Friday, June 26, 2015

In Remembrance of Charleston

In remembrance of the nine people who lost their lives in the Charleston Massacre, I am re-blogging my posts about South Carolina Gullah culture. There is a strong connection between Mother Emmanuel AME Church and the Gullah community. Many of the slain were members of the Gullah community: a formidable culture that has managed to retain roots to their African heritage in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, and many other violent attacks in this so-called free country.  This is in memory of DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

My first introduction to Gullah culture came with Julie Dash's seminal 1992 film, Daughters of The Dust, The film showcases the languid beauty of the land and the language. Set at the turn of the 20th century on St. Helena Island, the movie tells the haunting story of three generations of Gullah women. Since the tale took place in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that the culture was still alive until I stepped onto the dusty roads and marshy landscape of St. Helena myself. The lyrical dialect of the Gullah people floated around me and it drove me crazy. I have a pretty sharp ear for language and what I heard sounded like Jamaican patois, but not quite, like Nigerian Yoruba intonations but not completely, like the sing-song melody of St. Croix Cruzan speech but not totally. When I was told that it was Gullah language that I was hearing, a light went off. I had heard Gullah semi-recently but never realized it. My daughter loved to watch the Nick Jr. children's TV show, Gullah Gullah Island during the mid to late 90s. Somehow, I never connected the snappy songs and amusing folk tales that the show's creators, Ron and Natalie Daise, used to illustrate Gullah speech and customs with the ancient culture I had glimpsed in Daughters of the Dust.

But as I explored more Sea Islands, including Hilton Head and Beaufort, I discovered that Gullah culture is vibrantly alive on many levels. One of the highlight's of my trip was meeting Ron Daise and witnessing Gullah culture firsthand. Ron is one of the leading experts on Gullah culture and dialect and he acted as the dialect coach for Daughter's of The Dust. Hearing Ron roll melodic Gullah words and sing Gullah songs brought everything to life for me. We visited the Spanish moss draped campus of Penn Center, the first school opened for freed slaves in the South.

Founded in 1862, Penn was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to strategize and meditate in the 60s and where Daise's parents and grandparents studied and became educators.
The school closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service. The site now hosts dorms, homes and a museum, whose small gift shop is full of plaques with Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene.

Whenever I asked how to sum up Gullah culture, spirituality was always the first response. So it makes sense that the most significant representation of Gullah culture is the Gullah Bible. Called "De Nyew Testament," the bible was translated by the Sea Island Translation Team, of which Ron Daise was a member. The team translated the bible in 2005, entirely in Gullah with translations in the margins. Here's a verse:

"Dem Wa Bless Fa True. Wen Jedus see all de crowd dem, e gon pontop one high hill. E seddown dey, Jeddus staat fa baan um. E say, dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deyself."
Don't recognize the passage? It's Luke 16:20-23. In the five Gullah Baptist churches on Hilton Head alone, the singularity of the language flows through the pews. (I visited one but didn't quite make it through the required 3 1/2 hour service.) That lyrical dialect also represents the spirit that sustained the Gullah culture for over 200 years in tact.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Flamenco Dancing in Granada

It's a thrilling experience to watch flamenco dancing. The rhythms, the dramatic flourishes and chants capture you immediately. I climbed the steep cobblestone hills of Granada, Spain to watch a flamenco performance in the famous caves of Sacromonte. Formed around ravines and supplying striking views of the Alhambra Palace, this historic neighborhood is worth a visit even without flamenco but the dance and the music is closely tied to the area. The area was settled by Roma, Moors and Jewish people fleeing persecution. The derogatory term of gypsy is still used but Roma is the preferred name for these nomadic people who arrived from India in the 15th century. It's said that elements of Indian dance can be glimpsed in flamenco as well as Moorish and Jewish influences. What I recognized was the strong connection between cultural expression and systematic oppression. Many of the movements and phrasing reminded me of American blues culture and I think that there are many historical parallels.

