Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Next Stop: Barbados

I'm off to the lovely coral island of Barbados. Besides drowning myself in soca, I'll be exploring the cultural connections between South Carolina and Barbados. Both places were established by the same man and the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor is sending me on a Caribbean-Carolina discovery tour. There won't be any more posts this week but look for my dispatches from Barbados next week.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Soca Warriors!

Next week, I'll be traveling to Barbados. People may associate a handful of things with Barbados--Rhianna, flying fish or even a British sensibility. But for me, Barbados represents my favorite soca band, Krosfyah. Soca music is the manic, hip-swaying, offspring of calypso. It's most associated with Carnival time and Crop Over in Barbados but for true soca warriors, all the time is soca time. Soca never quite broke in the U.S., most Americans prefer the more languid melodies of roots reggae. Soca requires energy and rhythm. It's party music with a non-stop, staccato beat and Krosfyah works it like no one else can. I wrote a biography for Krosfyah at Allmusic here But to sum up Krofyah, I'd say that they stir up joyful, sexy, sounds made for fast-paced moves and all night partying. Founder and lead singer Edwin Yearwood wraps his silky, cajoling voice around a tune and pulls you in sweetly. Krosfyah displays a lot more soul and well-crafted songs than most soca groups, which is why they're my favorite. Krosfyah songs blend sunny days and light-hearted moods into every melody. And like those perfect, sun-filled days, you never want them to end. Check out this old school Krosfyah video, it's hillariously cheesy but the spirit of the music shines brighter than that 90s dayglo dress.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Paradise Found

I've explored some lovely islands, from the pearly pink sands of Barbuda, to the hibiscus topped hills of Tobago. But when it comes to jaw-dropping beauty, nothing comes close to St. Lucia. The island's attractions are so legendary that it's almost a cliche to highlight it's sweeping twin mountains or it's lush rain forest. So my travel story in this week's Chicago Sun Times focuses instead on all the adventures I had there in a feature here. I think that St. Lucia captures the original concept of paradise. Not only is the landscape gorgeous but the people I met were gentle and kind. Pondering all the wonders I experienced, from the famed Gros Islet jump up to Soufriere's drive-in volcano, I think the most memorable time for me was in the tiny fishing village of Virgie. After driving over hills for an hour in an ATV (all terrain vehicle) some villagers set out plates of fresh sugar cane, star fruit, golden apple and coconut pie candy. I took in the countryside with small houses perched on hills, goats roaming and breezes scented with bougainvillea. Paradise indeed.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Orixa Chic

It's often said that there's no line between the sacred and the profane in Brazilian culture and I really witnessed that when I shopped there. It didn't matter if I was perusing a beach side vendor's cart, a stylish Rio boutique or a cluttered airport shop, there were always kitschy examples of the candomble religion. Most of the T-shirts, magnets, statues and paintings that I saw were splashed with images of the candomble orixas, or deities. Iemanja's mermaid tail waved on dozens of blue t-shirts and tiny sculptures of Oxossi brandishing his bow filled the shelves of many stores. I suppose this is similar to crosses and rosaries flaunted as fashion statements in the U.S. but it threw me off balance. These trinkets are clearly designed for tourists but was it crass or disrespectful to buy souvenirs that display a religion that you don't belong to? I've seen lunchboxes decorated with Krishna, the Hindu deity and hoodies embroidered with Tibetan prayer flags and I thought they were both in poor taste. Would I be any better with a shirt outlining the 12 main orixas?

I pondered this until Claudia, an expert on candomble and Bahia culture, presented me with a gift as I left a Bahia cafe. It was a sunny yellow, hand-painted shirt that displayed Oxum, deity of beauty and fresh water. She told me that candomble followers would never wear something that blatantly announced their personal orixa but that it was okay for visitors to buy an item that revealed their love of Brazilian culture. Taken from that perspective, I felt more comfortable. After Claudia explained some of the orixa associations, I bought two doll magnets outfitted in bright pink and purple, symbolizing Iansa, deity of the wind and Nana, deity of swamps and unfathomable wisdom. In the Mercado Modelo, I discovered small, glittering paintings of Oxum and Xango, deity of thunder and lightening. I think these souvenirs do represent the complex nature of Brazilian culture--the beauty, nature and spirit that seem to dwell in all that's significant to it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dancing With The Saints

I said I'd explore the complexities of candomble in earlier posts and here it is, finally. I'll admit, I've been avoiding this for as long as possible because there are so many layers and meanings and opinions attached to this religion that I just don't know where to begin. So I'll begin with my personal experience. On a late June night, in the small southern Brazilian town of Vassouras, I was invited to a candomble ceremony for the feast of San Juan. We drove down some roads and up some hills with only the moon lighting the way. Faintly, we heard the echos of drumming. We climbed down some stairs, past blooming bushes and I saw a huge bonfire. Men were holding large drums over them, tuning the instruments with flames. A tiny altar with flowers and a statue of San Juan stood under a small shack. The men sat down, joined by adolescent boys.

