Invited Poets to 25 Medellín International Poetry Festival: Winston Farrell
Invited Poets to 25 Medellín International
July 11th to 18th, 2015
Poets from America
Winston Farrell is a versatile and durable performer. As an Actor he has performed in over three-dozen plays with a number of local companies. His work has earned plaudits from his peers. For instance, in 1989, he received the National Youth Award for outstanding achievement in the field of Drama; he gained a Writer/Artist in residence with the Hudson Valley Writers Guild and the University of Albany, NY; first and third prizes in the 1987/’88 ESSO Playwriting competition and in 1993 a British Council Visitorship where he toured and worked with leading Theatre Companies. In 2004 he played the character of ‘Dessalines’ in C. L. R. James’ ‘Black Jacobins’, produced by the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.
In addition to his collection of Poems ‘Echoes of Young Blood‘ (out of print), Farrell has been published in literary journals such as ‘Race Today‘; the stellar published anthology ‘Crossing Water‘ by the Greenfield press NY, ‘Kyk-Over-Al‘, July 1991; Trinidadian ‘New Voices‘, ‘Banja‘, created by The NCF and Voices Writers Collective. He has also released recordings of his rhythm Poetry ‘Lion on the Loose’ and ‘Earth Spirit’ on which the popular Bus Man is featured. His CD ‘Rhythm an’ Word-sound’ is a compilation of his two cassette albums. In 2000 he won the third prize in the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment, and in 2002, the Prime Minister’s Award, he also gained the Daily News Prize for poetry in the ‘Caribbean Writer‘ Journal. His latest published collection of poems entitled, ‘Call of the Quarter Master‘, won NIFCA Gold in 2006.
Rhythm Poetry: Performance As A Form Of Popular Education
By Winston Farrell
Rhythm poetry as a mode of the performing arts is not unique to Barbados. As a form of oral enactment its roots can be traced to praise singing traditions in Africa. In Roots to Popular Culture, Curwen Best identifies this form as an aspect of the underground /submerged culture that was emerging during the 1980s (Best 2001:2). He uses Kamau Brathwaite’s hypothesis which suggests that the Barbadian Africans are Ibo, hence their inward-looking nature which is a feature of Ibo culture, contending that this distinguished them from most Caribbean countries with their Yoruba and Ashanti influences. This theory is indeed critical in attempting to shatter the myth that Barbados was a ‘Little England’ and was perceived as not having ‘no culture’ by most of the other Caribbean islanders (ibid 2001:4&5). Best further links its origins in the Caribbean to the influence of the Jamaican reggae music of the late 1950s and the emergence of dub poetry by Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Oku Onuora, to mention a few. Dub poetry can be best described as the fusing of the poetic lyrical poetry to instrumental reggae music, a phenomenon that was started by the early Jamaican deejays. In it they ‘toasted’ on the micro phone, improvised chants and word-sounds, over sound-tracks of reggae rhythms (ibid 2001:188&189). By the mid-1980s the idea of mixing rhythm and word-sound had spread throughout the Caribbean region. Interestingly, performance poets were incorporating their island’s indigenous rhythms within their poetry. In Trinidad the form was developed as ‘rapso’ which is essentially rapping to calypso/soca music while in the Eastern Caribbean states poets like Ras Mo were experimenting with zouk and other Creole forms of music. In Barbados the form was identified as rhythm poetry utilizing the ‘heart beat’ reggae rhythms emanating from Jamaica and the indigenous Barbadian/Bajan tuk band rhythms.
Rhythm poetry represents a radical shift from the traditional poetry reading of the on page poem and is rooted and “routed” in a more socio-political discourse. This essay explores rhythm poetry, starting with the socio-political environment out of which it emerged. Rhythm poets of Barbados will be introduced, highlighting some of what took place under the banner of the Creative Writers’ Guild (CWG) and how that work attempted to contribute to the social development of Barbados.
Rhythm poetry burst unto the Barbadian cultural scene in the latter end of the 1970s. The effects of the mid-1970s oil crisis which affected the world, was still evident and structural adjustment programmes (SAPS) initiated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were beginning to have a severe impact on some of the Caribbean islands such as Guyana and Jamaica. The poets at that time were young, energetic and ready for the world. Something had happened somewhere between their primary and secondary schooling. Their socialisation had made a difference in the way they interpreted and responded to the challenges of life. The likes of Elombe Mottley, Anthony Hinkson, Joseph-Hackett, Timothy Callender, and others who taught in the secondary schools and who understood the importance of the arts and theatre in particular had began to further that process of decolonisation through their approach to the teaching of the nation’s children. Their interest in the arts and in African studies influenced their practice in the class room.
The writers who became members of the organisation called the Creative Writers Guild grew up on the works of Kamau Brathwaite, shuffling through the pages of his poems, listening to his readings on record or seeing him live. Best notes that;
It is Brathwaite who makes the point, and it is culturally, theoret-
cally and methodologically vital reminder, that his work laid the
foundation for, and very much influenced the performing poets
of the Caribbean (Best 2001:188).
