gall and gumption

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Andy Palacio 1960-2008

Found and lost. I just happened across an album of his music a couple of months ago. How could I resist music by the descendants of Caribs and escaped slaves? It is haunting and lovely, World Music in the best sense, and I've liked it better each time I listen to it. The liner notes the story of the Garifuna. They were the last of the indigenous population of the Caribbean islands, other than the Caribs in Dominica. (The Garifuna were in St. Vincent, and exile to Central America, as awful as it must have been, was lucky; the British who expelled them massacred every single Carib on the island of St. Kitts at a place called Bloody Point. All that is left of them are some rock paintings.) It is incredible that they have survived that dispersal and all the other ones.

A few years ago Nevis lost its most gifted fifer. The masquerade dancing that is practiced in St. Kitts and Nevis is accompanied by a fife and drum, yes, a fife and drum just like in the old English folk songs and in the American Revolutionary War. (When I was in school we were taught an English song that went "Oh soldier, solder, will you marry me, with your musket, fife, and drum?") The fife and drum are associated in most people's minds with the American Revolution. But in pockets of the South the fife was used by black people for other than martial purposes, for playing the blues, for instance. And in a few islands of the West Indies there are people who still play the fife in the traditional way that it has been played there since the 18th century. When you get to folk traditions like this the practitioners are so few, you can lose the whole thing with a couple of deaths.

One of the maddening things about our part of the world (sorry-- I mean my part of the world) is that we don't know or own our history, even though it is all around us, talking to us on the streets, looking down at us out of the windows of buildings, turning up in the soil, everything there tells us that the story of Caribbean culture is something unique and strange. And somehow we don't quite seem to get that. We know the stories of this person and that person, of this party or that property, and I've met people of really marvelous local knowledge of things that aren't written down anywhere except perhaps in courthouse records. But what we haven't been too good at is putting it in relation to the history of the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world had not thought our islands terribly important, Andy Palacio's people would still be in St. Vincent. We've mostly given up on trying to be English, but now we've got a whole bunch of us who think we're Africans. And we aren't Africans. The things that happened there in the islands, the things that are happening now and in the future, they are history too, they are more our history than these simplistic romances of it. Every artist who has brought that fact home to us, who shows Caribbean people where it is that they truly live, has helped us to be richer and wiser. Andy Palacio's music gave us back something that we could so easily have lost altogether.


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