A vital part of our history

A vital part of our history

Commentary Debbie Jacob 3 Days AgoDebbie JacobTOMORROW is Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, one of our most important holidays because it symb

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Debbie Jacob

3 Days AgoDebbie JacobTOMORROW is Spiritual Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, one of our most important holidays because it symbolises our freedom to worship as we please. This holiday commemorates the repeal of the 1917 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance on March 30, 1951, that prevented the Spiritual Shouter Baptists from practising their religion. During that dark time in our colonial history, Shouter Baptists had to worship in secret. They risked persecution and imprisonment for their religious practices.

We are deeply indebted to the Shouter Baptists for being a strong symbol of colonial resistance and an example of unspeakable bravery during colonialism. Their perseverance in the face of persecution helped lay the foundation for dignified protest that led to the end of British colonialism in this nation.

The Spiritual Shouter Baptists have served as an inspiration for anthropologists, writers and calypsonians. In 1929, two famous US anthropologists landed in Trinidad after they finished their fieldwork on the Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana. While waiting for a ship to return to the US, Melville Herskovits and his wife Frances read a newspaper article about the Shouter Baptists. They vowed to return to Trinidad.

A decade later, they returned and travelled to Toco by boat (there was no road to take them to their Baptist village at that time). It was the first anthropological study of a Protestant Negro culture in the English-speaking Caribbean. The Herskovits recorded and released a collection of Baptist hymns called Peter Was a Fisherman. They published their ethnography of the Baptists entitled Trinidad Village in 1949.

In the 1930s, calypsonians – including our first official national calypso monarch Growling Tiger – often ridiculed the Shouter Baptists in song. Censors banned Tiger’s calypso What is the Shouter? Tiger’s scorn reflected much of the public sentiment influenced by a long history of colonial prejudice against the Baptists. But in 1937, calypso expert Dr Gordon Rohlehr tells us in his book Calypso and Society, a representative from RCA came to Trinidad to record many old Baptist songs which dated as far back as 1877. Calypsonians had no problem recording these hymns along with their calypsoes.

A turning point came in 1951 with the repeal of the ordinance against the Spiritual Shouter Baptists. With the emergence of the People’s National Movement (PNM) came the opportunity to view Baptists in a patriotic light. Baptists began to symbolise resistance and freedom on both a national and spiritual level. Calypsonians continued to be influenced by Shouter Baptist rhythms.

Although the Spiritual Shouter Baptists have protested the use of Shouter Baptist rhythms in secular music, their influence on this nation’s music created defining moments in our musical history. In many ways, our musical history is a chronicle of the Baptist struggle for acceptance.

In 1977, Calypso Rose became the first woman to be crowned Calypso Monarch and Road March winner with Tempo. Her irresistible rhythm was, Rohlehr says, obviously influenced by Baptist rhythms.

SuperBlue (then Blue Boy) rose to fame in 1980 with his soca hit Soca Baptist, deemed sacrilegious by the Baptists, who carried their protest all the way to the late prime minister, Dr Eric Williams. Legend has it that Williams replied to the Baptists’ call for banning the song with the advice, “Let good sense prevail.” Shadow’s Masters Den was the only calypso tent that would take Blue Boy in to sing that Carnival season. The late Winston “Shadow” Bailey had the vision to recognise the power of soca, which tapped into the energy, rhythm and spirituality of Baptist music.

Then, in 1982, Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace presented the Shouter Baptist struggle and triumph in his novel The Wine of Astonishment. The Spiritual Shouter Baptist story now made its way into our nation’s schools.

In 1986, David Rudder became National Calypso Monarch and Road March King partly because of his Baptist rhythms in Bahia Gyul, a Rudder/Pelham Goddard composition. The late Andre Tanker’s Baptist-like chants in Sayamanda and River Come Down also proved to be a powerful testimony of Baptist spirituality.

Baptist rhythms in calypso continued to buoy the nation’s spirit. In 1991, a wounded nation, recovering from an attempted coup led by Yasin Abu Bakr, took comfort in SuperBlue’s Get Something and Wave. In his Road March, the soca star sang “Soon we will rise again.” His unwavering conviction came from consulting the bell-ringing Shouter Baptist Mother Muriel.

The Shouter Spiritual Baptists have taught us much about individuality, spirituality, freedom of expression and freedom of worship. Their religion, culture, music and history is an important part of our national history. For this, we should all be grateful.

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