gall and gumption

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Not in Tortola, By God!

I first learned about the dance called "dutty wine" when I read an article in the Jamaica Gleaner this past summer, about an 18-year-old woman who had died while doing it. "Dutty Wine" means "Dirty Wind;" it's mostly done by women. They shake and rotate their hips and they fling their heads abour violently. The dancer in Jamaica apparently died of neck injuries, though the autopsy was inconclusive. Physicians have said that it's dangerous.

There is a DJ called Tony Matterhorn who does a song called Dutty Wine, and where the song goes the dance goes -- or vice versa. I haven't heard the song. According to Caribbean Net News and the BBC, the government of the British Virgin Islands has banned his show. It's clear from this story, in Caribbean Net News, that the government was worrying about more than slipped discs:

The Chief Minister said government reached this decision because of two reasons:

'First, the Government-required application process to hold this performance was incomplete. Second, while I am quite aware of the popularity of this dance in the Caribbean, I am also aware of the life-threatening consequences associated with this dance.' the Chief Minister said.

The Chief Minister said, 'I am told that the 'dutty wine' dance is a head rotation dance in which dancers use their heads, necks and other parts of their bodies. And those dancers have to move their necks in both ways. It is a strenuous whirlwind of a dance in which the head and posterior are rotated simultaneously.' The BVI Chief Minister said he heard a chiropractor on the BBC Caribbean Report had warned about the dangers of this dance as there has been a reported death resulting from it.

He said, 'While I know there will be discussions that if Government disallows this show, then Government should look at other issues, I say let us take one step at a time.' The Chief Minister said he appreciates the concerns expressed about the possible negative impact this could have on the young people and he knows there are differing opinions but at this time, his Government does not feel this type of show is in the best interest of the British Virgin Islands.

Anglican priest in the BVI Father Ronald Branch was the first in the BVI to speak out against this show in his sermon at the St Georges Episcopal Church last Sunday.

Via Wikipedia, you can see some video of it here, though you might not want to be caught watching it at work.

Look, this is part of the reason why Caribbean culture can seem so incomprehensible. People abroad can't understand the reaction of those societies to openly gay people, for instance. I can explain it, though I'm not sure the explanation will give much comfort to anybody on this issue. On the one hand you have this "Yeah, mon!" "Everyting cool, mon!" culture where everybody spends all day on the beach in boozy, blissed-out relaxation -- "No problem!" And you can get weed without any difficulty at all and nobody will give you any problem if you just practice a little discretion like don't actually blow ganja smoke in the police officer's face. Calypso, too, is a deep-rooted musical tradition celebrating mischief, scandal and sexual license: there's a lot of sex in Sparrow's songs, for instance:

Tell me you tink ah sweeter dan honey
Tell me if I ever leave you you kill me;
Scratch up me back, bite up me ears,
When I ask 'What's the matter?'
Tell me it's too much wood in the fire...

Sex is passionate, beset with little difficulties ("Wait, wait, May-May, a sandfly bite me down dey!"), mostly untroubled by worries about fidelity, opportunistic, mercenary, ("No money, no love") and totally without penalty.

This tradition goes all the way back into slavery days, and it's like it keeps turning up in new forms; in calypso, for instance, and in dance hall. But the other side of the culture is the church side, and the church and respectability are the way people rise up the social scale. So they find themselves at odds with the old cultural forms. The relations between the church and the old metamorphosed African cultural forms is uneasy, even now. Every single notion of social progress and advancement somehow entails personally rejecting that disreputable license. People love their music, the crowds turn out, and these songs take possession of the population in the months leading up to Carnival, but the churches are there trying to win them away from "slackness". Government ministers (not just the ones in this article either) grumble about it. Somebody gets shot and killed, or bottle-throwing war breaks out on the main street of the capital Friday night, and some minister of government is sure to be heard a few days later trying to link the incident to the "degrading" music and dancing.

