various artists,
Caribbean Voyage -- Saraca:
Funerary Music of Carriacou

(Rounder, 2000)

During the time when the British Empire was pulling out of the Caribbean, Alan Lomax -- with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and with the assistance of Anna Lomax Chairetakis -- went to the West Indies to record local musics of the people living on those islands. He hoped to establish with his recordings a cultural commonality to support the dream of postcolonial political unity in the Caribbean.

The political unity never came about, but Lomax left us with an amazing archive of recordings of every kind of music from the islands he visited.

"Everywhere I found tidal pools and freshets of indigenous music and dance styles reflecting both the particular qualities of local life and the mainstream Creole performance style," Lomax said. "Each island had a treasure of such melodies, potentially unlimited because still growing. I believed that all of this music could become a national resource for a federated West Indies."

One of those tidal pools, Carriacou is a tiny bead on the string of islands called the Grenadines. Quoting from Donald R. Hill in the liner notes, "Carriacouan funeral music and ritual are part of a complex belief system centering on reverence for the 'Old Parents,' the 18th century African founders of Carriacouan society and on obtaining guidance for the living from the more recent Dead."

A Saraca is a kind of funerary rite endemic to the Grenadines and Carriacou involving food for the celebrants as well as the deceased, music, special ritual and Nancy or Ananzi stories.

This collection of songs includes lyrics derived from African ethnic traditions like the Cromanti, Manding, Igbo and others as well as English and French Creole. There are Big Drum songs, arguably the most important way the living entertained the dead. There is a Nancy story, a traditional instructive or cautionary tale, about the young woman who is the purported ancestress of all the people on Petit Martinique, another of the Grenadine chain of islands.

African call and response shows up in lots of the renditions of spirituals like "Gone to Nineveh," where the anthem is performed with trumping set as rhythmic motifs behind the call and response phrases.

The singers are some of the first proponents of Big Drum music to perform in the United States, thanks to Lomax and the American Museum of Natural History in 1975. Some of the performers, such as Sugar Adams and May Turner, were quite old at the time of this performance and were actively teaching the younger generations in the Big Drum tradition. The younger singers, Lucien Duncan and Canute Caliste, are still going strong today. Caliste is a painter as well and his painting of a Saraca is on the cover of the CD.

Anyone who is seriously interested in investigating the African source of most popular music today owes a great debt of gratitude to Lomax and his collaborators for recording and archiving this exciting collection of Caribbean musics. The link with Africa comes through traditions like these and we're fortunate to have this kind of documentation.

The music is exciting, the stories interesting, the singing heartfelt. This is not music for entertainment particularly and it's certainly not background music. It's music for understanding and would be a valuable addition to any collection that aims for a consistent historical context.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]
Rambles: 14 July 2001

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