Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rise of the Shouter Baptists

In 1929, two famous anthropologists landed in Trinidad. They had just finished field work on the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana, and they were waiting for a ship to take them back to the US. While in Trinidad, Melville Herskovits and his wife Frances read a newspaper article about the Shouter Baptists. Before they got on that ship, they vowed to return to Trinidad. Almost 20 years later, they returned for research on what was to become the first anthropological study of a Protestant Negro culture in the English-speaking Caribbean. They recorded Baptist hymns and, in 1949, they published their ethnography entitled Trinidad Village. We have the Baptists to thank for that important anthropological study.
When you think about it, the Baptists have inspired many people in many different fields. From anthropology to literature and music, the Baptists have captivated the imagination of creative people. Their religious struggle has been a mirror of Trinidad and Tobago’s struggle for independence. Their perseverance has been a model for all of us. Arguably, one of the best novels to come out of the Caribbean is Wine of Astonishment, Earl Lovelace’s moving story of the Baptists’ struggle to worship freely. It is impossible to read the canon of Caribbean literature and not include Wine of Astonishment as one of the most important books in West Indian literature.
The Baptists have had an undeniable, profound influence on our music. Calypsonians recorded Baptist hymns in the 1930s and sang calypsoes criticising the Baptists. Lion recorded Happy Land of Canaan, which was classified as a Calypso Shouter. He performed Where is Jonah Gone jointly with Atilla in 1934 and Caresser sang Do You Remember Me in 1940. There are many recordings from that era that relied heavily on Baptist hymns. Calypso expert Dr Gordon Rohlehr says an unconscious merger of calypso and Baptist music was beginning to take place already in the 1940s. This would be evident a decade later when Melody sang Jonah and the Bake and Sparrow delivered Don’t Touch Me. A calypsonian named Wonder sang Follow Me Children in the 50s, which had a Baptist-sounding chorus. All were highly dramatic extensions of Shouter Baptist preaching.
Independence dramatically changed everyone’s attitudes towards the Baptists. They became a symbol of successful protest against colonialism. As the people of T&T threw off the shackles of colonialism and found their own voice and their own sense of independence, they learned tolerance if not respect for the Baptists. Calypsonians like Rose helped to establish that voice of tolerance. When Blueboy compared soca to a Shouter Baptist prayer meeting he ushered in a new era in soca music defined by pulsing rhythms that evoked a sense of spirituality. The Baptists complained that Blueboy’s Soca Baptist was sacrilegious and asked for it to be banned. It won the Road March in 1980.
Other singers reached out to the Baptists for inspiration. Andre Tanker’s Baptist-like chants in Sayamanda and River Come Down made powerful statements with Baptist rhythms and chants. In 1986, David Rudder’s Bahia Gyul broke down the barriers between traditional calypsonians performing in calypso tents and lead singers from brass bands confined to fetes. Aided by his Bahia Gyul with her Baptist rhythms, Rudder, the lead singer for Charlie’s Roots, won every competition in sight that year.
The memory of the crowd roaring its approval as Rudder sang and danced like a Baptist on the Savannah stage proves how far our relationship with the Baptists has come. And then there was Get Something and Wave, SuperBlue’s Road March-winning song of 1991 that became the definitive soca after the 1990 coup attempt by Imam Yasin Abu Bakr.
In Get Something and Wave, it was Mother Muriel, a Baptist woman, who assured Trinidadians/Tobagonians living under a curfew not to worry. “Soon Trinidad and Tobago will rise again,” she promised. In one of our greatest times of grief, we reached out to a Baptist woman as a symbol of hope. On Wednesday, we celebrate one of our most important holidays in T&T: Spiritual/Shouter Baptist Liberation Day. Contrary to popular belief, this holiday is not merely a religious day dedicated to the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists. It is a holiday in which everyone in T&T recognises our extraordinary ability to respect and celebrate everyone’s religion.
This holiday really represents the freedom to worship how we please, and believe me, in this fractious world, that is not to be taken for granted. This holiday also represents perseverance. Spiritual/Shouter Baptist Liberation Day commemorates the repeal of the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance of 1917, a law in which the British banned the Shouter Baptist religion from being practised in the British West Indies.
For decades, Spiritual/Shouter Baptists secretly practised their religion under the threat of persecution. If caught, they could be jailed without a trial. On March 30, 1951, the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance of 1917 was finally repealed. There is no doubt about it, the Shouter Baptists have had a profound effect on Trinidad culture. They helped to teach us the true meaning of faith. Have a happy holiday filled with reflection.  
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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