CICR | Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research

Tassa Drumming as an Icon of Indianness in Trinidad and Tobago


This post is an abbreviated version of a paper delivered at the Indenture Abolition Centenary Conference at the School of Advanced Study on October 6-7, 2017. I thank the editor for the invitation to contribute to the CICR blog.

Wedding maro. Aranguez, Trinidad, 2007.

During my first fieldwork trip to study tassa drumming in the summer 2007, a friend invited me to a wedding in Aranguez, Trinidad. I arrived early on Sunday morning, well before most of the wedding guests, yet the DJ was already playing nostalgic filmi songs while the scent of traditional wedding foods filled the air. Stopping to look, smell, and listen, my friend turned to me, stretching his arms out to take it all in, and said, “Look! It’s India right here in Trinidad!” Yet, only a short time later, the DJ started thumping the latest chutney soca hits. And this was in turn displaced by the ear-splitting, chaotic sound of two opposing tassa drumming bands suggesting that we hadn’t been in India after all. The reverberating music of the tassa above all else signaled to everyone in the neighborhood that the wedding had begun.


In this post, I discuss tassa drumming as a tradition that references India as a place of

Two tassa bands compete in an informal jassle at the opening of wedding celebration in Aranguez, Trinidad, 2007.

origin and Trinidad and Tobago as home. I use musical analysis to show that tassa is more than just a retention of Indian culture, but is a reinvention of such, malleable and responsive to diasporic creativity. It’s in this way that tassa has remained not only relevant for performers and listeners, but has furthermore been cultivated as an icon of Indianness in public discourse.

Trinidadian tassa is an offshoot of the North Indian dhol-tasha drumming tradition. Spread globally by the British indentureship system, vibrant dhol tasha styles have developed in nearly all places where workers settled, especially the Mascarenes, the West Indies, and Fiji. In Trinidad and Tobago, tassa bands are essential for the annual Hosay observance, for portions of the three-day set of Hindu wedding rituals, and for all manner of cultural and national celebrations.


Dhol-tasha in Muharram procession, Murshidabad, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, IS. 35:23-1961.

The term “tassa” refers both to the bowl-shaped drum called tassa and to the ensemble within which it plays a central role. There are four musical parts: one lead tassa called the “cutter,” one accompanying tassa called the “foulé,” one large double-headed dhol drum or “bass,” and one set of hand cymbals called jhal or “brass.” The term “hand” refers an individual musical composition comprising a specific form and a distinct composite rhythm. Many common tassa hands are rhythmic distillations from Indian musical sources, some of which have faded from cultural memory while their tassa corollaries have carried on. As new hands have been and continue to be added to the repertoire, this process of adaptation continues while the source material becomes more diverse, influenced by the changing soundscape in diaspora.

Formal structure in tassa music is in part derived from Local Classical Singing, a unique Indian Caribbean genre built upon fragments and elaborations of North Indian devotional, folk, and classical music. Following Local Classical musical structure, all tassa hands feature a loose sectional form, including up to three musical units. Two of these, theka and taal, are always present, while the third, barti, is less common. To understand how these units work in tassa repertoire, it helps to see how they work in Local Classical songs where theka refers to the main part of the song and taal refers to a cadential pattern that marks a shift from theka to the barti, a section with contrasting rhythm if not also meter. The following video clip features an excerpt from the popular bhajan “Jai Jag Janani Bavani” sung by Andrew Sookhoo. I have annotated the video to indicate the use of taal to transition from theka to barti.

The tassa hand called “chaubola” is the most commonly played hand that features the theka/taal/barti structure. The word “chaubola” indeed references a poetic form often used in Local Classical Singing; as such the tassa hand chaubola was likely built upon Local Classical structural elements. In the theka for chaubola, the cutter plays a series of formulaic rhythmic passages followed by a taal that signals a transition to the barti, which leans toward a compound duple meter giving the rhythm a galloping groove. The band playing chaubola in the following clip is Trinidad and Tobago Sweet Tassa founded and directed by Lenny Kumar.

An important takeaway from a comparison of these musical examples is that tassa repertoire has rearticulated the basic formal structure of Local Classical Singing, marginally preserving the song form while adapting it to an all-percussion ensemble. In this way, chaubola is a good example of what drummers call a “classical hand,” a category that rightly suggests a connection with devotional music or Local Classical singing. Another broad category of repertoire includes “breakaway” or dancing hands, which most often lack a barti section and are played at fast tempos.

            A common breakaway hand is called calypso, adapted from the African Trinidadian song form by the same name that is a essential Carnival-time musical tradition. The rhythms of calypso hand for tassa are based on rhythms played by the steel orchestra, in its early days an important accompaniment for calypso singing. Calypso hand’s affinity with steel orchestral style is most clear in the bass, whose theka mirrors typical steel pan bass lines. The foulé’s theka pattern, comprising a subtly articulated sixteenth-note ostinato, further emphasizes this connection with a rhythm similar to that played by the conga drums and so-called “strumming” pans or inner voices in a steel orchestra. Finally, the iron, which provides an incessant sixteenth-note time keeping role in the steel orchestra is also reflected in the rhythm of the tassa foulé.

Sagicor Exodus Steel Orchestra, St. Augustine, Trinidad, 2009. Photo by Georgia Popplewell / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A tenor steel pan. Photo by Feggy Art / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The following video clip contains two musical examples both recorded by Emory Cook in 1956, one of a steel orchestra parading during Carnival and one of a tassa band. I present these back-to-back to draw attention to similarities in musical structure between calypso played by the steel orchestra and calypso hand played by the tassa band. Note that Cook misleadingly labels both tracks. The first one labeled “Mardi Gras Carnival/Lord Melody” is indeed an excerpt of calypsonian Mighty Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah” played as a steel band road march, and the tassa hand labeled as “imitation steel band” is the hand that most drummers today refer to as calypso hand.

