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Culture and Festivals
The culture of Caribbean migrants in Britain has been, by its very nature, complex and continually changing. Caribbean culture as we see it in Britain today emerged in response to two powerful forces. First, there was the need for migrants to adapt to their changed circumstances. They had arrived in Britain to be faced with a wholly different way of life. Secondly was the need to preserve their already established identity.
The culture that has emerged over the last few generations has been shaped, therefore, by the influences the migrants brought with them and developed, the experience of living in Britain, and by their interaction with the landscape, the people and the events in their new environment.
But cultural influences flow both ways, and the inventiveness and accessibility of Caribbean culture has had an influence on wider British culture, especially in the area of music and the arts.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Caribbean migrants living in Britain was too small to create a distinctively 'Caribbean' cultural presence.
During the 18th century, the Black population of Britain, many from the Caribbean, gathered together to hold dances and other social events. But it is hard to construct a clear image of their cultural life beyond that as little is still known about them. During the 19th century, various Caribbean entertainers appeared in the music halls and on the streets, but they played to the popular demand for an image of African-American folk dance or versions of African 'primitives'. In their private lives most Caribbeans were rapidly adopting the domestic culture of British people they lived and worked alongside.
Before the beginning of the 20th century, Caribbean migrants had faced a problem in their attempts to preserve their cultural identity. The Caribbean was already deeply imprinted with the culture of the British Isles; the bulk of the Caribbean's language, religion, and customs had been imported from Europe.
These European influences had gone through considerable changes to fit a very different landscape, climate, and society, and had also acquired variants borrowed from African and Asian cultures.
This could work in the migrants' favour, however, and ease the process of settling into their new country. In fact, individual migrants found little difficulty in recognising the way of life in Britain. Unlike migrants from other parts of the world, the average Caribbean would have spoken the same language as an English person, worshipped at the same altars, enjoyed the same public holidays and been brought up to observe roughly the same social customs.
For example, the most widely read book in the Caribbean region had been the King James Bible and its influence permeated the language and ideas. When, in the 20th century, Desmond Dekker or Boney M sang Me-Israelite, or By the Rivers of Babylon, they were reflecting a language and concepts of a Christian religious education which was an essential element of Caribbean culture.
The main cultural differences between the Caribbean and the British way of life before the 1950s stemmed largely from two main factors. One was the differing lifestyles of a tropical climate, compared to a temperate British one. The other concerned the huge gap between the rural or semi- rural Caribbean and the heavily industrialised nature of society as it existed in Britain.
These were not hard for migrants to get used to. For Caribbeans who arrived in the early part of the 20th century, the problems they faced were ones of discrimination rather than culture. The extent of this cultural 'literacy' is clearly demonstrated by the fact that despite racism, some Caribbean migrants enjoyed success as entertainers and artists.
The first well-known Black Caribbean actor in British films, for instance, was Robert Adams (from Guyana) who starred with Paul Robeson, and appeared in a number of productions during the 1920s and 1930s. The Grenadian-born pianist, Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson, was a darling of 1930s high society and, during the war years, the band leader, Ken 'Snake Hips' Johnson was widely popular. However these figures were perceived simply as 'Black' entertainers and weren't recognized as 'ambassadors of Caribbean culture' as such.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, nationalism and the effort of nation building began changing attitudes in the Caribbean. The migrants who arrived in Britain in the post-war years were making their journey at the beginning of a new cultural and political ferment, which was to redefine what it meant to be Caribbean. They brought with them the ideas which were sweeping the Caribbean region and Black communities generally - Black nationalism, a renewed interest in ethnic origins and a new assertiveness about racial justice and equality. These ideas were the basis of new forms of self- expression which new Caribbean migrants began developing in Britain.
The result has been a culture which we now call Black British because it draws its identity both from the migrant background and the specific experiences of living in Britain and becoming part of the mix of cultures in the UK.
For the most part migrant Caribbeans had to find a happy medium between their cultural needs and their new environment. For example, the most pressing cultural need for most when they arrived in Britain concerned religion and places to worship. Read more about The Role of Religion.
Apart from a minority of Hindus from Trinidad and Guyana, almost every migrant would have had a Christian upbringing of one kind or the other. A relatively small number were Catholics from former French colonies in the Eastern Caribbean, but the bulk of the migrants were. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Jehovah's Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists.
