Rediscovering The Hidden Culture

By Kathy Borsuk
Drawings by Kenton Wyatt

While the Turks and Caicos are famous for their beautiful beaches, pristine seas and wonderful watersports, the Islands are not necessarily known as a cultural mecca.

David Bowen wants to change that.

As the Tourist Board’s cultural officer and a seasoned international entertainer, this enthusiastic Turks Islander is working to retrieve the hidden culture of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Although not readily apparent, the Islands do have distinct cultural traditions in song, dance, music, arts and crafts, story-telling and farming and fishing techniques. Unfortunately, many of these traditions were left behind as the country skyrocketed into modern times. David explains why he thinks TCI culture simply disappeared, “In the span of a single generation, there was an incredible influx of money, television and North American ideals into the country, especially on Providenciales. Parents always want better for their children, so they embraced this ‘new and improved’ lifestyle and discarded the old ways. And because prosperity came so quickly, our country never ‘suffered’ like other Caribbean nations, where activities such as dancing and story-telling were kept alive as a form of entertainment.”

cultureAccording to Bowen, TCI culture is rooted and remembered primarily in the islands of North, Middle and South Caicos, Grand Turk and Salt Cay, where survival was the focus of daily life and entertainment, such as “ripsaw” music, was created out of necessity. Yet unfortunately, he says, many of the older folks who now embrace religion, view past traditions such as dancing and singing as decadent and do not want to relive these provocative memories.

The upbeat Bowen is determined to carry out the mission statement of the TCI Government’s cultural office, established primarily by the efforts of Hon. O.O. Skippings and Hon. Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson and whose work takes place under the auspices of the Tourist Board and John Skippings, Director of Tourism. Its goals are “to identify, document, preserve, educate and enhance awareness of the cultural heritage of the Turks & Caicos Islands.”

The first step is to identify TCI culture . . . what is truly unique to these Islands. This is not as easy as it appears. Bowen says it is not strongly African-rooted, but influenced by the Loyalists, who were cotton planters on the Caicos Islands, and the Bermudians, who established the salt industry on the Turks Islands. In more recent times, there has been blending with the Bahamas, as many Islanders went there in the 1960s and 1970s to find work, and immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And as a result, it is hard to separate some of the traditions. The costume and ceremony of the Junkanoo celebration, for instance, was largely a Bahamian addition to TCI’s original “massing” dances.

Bowen began collecting material on song, dance and story-telling traditions several years ago, when travelling in the Caribbean. He is supplementing this by gathering video and audio oral histories around the Islands, armed with a standard list of questions. As the amount of information grows, he plans to more formally document it and encourages others to help by writing and publishing books on poetry, costumes, music, songs and plays.

To educate and enhance awareness of TCI culture, Bowen realizes it must be presented as “a celebration of a people who survived.” As a result, the shows presented by his cultural troupe, who regularly tour the Islands and perform at special events, are a rich blend of song, dance, story-telling and music, all designed to present tradition in a positive light. He says, “These shows are one of the best ways we can inspire cultural development. They are wholesome, family-oriented entertainment and have been extremely well received. Our greatest compliment is when the elderly folks say ‘it felt like the old days.'”

conchornAlong with promoting cultural activities in local newspapers and radio programs, the Tourist Board produced a cultural calender for 2002. Pen and ink drawings by local teacher and musician Kenton Wyatt highlight traditions such as blowing the conch horn, rake and scrape music, basket weaving and junkanoo. The Board is also planning the first annual Turks & Caicos Ripsaw Festival in early July.

Bowen is especially concerned that schoolchildren be immersed in their culture from an early age. “In the schools,” he says, “there is need for a standardized program in each grade so the kids can be inspired and know who they are.” As he compiles information, Bowen plans to create materials for a cultural curriculum.

Expanding participation in the Turks & Caicos Cultural Group is another goal, Bowen says. “We need more than performers, but people–young and old–who can be involved in the overall production of the shows. If you can sew, speak well or want to work backstage, you can join. All we ask is that you be mature enough to travel and talented enough to learn quickly and adapt.” Bowen is also forming a Heritage Club on each island. Members will be responsible for documenting local history.

As enthusiasm spreads and activities become more formalized and documented, Bowen looks forward to holding workshops on composing music, song writing, goatskin drumming, drum making, ripsaw playing, junkanoo costume making, local dance and choreography and folk songs and plays.

To encourage older folk to revive traditions, Bowen believes he must show them that it can be not only fulfilling, but profitable. Following the successful footprints of the Middle Caicos Cooperative, where local women create craft items for sale, Bowen envisions expanding the effort. He says, “I’d like to send a group of these ladies to tour the islands and do classes on basket weaving, plating and sewing; men can teach boat building, fish net knitting and basic farming techniques. Each of these activities played a part in the survival of early Islanders; now they can not only highlight our culture, but be profitable as a tourist trade.”

So far, response has been positive from both sides of the table. Bowen reports comments from Islanders such as “It’s about time,” and “You’re on the right track.” People who have seen the cultural shows, whether natives, expatriates, visiting dignitaries or tourists, echo their enjoyment of the lively and entertaining events. Now, it’s just a matter of the energetic cultural officer having enough hours in the day to do all he wants to accomplish.

In the Summer 2002 issue of Times of the Islands, we will debut a new column, “Rediscovering the Hidden Culture.” Tourist Board Cultural Officer David Bowen will examine in-depth a particular aspect of Turks & Caicos culture, starting with music and folk songs.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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