Scotland and the Caribbean: our shared heritage expressed through the arts

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18118507_671132003092219_3406178521584379359_nBy Lisa Williams

Six years ago when I landed in Scotland, dragging my two reluctant children from their idyllic childhood on the white sand beaches of tiny Caribbean islands, we were hard pressed to find any community or events in Edinburgh that resembled anything they knew. Enjoying the novelty of our new community, we threw ourselves into traditional folk nights, attended ceilidhs, learned a couple of Scottish dances and even grew to appreciate bagpipes. But there was always a yearning for some Caribbean colour and vibrancy, to hear some bass played to the point where the walls shook, and to not always feel like an ‘exoticized or misunderstood minority’. We held parties where Scottish friends came, but turned the music down, or off, or put on the music that they were familiar with. There was the occasional reggae night in Edinburgh where I didn’t worry in the least about being the first or only person on the dance floor; the music was enough. Soca, the energetic, fast-paced, modern form of calypso that you hear at a Caribbean carnival, was nowhere to be heard, except for our Saturday mornings cleaning the kitchen at home. Scotland is only home to about 3,000 people of Caribbean descent. Glasgow has the lion’s share, even after the mass exodus of a Caribbean community in the late 1960’s after land was cleared for development of the railways. And yet, Scots role in the Caribbean has been huge over the centuries, ironically in this case, including a hefty contribution to the development of Scottish Rail by a Scottish plantation owner compensated for losing his ‘property’ after Emancipation. Yet, fairly rapidly, over the past five years or so, awareness of our shared cultural heritage is coming to the fore, across the spectrum of the arts.

There are some regular, well established reggae nights, mainly run by Scottish men, such as Steve Messenger with his monthly night at the Bongo Club. Reggae Got Soul is a mix of reggae and soul run by two Scottish guys, one of whom, Jeremiah, was part of the very first reggae soundsystem in Edinburgh; both sets collaborate with a Jamaican MC Ras Istallion to add some authentic Caribbean flavour. Jeremiah is a true lover of reggae, also being an artist whose work forms a tribute to reggae legends across the years. His Facebook page, Original Jeremiah, has a solid following across the world. The Gambian community in Edinburgh love their reggae too, and DJs such as DJ Gadda and DJ Jobiz are building their own following, most recently with a Thursday night at new club La Vida. Well known DJs occasionally make an appearance. Seani B, the best known dancehall DJ in the UK, with his weekly show on Radio 1 Xtra, threw the afterparty for the MOBO awards in Glasgow in 2016, hosted by Glasgow Reggae. David Rodigan, responsible for introducing reggae to a huge audience in the UK over the past few decades, is even making an appearance on November 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire.

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The real power of reggae, however, is in live music shows, and the inspiration and feeling of togetherness and upliftment the singers give their followers. Glasgow, with its choice of venues and home to party lovers, at least, can pull some of the heavyweights from time to time. I’ve made pilgrimages to Glasgow to see various acts like Chronixx, Protoje, and sadly missed a few like Toots and the Maytals, Aswad, Misty in Roots and up and coming Raging Fyah. They are in small, intimate venues like the Rum Shack or the O2ABC, which means you can often get the chance to dance at the front of the stage or even go backstage and have a chat. In Edinburgh, it’s still a rare treat to get a well-known name, but the Wee Dub festival brings live acts like Macka B and soundsystems like Channel One out of London. Occasionally legends like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry drop into a sold out crowd, populated by Scottish diehards of all ages.

Soca, however, in the absence of a sizeable Caribbean community or an annual Carnival, is still very much a niche market. I stumbled across a fantastic soca fitness class in a church hall, run by Lee-I John from St.Lucia, with his carefully designed Caribbean counterpart to Zumba, that I am still koping that he will take nationwide. The Jazz and Blues Festival have brought Caribbean bands from Trinidad, the Bahamas and Martinique to take part in their street parade along Princes Street. I took great pleasure in joining in with the costume making and dance workshops, and dancing along Princes Street with the Junkanoo Commandos. It was truly a highlight of 2014! But there are few DJ’s around, like DJ Yemster of Dundee, who are masters at delivering a high-energy mix of soca, dancehall and conscious reggae in a perfect party blend. On November 2, DJ Yemster will deliver his set as part of an evening’s entertainment showcasing Grenada, with a screening of Vanishing Sail at the Granary in Leith. The crossover comes when you include arts from the Spanish Caribbean, namely Cuba and the Dominican Republic; not exactly shared heritage with Scotland, but definitely worth a mention as a growing presence of dance and music from these islands in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