This brief musical analysis suggests that tassa emerges from a coherent musical system, one that absorbs outside influences but does so, at least in one way, by distilling essential rhythmic elements into familiar musical structures. It is through such a process, through rearticulation and adaptation, that tassa remains relevant for drummers, dancers, and listeners today. Tassa has moreover provided music for the most celebratory events in the Indian Trinidadian community, sounding out the boundaries of cultural space through repeated association with such events. In this way, tassa has become a music of national importance, one that is frequently evoked as a metaphor for Indian culture in Trinidad and Tobago. Some cultural activists have gone so far as to advocate for tassa as the country’s co-national instrument alongside steelpan, a suggestion that many steel pan stakeholders have regarded as racist and unpatriotic.[1] Within the Caribbean soundscape, tassa indeed features instruments, timbres, musical structure, and performance practice that reference India as a place of origin. Yet, tassa has diverged significantly from its Indian forebears, so much so that it has been reinvented, such that the very same musical elements that mark it as Indian equally reference Trinidad and Tobago as home. In this way, tassa’s rejection as an official national symbol due to its perceived foreignness despite decades of rootedness in diaspora reflects larger and longer-lasting political debates in which alternate routes of creolization continue to direct Indian Trinidadian cultural expressions in ways that frequently don’t fit a tidy concept of what it means to be Caribbean or even Trinidadian.

Christopher L. Ballengee, PhD is Associate Professor of Music at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, USA. He can be reached at

[1] and

Discovering Maria Nugent’s journal: her case for a religious morality amongst enslaved people in early nineteenth-century Jamaica


“I am pleased to share this edited version of a paper I gave to the British Society for Eighteenth century Studies looking at the travel journal of Maria Nugent (1771-1834) which I found in the School of Advanced Study libraries” Dr Beverley Duguid, Independent Scholar


Women who travelled to British colonial territories in the nineteenth century had very specific motivations for travel. Mostly, they went abroad with a spouse and for leisure and were middle-class. However, travel and writing about their experiences, often permitted these women an element of freedom, which they couldn’t manage through travel alone. Therefore, the act of writing about their travels meant they were somehow able to free themselves from convention and express controversial opinions on, for example, slavery, economics and politics; subjects which it was not the norm for women to discuss with ease back home. There are several published accounts, by women in existence who both went to and wrote about British and Spanish colonial territories. For example Maria Graham (1785-1842) who travelled to Latin America in the early nineteenth century and left journals of her travels. Various editions are catalogued in the Institute of Historical research library

However, during the pre-emancipation period, there were some women who went abroad for longer periods of time and latterly published lengthier narrative accounts. These women ‘travellers’ ran households, saw to the management of servants, organised activities which took place within the home, and also administered to the ill. This was a way that women could help to ‘build [and maintain] the Empire’.  Maria Nugent who kept a journal of her time spent in Jamaica, (also held in the above library, in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library and Senate House Library), is an invaluable text of the period.



In 1797 Maria Nugent married George Nugent most likely in Ireland where the family had property. The couple had two children who were born during their residence in Jamaica. Nugent travelled to Jamaica in 1801 with her husband because of his appointment as Lieutenant Governor and Commander in chief to the island. As established above, it was expected that Nugent would take on a very traditional role abroad her duties were predetermined to be mistress of the house and look after its day to day activities together with that of wife and mother. Indeed, her journal reflects this activity with vast accounts of entertaining, organising servants and discussions with planters and some visits to plantations. She not only spent much of her time indoors, but supplanted her domestic life in England for that of a life in Jamaica. In addition, her direct and frank comments caused her to be cited by historians on the Caribbean. This research has assisted in the development of racial discourse surrounding Caribbean and colonial history. Crucially Nugent’s comments on slavery and the political debate surrounding it at this time is not just a valuable source for those researching the pre-emancipation era and plantation life, but also perfectly exemplifies the problematic nature of language used in the past.


After discussing a visitor’s opinion on slavery she wrote: ‘After amusing herself with [sic] the evidence of the House of Commons on the part of the petitioners for the Abolition of the slave trade… as far as I at present see and can hear as the ill treatment of slaves, I think what they say upon the subject is very greatly exaggerated…individuals may treat some slaves badly but on the whole they are ‘well used’’. In fact Nugent frequently discussed her frustration at the inefficiency of the slaves and black house servants often calling them lazy and idle. She wrote: ‘reflect all night upon slavery, and make up my mind, that the want of exertion in the ‘blackies’ must proceed from that cause’.


Therefore, the journal is not simply an imperialist history, but this controversial writing is representative of many aristocratic views of the time and a journal which reveals the character and sensibilities of the author through her gradual revelation of her ‘self’ and as a British woman in the colonial context. On the one hand the journal is tantalising. Its writer had a close-up view of the business of administering a British West Indian colony during a critical period of the Napoleonic wars. Despite the political importance of these events, the journal also revealed the mood and opinions of the author at different periods of time during her stay. Her references to the French invasions fighting and the St Dominque (Haitian) slave rebellion (1791-1803) coupled with her general fear of insurrection of the ‘Negroes’ reveal not only the importance of West Indian colonies to the British and French i.e that they were willing to go to war, but her general anxiety about her surroundings. This unique combination of the ‘actual’ and ‘personal’ is what makes Nugent’s journal so distinctive. Throughout there is an air of opposing and complex subjects: war, death, conflict and ill health in particular in relation to the climate and her fear for her children. However, religion was a more salient topic.



In general, women’s religious practice was something which they carried with them abroad and measured the society they visited against this practice. Because of this, women often found indigenous religious practices unsatisfactory, to say the least. Nugent was not only worried about what she saw as the slaves’ non-religious status but she also stressed time and again, her anxiety about their marital status- many slaves were unmarried. Her belief that ‘there would be no need for the slave trade if religion was instilled in the Negro population’ in other words Christianisation of the black population, occupied a high percentage of her diary.


Therefore her need to play a part in the ‘normalisation’ or normality of slaves was common throughout her text. She wrote that one particular plantation owner (Mr Vaughan) thought that religious instruction would lead to ‘improvement’ and describes slaves in receipt of this as ‘sober, quiet and well behaved’. Nugent’s desire to convert slaves is also shown through her actions: she used her own religious practice to encourage them into ‘normal lives’. Her desire to save the slaves is apparent in many passages such as the following: ‘We met a gang of Eboe Negroes, just landed and marching up the country. I ordered the postilions to stop that I might examine their countenances as they passed, and if they looked unhappy; but they appeared perfectly the reverse. I bowed, kissed my hand, and laughed; they did the same. The women, in particular seemed pleased, and all admired the carriage &c’.