Caribbean churches featured a strong evangelical influence, but most church services would have been, and still are, more or less indistinguishable from their English equivalents. However, in small Caribbean communities, there was a strong social life which tended to centre round the church.
British churches failed to offer Caribbean migrants the same warmth, usually as a result of the racial prejudices of their congregations. The result was predictable: a dramatic fall off in church attendance among migrants.
In response to this, some groups began holding church services in their own front rooms, or clubbed together to hire public rooms for the purpose. The ministers were frequently unordained but, by the end of the 1960s, there was a well established network of Black churches throughout the country.
On a typical Sunday, whole families would pile into a mini van and go to church wherever it happened to be. Often they took their food with them - fried chicken and fish, dumplings and yams - the sort of food they would have eaten at home in the Caribbean. Sometimes they attended two services and a Sunday school session before returning home.
These services didn't vary fundamentally from any other Christian assembly, except that they were more informal, and involved more music, with pianos or guitars taking the place of a church organ. In the more evangelical churches church-goers were encouraged to openly testify their faith in God or to relate their personal troubles.
These gatherings provided migrant families, especially in the smaller, more isolated Caribbean communities, such as Wolverhampton, Northampton, Leeds and Lancashire, with a sense of security, stability and community.
Part of the reason was that these gatherings played a central role in spreading and using co-operative institutions, typical to the Caribbean. An example of this was the 'box','sou-sou' or 'pardner', as it was variously known, which was a saving system. A group of people would pay weekly installments to a central 'banker', who would then distribute the cash each week to one person in turn.
Over the next few decades of Caribbean settlement, the churches which had started in this informal way began to be absorbed under larger evangelical umbrellas. The New Testament Church of God, for example, effectively consolidated a number of small Caribbean churches and forged an amalgamation with various other evangelical groups. These networks fostered some of the elements which are now a recognised part of Black church culture, such as gospel choirs. Some Black churches are now large enough to rival their Methodist or Church of England counterparts, and they continue to reflect their Caribbean roots in their evangelical style and their co-operative behaviour.
Caribbean religious festivals are generally similar in content to English ones and the sheer diversity of the Caribbean migrant population made festivals based on distinctly Caribbean common cultural traditions unlikely to evolve.
The carnival tradition was a notable exception. This emerged partly from slave celebrations, which mirrored the balls and dances of the masters, partly from Catholic and Mediterranean feast day roots, and partly from the vestiges of collective West African celebrations.
In some of the islands of the Eastern Caribbean, the tradition of dressing up and public dance was known as 'masquerade'. Troupes of masked dancers would parade the streets, sometimes whipping passers-by, sometimes handing out sweets and cakes. The carnival tradition, however, was most highly developed in Trinidad, and took place in the week before Easter. It spawned its own industries, its own culture and its own stars. Calypso singers like The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener were awe-inspiring celebrities in 1950s Caribbean, and it was not long before the influence of the carnival culture began to appear amongst the migrant population in England.
In fact the first well-known Caribbean music in Britain was the calypso. During the 1950s, when the Blue Beat and Ska were still underground music styles heard only in Notting Hill clubs and private homes, Cy Grant, a former Air Force officer from Guyana, was appearing nightly on the popular BBC TV programme Tonight. He would sing a topical calypso about the day's headlines, in the style of the carnival calypsonians.
As it happened the majority of migrants living in Notting Hill were Trinidadian and, as the decade went on, the procession began to echo the various elements of a Trinidad carnival. It also took on some new elements which were part of migrant life. Hi-fi systems were becoming increasingly powerful, and during the carnival, which began to take up a weekend, local clubbers would bring out their speakers on to the pavement and turn up the volume.
Local entrepreneurs also began to seize the opportunity presented by the large numbers of migrants attending and set up stalls selling Caribbean dishes. By the end of the 1960s, the carnival had become an annual event, attracting revellers from all over the country and by the 1980s it had become a national institution. Read the 1984 grant application for the Notting Hill Carnival.
As is usual with migrant cultural events, the carnival was a dialogue between old and new elements. The chosen date, the end of August, was different from the traditional carnival time in the Caribbean, but it had to take place during the warmth of the English summer, if only so the revellers could reproduce the traditional scanty costumes and stay outdoors for long periods. Masqueraders from the Eastern Caribbean also began to take part, shifting their dances from the appropriate festival times. Jamaicans, relatively unfamiliar with the tradition of carnival procession, brought their sound systems and danced to them.
