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History & Culture

Bajan Culture 101

Bajan Culture 101
MAR 02, 2016 @ 08:04

We are immensely proud of our way of life which comes from our African/British heritage.  We celebrate this heritage every day in the way we think, speak and embrace life.  It is also celebrated in the bold flavours of our cuisine, the myriad colours which comprise the fabric of our communities and in the vibrancy of our culture, much of which is marinated in folklore and served with music of a unique Afro-Caribbean blend.  

The Tuk Band: A fascinating musical ensemble which plays tuk or rukatuk music, the Barbados Tuk Band was born of necessity and creativity by African slaves on the island.  British slave masters in Barbados passed a law in the late 1600s forbidding the slaves to beat their drums, for fear they would be using them to communicate surreptitiously across plantations and incite revolt.  The punishment was death, and although they found other ways to communicate, the Tuk Band provided an “acceptable” musical alternative, whereby the slaves beat their drums to mimic the music of the British fife and drum corps. The instruments consist of a double-headed bass drum, a snare drum and a pennywhistle (tin flute), which replaced the traditional fiddle, when the element of singing disappeared from the performance. 

Tuk Bands perform during celebrations and island festivals such as Crop Over, the Holetown Festival, at Christmas and on New Year’s Day. A Tuk Band is usually accompanied by Mother Sally, the Shaggy Bear, the Donkey Man and the Stiltman - costumed characters which are African in origin and which emerged from slavery and our colonial past. These characters are some of the hallmarks of our heritage.  

Mother Sally or “Muddah Sally” is believed to represent fertility. Traditionally performed by a male wearing a mask to shield his identity, the figure of Mother Sally dances with the Tuk Band, showcasing movements designed to emphasize her massive bosom and exaggerated hips and buttocks.  Originally, these parts of the body were fashioned from banana leaves, pillows or stuffed sacks.   Within recent times, the character has been performed by women who don’t wear masks, but who are equally well-padded to heighten the effect of her rhythmic gyrations and pelvic thrusts. 

The Shaggy Bear: The Shaggy Bear is said to represent an African witch doctor.  Also known as the Bank Holiday Bear because he always shows up on Bank Holidays (public holidays), the Shaggy Bear is always male.  He is lithe and fit and his acrobatic performances are designed to frighten as well as impress onlookers. The original costume, complete with a mask, was originally made from vines, banana leaves and other plant material. Today, the costume is made from colored strips of fabric - much like a rag mat – and conceals the identity of the performer. 

The Donkey Man celebrates the role of the donkey in the sugarcane crop at a time when animal-drawn carts were important means of transportation in Barbados. It has also been suggested that the figure of the Donkey Man is testament to the proliferation of donkeys in Barbados between the 17th to the mid-20th Century. This character performs in a costume shaped like a donkey, with the legs being provided by the wearer, who pretends to ride a frisky and almost uncontrollable animal. 

The Stiltman In Barbados the Stiltman represents surviving hard times, and the effigy of Mr. Hardin (the embodiment of harsh economic conditions). The Stiltman often accompanied Tuk Bands during festive occasions. Originally, the costume imitated the style of clothing worn by upper class males in Barbadian society. A mask resembling a European gentleman completed the outfit while concealing the identity of the wearer. Masks are seldom worn today and the Stiltman’s garb is bright, colourful and distinctly Caribbean.