There were however, complex factors in slaves’ inability to marry and Nugent never gave the full picture. In the pre-emancipation era often slaves were not permitted to marry as they were, of course property. Post emancipation marriage became more important for free slaves who saw liberty as literally being free to marry and take responsibility for a wife. They therefore married as a statement to affirm intimate relationships and to legitimate their own children. Marriage between slaves may have posed problems for slave owners who did not want to change their slaves’ status, economic or otherwise. However in the eyes of travellers like Nugent, who compared societies with their own this would have seemed controversial to say the least. For Nugent, in particular it was the fact that slave women had children out of wedlock that was largely distressing. Marriage was intrinsically linked to religion and morality, for example, children born within wedlock, she thought would be taught prayers by their own therefore ensuring their continuation of religious practice. Her moral concern is extended to plantation owners who did not pay attention to their own morals by engaging in intimate relationships with female slaves. She wrote that ‘until a great reformation takes place on their part neither religion, decency nor morality can be established among the ‘Negroes’. If they would marry and the white man give [sic] a better example.’ Nugent’s moral standpoint on female slaves is somewhat contradictory as she somehow apportioned blame to the females for their relations with white overseers. Despite considerable evidence from historians that, at the time, colonial families knew that women were often violated by male overseers.  Overall, Nugent’s treatise does little to convince us of her ‘affection’ for her slaves which she at times pointed to, but only her moral crusade.


In conclusion although the theme of religious morality running through Nugent’s text can be problematic, this source not only also tells us about the country that Nugent visited, but the ‘person’ who visited it. Fundamentally, women’s social status and education certainly played a role in how they interpreted and wrote about their surroundings. Therefore, most diaries like Nugent’s cannot be read in isolation but must engage with its [colonial] context. Despite the fact that her text makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading, nonetheless, it is this very same uneasiness which unearths Nugent’s journal as more than a reconstruction of a ‘colonised state’ but of the author’s ‘self’.

Exploding the Centenary of a Quiet Abolition


In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Warwick’s Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies, Royal Holloway (University of London) and the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Research Fellow at the Centre for Postcolonial Studies, has been working on a number of events to commemorate the centenary of the abolition of indenture in the British Empire.


The largest of these is an international conference, taking place at Senate House, on October 6-7th 2017 – click for more info.


We grabbed an ice cream with Maria to find out how this has been going.




CICR: Maria, at the beginning of the year you said that you were keen to raise awareness about the history of indenture. How successful do you feel you’ve been so far?


MK: In the UK and beyond, few people are aware of the system that immediately replaced slavery in parts of the former British Empire. This invariably makes it hard to engage them with the process of that system’s abolition! One approach to tackling this neglect was an experimental but really enjoyable and revelatory exhibition on the history of indenture in the Caribbean. In collaboration with Senate House Library, I set up a series of lunchtime tours and took people around the collection talking about aspects of my own research in relation to these texts.


While I was waiting for guests to arrive I noticed that a lot of people who were in Senate House for other events were gathering around the exhibition during their lunch and coffee breaks! As I waited for my tour to arrive I could see people engaging with the items on display and discussing the pieces of indenture history that they vaguely knew. So while I was very happy to have people actively sign-up for the tours, it was wonderful to see so many people absorbed in the exhibition in an unexpected way.


Another thing, which made a big impact for us, was the article I wrote for The Voice newspaper to promote the Indenture to Windrush event. This was our oral history symposium on the memories of those who were both descendants of indentured labourers and Windrush era migrants from the Caribbean to the UK. A few people at that event had read the article and attended in the hope of learning more about ancestors from India and China. An elderly woman from Jamaica told us about her Indian grandmother and her desire to learn more about how this woman had come to the Caribbean. So the event really worked as a catalyst for unearthing these silenced histories.


CICR: Indenture to Windrush, was a really popular event here at the School of Advanced Study, can you tell us more about how the evening went? What were the highlights for you?


MK: What was surprising and moving was the way that the speakers on the oral history panel connected with one-another through their shared history and entered a process of co-remembering in such a live way. The warmth from the audience and the tone established by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips (chairs) meant that the panel proceeded with real fluidity, even though many of the participants were meeting for the first time.


There was a moment when Rod Westmaas (of Guyana Speaks) mentioned a friend inviting him to his house to look at his personal archive of photos and papers. The friend had said, ‘Rod, come and have a look at my grip’. You could see from the audience and other panelists’ that this was a word they hadn’t heard in some time! Rod explained to the youngsters among us that ‘grip’ was a Windrush era word for a suitcase.


Heidi Safia Mirza said something that resonated with me personally because, like her, I am the daughter of a Windrush era migrant. She spoke about how her father’s literal Windrush journey had contributed to her intellectual journey as a scholar. I was struck by her comment: ‘my father’s journey made me who I am’ as it expressed something I had felt strongly regarding my own motivation for pursuing a doctorate in Caribbean Studies.


The novelist and poet Professor David Dabydeen (University of Warwick) is in the process of writing a poem to commemorate the centenary of the abolition of indenture. He read out some of this work-in-progress as part of his contribution to the evening. There was a magical moment when he started the poem and it felt like the audience all leant forward at the same time. That was very special.


CICR: Speaking of literature, you have quite an exciting panel planned in October as part of the conference, is that right?


MK: We’re really pleased to be working with the Commonwealth Writers organisation on a panel featuring writers from five countries that used indentured labour – Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Trinidad and South Africa. We’re delighted that Mary Rokanadravu, Ananda Devi and Moses Nagamootoo (a novelist, but also the Prime Minister of Guyana) have confirmed that they will be participating in this panel.


CICR: You mentioned the Commonwealth Writers organisation. You’re also working on an anthology with them to commemorate the centenary aren’t you?


MK: Yes, Prof. David Dabydeen, Prof. Tina K. Ramnarine and myself will be editing a literary anthology to commemorate the centenary, due out in 2018.


CICR: As a descendant of indentured labourers, what’s it like to be involved in the organisation of centenary events?