But some form of this sort of dancing has always been present there. Most Caribbean street dancing has always been of the kind that would get banned from the Ed Sullivan Show. It's only more aggressively so now than it has ever been. I mean, basically if you go out dancing in the Caribbean, dancing among locals, you are going to be dry-humping someone to music with your clothes on. Does it result in more real sexual activity? Probably. But there has always -- I mean always -- been a lot of loose sex in the Caribbean. That's not new, either. Not everybody, but it's an old established way of life. Caribbean men cheat. I knew a woman who told me her brother, a physician, had 27 children. One day his wife was giving birth to one child in one hospital delivery room while one of his girlfirends was in labor in another, room also delivering one of his children. They cheat without a single qualm of conscience about it, not a shred of shame. They cheat as if it is their duty. Churchgoing educated professional married men, taxi drivers, it makes no difference, they are chasing tail all over every island. At the gates of the high schools, when school lets out, there are guys, long out of school, cruising by in cars. No government has succeeded in changing this ancient pattern. There are laws requiring the payment of child support. And Jamaica has some public service radio ads encouraging men to think more responsibly about what it means to be a father. But the tradition is just to scatter children about the place and pay.

(And before anybody goes all "See? African savages!" on me bear in mind that this is exactly what people in France were doing 200 years ago. When Talleyrand was still a bishop he had an affair with a married woman and she had a child. He would drop by from time to time to pay a visit to his son and everybody knew why he was there. Just as everybody knew that he was the father of the painter Delacroix, whose mother was the wife of a someone in the foreign service. Also, in the years of the Directorate, between the fall of Robespierre and the crowning of Napoleon, women walked around in these clothes that were so transparent that they were practically naked. (I got these details out of a life of Talleyrand by Jean Orieux.)

It's not that people never did these things and then one day the Beatles or Public Enemy or Eddie Murphy came along and suddenly evil walked the earth. What changes is public opinion of them. Unfortunately in the Caribbean there has been little force of any kind to countervail the old bigotry of ignorance, which becomes even more intractable when coupled with the bigotry of the church. In the Caribbean you can always find an American Bible thumper on the radio and on TV. My best friend in St. Croix, where I lived in my last year of high school, basically wasn't allowed to listen to anything else on the radio. That's how those TV preachers spend the money they collect, beaming horseshit at places like the Caribbean. And for many Caribbean people, the way that they will become respectable and rise out of that backward, low-class life to join the modern world is through the church. It isn't just a move towards material advancement; this is a movement towards consciousness as well. The church will teach them how to behave and what to think. And when you are moving uneasily up the social ladder, a lot of your intolerance is the social climber's stare, that glare of extra special indignation towards people whose inability to conform threatens your uneasy footing. Whatever they actually do, a lot of Caribbean people feel they ought to profess the values of intolerance and the totally debased Puritanism they get from the churches, because that respectability is what they want to be identified with. These transitions are weird.

(I must tell you, because this reminded me of it, there was this Holy Roller church in a village in one island I used to live on (I'm not naming it on purpose). Brand-new church across the street from a brand-new rum shop whose owner had lived abroad and then come back. I had a friend who lived next door to this rum shop for a while. Every night, from inside the rum shop or the bench outside, you could look straight into the church and watch the service. The church was brightly lit with fluorescent lights, and they had services on weeknights as well as on Sunday. On a weeknight there might be 10 to 15 people. And when I went to visit my friend Ricardo, if the church was open it was almost impossible not to stare. You couldn't really hear much of the preaching, or maybe I did and it just went out of my head. But sooner or later one or two women would get filled with the spirit and go staggering about the church, and then fall on the floor, lying in the aisle, twitching and thrashing about with total abandon. Everybody else just kept on singing or sitting quietly, while waves of shuddering ecstasy passed through the woman on the floor. Free entertainment for the rum shop, and the combination of the goings-on in the church and the heckling in the rum shop was, well, special.)

So on these issues it's a lot harder to change people's minds. (Jamaica is way ahead of everybody else on this, by the way; the island's gay people and some supporters are trying very bravely to organize. And there's a great local human rights group, Jamaicans for Justice who are seriously committed, smart, and articulate. And there might be something in Trinidad. But on the small islands, next to nothing. The smaller the island the more socially conservative "public opinion" is likely to be. The BVI are among the most conservative. It was only three years ago that the government struck down the law prohibiting the wearing of dreadlocks. The effect of this law had been to keep Rastafarians from entering those islands. Rastafarianism is one of the few grassroots, local challenges to public opinion, by the way.

Not much art that challenges anything. Art is respectable, the artist is supposed to help express our culture in a dignified way. So probably any nude who is not represented as a suffering slave would make people uneasy.


At 3:43 AM, Blogger Juke said...

Kia, meet Ria.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Severina said...

Kia, Have you been to the Uffizi in Florence? There you will find a portrait of a pope with his "wife" and a child.


PS: A learned tidbit of anthro!

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