On Being a Pagan

Shiva murti at Shango shrine, Block 22, Laventille. 
Attillah Springer, March 2014.

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

Araba of Osogbo Ifayemi Elebuibon to speak at Trinidad and Tobago Isese Festival

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Orisa devotees from around Trinidad and Tobago will gather on September 24, Republic Day to observe the first annual Isese Festival – a celebration of this country’s African spiritual traditions.

The gathering takes place at Centre of Excellence in Macoya and starts at 10.30 a.m.

Isese is a Yoruba word meaning Tradition. In recent years there has been a global push to reconnect with non-Western ideas of spirituality, and Trinidad and Tobago has been a leading part of that conversation through scholarly works and cultural exchange between Nigeria, Ghana, Cuba, the United States of America, Brazil and parts of Europe – all of which have seen increased interest and participation in African Spiritual traditions, specifically Ifa/Orisa.

Currently the local Orisa community is in a state of evolution. As the popularity of Ifa spreads, there are concerns about how this will affect our own traditions that have existed for over a century and have informed many social and cultural forms in Trinidad and Tobago.

This is a unique opportunity to interact with practitioners from around country, with a view to strengthening cultural and spiritual ties.

The morning session will include workshops in dance and drumming and a special panel to address questions that people have about Ifa/Orisa beliefs.

The afternoon session includes performances from Wasafoli, The Trinidad and Tobago Orisa Performing Arts Company and pannist Noel La Pierre.

The feature address will be delivered by Ifayemi Elebuibon, Araba of Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria.

Special tribute will also be paid to Elders of the Orisa community both living and passed on.

The event is hosted by the Council of Orisha Elders in collaboration with the Afrikan Heritage Village Committee and Afrika House.

Entry is free of charge.

Beauty of the Battle

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The learning is not just in the training, the hours spent memorising the lavways and the steps and the pain that comes when you lose concentration and you get hit with a stick on your little finger. The journeys to the gayelles are full of songs and anecdotes of past battles. Acid sings into the night, to dark roads that disappear suddenly off crumbling precipices: “Ah living alone, ah living alone in the jungle.”

Bois season is a time of fasting, from alcohol and meat and conjugal relations. From anything that distracts from the battle. The battle is waged in the mind long before the stickfighter enters the ring.

From a piece I wrote for the January 2015 issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.
Read the original article here: http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-131/word-of-mouth#ixzz3OKgtUeuD

The NCC Regional Carnival Committee’s 2015 Stickfight Competition dates are as follows:

23rd Jan – Biche
30th Jan – Cedros
11th Feb – Skinner Park
To book workshops and demos for schools and clubs with the Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago call Rondel Benjamin at 498-2609
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This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

Chipping down the road of understanding.

Last summer in London I taught a few wining classes, and one of the moves I started off with was the chip.
Wining, as I told my students, is much more than a movement of the waist. Like most other rituals associated with Carnival, dancing in Carnival is not given any critical thought, and especially because of the continued dismissal of its African origins, we overlook its subtleties and ultimately it’s real purpose. Part of my real disgust with soca is the ‘instructional’ nature of many of the songs, which create a template for movement, but also to a certain extent, disempower women from really freeing up and expressing themselves and their bodies outside of the approval of the male gaze.
Anyway, now that I’m back in Trinidad and getting ready for Carnival, I’m reading and researching and arming myself with information.
I found this excellent quote in Under the Mas – Resistance and Rebellion in the Trinidad Masquerade written by dancer, Choreographer and scholar Prof Jeff Henry.

The basic calypso dance, ‘the chip’ is executed with a relaxed forward shuffle of the feet, knees slightly bent, with the balls of the feet and the heels continuously flat on the ground, as the weight is shifted from one leg to the other.
The body sways loosely from side to side in response to the change of weight in relationship to the shift of the body. This fundamental rhythmic forward propelling movement comes out of the Shouter Baptist rhythms as part of the physical expression and from the circular movement of the Orisha.
The movement is most noteworthy during the opening ceremony of a Shango meeting which usually begins with a salutation to Eshu. In the Spiritual/Shouter Baptist ceremonies, the movement back and forth accompanied by vocal sounds referred to as ‘doption’ also recalls the ‘chip’. The shuffle of feet flat on the ground has always been the signature of the Calypso dance and is still unconsciously done by masqueraders when they are moving from one place to another or are slowing down to contain their energy.

Ogun and the Jouvay Warriors.

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Doing research for a piece I’m writing about African retentions in Trinidad Carnival, I came across this.

The procession referred to as sagun (literally, “to run Ogun’s race”) derives its name from the fast tempo of the music and warlike-dance. Each individual or group parade is referred to as
Ologun(“Ogun bearer”)…. Every conceivable professional group in Ondo, except for the civil service and white-collar workers, participates in the celebration.
Most are dressed in rags and parade through the town with their bodies smeared with blue, white, and black paint.
They sing in praise of the deity and of their procession. The festival is an occasion to celebrate Ogun’s deeds and to display human workmanship.
The ceremony becomes an opportunity for a show of force by the individual medicine-Ologun and often creates a temptation for them to test their medicinal power in public and to confirm their superiority.
This aptly illustrates Ogun’s attributes as “the embodiment of challenge, the Promethean instinct in man, constantly at the service of society for its full self-realization.

Olopuna, J.K Kingship, religion and rituals in a Nigerian Community   Sweden, Almquist & Wiksell

Sound familiar?
We’ve been hinting at the links between Africa and Trinidad Carnival for a long time, but in the spirit of denial and prettification we’ve chosen to erase rather than celebrate what are some glaring and wonderful similarities between our Carnival and the masking rituals of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.
And I get vex every time I hear the same recycled story about Carnival being a French thing that the Africans then used to imitate their masters. It never go so and it’s about time we start to explode those myths.
The truth is that the jouvay that got included in the two day Carnival celebration was initially an Emancipation celebration celebrated on August 1st. The procession started at midnight, was a mixture of solemnity, ritual, celebration and defiance.
It makes sense that the Canboulay was always a source of confrontation between the jamettes and the colonial authorities. And it makes sense that we should even as we confront the colossal stupidity and ongoing assness of this government, previous governments and I guess future governments, find new ways to use this still existing ritual to do the same confrontation with the authorities that needs to happen.
In light of all that is going on politically and socially in Trinidad right now, I am inclined to ask, for Jouvay 2013 what would Ogun do?

Bitter Sweet Spirit

No self respecting Caribbean person holds allegiance to any other spirit. It’s the first thing you learn to drink.
After all it is in your blood. Rum flows in the veins like rebellion. It is strong and bitter like cane burnt in anger.
It is what is left after the sweetness is taken out.
But hold on.
Before you take a sip. Before you burn the tip of your tongue and feel your whole inside go golden from the heat of liquor coursing through you.
Before the feeling goes to your head and your tongue gets loose and your waist begins a barely perceptible oscillation.
Open the bottle of rum and pour a libation. Spill three drops on the ground. You do this for those who are not here to part take of the drink themselves. For those who have gone before.
For ancestors whose names we don’t remember.
For Gods whose names we were forced to forget.
For blood spilt and lives lost to make someone else rich.
Rum is the drink of forgetfulness for some. I believe that it started as a drink of remembrance.

That’s just a little piece. I’m reading the whole thing at the Museum of London Docklands on September 26 at the Real Rum Do