They began drumming in a swirl of intricate rhythms A groups of women, clad in long white gowns and head wraps, moved in a circle to the drums rhythms. They chanted and lifted their skirts so that their feet moved freely. It looked like the whole community of children, teens, father, mothers and grand parents had turned out for this celebration. After I was pulled into the circle to dance with the women, hot bowls of canjica were brought out. A sweet dish of white corn, peanuts and sugar, that reminded me of peanut brittle, I spooned the white clumps up as the participants watched me closely, making sure I ate everything. After canjica, strong coffee with sugar cane juice is traditionally downed but I could barely manage two sips. The Brazilian notion of coffee is more like cappuccino syrup to me. Afterwards, the boys, Juan Pedro, Marcel, Jonathan and Victor came up to me, wanting to know what there names would be in English. I had to break it to them that all except Juan already had anglicized names. They were not happy about that. But the boys cheered themselves up by singing me a Chris Brown song, which was the only English they knew.

Dancing, music and community lie at the heart of candomble but it also represents the spirit of resistance. Brought from Africa over 350 years ago, forms of candomble have sprouted all over the African Diaspora. Ancient Yoruba deities were melded with catholic saints so that uprooted Africans could continue their spiritual practices in the face of persecution. The deities or orixas, all have corresponding saints, colors and days of the week. In candomble, Saint Joan of Arc becomes Oba, the fearless fighter, Saint Lazarus is Omulu, deity of healing and Saint Michael is Logun, deity of polarity. Everywhere I went in Brazil, in restaurants, airports, shops and bookstores, I observed elements of candomble. T-shirts with images of all the orixas sell in boutiques and corner stores. Restaurants, key chains and bronze statues of Imenja, the mermaid deity of the ocean, pop up wherever there is a body of water. Even the all-important soccer teams have their own orixas. Despite candomble being outlawed for much of the 20th century, the religion remains a visible part of Brazilian culture.

In Cachoeira, the Bahian town that boasts 42 candomble houses or terreiros, I was invited to visit the Rumpane Ayono Huntobogi house. The only way outsiders can visit is by personal invitation and unfortunately, by the time we had climbed several muddy hills in the rain, the Iyalorisha or high priestess, wasn't there. Still, I got the essence of the experience. Standing outside the terreiro, on top of a sweeping hill surrounded by sacred spaces dedicated to the orixas, I could feel the energy dance around me.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Senegalese Style Goddesses

Strumming along on my fashion riff, New York Fashion Week attracted lots of scrutiny because of the recently discovered scarcity of models of color. Italian Vogue published an "all black" issue that sold out globally. Naomi Campbell displayed her dissatisfaction with the industry's inequality by starring in a violently fierce video on the topic. Of course, none of this is new, the fashion industry has flashed a suspiciously pale facade since its inception. This fresh awareness has reaped some benefits by exposing the problem and flooding the spotlight on any model of color that manages to hurdle over the industry obstacles. Two new-comers are grabbing lots of the attention and it didn't surprise me at all to discover that they are both Senegalese. Senegal is noted throughout the African continent for expert tailors, tall, slim citizens and a stunningly fly fashion sense. You see it in beautifully constructed gran boubous that flow over the men like water and the expertly cut gowns that drape just so on the women. Aminata Niaria and Kinee Diouf carry on that tradition. They stirred up NY fashion week strutting for European designers Cavalli, Lanvin and Westwood with a style goddess attitude that's totally Senegalese. There's an innate, non-chalant quality to Senegalese style that pops up in the streets of Dakaar as hoodies and jeans embroidered with African prints and in Paris, with French berets worn over intricately braided hair styles. A great example of this style blending is British singer Estelle. She may be a West London girl but her Senegalese heritage speaks eloquently through her casually eclectic ensembles and her fashion ease.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fashion Journeys

You don't need to tackle the airlines to travel the world, just head to your nearest boutique. Fashions for 2008 and 2009 continue to be dominated by ethnic inspirations. The runways are awash in African prints, Caribbean colors and head wraps of every design. I love it all, I've never met a dramatic ethnic staple that I didn't like, whether it's a sumptuous Indian sari, an embroidered Mexican sundress or a woven Ethiopian gown. All of these garments are stuffed into my crowded closet because although the current fashion interpretations are great, there's nothing like the real thing. So, I'm spotlighting a designer that represents true global fashion. Trinidad & Tobago's Zadd & Eastman creates flowing ensembles that reflect Trinidad & Tobago's African and Asian cultural mix. They rocked Caribbbean fashion week in Jamaica and provide an elegant escort into Trini style territory.

Images courtesy of Fashion Over Style.