In many ways the carnival became more than a festival. In the early years it was the vehicle for protest and demonstration on the part of immigrants. Later on it became a model for other different and smaller festivals wherever Caribbeans lived; by the 1970s similar festivals emerged in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham, and even relatively tiny communities, such as Wolverhampton, began to stage their own carnivals. See the poster for the 1984 Finsbury Park Carnival advertising entertainment by Soul to Soul amongst others.
The carnival also helped to focus attention on and encourage respect for Caribbean traditions. Up until the 1960s, many migrant Caribbeans had wanted their bodies returned home when they died. Import/export businesses conducted a flourishing trade in transporting coffins back to the Caribbean. But from the 1960s onwards this funeral tradition, with their characteristic ceremonies, began to change. More migrants began to be buried in Britain, using the services of their Black congregations and ministers and the familiar style of Caribbean funerals.
Music, which most people associate with Caribbean culture is a powerful tool in assembling and reinforcing migrant identity.
In the Caribbean, advances in recording technology had begun to create a domestic music industry, and the first post-war migrants brought with them the records they enjoyed. Apart from the traditional calypso, this music was a form of Jamaican rythmn 'n' blues, heavily influenced by the African-American music charts. Such music was unobtainable in Britain and it became exclusive to clubs and private parties frequented almost entirely by West Indians.
'Blues parties' - parties in private houses, or even rooms, where you paid at the door - became an institution, and a well-known way of raising money quickly. The areas where migrants lived were often littered with printed sheets inviting passers-by to a 'blues night'.
The development of Ska music in Jamaica grew in tandem with increasingly sophisticated listening equipment. The first thing most migrants did with their first wage packet or income, after they had sent a remittance back home, was to buy a radiogram which could reproduce the heavy bass beat.
Once again migrant culture became a two-way dialogue. The growing popularity of the music in Britain provided a wider market for the Jamaican productions and artistes, and the development of the Jamaican industry broadened its appeal in Britain. Throughout the 1960s, migrants' music attracted and inspired a generation of white working-class youth, partly because of its rebellious sound and associations.
Trinidadian director, Horace Ove's, film Reggae(1971) charts the progress and popularity of Jamaican music in Britain in the early sixties, but even at that time migrant music was absent from the airwaves, was never played on the popular radio shows or appeared in the music charts. The arrival on the scene of reggae music's international superstar, Bob Marley, changed the picture.
Marley had been a migrant himself, working in Canada before returning to Jamaica and, ironically, his career was initially fostered by a white Jamaican music producer, Chris Blackwell. Blackwell took advantage of the expanding market created by the spending power of the migrant population in Britain to build up the resources and reputations of himself and the musicians. It became a spring board for popularising his bands in the wider British market.
Marley's success helped to spawn a Black British music industry based on reggae. His connection with the Rastafarian movement and the language of his lyrics gave him an authenticity and depth which inspired and influenced waves of young people, who, reared in Britain, were beginning to want to discover their Caribbean roots.
Conversely Ska music inspired young whites and marked the beginning of an influential movement spearheaded by Black British music culture. The entrepreneurs who brought over records from the Caribbean, and played them at their clubs and blues parties, had spawned a method and a style from which present day club DJs are descended. 'Toasting', the technique of improvised oratory over music which originated in reggae, is now a staple of British youth culture. In the same way a dance culture, which the migrants had brought with them, emerged with the music from the clubs and shebeens and added a new impetus to youth culture.
Food was one area of Caribbean culture which was difficult to recreate in Britain, but which offered a source of comfort, a platform for cultural networking and an economic opportunity.
Caribbean food is an eclectic mix drawn from European cuisine, mingled with Asian, African, native South American and Caribbean elements. It had an immense diversity of ingredients and varying styles of cooking. A great deal of the typical Caribbean cuisine emerged as a result of slavery and colonialism. Salted and preserved meats and fish, for instance, was the legacy of a region supplied by sailing ships, and the Caribbean Islands were a captive market for cheap European goods. Fresh fish, root vegetables, fruit and herbs came from the tradition of fishing and cultivating small holdings.
Methods of preparation might hark back to one of many cultural influences:, Portuguese, South Indian, Chinese, or African. However, the region did share distinctive tastes, such as a love of hot peppers. Caribbeans were also attached to fried and roasted dishes and a wide variety of root vegetables.