The dancers vivid dresses were often raised to show their intricate footwork or zapateado.

The hand clapping looked effortless but palmeros weave intricate patterns around the baseline of each song. The audience was encouraged to join in the clapping but our claps were nowhere near as refined.

It was interesting to see a male dancer. Although the image of a flamenco dancer is usually a woman, men have always performed the dances and many of Andalucia's most famous flamenco artists are male. This dancer's moves were very fluid and quick, it was mesmerizing to watch his feet whirl around.

The echos of the percussive movements rang through the cave. The musicians who played behind the dancers were just as skilled and the overall effect was unforgettable.  Some travelers feel that a visit to Sacromonte flamenco shows is a tourist trap but I think it's a special opportunity to learn more about a distinguished culture.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Herman and The Volcano Climbing Stick

They greeted us as soon as we stepped out of our van. Eager little boys brandishing impish grins and hand-carved walking sticks pushed them into our faces.  "Amiga,only 25 quetzales!" They all yelled but Herman was fast. He opened the door and grabbed my hand. I knew that I would need a walking stick to help with the craggy terrain of Guatemala's Pacaya Volcano. This active volcano attracts so many tourists that locals make good livings selling walking sticks and offering horseback rides for hikers that can't handle the twisty hour and a half  journey. I knew I'd need a stick and I knew I'd buy it from Herman the minute he opened the door.  If eyes are the windows to the soul, children are the window to a culture. Consistently happy little faces reflect a place that values children and those are places I love to be. Herman told me his name and never stopped smiling as I considered his sticks. I decided on a mid-sized one. I didn't realize then what a huge difference the stick would make during my trek but meeting Herman had already enriched my experience.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Glory of B.B. King

If you've ever heard his music, you'll never forget it. If you ever met B.B. King in person, you'll never forget it. B.B. King was truly unforgettable not just because he was the King of the Blues but because he remained a loving and humble spirit throughout his stunning 67-year career.

B.B. is universally acknowledged as the most important electric guitarist of the last half of the 20th century and I think his humility sometimes obscured that fact. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't boastful. But if you heard the first few notes of a B.B. King song, you recognized it immediately The resonance of his guitar riffs and his commanding vocals ripped right through you. Buddy Guy, a far flashier blues guitarist, famously described B.B's skill this way: "We've got all kinds of special effects on guitars now. You can push a button. B.B's special effect was his left hand."

Like most of the great blues masters, he was born in the Mississippi Delta as Riley King, struggling through the vicious systems of share cropping and segregation as an orphan during his teen years. Moving to Memphis in the mid '40s represented the turning point in his life and career. He learned the foundation of blues guitar from his cousin, celebrated country blues musician Bukka White and became a popular Memphis DJ, dubbed Beale Street Blues Boy. It was later shortened to B.B. From the start, B.B. knew how to make his guitar Lucille sing and talk like no other guitarist. Named for the woman who inspired a fight that ended in a fire in the Arkansas juke joint he was playing, Lucille symbolized the emotional connection B.B. maintained with his music and with his audience. You could listen to the notes that he coaxed from Lucille and swear it was a message to you personally. You could hear his heart-filled voice, formed with gospel music, and feel salvation. B.B. was the King of the Blues not because he had earned 15 Grammys and 74 Billboard entries, but because he was the genre's most convincing ambassador, reaching stages and hearts that had never been touched by blues before.

I'll always remember when I met B.B.decades ago, backstage after a Chicago concert. He was mobbed by fans and autograph seekers but he insisted on speaking to everyone. Being a music nerd, I couldn't stop myself from asking him to sing the jingle that had first made him famous in Memphis as the Pepticon Boy. Instead of being annoyed, he threw his head back and laughed, saying that I was too young to know anything about that. But he grinned and sang the jingle for me, his eyes twinkling as he was transported back to his early days.