The aim of the guild was to take poetry a step beyond where Brathwaite had left it. The aim was to give it back to the people, the ordinary folk who did not go to the library for the readings. To this end the CWG, a formation likened to the brotherhood of poets, performed at street festivals, solidarity rallies, variety concerts and programmes put on by community groups and other cultural and civic organizations. This formation developed out of social gatherings under the akee tree in Mikul Fosta’s backyard on Sunday mornings. At some of these sessions poets were privileged to get the guidance of noted Barbadian poet and educator Bruce St. John and short story writer Timothy Calendar. There were always heated debates on the arts and “nation language”, and its effective use within creative writing. The sessions also helped to develop writing and performance delivery skills.
The CWG was instrumental in organising community base rallies and cultural shows in various communities in the 1980s. These shows were usually mounted with the assistance of the Community Development Division who assisted with the staging and technical aspects of the production. The poets created three larger than life bill boards which were positioned at strategic spots around the community and generally promoted events around significant dates such as Black Civilisation and Liberation Days as well as independence and other bank holidays ( Fosta: 2007 Interview).
The first major assignment for the collective came in 1980 with a direct invitation from the Cultural Department of the Peoples’ Revolutionary Government of Grenada. The tour was in celebration of the 1st anniversary of the Revolution led by Maurice Bishop. The contingent of drummers and poets performed their work live in various communities to tremendous popular response. In one community the performance lasted well over two hours with each poet performing a set of about fifteen minutes backed with music and drumming interludes and solidarity messages. At the end of the performance the artists were hosted and entertained by the villagers in their houses, they engaged them in discussion on issues raised in the poetry. This was indeed a rare occurrence. It is seldom that poets get such affection and genuine reflection on their work from audiences in Barbados.
One of the earliest exponents of the rhythm poetry in Barbados was Mikul Rashid Fosta. His poem “We all got we roots in Africa”, was first performed at the national stadium in 1975 in celebration of the state visit of an African dignitary, Sir Seretse Kharma, former president of Botswana. He has performed at the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts, the island’s premier performing arts festival since its inception in 1973 winning a number of awards for poems such as, “True Patriot”, “Poem for Paro” and his signature piece “Song for de Children” which was published in Caribanthology I, edited by Bruce St. John. Fosta was one of three poets in the group who attended Combermere, one of the older secondary schools in Barbados.
Another of the poets who made a significant contribution to the art form in the early days was Ricky ‘Babu’ Parris. He emerged onto the cultural landscape in the late 1970s and during the ‘80s represented the cause of the working class. He not only possessed skills as a poet and performer, but was also the quintessential organiser. Indeed his life was wrapped up in the workers struggle. Ricky worked for the people using the language of the people. He had a unique understanding of their plight. As a shop steward and union representative in the workplace or at the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) where he worked as a research officer and member of the executive council, before failing health limited his appearances and ultimately took his life in 2005. Ricky remained very much an unpublished poet with the exception of two of his pieces “Ship wreck” and “Nuclear Age” which have been produced on the “Night of the Griots” CD. Poems such as “Savage” and “Penetrating We” remain signature poems of his.
Yet another poet who became popular with his social commentaries in his poetry was Aja, who started out reading off the page during the early eighties but who fell in love with the verse and rhythm style. Formerly Mike Richards, he changed his name to Adisa Andwele before adorning the name Aja. Like Ricky and Mikul, he was also a student of Combermere. Much has been written on the work of Aja alongside the present writer, as two of the leading performance/rhythm poets in Barbados (Best 2001. p199) suffice to say that the Apartheid system in South Africa became a central theme in some of Aja’s work. Like the others his voice was a clarion call for the freeing of Nelson Mandela at a time when most of the world had turned a blind eye to that struggle. In recent times Aja has focused his attention on raising funds to eliminate poverty in Africa and through his poetry attempts to engender the role of peace ambassador. In poems such as “Light a Candle”, “Conscious Again” and “Riots in de Land”, Aja attempts to address issues of war and its effects on the children of the world. He is often concerned in his work with raising the consciousness of his people in order to further the cause of their own liberation.
With the exception of Aja’s and my own work most of the rhythm poets of Barbados have remained unpublished. This is due mostly to the fact that rhythm poetry is seen more as performance than as a written art form. It is the act of performing coupled with the use of music accomplement that distinguishes it from the on page written poem. Not all rhythm poems work on the page, Best notes of Ricky’s ‘Manningheim’s Lament:
This poem begs for performance. In the performance domain the
performer can ignite interest and passion on account of juxtaposition
of opposites, but also on account of the poem’s cataloguing of social
ills. This is a common device of calypsonians (Best.2001.p.198).
