Brownie, which he used to start documenting the lives and experiences of people around him. 

Observing that the British media’s portrayal of Black people was often very negative and inaccurate, he saw it as his duty to record his communities own history. He captured everything from everyday life to significant events, such as the 1985 Handsworth uprisings. 

Vanley Burke has been described as the godfather of Black British Photography, and his work is the largest photographic collection of Caribbean Diaspora in Britain. 

His work has been exhibited in prestigious galleries such as the V&A and Tate Britain, but he always makes sure to also exhibit his work in places easily accessible to British Black community; clubs, community centers, pubs, churches, pool halls and schools.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Traditional Craft Techniques

In diary entries of Thomas Thistlewood (Jamaica 1721-1786), one of the most diabolical enslavers, he refers to craft created by enslaved Africans. This would suggest that some of the African craft traditions were maintained and brought over to the Caribbean.

Weaving is a craft that has been used around the world for thousands of years. The roof of the first Christian church in Britain (Glastonbury, 166 AD) was made using a wickerwork technique and straw. But the history of weaving dates back much further than this.

One of the oldest traditional crafts is basket weaving. It is a precursor to pottery making and was often used as mould for ceramic pots. One of the oldest basket pieces was found in Gambols, Kenya 8000 BCE, and recently a basket in its entirety was found in Israel dating back 10,000 years. 

In The Bahamas they create unique, sturdy Red Bay baskets. They are thought to be a legacy from the Black Seminoles, an offshoot of the Gullah people, who escaped the plantations of South Carolina (US) and were scattered across North America and the Caribbean in their wars for freedom. Interestingly the Gullah people have similar basket weaving techniques to Sierra Leonean traditions, using long grasses to weave round shallow bowls. 

To support the idea that traditional craft techniques were passed down for generations and across geographical locations, you need look no further than Jamaican woodwork traditions today. Many crafts people were not formally trained. Despite this you can see similar techniques and shapes used to carve heads and functional objects as those adopted by Makonde craftsmen from southeast Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

Traditional crafts continue to live on across the world, with methods passed down through families. Organisations such as Caribbean Craft, The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers and Craft of Africa, aim to keep these traditions alive through workshops, exhibitions and training.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

The Benin Bronzes

The Benin Bronzes is an umbrella term for the thousands of sculptures, plaques, figurines, and ornaments created from the 16th century onwards in Benin, now in Nigeria. 

They have come to represent several things since their creation. From showing us the skill and beauty of African art, demonstrating the sophistication and technological knowledge of the historical Kingdom of Benin, and illustrating the brutality of British colonialism, they are a significant part of African history.

The Bronzes were used primarily to decorate the Oba’s (King’s) Royal Palace as well as represent the transfer of power from one Oba to another, through the ornate sculptures of each Oba’s head. They have helped historians construct a historical record of Benin, whilst also showing how art and craftsmanship evolved and refuting stereotypes of African societies as “savage” and underdeveloped.

In 1897, the Bronzes were stolen by British soldiers who entered the Kingdom of Benin in a brutal, punitive expedition. The Oba of Benin was deposed during the conflict and sent into exile, whilst the entire city was ransacked, the Royal Palace partly destroyed, and an unknown number of the population killed. Benin City was incorporated into the British Empire and remained so until 1960. The Benin Bronzes were shipped to Europe and the majority entered national museums.

Since the 1960s, Nigeria has requested for the return of the Benin Bronzes. Gradually, as public pressure has mounted, some museums have agreed to do so. Most recently, the German government agreed to an ambitious restitution programme. However, some such as the British Museum, with its 900+ Benin Bronze collection, are reluctant to return their collection beyond a temporary basis.

Nigeria hopes to display the Benin Bronzes in its future museum, the Edo Museum of West African Art.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Kente Fabrics

Now an iconic symbol of African culture, worn globally and even produced en masse in China, Asante Kente is a woven cloth of great cultural relevance once reserved only for the most highly esteemed individuals of the Asante Kingdom.

It is important to state that when discussing Kente most people are referring to Asante kente which is distinguishable from the lesser known Ewe Kente, which has its own patterns and  history.

Developed around the 17th Century A.D by the Asante people, it is believed that Kente can be traced to the long tradition of weaving in West Africa dating back to circa 3000 BC in the Akan inhabited parts of modern day Cote D'ivoire and also Ewe inhabited parts of Ghana. There is also a common legend which attributes the first kente cloth to a spider who instructed two young boys in Bonwire (a kente producing factory) on how to make the beautifully coloured and intricately designed cloth that was presented to the Asantehene (Ashante King). No matter what one believes it is the case that on first sight the Asantehene adopted the cloth as his clothes of choice.

Over time, restrictions on the distribution of Kente have relaxed and today, if one can afford kente, they can wear it. Although it is important to note that authentic Kente is rather pricey. And whilst all can wear it, in Ghana it still retains its high value and importance being part of a bride’s dowry and still predominantly worn by chiefs and the asantehene. It is also the case that someone can be sanctioned if seen wearing the same kente cloth as the asantehene whilst in his presence.