B.B. King has lots of hits,with the searing, "A Thrill is Gone" being his signature tune. I love all of his music, especially the seminal album, "Live at The Regal," recorded at the legendary  Chicago club but also" Sweet Little Angel," "Three O'Clock Blues" and "You Upset Me Baby." These songs speak to me with the simple eloquence and emotional power that are blues hallmarks. But my favorite B.B. King tune is "Never Make A Move Too Soon". The 1978 classic combined the incomparable jazzy rhythms of The Crusaders with B.B.'s blues shouts for hip-shaking, party blues.
He explains his career in my favorite lines: "I've been from Spain/to Tokyo/From Africa/To Ohio/I never tried to make the news/I'm just a man who plays the blues." Noted for playing  an average of 300 shows a year and never claiming his well deserved title of King of the Blues but simply thanking people who crowned him, B.B. was an inspiring man. His kindness and humility serves as an example of what a leader and an icon really means. His music lives on and he'll always be King of the Blues.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Strolling Through Guatemala's Easter Carpets

Guatemala is famous for the colorful carpets or alfombras, that cover the cobblestone streets of most towns during Semana Santa or Easter Week. But I was thrilled to arrive in Guatemala City a week after the Easter festivities to find that there were still some carpets left. Some churches were still hosting processions and the carpets are an important feature. The one above is for Saint Francisco. Although the Easter week procession rituals date back to 14th century Spain, the carpets are actually a Mayan tradition. They were created from local materials for kings to walk upon. Today, colored sawdust is typically used to create the more elaborate carpets but flowers, grass, berries, leaves and fruit are also featured.

I was excited to see these school girls finishing up a carpet and standing by to join the procession. They were clearly proud of their work and it was wonderful to actually witness the process of creating the carpets.

These boys were squirting water on the carpets outside the church where the procession would end. The water keeps the carpets fresh and the materials from flying away in a breeze.

I spotted this carpet outside a church in Santiago Atitlan, located a few hours outside of Guatemala City. These towns didn't display the long, complex carpets that Antigua is noted for but it was still a fascinating experience to see the care supplied to creations that would be destroyed by hundreds of feet only a few hours later.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Garifuna in Guatemala

Within hours of arriving in Guatemala City, I was excited to witness a  street performance by Garifuna musicians and dancers. The Garifuna are an African and Indigenous people sometimes called Black Caribs.They are a distinct cultural group that are rarely seen beyond the coastal areas of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize. So I watched this performance of music and dancing as long as possible, absorbing the rhythms and intricate moves. The Garifuna dancer had pulled the girl into the circle to dance with him and she shyly obliged.

The percussion was purely West African and the crowd loved the energy of the performers. Most African decedents tend to be marginalized in Latin America and the Garifuna have battled to maintain their heritage. Historically,the Garifuna are traced to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent where a boat of enslaved Nigerians were shipwrecked in 1675. They formed families and communities with the local Kalinago or Carib population and developed a formidable maroon community that fought against European colonizers. The Garifuna were subsequently deported to Roatan in Honduras and in the 1800's, dispersed further to Nicaragua and Belize. The Garifuna of Belize or Garinagu as they are collectively called, are at the forefront of  establishing Garifuna identity and culture globally. In my exploration around three different regions of Guatemala, this was the only time I glimpsed the vibrant Garifuna culture and I realize how fortunate this was. I made a short video below so that you can hear Garifuna music and a bit of the dancing. Have you ever heard of the Garifuna before?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Next Stop: Guatemala

My exploration into the layers of Latin America's rich culture continues as I dive into Guatemala and its Mayan traditions. I'm honored to be hosted by the Guatemala Tourism Board and I'll be visiting the historic towns of Antigua, Lake Atitla'n and Chichicastenango.  I'll delve into the women's textile community of San Juan La Lagua, participate in Mayan rituals in Iximche  and explore cultural monuments, including Cerra de La Cruz, Plaza Central and Iglesia and Museo de San Francisco. I'm especially excited about scaling my third volcano, Volcano Pacaya, pictured above. So please look out for my Guatemala posts and photos in the coming weeks!