Saturday 22 October 2022

More on Miss Ina, Lee Scratch Perry Yoruba Mother, from the book "People funny boy : the genius of Lee Scratch Perry"

At this time, the family attended Rock Spring Church, an Anglican congregation in Kendal, though most of the family has indicated that the church was not central to their lives then. More meaningful to Miss Ina was the Ettu dancing her mother passed down to her, a ritualistic form of West African dance whose express purpose is to invoke ancestral spirits for atonement. Centring on representations of natural phenomena, Ettu ceremonies are typically retained for special occasions such as Nine Night and Forty Night, the culmination of funeral celebrations held when a member of the community passes away; they may occasionally form part of wedding events, or may be held after an ancestor appears in a dream. The word derives from the Yoruba etutu, meaning appeasement or reconciliation, connoting a rite that placates ancestral spirits through reverence.

Unlike the majority of Jamaica’s black inhabitants, descended from slaves taken from West and Central African peoples such as the Ashanti, Ewe, Mandinka, Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Bantu, practitioners of Ettu typically have Yoruba origin, hailing from what is now southwest Nigeria; most arrived in Jamaica by a circuitous route as indentured labourers in the period immediately following slavery.1 In 1807, the British Parliament declared slavery illegal, but Spanish, British and American merchants continued the trade covertly; during the 1830s, hundreds of Yoruba slaves bound for Cuba and Brazil were freed en route by blockaders patrolling the Gulf of Guinea and deposited in Sierra Leone, established as a place of return for former captives. Slavery was officially abolished in the British Caribbean in 1834, but the ‘apprenticeship’ system that replaced it saw former slaves forced to continue their labour; then, after full emancipation finally arrived in 1838, many plantation owners faced financial ruin, so during the 1840s and ‘50s, British agents surreptitiously convinced many of the formerly captive Yoruba in Sierra Leone to travel to the Caribbean under the dubious premise that they would be returned to their homeland after completing a period of tenure. In the same era, indentured servants from Central Africa and India were also brought to Jamaica via St. Helena, while Chinese labourers sailed from Hong Kong, with others later arriving via Trinidad and British Guiana.

Between 1841 and 1861, several thousand West Africans, many of them Yoruba, sailed to Jamaica from Sierra Leone as indentured labourers, typically bound by five years servitude; others arrived during the 1850s on intercepted slave ships forced to land in Jamaica by blockaders. For those that survived the journey across the Atlantic, the unfortunate reality they experienced in Jamaica was little better than that of slavery, if at all; many were subjected to brutal treatment and wages were often withheld. After eventually quitting the plantations, Yoruba founded villages in Hanover, Westmoreland, and St. Mary, where certain cultural practices were maintained.

Unique to a handful of such communities in western Jamaica, Ettu dancing is accompanied by a large kerosene pan that is beaten with both hands to provide a rattling sound, along with the beats of a smaller goatskin drum, with call-and-response chanting utilising Yoruba language; the ritual is usually begun by the sacrifice of an animal, its blood used to mark the foreheads of participants with the sign of a cross, with grated kola-nut distributed and white rum poured on the ground as a libation. Though Jamaica’s colonial rulers were intent on wiping out all cultural practices the Africans had brought from their homeland, a proliferation of underground activities saw certain customs retained and adapted during and after slavery, while those the authorities did not see as threatening were occasionally tolerated. Ettu thus thrived in remote bush communities, its survival allowing Miss Ina to retain a link with the ways of her ancestors, preserving traditions that dated from before the treacherous migration of her fore parents to the bleak reality of bondage in a hostile land; in time, she would eventually emerge as an Ettu Queen, the elder in her community that leads the dance.

“It’s an ancient order from Africa,” Lee Perry explains. “It has something to do with chanting spirits, keeping ancient spirits together; even when our people are getting old, they still show respect and holler out for them. They drink rum, so you might buy rum and put rum on the earth, cook rice without salt, make porridge without sugar and throw it on the earth for the spirit to eat, then start playing drums and start to do the culture dance; my mother happens to be one of the Ettu Queens, so she do the culture dance and talk to the spirits and the spirits tell them what goes on. The ancient spirit who was here before them, those that are dead and gone, they talk to those people and those people talk to them.” 

Another related African custom that had pervasive influence on the region’s inhabitants was a universal belief in the spirit world, the existence of benign and malevolent spirits and their corresponding powers to assist or harm viewed with absolute gravity. Such beliefs continue to be the norm throughout most rural areas of Jamaica, despite a majority adherence to Christianity.

Source: ShakaRa Speaks

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