MK: Well it’s a huge privilege. At the moment I’m drafting the panels for the conference. The quality of work of a number of young scholars who have submitted papers, and who will consequently be presenting their work at Senate House in October, overwhelms me. There are so many motivated, intelligent and creative early career researchers – from all over the world – conducting exciting work on indenture and its legacies. This can only be a good thing in terms of ultimately increasing awareness about the system.




Maria will be producing short feature broadcasts via Periscope once a week in the build-up to the conference.


Watch her first broadcast here.


To keep up with centenary events follow the Centre for Postcolonial Studies on Twitter @PoCoSaS.

Invoking Nello: a conversation on CLR James


Adom Philogene Heron and Joshua Jelly Schapiro

For this entry – the second in the Caribbean Collection Series – it is our pleasure to present a special guest interview with geographer, author and travel writer Joshua Jelly Schapiro (right). Joshua’s recent book Island People 

(Cannongate, 2016), offers a profound meditation on the Caribbean as a crossroads of modernity; a complicated sea of syncretism, violence and creative survival where disparate worlds meet. The book, informed by some 20 years of visiting, working and living in the region, chronicles his journeys throughout the archipelago, his encounters with many people and his deep historical reading on the region.

The Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research have invited Joshua along to Senate House Library to visit the archives which are home to the CLR James Papersa number of original letters and personal documents written to and by James, a great pillar of Caribbean thought and one of Joshua’s major influences.

In advance of his visit, Joshua and CICR’s Adom Philogene Heron shared a conversation on the life, work and inspiration of the late great CLR.

/|\  /|\  /|\

Adom: Joshua, I would like firstly to take the pleasure of thanking you for participating in this conversation on the work of the late CLR James (4 January 1901 – 31 May 1989).

I would like to kick off, if I may, by asking you how you first encountered the work of ‘Nello’ (as his friends fondly nicknamed him).

Joshua: I recall distinctly the first time I encountered him—and it did feel, really, like encountering the man as much as his work (even though this was some years after his death, and I never met him). It was the late 1990s; I was 19. I was at university, taking a class on “Socialism and Marxism”—basically it was just a survey of Marxist thought, beginning with Capital and The Conditions of the Working Class (in England) and running through a familiar lineage of thought, and debate over Marx’s theories of history, mostly in Europe—from Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg through to Gramsci to, you know, Louis Althusser: the classics. C.L.R. James, at that time, would not have featured on many syllabi like that. But my professor in that class was a wonderful scholar called Michael Denning; he thought James belonged. Michael had done his graduate work here in England, at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies—he had studied with people like Stuart Hall; he was interesting in synthesizing Marx, a Marxian understanding of capitalism and class struggle, with more contemporary concerns – with the roles of popular culture in daily life, and in political change; with the political technology of “race”, and racism; with the legacies of Europe’s modern empires, around the world, for those who had endured them. And so he gave us C.L.R. James.

I recall the book vividly: The C.L.R. James Reader (right). It had just come out—this volume of James’s writings on any number of themes: Trotsky and world revolution; cricket and calypso; the West Indies Federation; radio serials, race in America. Part of why I was so struck with book was its cover: it was just this photo of the man’s face, ringed by a shock of white hair, his eyes open wide and penetrating—this old sage, presented as a kind of a oracle. And when I opened that book, that’s how he felt to me, too—I was a young person trying to think for myself, in the half-formed ways that one does at age 19, about how to relate my own interest in social justice to my love for jazz and for soccer. And here was this guy who had done it. And who’d done it from the marginal vantage of the Caribbean—this hugely brilliant and well-read guy, a black man from Trinidad who wrote as confidently on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as he did on Russian politics; who insisted that Europe’s old colonies had as large a role to play in overturning capitalism as Europe’s working classes did—who suggested the Mighty Sparrow, the great calypsonian from Trinidad, had a role in that struggle (and a far more subtle one than singing propaganda). I found him thrilling!

19 is a good age for developing crushes, of all kinds—and I certainly had one on old C.L.R. And I still do. Certain of his ideas have aged better than others, of course; there’s lots to critique, in lots of what he wrote. But he remains vastly important to me. Especially, and most of all, in his ideas about the Caribbean—his insistence that the Caribbean, long thought of as this marginal place, actual belongs at the centre; that the Caribbean belongs, really, at the centre of any story we tell ourselves about the making of the modern world.

Adom: So, not only as the late Sidney Mintz once stated, are Caribbeans ‘the first modernised peoples in world history’, but this claim that the Caribbean is integral to modern global history runs throughout Island People.  But I want to ask you, in what ways would you say James’ work of centring the Caribbean most influenced your thoughts as you were researching and writing the book?

Joshua: There’s a saying—‘all books are at some level autobiography’. And I think that’s true—even for novels, it’s true; books are inventories of the self. And that’s true in quite concrete ways with Island People. It’s very much a memoir of affinity: it’s a book about what I’ve been drawn to since I was a teenager—the cultures and history of the Caribbean—melded to my years of travel to and through the region. Part of the book’s genesis, certainly, was simply to narrate experience, to create a portrait of these islands, as a region, in a way that hadn’t been done in some time. It’s also an account of my journey, in a more figurative sense, through the idea of the Caribbean—through what different people have had to say about what the Caribbean represents; why it matters; why this part of the world is so alluring, or screwed up, or powerful. And in that respect, really, there’s one thinker above all—one conception of the Caribbean—that serves as the book’s jumping-off point, and muse. And that’s James. The arguments he made, way back in the early 1960s, about the Caribbean’s import, were laid out most lucidly, perhaps, in his essay ‘From Toussaint l’Ouverture to Fidel Castro.’

James wrote that essay, which I quote from in the introduction to Island People, as a new ‘appendix’ to his book The Black Jacobins (pp. 391-418; below)—his great history of the Haitian Revolution that was first published in the 1930s, but that he revised in 1963, and added this new essay, to connect the amazing story of the Haitian Revolution to what was happening in the world today. It’s in this essay that he argues that the Caribbean, the islands of the West Indies, were a unified region, with a unique role to play in world history.

Adom: Unique in what sense?

Joshua: Well, as he put it:


Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed, they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, not a part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West Indian, sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else.

