Growing up as a child in Piaye, one of the most prominent features about the community was its rich heritage of kutumba or what was also called daybot. This is a set of traditional dances performed to traditional songs by a vocalist (chanteur) with dancers who would respond (waypondeur) with similar chants, all backed up by a single drummer.
Unlike drumming groups like Lapo Kabwit, Tambou Mélé and Dézagwéyab, which consisted primarily of just drumming and singing, the kutumba culture involves specific dances matched by songs which tell of hardship, life and death, travels, family life and a host of other subjects hinging on everyday community life.
At that time the kutumba was a culture deeply embedded in every Piaye resident. If you were born and raised in Piaye, it was automatic that you could perform the dances, sing the songs and beat the drum in the unique way that suited each dance.
The kutumba is Piaye’s heart and soul, and has served as a means of drawing the community together both in times of joy and sorrow, the most popular being during nightly wakes held on the death of an individual in the community. I have a vivid memory of the kutumba as a celebration of life during those wakes. The audience was huge. The performers were adults. A circle was formed around the drummer and chanteur. That circle would have layers, in the manner of the growth rings which tell a tree’s age, except that the centre was kept clear for the performances. Children like me would perch any and everywhere, whether a tree, a verandah, shoulders of an accommodating adult or any other viewing point which would allow us to witness the celebration. The atmosphere was noisy and sometimes rowdy because of everyone either wanting to be a part of the performance or have a good enough view of those performing. The battle for a chance to be a performer was always intense.
Even on a normal day without an occasion, the sounding of the drum would draw a crowd of eager children longing to show off their dancing skills. The adults would eventually show up, intrigued by the talent on display by kutumba’s future. That is how powerful and deeply engrained the kutumba was in us. However, over time that passion disappeared; kutumba’s heart rate decreased and its soul was no more passionate.
The story begins with slaves from the nearby Balenbouche Estate who chose to settle in Piaye and raise their families. The old folk tell us that those slaves were from Guinea Africa and were referred to as Nèg Djiné (G-nay in our local creole language). As a child growing up, one Nèg Djiné stood out among the rest: his name was Clifton Joseph, more affectionately known among residents as Pa Dou Dou.
He was usually softly spoken but his voice would increase gradually when sharing a joke and would culminate in a loud signature laugh. Pa Dou Dou and my grandfather Pa Ti Boy would chat, sharing their views on the young generation and how time and things had changed. Coming home from school, I would meet them in the verandah, and having to complete my chores and school assignments gave me an opportunity to listen in on some of their conversations.
On the subject of kutumba, Pa Dou Dou was the main and only chanteur that I knew of growing up. Everyone knew the songs but no one possessed a voice as unique as his.
The children were important to him and he would make time on a weekend to ensure that they were given the opportunity to showcase their dancing skills, away from the adult notion that “Ti-mamay paka dansé koté gwuh moun yé.” Pa Dou Dou’s sacrifice for the children ensured that the tradition and culture was carried on by giving children the chance to enjoy what the adults claimed as theirs.
My fondest memories of Pa Dou Dou at Piaye include him standing next to Kaynar, a drummer, coordinating the songs and dances. He made sure that every song had an intro before the first drum roll. The intro was deliberately slow as if to cause one to learn the words of the songs. No matter the occasion, that performance would not start if we did not respond to his chanting. He would take a pause and with a refrain he would go: “Mamay la waypon uh, waypon uh … epi wayponse nou tay toujour la”. During the dances “Mamay la ouveh wohn uh, ouveh wohn uh” was a frequent request from him ensuring that the dance circle remained open for all to dance.
When this man stepped into the ring, one just admired in awe. He was the only person I ever saw perform in slow motion and, rather than the usual feet movements, he would glide with precision to the drum beat and do all of this without leaving his position next to the drummer. Then a sudden burst of energy into the ring to display his unique movements and eventually the “por-tay” (handing over the dance to someone else who would continue the performance around the ring).
Pa Dou Dou’s por-tay was also unique. The por-tay resembles what is done in break-dancing, when a performer passes on the dance to another through a hand or foot movement. Kutumba’s por-tay was mostly done with the feet but some performers included hand gestures to confirm the individual to whom they were handing over. That person would then step into the ring, complete his dance and hand over (por-tay) to someone else and the cycle continued until everyone had an opportunity to perform that particular dance. It would then end with Pa Dou Dou’s uniqueness: he danced around the circle, like no one else could, going back to the drummer. He would execute that signature move of raising and gliding one leg over the drummer’s hands while beating the drum and end the performance with an emphatic expression of the words “Ah Boo Boo”.
During community performances, he always used a famous phrase to encourage onlookers to join in. One which stuck with me is “Vini, vini sé moun nuh, la pani gros boudehn eh tambou” (Come join us folks, no-one gets pregnant while dancing).
Pa Dou Dou travelled the length and breadth of the island with a group, the Piaye Dancers, showcasing the heritage passed on from the first slave settlers. He was a cultural icon for kutumba, Piaye and by extension Saint Lucia. He loved his culture; he lived it and made every attempt to keep it preserved.
His legacy is etched in the heart of every child who was given an opportunity to perform at Piaye and who carried that experience beyond the community including to neighbouring islands. I am one of those who will be forever touched by Clifton “Dou Dou” Joseph for his passion expressed for such a unique art form.
His legacy continues through his sister Ms. Angella Etienne, also an avid performer, who took on managing the group after he fell ill, and through drummers Gibbs Pierre and Hensley Paul.
The younger generation has also taken renewed interest in the traditions, dances and culture by getting engaged in formal performances with the adult group. The daughter of drummer Gibbs Pierre, Yandee Pierre, who recently completed her degree at the University of the West Indies, focused her thesis on kutumba and its legacy at Piaye. Of course, Pa Dou Dou was the major source of her information. She is also spearheading a group called “Twadisyon O Pyay” which, according to her, “seeks to promote the preservation of the kutumba dances and improvement of community life in Piaye”.
The legacy continues!
Editor’s Note: Shane Felix is a fireman by profession but also a young cultural activist from the Piaye community. His tribute was written a few days after the passing of Clifton Joseph on January 11, 2015 at the age of 96.
Twadisyon O Pyay takes place this evening Saturday January 31 at the Piaye Junction and will be in tribute to the man residents call the King of Culture, Clifton “Dou Dou” Joseph.