By Ras Tyehimba
August 07, 2013
There was a picture recently of Pope Francis playing the Steelpan next to T&T president Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona who presented it to him as a gift. This picture was published by the media, several Steelpan websites and has made its way around various social media platforms. One website exclaimed: “Truly a great day for our nation and our national instrument! The pope is a Trini now!” Another Steelpan website expressed, “Steelpan is the sweetest!! Just ask the Pope.”
As the only musical instrument of the 20th century and as what I consider to be one of the greatest inventions of the Caribbean region it makes sense for the pan to be a gift to persons and nations that Trinidad and Tobago interacts with. However, the power of the Steelpan is not just about the sweet music it produces, but also about how it was created. The Steelpan emerged from the most disenfranchised and looked-down elements of society. It is these grassroots, mainly Afro-Trinidadian sections of society who had been most affected by the structures of colonial society in which legitimacy and social status was defined by race, skin colour, class and acceptance of the Christian religion.
It was considered a crime to play drums, and engage in certain forms of African-Trinidadian spirituality and it was this colonial repression that gave energy to the creation of a new medium of self-expression. And it was so that the energy, passion and emotions of Shango rituals and Shango drummers, community bad johns and other elements were channeled into the creation and evolution of the Steelpan. At the symbolic level alone there are so many lessons within this history; of harnessing the energy and sometimes violent emotions present, turning rubbish into sweet music and repression into a legacy that not only breathes possibilities and life into communities across T&T but which can speak to the whole world.
The point I am getting at is that the Pan cannot be separated from its history and I doubt that President Carmona’s Steelpan gift to the pope was accompanied by an explanation, whether oral or written, that the Pan emerged as part of resistance to brutalities of empire and colonialism of which the Church (and Christian European Nations) was a CENTRAL part. If leaders think that bringing up this historical context is undiplomatic then the people, unfettered by such diplomatic straitjackets must remind them.
The occasion calls not just for reflection of the history of the Pan, but also the history of the Catholic Church in the Caribbean region. In the age of Discovery (read conquest) the Catholic Church divided the New World Region between Spain and Portugal, sanctioned the genocide, enslavement and forced conversion of the First Peoples and the later enslavement of Africans on Plantations throughout the New World and participated in the demonization and marginalization of indigenous cultures and worldviews which continue up to this day.
John Francis Maxwell in his classic book The History Of Catholic Teaching Concerning The Moral Legitimacy Of The Institution Of Slavery found that the Catholic church not only tolerated slavery, but supported it for over 1400 years. He traces attitudes towards slavery by important theologians such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, pointing out that from the 18th century onwards there have been attempts to whitewash and erase the past history of this common teaching of the Popes, Councils, Church Fathers, Bishops, canonists and moralists on slavery for the sake of defending the good name of the Church. The Church not only supported slavery but themselves owned slaves.
This is very much in line with the work of Caribbean scholar Patrick Hylton in his book The Role of Religions in the History of the Caribbean. He put forward that the European ideology vis a vis Christianity was used to rationalize and consolidate military conquests, preserve empires through mental enslavement of the conquered, and destroy resistance by debasing and vulgarizing the culture of oppressed peoples. In a later interview Hylton asked a damning question of religions in the Caribbean: “Where did these denominations – Christian and non-Christian, stand on the questions of: territorial plunder, the enslavement and genocide of the Amerindian people, the enslavement and genocide of the African people, the Slave Trade, the abolition movement, Independence, the struggle against colonialism and racism?” Thus, it is not a momentous occasion or cause to celebrate when some oppressive nation, institution or person acknowledges our country or some aspect of our culture.
Disconnecting the Steelpan from its history only serves to prostitute the Pan and does disservice to the Pan pioneers who often endured great contempt and little recognition for their contribution. This however, is nothing new, given that I am just as doubtful that US President Barack Obama, Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton were given a proper account of the Steelpan when it was presented to them at previous points in time. These dynamics have been playing over and over again as our leaders seem not to have learnt these basic lessons. See an analysis of the last Royal Visit to Trinidad (www.africaspeaks.com/leslie/060308.html).
There is a second issue that stands out for me. I have observed that it only takes a little mention of Trinidad and Tobago, or some aspect of Trinidad and Tobago by someone outside for Trinbagonians to go in an ecstatic and frenzied state. There is the notion that ‘we make it’. This situation speaks to the inferiority complex of Caribbean people. … needing to be validated by global power structures, which often have very abusive and complex relationships with the Caribbean. Our culture needs no such validation or approval. This subservience and inferiority complex is the consequence of not addressing our history, as it is only through this process that we can engage the world and bring lessons to them; lessons that have been forged in the bowels of the people. I am speaking about drawing from our experiences, our indigenous knowledge, our history of conquest, repression, colonialism, racism, resistance and creativity, among other things, to develop better self-concepts and development paradigms. This foundation can then be used to have better interactions with the wider world and to convey certain ideas and principles that may be important in the evolution of the whole of humanity.