In recent years, it has become a key part of Ghana’s national identity, popularised by president Kwame Nkrumah who used culture as a unifying strategy in the anticolonial struggle post-independence. Outside Ghana, it has become a symbol of afrocentricity. Most notably the Black nationalist movement in the US during the mid 20th century created a market for Kente in the U.S. as activists fought to restore value to the cultural artifacts and practices of Africa. However, alarmingly, imitations of Kente, generally produced in China, have become popular in Ghana and beyond.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Clarks and Jamaica

“This is a shoe that’s worn in more countries than any other shoe! Made in England, it’s soft as a slipper, light as a feather, tough as the desert.” (1950s advert for the Clarks’ Desert Boot.)

Clarks is a quintessentially British shoe brand that was launched in 1825 (Somerset) by brothers Cyrus and James Clark. Over the years Clarks footwear becomes a household name, popular among middle-class women. Clarks are well-made and reliable. The Desert Boot, however, was not initially popular amongst British shoppers at all. 

The shoe was designed by Nathan Clark (circa 1941), the great-grandson of co-founder James. He was inspired by boots worn by British soldiers stationed in Burma (now Myanmar) during the war. These safari boots were created in the image of the Dutch-South African "field shoe", “veldskoen” or “vellie” for short. This design dates back hundreds of years, to when Dutch settlers first observed the practical footwear of the indigenous Khoisan people (the oldest known lineage of modern humans). But the Clarks’ “vellie” or Desert Boot might have remained unpopular were it not for an alignment of historical moments.

During the fifties and sixties, British citizens from the Caribbean colonies were invited to the UK to help rebuild the economy. The Desert Boot found a new audience. Its good value and durability made it popular among its new Caribbean clientele.  Alongside this, on islands such as Jamaica, Clarks were seen as an aspirational brand because they hailed from Britain. 

In the late sixties, the boots were popularised by actor Steve McQueen and reinvented as cool, anti-hero attire. Clarks were featured on reggae and dancehall album covers and in song lyrics, becoming synonymous with gangster chic. In 2021, Al Fingers published a second edition book Clarks in Jamaica, all about Jamaica’s love affair with the brand.

A footwear born in Africa, developed in Britain and made popular in the Caribbean, the Clarks’ Desert Boot is a celebration of cultures.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Dutch Wax Cloth

Wax cloth is a story of colonialism, imitation, failure and triumph; where Dutch industrialisation meets Indonesian inspiration and African style. The World Reimagined’s founding artist Yinka Shonibare CBE has used the fabrics in his installations, at once appreciating African culture and the ambiguities of highly connected world.

Over 170 years ago Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen established a textile factory (now called Vlisco). Using roller printing technology, they set about creating designs inspired by the Indonesian (then Dutch East Indies) batik printmaking technique. The new technology sped up the printing process and maintained intense colours. But, it also resulted in a cracking effect in the wax resist and colours would bleed. Outraged at these poor knock-offs, the Dutch East Indies banned their sale. But in other areas of the Dutch empire, they found an eager clientele.  

In Ghana (then Gold Coast), the sales of these fabrics sky rocketed and they very quickly became a symbol of African style among the fashionable. Some sources suggest that West Africans saw value in the unique patterns, slightly different from each other due to the cracking. Others suggest that investment from the Belanda Hitam resulted in the surge of interest.

Belanda Hitam is Indonesian for ‘Black Dutchmen’ and was the name given to West African soldiers that served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (1831-72). It is believed that when many of these men retired to Ghana they started trading in Dutch imitation batik.

The Dutch wax cloth trade is dominated by Vlisco, but there are plenty of imitations. Vlisco now print: ‘GUARANTEED REAL DUTCH SUPER-WAX BLOCK PRINTS – PRINTED IN HOLLAND’, on each of their fabrics. The irony is that what was once an imitation batik, is now a much desired original.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Famous Designers: Africa Fashion

Africa has impacted European fashion for centuries, from headdresses, to bags and beyond. Yves Saint-Laurent’s Spring-Summer collection of the swinging sixties saw wooden beads and straw constructed in homage to the Bambara sculptures of Mali. Luis Vuitton’s more recent appropriation of ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags caused much furore. From bold patterns to tailored silhouettes, you can see how fashion has borrowed, celebrated and exchanged ideas cultivated on the continent. Here are some of the finest Black British designers who continue to transform UK fashion.

Claude Kameni is Cameroonian and creates bright, sculptural designs, geometric and organic in shape and pattern. Having migrated to Washington DC at 8 years old, she moved to Los Angeles at age 17 to pursue her fashion dreams. Her label La Vie CK dresses both men and women, with collections that have been part of New York Fashion week. She is the designer behind Viola Davis’ elegant Golden Globe outfit, Janet Jackson’s 2018 Ankara gown and Tracee Ellis Ross’ AMA (2018) mermaid dress ensemble. 