And to James this wasn’t mere trivia. He was concerned to emphasize that the Caribbean was central to the making of the Atlantic world, to the creation of the world capitalist system. These islands were the central node in the Triangle Trade: six million enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean, as opposed to some 400,000 to North America, before the slave trade’s end. The wealth those slaves created, the ways that fed the birth of capitalism in Europe, were revolutionary. And so, of course, in different ways, was the Haitian Revolution—this astonishing drama that played out in French Saint Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola, over the last decade of the 18th century. The Haitian Revolution wasn’t merely the only successful slave revolution in history; it was also in many ways the birthplace of modern politics: the moment that people of color, to use modern parlance, took the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and turned it back on Europe, to ask how seriously Europe was going to take the notion of “natural rights,” of universal liberty; whether those concepts applied to non-white people, too. It was a shattering event.


But the importance of the Caribbean, for James, wasn’t merely in the past. He wrote that because of this history—because of how its people had been so involved; how its children of slaves and indenture had learned European languages; had worked at industry and lived for generations in places where long-distance trade and cultural mixing were dominant facts of life–the Caribbean had a unique role to play. ‘Of all formerly colonial coloured peoples,’ James wrote in his new afterword to The Black Jacobins, ‘the West Indian masses are the most highly experienced in the ways of Western civilisation and most receptive to its requirements in the twentieth century.’


Adom: Are you inclined to agree with James’ assessment concerning the distinctive nature of Caribbean experience?

Joshua: Yes. That was a big part of my impetus for writing Island People—to show how that’s so: how what James argued, and foresaw, has come to pass. Because the Caribbean is everywhere. Already in James’s era this was evident in the realm of politics—it’s remarkable how many of the leading anti-colonial figures, during those years, came from the Caribbean; how many leading “Pan-Africanists,” even. Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, George Padmore. Aimé Cesaire, Fidel Castro—the list goes on; and they’re all Caribbean figures. There was a remarkable literary flourishing in that period too, of truly first-rate writers working within European traditions but drawing from, and writing about, the ‘creole’ life of the colonies—Naipaul, Walcott and Cesaire; Jean Rhys, George Lamming, Paule Marshall – all remarkable writers.

But it’s in recent decades, in the realm of culture, and of popular music especially, that I think James’s claims has really won out. The easy example to cite is Bob Marley—he became, in the 1970s, the “third world superstar”; now, thirty years after his death, he remains arguably the most pervasive political and musical icon on earth. There’s nowhere on the planet you can go and not see a mural of the guy, a poster in a coffee shop, of this guy who somehow made great pop songs from heavy subjects like the Triangle Trade, like “redemption”. And there are other figures, of Marley’s stature, in other idioms and from other islands, you know —Celia Cruz (below) from Cuba, in the realm of “Latin music”; Rihanna, from Barbados, in the realm of pop. More subtly, though, we can just speak of rhythms and textures, more than people—because it’s the Caribbean, the rhythms of Cuba, that fed not just salsa but jazz and rock-n-roll; it’s Jamaica, and the Kingston genius for “cut-n-mix” and talking in rhythm, that fed hip-hop; in that city now (New York), where I live, there’s more bachata and reggaeton on the radio than anything else. And it’s the rhythms of Africa, made new and transformed in the Americas; the blend of old roots with that sense of cosmopolitan possibility, and newness, inherent to a New World. It’s all there, in the musics of the Caribbean. And those sounds are everywhere—I mean listen, right now, to pop radio, to Drake or Justin Bieber or Major Lazer: they know where to go to get what’s fresh—they play with soca from Trinidad, Jamaican bashment. The Caribbean is everywhere in our soundscape and in our culture, whether we know it or not. And I think, you know, that that wouldn’t have surprised old Nello.

Adom: Much of the correspondence within James’ personal papers here at Senate House features rich debate with regional premieres on the politics and administration of the fledgling West Indies Federation (of which CLR was secretary during its short life), what do you think the idea of a unified independent Caribbean meant to James (himself a son of Trinidad)?

Joshua: Well, one of the notable features of James’s thinking about the Caribbean was his insistence, as we mentioned, that the islands comprised a coherent region—that despite the fractures of history, the different languages and so on, that these islands should be seen to have a common culture and thus, perhaps, a common destiny. You know, if James had his way, he probably would have advocated for membership in the West Indies Federation to be extended to Cuba, too! He liked to insist that even Cuba, was “the most West Indian of the West Indies.” But the idea of Caribbean unity was hugely important to him—as it was to many of his generation. George Lamming, the great novelist from Barbados, insisted in their era that ‘the immediate need is to regionalize [the] struggle, that cultural struggle.’ Certainly, James agreed. He saw, economically as much as anything else, how these little islands competing with each—as they still do today, for tourist dollars and so much else—was no path toward “development,” in the world economy, or even survival. Which is why the breakup of the Federation, as you know, was hugely sad for him.

But those rivalries between the islands are a part of Caribbean life, too. That whole “independence time” moment, though, is such a fascinating one in James’s life—he’d been living in America in the 1940s, and then in England; he returned home, after Trinidad won self-rule, and as it was headed for independence, to help in that process, to aid his onetime student Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first prime minister, to help in his project of “nation building”. That project, certainly for James, was as full of disappointment as joy—he had a dramatic falling out with Williams, and had to leave the island.  The West Indies Federation, too, came to grief. But his writings on that period, sad as it was, are remarkable, too—he had such a sense, as a literary critic and as a reader, for tragedy; he was uniquely equipped, as many of his current admirers have noted, for narrating the disappointments and contradictions of “post-colonial” life, too.

Adom: As you mention, CLR moved across the region and beyond, and his life spanned many decades of political flux – from the labour uprisings of the early 20th century Anglophone Antilles, to the Cuban revolution and pan-Africanism of the mid 20th century, to the emergence of Anglophone post-colonies towards the century’s end (not to mention a world war, American civil rights movements and the emergence of the Soviet Union). Having seen and written on many of these changes, in what ways would you say James was a man of the 20th century and how does his work still resonate today?

