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Caribbean extravaganza at the Bolling Building

Roxbury fête is highlight of Boston’s Caribbean Heritage Month observance

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Caribbean extravaganza at the Bolling Building
The Jah Jah Drummers get audience members on the feet with a performance of Soca tunes.

Four members of Jah Jah Drummers sit at the front of the 6th floor function hall at the Bruce Bolling Municipal building with an assemblage of African percussion instruments, dressed in various shades of red, in a nod to the national colors of their Trinidadian heritage.

Lead singer Kwesi Matthew’s introduction of the band summed up the Caribbean American Heritage Committee’s Community Arts Event held last Friday.

“We are African, Caribbean,” he said. “We are all mixed up. Tonight, we will play soca.”

As the band launched into the Trinidadian music form, many among the crowd of 100 jumped to their feet to dance.

The event, which featured musical performances, folklore and poetry, was the first of what organizers hope will be a yearly celebration of Caribbean heritage.

“It’s a celebration of all things Caribbean,” says Nickey Nesbeth, one of the organizers of the event. “We’re celebrating the broad richness of the Caribbean.”

While blacks have immigrated to Boston from the Caribbean since the 1800s, the city’s West Indian population was still small in 1973, when the first Caribbean Carnival was held.

“It was about 200 people,” recalls Jamaica-born Shirley Shillingford, who came to Boston in 1969. “There weren’t that many people here.”

Nearly 50 years later, the event is one of the largest cultural celebrations in Boston, embraced by the black community in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

“It’s become everybody’s thing,” Shillingford said. “What would summer be without Carnival?”

Like Carnival, last week’s event gave West Indian Americans a chance to showcase the mélange of cultures from the English-speaking Caribbean. Take the Jah Jah Drummers, for instance. They’re a mostly-Trinidadian group that formed in Boston with a Jamaican-Rastafarian name that practices African drumming.

“It’s African drumming,” says band leader Glen Noel.

“It’s Afro-Caribbean,” explains band member Clarence Nurse. “It’s not traditional African drumming. It has a Caribbean flavor.”

African roots

Nurse explains that the Africans brought to the Caribbean during the trans-Atlantic slave trade drummed in an African style, preserving what they remembered from the mother continent, but improvising where necessary.

“They created their own rhythms,” he said. “They weren’t able to recreate the exact rhythms.”

Those hybrid rhythms have been handed down through the centuries on each island and between islands, informing the creation of Jamaican reggae, Trinidadian calypso and other island music forms. That pan-Caribbean cultural mixture was on display in the Jah Jah Drummers’ performance of Trinidadian Soca – a mélange of calypso, reggae and African rhythms – the expression of pan-Caribbean culture.

Other Caribbean-themed events this summer include a scheduled closing ceremony this Wednesday at noon. A photography exhibition, titled “Streets of Color” by photographer Michael C. Smith will be on display at Boston City Hall, Mezzanine 3rd floor near the coffee stand, through the end of the month. Caribbean Carnival is scheduled for Aug. 27.