During the 1950s, Caribbean food tended to arrive as part of the migrants' luggage. During the next decade, a number of small businesses emerged to meet the demand from migrants for products and dishes which were familiar. Soon there was an industry supplying their needs. In such places as Brixton market, imported Caribbean produce - yams, peppers, salted pork and saltfish - became a familiar sight and an important part of the local economy.
Caribbean artists, musicians, writers and journalists have always been an important part of the migrant population and made a valuable contribution to British and European cultural life. In the early part of the 20th century, the conductor Rudolph Dunbar from Guyana, was prominent in music circles throughout Europe. In the 1950s, the dramatist Errol John from Trinidad, wrote prizewinning plays before going on to become a major film actor in Hollywood. The sculptor Ronald Moody from Jamaica, whose work is now being recognized in a retrospective at the Tate Gallery, created his first work in London in 1935 after an inspirational visit to the British Museum.
Large numbers of actors and actresses of Caribbean origin have featured in British drama and theatre, including Edric Connor, Earl Cameron, Errol John, Nadia Cattouse, Mona Hammond, Rudolf Walker and Norman Beaton. Read more about the history of Black Theatre
However, it is novelists, poets and filmmakers from the Caribbean who have probably had the greatest impact on the British cultural scene, many recording the shape and style of Caribbean life and its encounter with Britain. Horace Ove, for instance, became a prominent director with documentaries and feature films,and later on, fictional TV series like the adaptation of the Dominican author Phyllis Allfrey's novel The Orchid House.
In de beginning
By Jacob Ross, Grenadian-born writer living in Britain (In Storms of the Heart - An anthology of Black Arts and Culture edited by Kwesi Owusu )
It may well be in the field of literature, that Caribbean artists have had the greatest impact. Dominican author Jean Rhys was published during the 1930s in Britain and became internationally renowned for her novel The Wide Sargasso Sea in the 1960s. During the 1930s the Trinidadian author CLR James was producing plays, and publishing his novels and essays, most notably his mammoth biography of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, Black Jacobins .
There were already novelists, such as VS Reid and Roger Mais, who lived in the Caribbean and wrote about its social and political changes, but Rhys and James heralded the arrival of a new breed of Caribbean novelists and poets, whose arrival in Britain coincided with the Caribbean migration of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, for instance, was the first well known novel to chart the events of migration, and it achieved an iconic status almost from the time it was published in 1956.
The next ten years produced major novelists like Barbadian George Lamming, Trinidadian VS Naipaul, and Guyanese Wilson Harris. These were the better known names in a crop of writers which included Andrew Salkey, Neville Dawes, Denis Williams, Garth St Omer, O.R Dathorne, ER Braithwaite, Jan Carew and Orlando Patterson. The Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer, living in London, produced a string of popular bestsellers chronicling the epic story of a native Arawak woman, Kaywana.
Poets like Edward Braithwaite and Derek Walcott were establishing, in the same period, a body of work based on the outlining of Caribbean and African identity which were to make them internationally known and respected.
By the onset of the 1970s literature by Caribbean writers was an important aspect of new English writing and also formed a distinctive literary genre which was becoming known as postcolonial literature. Read this Press Release about Black bookshops.
At the end of the 1980s another trend emerged, fostered by a network of small publishing houses, notably The Express, which specialized in publishing populist novels, with titles like Cop Killer, and Baby Father. At the same time the last two decades of the 20th century produced a long lineup of capable, thoughtful and interesting writers from a Caribbean background - Ferdinand Dennis, Mike Gayle, Nicola Williams, Leone Ross, Andrea Levy and Mike Phillips. The last and, ironically, the best known of these is Zadie Smith, whose novel, White Teeth, was a critical success as well as a major bestseller, and has achieved iconic status as a statement about Britain's multi-cultural society.
In an overview of Caribbean life in Britain, the influence of the Black press on Black culture is often overlooked. The first migrant newspaper to attempt mass circulation, the West Indian Gazette, was run by the Trinidadian, Claudia Jones, during the late1950s and early 1960s. It was followed by West Indian World and the Caribbean Times, both owned at various times by Arif Ali from Guyana. The Voice came later and represented a Black British identity. These publications played an important part in informing the migrant community about its artists, and few would have been as well known without them.
Creators: Mike Phillips
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