Joshua: Well, Wilson Harris, the deep novelist from Guyana, described James as someone who “tried to embrace the century in its dialectical whole.” And I think, you know, that’s pretty spot on. The scope of his ambition, the breadth of his thought—what he felt compelled to think about, and how he was impelled to act—is quite remarkable. Of course, there’s some grandiosity there—there was more than a bit about James, who had a healthy ego because he had to have a healthy ego, of projecting that he had to know everything about everything. People called him “the Black Plato” for a reason [Joshua chuckles]. But what’s also key to say about him, I think, is that the span of his life—from 1901 to 1989—really took in all the major eras and moments of the twentieth century. He was born in a British crown colony, on the margins of the empire; he travelled to Europe between the wars and plunged into radical politics by the Depression in England; he lived in the United States through World War II and was expelled from there, for his views, at the start of the Cold War; he returned to the Caribbean to see his home-island win its independence; he lived out his years in England, as the people of its former colonies settled there and raised new questions about not merely the future of Britain, but this concept of “Western Civilization” to which he was so attached. He was present for it all. And he was compelled to think about it all, and wrote brilliantly about much of it. So doing, he anticipated many of the current trends in academe—toward “interdisciplinarity” and so on—but he also wrote lovely, jargon-free prose. He left so much work that remains as fresh feeling today, as it must have when he wrote it. Even as we face a new scary era with new problems, he remains an inspiration and a model. He has certainly been that for me.

/|\  /|\  /|\

Many thanks to Joshua for taking the time speak with CICR and for his wonderful chronicle of Caribbean life.

Island People is available at all good bookstores and Joshua will be giving a reading at one such store, Pages of Hackney, on 12th June @ 7:00 PM. To attend – click here

To see Colin Grant’s review of the book for The Guardianclick here.

To hear Joshua speaking about Caribbean contributions to the modern world on the Radio 3 Free Thinking program, alongside Colin Grant and Kei Miller – click here.

Introducing the Caribbean Collections Project


Dr Adom Philogene Heron, Post-doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research


I have recently begun curating a review of the Caribbean studies holdings across our three libraries –The Institute of Historical Research, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and the general Senate House Library.

In this first blog post I shall offer an introduction to The Caribbean Collection Project and Senate House’s rich collection within the fields of kinship and gender, my particular areas of interest as a Caribbeanist Anthropologist. This ‘route in’ to the collection will be the first of numerous features with scholars who have used the library’s materials and will share their thoughts on a highlight of the collection.


The Caribbean Collection Project

The project centres on a survey of the Caribbean materials across the SAS libraries, with the goal of developing an online index that will give users a sense of the strengths of the collection. Often students of the Caribbean – from undergraduates to advanced and independent scholars – are not aware of the breadth, depth or rarity of SAS’ Caribbean materials. Our goal is to showcase several thematic highlights of the collection via a series blog posts and talks; before collating the online guide to assist library users in finding materials.

Core collection themes will include:

  • The Amerindian/pre-Columbian and early colonial Caribbean
  • The Plantation Caribbean (slavery, plantation life, indenture, and abolition)
  • Ordering the colonial Caribbean (administration, discipline and European rule)
  • Imagining Caribbean freedoms (maronnage, revolutions, ruptures and social movements)
  • Caribbean spiritualties, religions and ‘mystics’ (the occult)
  • Conceiving of the Caribbean post/neo-colony (‘nation building’, ‘development’ and their discontents)
  • Gender and kinship
  • Caribbean literary life and key thinkers


Researching Gender and Kinship at SAS Libraries

Early in my PhD research – on Fatherhood, Masculinities and Family life in Dominica (Eastern Caribbean) – I began visiting Senate House library (as a SCONUL member) and exploring the holdings on Caribbean families and gender relations. I encountered ethnographies of the late colonial era such as RT Smith’s (1956) The Negro Family in British Guiana and Edith Clarke’s (1957) My Mother Who Fathered Me. These early studies were useful for their rigorous mapping of familial patterns and roles. And although very much of their time (colonial in terms of scholar-subject relations; and structural functionalist in paradigm), they introduced key issues – ‘matrifocal’ (mother-centred) families, household economies, residence patterns and so-called ‘male marginality’.

Next, I went on to read Christine Barrow’s (1996) Family in the Caribbean volume, Merle Hodge’s essay ‘We Kind of Family’ in Mohamed (2002) Gendered realities: essays in Caribbean feminist thought and Alissa Trotz’s essay ‘The Caribbean Family?’ in Essed et al. A companion to gender studies. I found that each offered a nuanced and critical take on the tropes of earlier generations of Caribbean kinship scholars. For instance, Trotz asked if it is even useful to speak of ‘The Caribbean’ family at all, given how vastly the region’s familial dynamics often differ by class, island context and ethnic group.

In my meanderings through the library shelves I would also encounter the path breaking Women in the Caribbean Project (WICP) papers (Senate House holds Vol1. editions #1-6 – see references below). WICP broad together leading Caribbean social scientists to examine the social, economic, familial and cultural lives of women in the region. This project reflected a great wave of Caribbean feminist scholarship in the 1980s that culminated in such key texts as Janet Momsen’s (ed) (1993) Women and change in the Caribbean, Olive Senior’s (1991) Working miracles and Honor Ford-Smith’s (1986) Lionheart gal : life stories of Jamaican women.



These important explorations of the under-examined ground of women’s experience – particularly as mothers, aunts and grandmothers – were instructive for thinking through gendered familial roles in the region; particularly, as they intersect with issues of economy, class, education and religion. They were also useful for the glimpses they offered into girls/women’s relationships to male kin. For example Forde-Smith quotes a woman who recalled how her grandfather would,


sing wid me, dance wid me and treat me like me and him is friend. If him a tink bout anyting, him always ask, ‘Gal, what yuh haffi say bout dat?’ Him tell Ananse story and whole heap a odder story. Him even mek a lickle swing under di house bottom fi me…

(Ford Smith 1986:98).



With an evolving grounding in Caribbean feminist theory and praxis, I began reading about Caribbean men as gendered beings. Rhoda Reddock’s (Ed) (2004) interdisciplinary volume Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: offered a necessary starting point in this endeavour by situating masculinities research within the historical context of Caribbean social science, history and literature. This book offered a critical lens with which I could revisit the gendered threads of earlier works, such as P J Wilson’s (1973) Crab Antics – about male sociality, respectability and counterculture in Providencia Island (Colombia); Earl Lovelace’s (1979) novel The Dragon Can’t Dance – which explores similar themes in the context of a community in Port of Spain and Trinidadian carnival; and Graham Dann’s (1987) The Barbadian Male: Sexual Attitudes and Practice – which offers a damning portrait of men’s sexual norms in Barbados, perhaps as revealing of such norms as is the ‘respectable’ values of the middle class Bajan author.

