Folk Tales & Storytelling
Story by David Bowen, Cultural Officer, Turks & Caicos Tourist Board
The art of storytelling (or, as the old folks say “talking ol’ stories”), like much of our cultural heritage is hardly ever practiced these days. We are a nation of short attention spans, addicts to the quick thrill. The TV and cable remote control are forever taking us from one adventure to another in the wink of an eye. We never seem to be satisfied with one program, we have to see it all and the less we use our imagination the better. It is easy to see why the simple art of the oral tradition of storytelling is almost extinct not only here in the Turks & Caicos, but all over the world. People simply have no time to sit and listen.
Parents spend millions of dollars each year buying storybooks to entertain their children because they have no time to sit and “talk old stories” to their kids. These children, like their parents, have even shorter attention spans and are given more and more sophisticated toys and games each year. Unless there are buttons to press, knobs to turn, an LCD screen to view or a keypad to punch in codes, most children are simply not interested in the spoken word. Another factor is the comparison between the old story characters that were simple and plain compared to the new characters like Pokemon, Blue Bear and superheroes that are just plain “cool.”
With all this in mind, I have set out to revive the art of storytelling here in the Turks & Caicos in a way that brings the stories and the characters into the 21st century and will appeal to both parent and child. But first, let’s go back and look at some facts about storytelling, the characters and the storytellers.
THE ORAL TRADITION
In the past, the oral tradition of storytelling was the way information was passed down from generation to generation. Storytelling held a high place in many cultures and still does in remote areas of the world yet untouched by modern lifestyles and technology. The “Animal” stories in the Caribbean have links to African-American tales of the Uncle Remus tradition, who in turn have direct links to Africa, especially the West African Gold Coast of Ghana and the Ashanti people–the birthplace of “Anancy the Spider.” Our British and European connection brought stories by Hans Christian Andersen (such as the “Little Mermaid”), the “Ugly Ducking” and the “Aesop’s Fables” with their ancient Greek roots and wonderful morals and lessons. The following story is an example of “Aesop’s Fables” called “The Ant and the Dove.”
An Ant, going to a river to drink, fell in, and was carried along in the stream. A Dove, seeing this, plucked a leaf from a tree and let it fall close to the Ant. The Ant climbed onto it and floated safely to the bank. Shortly afterwards, the Ant saw a man aiming a slingshot at the Dove and stung him on the foot sharply, making him miss his aim and so saved the Dove’s life.
Moral: “One good turn deserves another” or “Little friends may prove great friends.”
Stories like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Cinderella” that are European in origin are retold here in the Islands without many parents, children, teachers or storytellers really questioning the fact that we don’t have bears, blond hair or castles. These stories have crossed cultural boundaries because they stimulate something within each of us, no matter what race, color or creed . . . our imagination.
In America, the main characters of the “Uncle Remus” tales written by Joel Chandler Harris are the Rabbit and the Fox known as Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. The “Brer” is an early African-American abbreviation for “Brother.” Uncle Remus is an old Negro slave who holds the full attention of the seven year-old son of his master when he relays the tales and stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and a host of other characters. Many of these stories have parallels all over Europe, the Old and the New World. It is difficult to trace the origins since the cultures of the African slaves, the American Indians and the Europeans were well mixed and over time they took from each other, put in their own cultural twists, dialect and nuances and retold the tales.
Throughout the Caribbean, the spider Anancy (Ananci, Ananse), also known as Brer ‘Nancy, is the most popular character. He is wise, cunning, greedy, lazy and full of tricks, and he rules supreme over the other animals. Anancy is both the hero and the villain, both loveable and sinister, and is known to have magical powers and lives by his wits. Among the Ashanti people he is known as “Ananci Krokoko,” translated as “The Great Spider,” and is a symbol of wisdom.
In the world of storytelling, all the animals and insects have the power of speech. They dress like humans, live like humans and think like humans. They are very much a reflection of us and often show our human weaknesses, stupidity, greed and ignorance. That is why we can relate to them and often see people or ourselves as the hero, villain or trickster in the stories. There are numerous characters in the form of the Goat, Rabbit, Tiger, Monkey, Dog, Snake and Donkey, to name a few.
Here in the Turks & Caicos, the main characters are “Brer Rabbie” the Rabbit (also known as “Brer Yabbie”), “Brer Bookie” the Goat and “Anancy” the Spider. Salt rakers and their masters brought the tales here from Bermuda to Grand Turk and Salt Cay and the plantation slaves in the Caicos Islands from the Carolinas brought the Uncle Remus stories from America and the Anancy stories from Africa.
DIALECT IN STORYTELLING
Dialect plays an important part in telling a story. The use of local dialect makes the situation with the characters real and funny. It also gives the story color and life, but for persons whose ears are not used to hearing the unique sounds and pronunciations of a particular dialect, the stories could be confusing and difficult to understand.
In Jamaica, stories are told in the local “Patois” and I recall listening to a recording of the popular storyteller there, Louise Benne’ Tiger.” Even though I knew the story, I was unable to follow her rendition because of the use of the patois. By the time I figured out one line, she had moved on two or three ahead. The following is an excerpt from the story by Louise Bennett, written in patois with a Standard English translation after.
Anancy talking to Tiger:
“Lawd, Bra Tigar, me hooda glad fi goh wid yuh, but afta me soh sick, me disha dead wid me belly an me cyaan walk a tall.”
(“Lord, Brother Tiger, I would have been glad to go with you, but I am so sick, I feel like I’m going to die with this stomachache and I cannot walk at all.”)
After my difficulty with the Jamaican patois, I became very sensitive and aware of my use of local dialect when telling a story to persons from abroad since I want all listening to understand. For the local population though, the stronger the dialect the funnier the story.
The use of the voice, a command of local dialect, acting and musical ability, and a good memory and quick mind are all part of the tools of a storyteller. He or she must be able to draw the audience into the story, to actually see the characters. Timing and a sense for comedy is also another very important tool. The storyteller must also have the ability to read his audience. A story cannot be told the same way twice since the mood, location, age of the audience and time of day creates variables the storyteller must be sensitive to and make the appropriate changes, otherwise the dramatic of comic effect is lost.
Mr. Kenton Wyatt, who is very influential in sparking my cultural interest in storytelling, introduced me to the use of the drum. Kenton uses a drum to create the mood and set the tone of the story the same way directors use music in movies. The drum draws the listener in and keeps his attention.
THE NEW ANANCY
A few years ago, I spoke to Kenton about acting out the parts of the characters of a story on stage as the storyteller told the story. It wasn’t until this year that I got a chance to try it out and found it to be a big hit with both children and adults. As Kenton, who possesses a deep bass voice and the hands of a master drummer, tells an Anancy story, I would contort myself into a position and become Anancy the Spider. The story takes on a new twist with this visual aid and it also helps to create more interest among our people in storytelling.
During the last Tourism Awareness Week Islands Tour, the TUCA Cultural Group performed all the parts and characters of the “Anancy and B’bookie Daughters” story to audiences on all of our family Islands. We were delighted at the response, so I plan to take a small group into the schools next year to promote storytelling and the cultural arts.
I have also started a collection of local folk tales and if you know any old stories (or if you know someone who does) please contact me in care of the Turks & Caicos Tourist Board, Stubbs Diamond Plaza, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands, BWI. Tel: 649-946-4970, Fax: 649-941-5494.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com