Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In Remembrance of Charleston Part Two

In remembrance of the nine people who lost their lives in the Charleston Massacre, this is my second re-blogged post about South Carolina Gullah culture, which holds a strong connection with Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Like the resilient Gullah culture that continues to live on after hundreds of years, the spirit and names 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 will also live on.

Learning about a destination's culture and history are important aspects of the travel experience for me. I enjoy gathering insight into a place from a cultural perspective. One of the most fascinating culture's I've ever encountered is Gullah culture. This week, I have a feature story about Gullah culture in Travel Muse. The piece focuses on Gullah history in Hilton Head and St.Helena, South Carolina but the culture extends way beyond that.

The Gullah trace their heritage directly to the skilled rice farmers of Sierra Leone, West Africa. They were enslaved specifically because of those skills and were transported to work on rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida. The swampy conditions and malaria that went with it, made it uncomfortable for the plantation owners to live so they left the Gullah people to work the plantations mostly unattended. The isolation allowed Gullah dialect, customs and art to survive undiluted for 100 years. One of the hallmark's of Gullah culture is sweet grass basket "sewing" which mirrors Sierra Leone's centuries-old basket weaving tradition. Jery Taylor, pictured above, represents the fourth generation of her family to create sweet grass baskets. Jery has had her creations displayed at the Smithsonian and I quickly bought one of her designs, not just for the beauty but for the significant culture and history that it symbolizes.

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.