However, this lack of awareness of contemporary Caribbean music and dance may be about to change. Project X is a network of dance teachers from the African-Caribbean community based in Glasgow. ‘Through workshops, performances, artistic opportunities, discussions, screenings, a symposium and more, they platform contemporary and traditional dance forms whilst broadening perceptions and representation.’ (www.projectxplatform.co.uk) Part of their work involves going into schools and working with the pupils. This autumn, as the founder of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association I was part of Claudius’ England’s Reclaimed Territory, bringing Caribbean culture into schools in Scotland with the aim of the pupils beginning to recognise the many historical links between the two regions. Claudius England, a Jamaican gospel-dancehall singer, collaborated with the rest of the Jamaican team; Heidi Bryce, an artist and dance teacher who works with Project X, and a ‘jerk specialist’ chef, Clive Birch, who, as a trio, immersed Portobello High School for two days in the sounds, scents and moves of the Caribbean’s most globally influential island. Although the S1 pupils were at first hesitant about moving to the unfamiliar rhythms of Jamaican music, by the time the two days were up, even the boys with a serious image to protect were up on stage, joyfully dancing along with their principal, in a way that the school had never seen or anticipated. Dance, music and food were used as a vehicle for the pupils to connect with Caribbean culture, and be encouraged to do their own research into the far-reaching historical links between Scotland and the Caribbean, learning about and ultimately moving past the ugly reality of centuries of slavery, of which the Scots played a huge role.

This legacy is now just coming to the forefront, as Scots acknowledge their hugely profitable role in the slave trade. The Empire Cafe, set up by Scottish writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber was a pop up cafe in the Briggait in Glasgow to form one of the cultural activities alongside the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Poetry, art, drama and music were all commissioned to explore the history of the Scottish role in the slave trade. One of the events that stood out was Emancipation Acts, produced by Graham Campbell (our first African-Caribbean councillor in Scotland) and his partner Anne McLaughlin, former SNP MP. Staged in four acts around Glasgow, it was a fabulous piece of theatre, staged in four areas of Glasgow connected with the slave trade, including a graveyard where many Glaswegian merchants lie, and finishing in a joyful celebration of African culture by the disaporic community in Glasgow outside the Museum of Modern Art, the former holiday residence of a wealthy plantation owner from Glasgow, tipped to be the future home of Scotland’s Museum of Slavery. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Jamaican professor, historian and activist gives much of his time to educating the Scottish public on the history of slavery, and the response is invariably slightly shocked, but very positive. Scottish historians like Tom Devine and Stephen Mullen among others have also been doing some deep investigations over the past decade to bring this formerly hidden history to light.

As part of Africa in Motion film festival’s summer internship programme, ‘Reviving Scotland’s Black History’, I went on a Black History walk with St.Lucian historian Marenka Thompsom-Odlum https://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/blog/from-grenada-to-glasgow-curating-with-own-experience-by-elizabeth-williams/ who shared a wealth of knowledge about where much of Glasgow’s wealthy merchant families had made their money, by showing us street names, paintings, sculptures and gravestones around the city. She has been on the lecture circuit during Black History Month, and along with other historians, is working hard for all this fascinating research to be known, and eventually be part of the school curriculum in Scotland. The undercelebrated history of soldiers from Caribbean ex-colonies who fought for Britain in both World Wars was brought to our attention by Selena Carty of Black Poppy Rose www.blackpoppyrose.org during a fundraiser I held for Haiti after hurricane Matthew in Glasgow in November 2016 with acts like Ladies of Midnight Blue, Hannabiell and Yillis, www.hannabiell.com a Jamaican-American and Dominican Afro-Latin percussion, brass and mbira duet. www.hannabiell.com Again, the members of the audience from Scotland were shocked not to know about this history, and keen for more information.

