Pass the Chutney, Watch for Soucouyant and Beware Unclean Hands

“Don’t accept no food from Mr. Ramkisoon. Neighbor say Mr. Ramkisoon hands not clean.” The names have been changed to protect the accused, but this was the warning given by my parents before I got on a plane bound for our house in Trinidad. For those who might not be aware of the phraseology, the concern about Mr. Ramkisoon’s unclean hands has nothing to do with his hygiene. It was a warning that Mr. Ramkisoon possibly dabbled in some “simi dimi,” or more likely had done something foul to earn a curse placed upon him. My parents (who now live in the US) had it on good information–an Indian neighbor on our block who kept them apprised of the goings on back home. Like the song say, “Trini talk talk talk talk talk…”

So here were my Afro-Trinidadian parents, who are nominally Christian, concerned with superstitions rooted in Hindu (specifically Indian-Trinidadian) folklore. Welcome to the cultural mash-up of my childhood, or as I like to call it, a little bit chutney and a little bit pelau.

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The Afro-Asiatic Mashup

I attended an event at the Smithsonian this weekend called Asia After Dark: Afro-Asiatic Mash-Up. Held in the meditative Moongate garden, the evening featured a “mash-up” of Japanese vogue dance, theater, storytelling, hip-hop music and Afro-funk (Fela!) choreographed by visual artist iona rozeal brown. Among inventive cocktails, Japanese beer and floating origami lotus blossom lanterns, guests were invited to create masks using Asian botanical and Ashanti adinkra symbols from West Africa, while the highlight was a performance of soloist dancer Monstah Black–whose outfit was a dizzying array of Japanese Geisha meets Soulsonic Force topped off by a Gabon-Punu/Lumbo mask. Was pretty dope. And the only thing conspicuously missing in this Afro-Asian fusion was any mention of Wu-Tang Clan. Yet as novel and cutting-edge as all of this meeting of two seemingly un-related cultures and peoples may seem, it’s not really all that new. Asia and Africa have been melding and fusing for quite a long time.

*photo: (L) “…hold on…”–Erykah Badu, 2009 by artist iona rozeal brown- Courtesy of Robert Goff Gallery (R) Muhammad Khan, The Noble Ikhlas Khan With a Petition by Muhammad Khan (17th century), India. c. 1650. in San Diego Museum of Art

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