African Retentions in Jamaica - Ettu & Nago
Many persons are not sharply aware that Africans came to the
West Indies as indentured labourers during the period 1841 to
1866. After the abolition of slavery in their territories, the British
would free Africans on the slave ships they captured and
encourage them to come to the West Indies as paid workers to fill
the need for labour on the plantations. Many were given or bought
land and settled in Jamaica after their contract expired.
Some came with their families and thus preserved their cultural habits in ways which those who had been brought in as slaves in earlier periods could not.
These Africans who came under indentureship settled mostly in Hanover and Westmoreland in the western part of the island; and in St. Thomas and St. Mary in the east. But, because their numbers were limited and they were
concentrated in just a few areas of the island, not much was known
by the wider society about these paid African workers and their
customs. Mid-twentieth century, after Jamaica gained Independence
from Britain, saw intense activity to discover, encourage and preserve
cultural activity, and it was then that we began to be aware of several
groups whose activities and ceremonies retain many significant features of their African origin.
In western Jamaica there are two groups which identify themselves as Yoruba in origin. These are the Ettu people of Hanover and the Nago people in Westmoreland.
Many of the persons interviewed by researchers say that their grandparents were Africans from Yoruba. Persons could say that their grandparents came to Jamaica with their faces’cored’ that is, marked according to African custom. These people still use words and phrases which can be identified as African or a corruption thereof. Their style of cooking and the names of some dishes disclose their African origins and even one of their villages, Abeakuta, is named after an African village in Nigeria. Persons interviewed were able to give the meaning of the word, Abeakuta ‘under the rocks’ i.e the village was built under the protection of the rocks, and knew the African connection.
The groups which call themselves Ettu are to be found in Pel River, Cauldwell, Deans Town and Kendall in the parish of Hanover. The related Nago, who have similar cultural practices come from Abeakuta in Westmorelaad.
Today, the descendants of these Ettu and Nago groups live like other Jamaicans except for the occasions which demand special ceremonies. These are the ceremonies held 39 nights after a death, or a dinner ‘play’ to honour the ancestors, or (less often nowadays) to celebrate a wedding.
On the 39th night after a death, an all- night ceremony ( a kind of wake) is held ending on the 40th day. Sometimes this ceremony is referred to as 40 nights. A dinner ‘play’ (ceremony) is sometimes held as result of a dream from an ancestor; to seek guidance from the ancestors; or it can be held to celebrate a wedding. The rituals at these ceremonies show notable African retentions in the drumming styles, dancing and singing; as well as in the preparation and distribution of food.
Examples: a goat is killed in a ritualistic manner and starchy foods prepared by pounding in a mortar (foo-foo). Grated ‘bussy’ (kola nut) is served with a tot of rum, and food is eaten with the fingers. A special shed is built in a private area where food, specially prepared (without salt) for the ancestors is placed on a table. Before anybody is served, family members visit this shed privately and appeal to the ancestors to accept their humble offering and ask for guidance in particular matters.
Maureen Warner Lewis, one of the researchers says that “The safest interpretation (of these ceremonies) is atonement. That it is really an ancestral rite continuing into the present...”
Most interesting are the drumming and dancing styles of the Ettu ceremonies. Two drums are usually used, the more prominent being one made from a five- gallon kerosene pan. This gives a high pitched rattling sound which is quite different to any other drumming in the island. It is played very fast with a compound duple beat, also unique to Ettu drumming. The other drum is usually a small one made from goatskin. Singing is often in a repetitious call and answer pattern sometimes with ‘African’ words.
Each family has its own ‘song’ which is danced only by family members. A significant part of the dance is the ‘shawling’ of dancers, when a shawl (this can be a towel) is placed around the shoulders or waist of a dancer who is pleasing the spectators. The dancer is then lifted (or hands raised if he or she is too heavy) as a sign of congratulations.
Warner Lewis explains that the groups might very well have coalesced from peoples sharing a common language but with different ethnic backgrounds. When a group or family is isolated, she explains, they interact with other groups and there is a mixing of cultures. In the new situation, a kind of consolidation takes place and a number of different ceremonies get amalgamated. She thinks this may be the reason why Ettu is used in answer to a dream request from the dead; as an offering to the dead; and the same ceremony now suffices for multiple functions
Several problems of identification and origin exist for researchers, for much seems to have been forgotten or altered. The traditional practitioners of the ceremonies are now ageing - 70 years and older. Several key figures have died since the researchers started interviews. Younger family members will say that they were not interested so they didn’t learn. Some who would like to continue the practices are altering them; example older persons laughing at a young person who dances on her toes, whereas the dance is traditionally flat-footed; or others who set the table with the wrong implements. The distinctive Ettu and Nago ceremonies might well be in danger of becoming extinct, as younger people do things differently - adapting or changing or, regrettably, forgetting.
For more information on this fascinating aspect of Jamaica’s culture - Ettu and Nago - contact the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica - Jamaica Memory Bank, 12 Ocean Blvd., Kingston tel: 876 -9224793 or fax 876 9249361 email [email protected] A video is available.
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