Sometimes this history has been brought to us through music and art. Brina is a world reggae artist currenly based in Stirling, who has brought the historic link with Scotland to us through her music project, Jamaica Sings Robert Burns, www.jamaicasingsburns.com. An album with covers of Robert Burns classic songs by top Jamaican artistes alongside Brina, including Ken Boothe and Addis Pablo, and she has sung several of the songs from the project at Celtic Connections and other platforms in Scotland. The project began after facts emerged about Burns trying several times to board a ship to Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation. Most Scots I talk to about this now seem to know about it, which means the formerly hidden history is starting to ripple through the national consciousness. Graham Fagen, a Scottish artist, has used both genres to explore our shared heritage. Graeme has been working with Caribbean artists for the past few years, and recently the National Portrait Gallery held a video installation of a collaborative version of the Slave’s Lament by Burns with Sally Beamish, the Scottish Ensemble and reggae singer Ghetto Priest. www.grahamfagen.com

The fine and conceptual art scene in Scotland has a variety of artists of Caribbean background working and collaborating with each other. One of these hubs for artists of colour is Transmission Gallery, www.transmissiongallery.org an artist-run space in Glasgow that hosts some very fresh and interesting work from a range of young artists. One of the committee members is Alberta Whittle is a conceptual artist and curator from Barbados, based in Glasgow, doing some groundbreaking work with creative strategies employed to question the authority of postcolonial power. www.albertawhittle.com Eddie ….

Caribbean culture is tentatively beginning to become part of the mainstream arts programming in Scotland across the genres. Theatre, film and comedy are the areas that could still do with a boost, but as interest in and understanding of the Caribbean grows among Scottish audiences it will no doubt come in time. The Edinburgh Book Festival and poetry events and festivals have a growing platform for writers of Caribbean background, no doubt partly due to the recognition given to two poets from the Caribbean, both recent winners of the Forward Prize, Kei Miller and Vahni Capildeo from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively, both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow for several years. Neu Reekie put together a Jamaica-themed evening at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 with Brina performing alongside Selena Godden and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, and the Scottish Poetry Library www.scottishpoetrylibraryh.org.uk under the directorship of Dundonian Asif Khan has expanded its repertoire to bring Caribbean poets such as Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison. The new Outreach Coordinator Hannah Lavery is of Jamaican-Scottish background, also runs the Coastword Literary Festival in Dunbar www.coastword.co.uk and will no doubt continue to diversify the programming content. This year’s Book Festival included writer Zadie Smith, and Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard. The Edinburgh International Festival in collaboration with the British Council put on a fantastic cross-genre event called Fire Down Below which had a cross-section of academics from literature, art, poetry and publishing to discuss modern pan-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial context. The day before had a lecture by Jamaican-British artist, curator and art historian Eddie Chambers www.eddiechambers.com at the National Portrait Gallery, and who is now living part-time in Edinburgh who will doubtless be an influence on Scottish cultural policy. He’s the author of numerous books on Black British identity as it relates to music and art, such as Roots and Culture: Cultural Politics in the Making of Black Britain.

Caribbean film is beginning to have a platform this year as part of Africa in Motion Film Festival, which is a ten day festival spanning a range of venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow, including the Filmhouse. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk Two events are part of the Reviving Scottish Black History Programme. On November 1, there will be a screening of two films, as part of an event The Transatlantic Slave Trade Acknowledged at St. John’s Church in Edinburgh; 1745 (Scotland) and the Crying Conch (Haiti) which explore slavery and its enduring legacy including a debate with historians Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Mullen. However, important as slavery is to explore, Black History needs to expand the narrative with something more positive. This is why I chose to curate a screening of Vanishing Sail on November 2 in Leith, www.vanishingsail.com a documentary about the legacy that Glaswegian shipwrights left in the tiny island of Carriacou, which forms part of Grenada. It’s a beautiful story of a dying craft, kept alive mainly by a single family in the village of Windward, known in the area for its Scottish cultural connection through fiddle music and a dominance of Scottish surnames and ancestry. We are linked in so many ways, and I hope that the arts in Scotland can continue to explore the connections with the Caribbean as time goes on.

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Tickets for Vanishing Sail here:  https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vanishing-sail-film-dj-yemster-after-party-tickets-38382083846

 

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