Finally, I found in fiction, poetry and film several affectively nuanced and qualitatively rich accounts of Caribbean family life. For example, Lorna Goodison’s (1988) poem, My Uncle in Caribbean Quarterly (Vol. 44, No. 1[2], to which Senate House subscribes), is about the funeral of her maternal uncle, in which she offers a detailed portrait of familial loss and love for a departed ancestor. Conversely, Jamaica Kincaid in her (1998) book The Autobiography of My Mother, shares a memoir about her a less intimate, often brutal relation to her mother – revealing a harsher imagining/remembering of familial life, that is reflective of the violent history of the Caribbean region itself. And finally, Euzhan Palcy’s 1983 film Sugar Cane Alley – based on the novel La Rue Cases Nègres by Joseph Zobel – tells the story of a young boy, José, who is raised on a sugar plantation in 1930s Martinique and receives a scholarship to attend school in the capital Fort-de-France. Yet, of interest for the scholar of kinship are José’s relationships to his loving grandmother who raises him, and to an elderly rum drinking labourer, Medouze, with whom he develops a kind of avuncular or grandfather-like fondness. Medouze shares with him visions of Africa and issues him his first lessons on the social inequities of their society. Together, these creative works offered a broader perspective on family realities than the social science literature – from departed ancestors, to distant mothers to honorary uncles/grandfathers.

In sum, this brief glimpse at my PhD reading journey at Senate House library has intended to give a sense of some of the kinds of texts the library possesses under the themes of Caribbean gender and kinship. Below is a reference list to some more of these texts (it is intended not as a comprehensive index of the holdings in this area, but is merely illustrative of some key titles).


Haiti – plus ça change


Dr Peter Sollis (former Senior Advisor – Haiti Response Group, Inter-American Development Bank)


Just over two weeks before the February 7, 2017 presidential inauguration, a judge began investigation of a report that president-elect Jovenel Moise may have laundered dollars through 14 accounts over the 2007 to 2013 period and, in a separate claim, that he received special treatment to get business loans from the Haitian Popular Bank, a state bank.


The investigation, launched in 2013, lay dormant until four opposition senators demanded information on the findings. They have also demanded a delay in the swearing in until the judicial investigation is completed and there is clarity on the matter. They argue that a tainted president will raise concerns about Haiti’s ability to root out corruption as well as affect banking transactions between US and Haitian banks.


Jovenel Moise who appeared voluntarily without his lawyer before the investigating judge, calls the allegations a political smear. His political allies accuse the financial crimes unit (UCREF), a key government agency, of a political witch-hunt, especially since confidential reports were leaked during the campaign itself.


The case is unlikely to be concluded before the inauguration date, though it is not expected to derail Moise’s swearing in. It does however reflect Haiti’s political divisions and underscore the unpredictability of its politics.


It was only on January 4, 2017 that Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Commission (CEP) declared that Jovenel Moise of the Parti Haitien Tet Kale (PHTK) had won the November 2016 presidential election. The inevitable street protests in Port-au-Prince could not take away the personal triumph the result represented for Jovenel Moise. Nor could it mask the electoral earthquake associated with the round defeat of two protégé presidential candidates.


Jovenel Moise who topped the list in disputed October 2015 presidential elections with 33.8% of the vote, won in 2016 with 55.7%; a margin wide enough to obviate the need for a runoff.  With no government experience but a clear vision about Haiti’s future, backed by a well-run campaign, Moise saw his popularity bounce between 2015 and 2016 with a 17% increase in his total vote.


The electoral machinery did not favour Jovenel Moise. It was interim President Privert, a staunch PHTK opponent, who appointed the nine CEP members, responsible for arranging the November 2016 elections. Expectations were low since these were the first elections in more than a decade that were largely Haitian organised. Fears about widespread violence did not materialise. Indeed, the 2016 vote was more peaceful than that of October 2015.


The authorities were also vindicated in their decision to continue with the elections despite extensive hurricane-damage. An impressive effort readied voting infrastructure in disaster-hit departments to ensure voters could participate. Irregularities did occur. Some voting centres opened late. Poorly trained electoral workers also denied some voters the opportunity to vote though they were registered.


The losing candidates were hard pressed to claim the electoral machinery had not worked. Indeed, a major defining factor in the election was how the different campaigns responded to the suffering caused by Hurricane Mathew that hit Haiti on October 6, 2016.


Jude Celestin’s well-resourced campaign played to his past reputation as a builder of things in the two administrations of President Rene Preval. This point was literally driven home by the deployment of fleets of tractors to clear debris blocked roads. Celestin’s popularity surged with his offer to rebuild the bridge at Petit-Goave.  His standing then eroded under questions about how he had a bridge available and why he was campaigning with equipment from the National Equipment Centre (CNE), where he had once been Executive Director.


Celestin’s clarification, that he only knew where a CNE bridge was stored and as an engineer he could help to install it, did not convince. The damage was done. His rivals seized the opportunity to paint him as a dishonest politician using state equipment to benefit politically from a natural disaster at the people’s expense.


As in 2015 Jude Celestin finished second. But this time around his support collapsed. Having received 392,782 votes in 2015 he polled only 208.837 in 2016, a 47% drop in support. This loss, after the 2010 presidential election defeat, means that Celestin’s chance to be President has likely passed, despite his continued party control.


Dr Maryse Narcisse, the Fanmi Lavalas candidate secured a poor fourth place. As the first Fanmi Lavalas candidate to contest presidential elections since 2000, Narcisse expected her numbers to benefit from get-out-the vote campaigning in Lavalas strongholds, such as Delmas 3, by Ex-President Aristide. Fanmi Lavalas also tried to take electoral advantage of post-hurricane devastation. When rice distribution in Les Cayes got out of hand, Lavalas volunteers were filmed beating back people with sticks and throwing them off trucks. The outcry when the videos went viral overshadowed the former president’s efforts and the total vote for Dr Narcisse between 2015 and 2016 shrank by 12% to just over 96,000.