Ozwald Boateng, was born in North London to Ghanaian parents. With his Saville Row sensibility and African flair, he has been a leader in British men’s tailoring for decades. Boateng innovates classic British tailoring with modern design. In 2006 he formed ‘Made in Africa’, dedicated to exposing African enterprise to investments and world markets. He has worked with leading Fashion houses and airlines; created pieces for 2018 blockbuster, Black Panther; and was awarded an OBE for his contributions to fashion.

Duro Oluwu is a Nigerian-born British fashion designer with Jamaican heritage, who has curated shows at various high-profile museums and galleries around the world. Having studied law, Duro later decided to follow his passion for fashion. He launched his London-based label in 2004 and one year later won New Designer of the Year Award at the British Fashion Awards. His love of pattern and antique textiles has created a signature style that is easily recognisable. His ‘Duro’ dress celebrates the seventies silhouette combining patchwork patterns, wide sleeves and high waistbands.

For those of us who have a tighter budget, why not check out twin sister designers, Christelle and Michelle Nganhou who set-up their ethical line, Grass-fields, to bring African print to the masses.

To learn more about the incredible designers Africa has to offer, check out the V&A show Africa Fashion.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

The History of Madras

Madras is a lightweight, handwoven cotton fabric created in Madras (now Chennai, India). It’s said that some designs were influenced by Scottish tartan worn by soldiers posted in India during the 1800s. However, the earliest tartans date back to 3000 BC (Central Asia). The colourful hand-dyed Madras weaves together histories from India, the Caribbean, England, Scotland and Africa. At one-point it was even valued more than a human life, as traffickers used it to bargain for enslaved Africans. 

During the 17th and 18th centuries, there was increased demand for cotton goods. In 1639, the British East India Company occupied the village of Madras and established it as a trading port. Prior to this India had been successfully trading fabrics with the world for thousands of years, manufacturing 25% of the world’s textiles. Under colonial rule, handweavers were banned from trading with anyone except the British and taxed highly. This enabled the company to cripple the local economy while securing huge profits for the Empire. 

Madras cloth was sold to enslavers who brought it to the Caribbean and West Africa. Just as the Scots used tartan to represent clans (circa 1800s), the Kalabari Ijo people of the Niger Delta used Madras cloth to identify communities. In the Caribbean, on many islands such as St Lucia, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe, it became part of the national costume. 

The man’s costume includes a waistcoat called a Gillette or a shoulder sash and a small cap called a Kofi, made from Madras. Women have two outfits: a Jip (worn by younger women) comprises a white blouse (Chemise Décolleté) and a Madras skirt; a Wob Dwiyet is a fuller dress with long sleeves and layers of lace. Both sport headdresses (Tête Case or Tête Anlé) which can be styled to indicate a woman’s marital status and availability.

From around the world our stories are connected by threads that date back thousands of years. Within each Madras variation is a picture of brutality, beauty and innovation; a bond across time and space.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

Ntoma Fabric: Obaapa

What better way then showing a woman you appreciate her than gifting her some Obaapa fabric?

Adorned with rose-like flowers, the popular wax printed Ntoma fabric, found in any marketplace, is the aptly names Obaapa, twi for “a good woman” or “a good wife”.

There are a number of narratives that surround the fabric. One is that a single woman wearing a kaba and slit, dress or other such outfit personally tailored for them, is indicating to people that she would or wants to be a good woman for her husband.

Others would argue that the beautiful statement piece is gifted to a woman to demonstrate ones acknowledgement of the good virtues a woman possesses and to show that they are appreciated and valued.

 

Through Texture to Textiles

The Impact of African Art on the Modernist Art Movement

African art caused a paradigm shift in the European art world, influencing some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Expansion of French colonies around 1900 saw an influx of priceless African art into France. In Paris, these were collected and exhibited as colonialist artefacts by museums such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Countless other art works were sold for very little in the curio stores of Paris. It was in one of these stores that renown painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) bought a small carved figurine for his studio for very little money. The art piece from the Vili people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo captivated Matisse's friend and fellow painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

Both artists were inspired by the work, but for Picasso in particular, the piece ignited an interest in the characteristics of African art. The abstract nature of the sculptures he went on to study in the Palais du Trocadéro provided a complex way of representing the human body through art. It fuelled Picasso's African, or Proto-Cubist, period and would ultimately shape the art style known as Cubism. This stylistic art form stresses the conceptual structure at the expense of other pictorial elements, especially by displaying several aspects of the same object simultaneously and fragmenting the condition of depicted objects. 

The perspective, shapes and colour palette of the Modernist greats that formed the School of Paris group were deeply rooted in African sculpture. The avant-garde movement aimed to find new ways of looking at the world. The fresh perspectives of the avant-garde were formed by exposure to African art works, which presented new forms of expression and facilitated their creativity.