Central to the delivery of the rhythm poem is the use of oral devices such as call and response, the use of repetition, rhythm and rhyme. This is evident in the poem “Conscious Again” by Aja who uses the method of call and response in his performance to involve his audience, chanting;
The audience responds.
And also in Ricky’s “Ship wreck” poem:
Poet: ship wreck
Audience: Ship wreck
Poet: Ah say we ship wreck yuh!
Audience: Ship wreck yuh! (Night of the Griots cd Track 3).
The rhythm poem like the calypso represents the voice of the masses. Poems such as Aja’s “Conscious Again” and “Ah Come Back Now”, Fosta’s “We all got we roots in Africa” and Ricky’s “Manningheim’s Lament”, “Savage” and “Ship wreck” explore issues affecting the lives of the people. They are consciousness raising and seek to engender an awareness of the world through a dialogue with the audience.
In the lines of his Manningheim’s poem Ricky cries out the refrain:
In this time!
When there is food
On the high ups table
The poor man seeks a road
Out of crime (Voices Anthology p.159).
The poem laments the use of violence by the poor man as a response to issues of unemployment and the general struggles of the poor and working class.
In poems like “Ship Wreck” recorded on the Cd ‘Night of the Griots’, he castigates European and American imperial hegemony and the rape and pillage of Africa, celebrating Black royalty and the dignity of local and world heroes and heroines of the struggle. “They call me savage”, he exclaimed without apology in another of his live performance poems,
From the loins of General Bussa
Who beat back the Redcoats at Baileys
They call me savage
The poet here is personifying himself into the image and character of slave leader Bussa who led the 1816 revolt at Bailey’s Plantation in the easterly parish of St. Philip. The revolution on Easter Sunday was to engulf the entire island but was however squashed as Bussa made his final stand against the British Redcoats in the plantation’s yard. For Rickie every performance was like his last stand. There seemed to be urgency and poignancy in his delivery, his voice transforming from the quite soft spoken frame into a fiery refrain. Congruently Fosta uses ‘nation language’ and the speech rhythms of the ordinary Bajan man to connect with his audience.
When de baby when it cryin and de mother
She cud neva get it fe hush
She does go mek she boil up the whore hound
De sweet mint and the seracee bush
Cause she learn all that in Africa
We all got we roots in Africa (Night of the Griots cd Track 6).
The poem encourages its audience to reflect on the rich cultural legacy of Africa and the traditions which are very much a part of the Barbadian and West Indian heritage.
The works of the rhythm poets kept key issues such as apartheid and the liberation struggles within the black Diaspora in the public’s view. They seek to raise the consciousness of Barbadians to their history in an attempt to building up self awareness and the self confidence of the nation’s people.
The 1980s was an exciting and creatively charged decade. There were several tensions that existed in the society which brought a sense of fear of expression among the masses (Fosta. Interview August 2007). The rhythm poets fed off these sensitive socio-political tensions both locally and internationally. Whether it was the hardship being felt in the famine in Ethiopia or the liberation struggles in the underdeveloped and developing regions of Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, rhythm poetry became the voice of protest and resistance among the poor and working class. The cold war which highlighted the conflicts of the East and Western countries of Russia and USA, coupled with the so called Reaganomics and Thatcherism created a platform for many a performance dialogue with the audience.
What is indeed interesting is that these three poets, who can be considered radical, coming through an education system that was steeped in the conservatism of British traditions yet they were not afraid to employ an alternative discourse to the prevailing cannons implicit within the educational system.
The CWG through its performance poets persisted in using their art/craft of rhythm poetry as a form of performance to promote popular education, aiming to bring about social change through consciousness raising and the celebration of Blackness. Recently after a performance of some of the present writer’s rhythm pieces at one of the secondary schools in Barbados, I asked the young people if they had enjoyed the presentation. I found encouragement in their observation.
‘I enjoy it….it was good……I like the rhythm but what I like
mostly were the conscious lyrics’.
Best C. (2001) Roots to Popular Culture Barbadian Aesthetics: Kamau Brathwaite to Hardcore Styles. Macmillan Education Ltd. London Oxford
Ricky ‘Babu’ Parris, ‘Manningheim’s Lament’ in the collection Voices1: An Anthology of Barbadian writing (ed.) Nailah Folami Imoja and Jerolyn Thomas (Christ Church: Barbados Writers’s Collective).
Mikul Fosta Rhythm poet August 2007
The Pan African Commission’s Night of the Griots: Live at Frank Collymore Hall, Barbados. CD.
Aja the poet: Live- live as one cd 2001
Black Knight by celebrated bajan Poet Winston Farrell -Video-
Winston Farrell performs Kamau's poem 'Rites' -Video-
Winston Farrell & Dj Hurricane Live at James De Lovell Album Launch James DE Lovell´s Youtibe channel -Video-
Winston Farrell: Green Reader, Earth Spirit -English-
Winston Farrell NIFCA 2012 Writer's Profile -Video-
Published at April 3rd, 2015