Whether, as some suggest, the President-elect lacks a mandate because of deepened political divisions and instability misses a central point. For every Narcisse voter six people voted for Jovenel Moise and for every Celestin voter, nearly three voted for the president-elect, according to the election results. The close association of these two defeated candidates to ex-Presidents Aristide and Preval, respectively, the duo dominating political life over the twenty year period from 1990 to 2010, shows their weakening sway over the election politics.


Moise, the protégé of ex-President Martelly, headed a handsomely financed campaign conceived by the same firm, Ostos and Sola, which guided Martelly to the Presidential Palace. Already popular in the north Moise’s campaign focused on the south, stockpiling water and food there in anticipation that Hurricane Mathew would hit Haiti. Moise’s campaign was the first organisation to distribute relief in rural areas, using local mayors the local counterpart designated by central government. Though criticized for handing out supplies with PHTK labels, Moise nevertheless showed he got things done.


Known affectionately as Neg Bannan Nan, Moise campaigned hard on rooting out corruption and strengthening Haitian government watchdogs. He offered a lyrical vision of how a deforested country could become a banana-producing republic through a promise to “put the rivers, sun, the soil and the people to work”. His own modest start in life and reputation as a successful entrepreneur who started auto parts, purified water and banana businesses, provided the credibility behind his electoral slogan of se sel vre chanjman (the only true change).


Whether the president-elect can bring change, always a big ask, has got even more difficult with the money laundering and favouritism allegations. As a man largely hewn in the provinces and a political newcomer, Moise has now experienced the bruising nature of national politics in Port-au-Prince. His calculation about how to be his own man when forming his government has become more complicated. What distance does he put between him and the group around Martelly, some of whom were rumoured to have campaigned for Celestin? Also what will be the understanding about, and with, Sophia Martelly? When she ran multi-million dollar education and social programmes she redefined the role of first lady, kindling an ambition beyond being known an ex-first lady as shown by her attempt to stand for president.


The president-elect also has a new parliament to work with. Whether parliament can move beyond its normal ineffectiveness is a big question. A priority is to get parliamentary business working again after a two-year hiatus created by the failure to hold legislative elections at the end of 2014. In the newly reconstituted parliament, the PHTK, Moise’s party, and its allies, now holds putative majorities in both the assembly and senate. Yet parliamentary approval of a legislative programme of a government of the same party is by no means certain given deep-rooted traditions of parliamentarian individualism and weak party discipline.


If getting it right on his emergency response to Hurricane Mathew was instrumental to winning the election, as President, Moise needs to establish his governmental credibility through an equally astute set of longer-term actions for relief and recuperation. Here trusting his entrepreneurial instincts might be advantageous, particularly if donor projects supporting private sector development can be rejigged to recapitalise small and medium enterprises across the south.


A much-talked about budget revision might only free-up minimal funds for hurricane relief. As Haitian budgets are largely administrative there is little room for shifting resources around. Also, price subsidies on petroleum products at around US$400 million per annum, and transfers to cover the operating deficit of Electricite d’Haiti (EDH), around US$150 million annually, eat up around 30% of the budget.


A president with diminished credibility might be less able to address long-standing impediments to growth. And, if one agency epitomizes Haiti’s structural problems it is EDH. All attempts since the 2010 earthquake to reform and modernize EDH’s financial management and administration have stalled. This failure is a major contributory factor to donor fatigue, most recently evidenced by the underwhelming response to the UN’s Hurricane Mathew emergency appeal.


Though interim President Privert, as well as EDH itself, have belatedly recognised the need for change, their recent pronouncements fall short and lack consistency. The newly completed Tabarre electricity sub-station and internal distribution circuits in Port-au-Prince, built with donor money, have improved the capital’s energy supply. Large industrial, commercial and institutional consumers have returned to EDH’s network. In his August 2016 address at the inauguration of the Tabarre sub-station, President Privert reminded his audience of the improved service to exhort customers to pay their bills.


Later that same day, interim President Privert inaugurated the first of three new donor-financed turbines at the Peligre hydroelectric plant. His message there was significantly different. He did not speak about the problems of stealing electricity and non-payment of bills. Yet any traveller taking the road from Mirebalais to Peligre can easily see how each electricity post bristles with illegal connections. Local consumption has consequently soared to take almost half Peligre’s new production, nearly overloading the distribution network and increasing the risk around the plant’s integrity. Only around 30% of local customers pay for electricity consumed.


Legalising connections and getting consumers to pay is both a commercial and technical necessity as well as a political problem. Privert’s silence at Peligre acknowledges the entitlement felt by those people near the dam who contend that because their water is generating the electricity they should not pay.


Meanwhile, EDH is running TV advertisements about the completion of Tabarre, the internal circuits in Port-au-Prince and the first Peligre turbine. These too encourage customers to pay for their electricity, offering those with past due bills a discount deal. Such an approach seems to introduce perverse incentives unlikely to change current behaviours – why pay today if when you pay later you pay less?


As Peligre turbine replacement advances, a second and then, a third unit will be brought on line. This power will be the cheapest produced in Haiti, though contracts with independent power producers (IPPs) restrict when and how it can be fed into the system. This is contrary to universal energy planning practices that establish that the cheapest electricity is used first.


2017 will be a more sombre and uncertain year for the Haitian economy. The World Bank forecasts a 0.6% contraction in GNP. Inflation, now at around 12%, will continue to devalue the gourd-dollar exchange rate, which is widely watched, and popular, indicator of economic health. Petro-Caribe that financed many post-earthquake infrastructure projects will not again reach its post-earthquake funding apotheosis. Other donor funding has largely returned to normal levels. Meanwhile, uncertainty surrounds the Haiti policy of the new US administration.


In constricted economic circumstances making EDH solvent is more important than ever. Donors now finance the capital investments required because of EDH’s past inability to maintain its plant. It is folly to assume that donors will continue this effort indefinitely. Improving EDH’s technical and maintenance capabilities goes hand in hand with establishing its commercial viability and financial sustainability. As electricity is sine qua non for any development strategy the government has to take the lead in fixing how Haiti produces, transmits and distributes electricity. Past experience shows that squeezing out systemic distortions is a matter of political will at the highest level. This will be a true test of the mettle of the se sel vre chanjman.