Folk Culture and Costume at the Folk Museum in Barbados
Curator, Barbados Museum and Historical Society
What do the Mother Sally, Shaggy Bear, Donkey Man, and Stiltman have in common? All of these are expressions of masquerade, performance and costume are the result of slavery and colonialism. These five costumed mannequins can only be found permanently displayed at the Folk Museum and at Heritage Park located in the parish of St. Philip.
This paper highlights the two museums which play a part in depicting these costumed characters in Barbados; continues with an overview of the history of Crop Over in Barbados; and concludes with the purpose of these costumed characters in this Barbados festival.
The Folk Museum is the only museum which examines and interprets the cultural traditions of the Barbadian society from the 19th century through the 1960’s. This museum is privately owned and since it is not a widely advertised and publicised museum, many locals are not even aware of its existence. Some of the cultural traditions on display include cooking and domestic implements, sacred items, and traditional trades and games. The Folk Museum therefore plays a very important role in teaching this aspect of our cultural heritage.
Due to the location of most of the costumes on display, the sun has caused some fading which has resulted in brittle fabric and the degradation of the actual fibres which the mannequins are made of. The open windows used for ventilation have also allowed rain to come in, which has contributed to some soiling. However, despite that, the purpose of the displays has not been defeated, since they inform both locals and visitors about the folklore of Barbados.
The Barbados Museum and Historical Society [BMHS], located in the Garrison Historic area is the other museum which has for the last four years created temporary exhibitions to commemorate aspects of the annual “Crop Over” festival. Each year, the BMHS has focussed on a specific theme, and during 2012, a temporary exhibition entitled “Leaves to Beads: 100 years of Costume Design” was opened. This exhibition explored the evolution of masquerade and costume design in Barbados, and examined some of the earliest forms of expression highlighting the same folk characters on display at The Folk Museum. This exhibition also gave the BMHS an opportunity to highlight the cultural costumes of Barbados as well as inform the public of some of the activities which evolved from the re-birth of Crop Over in the 1970’s, and the changes in costume design from the use of traditional materials to leaves, beads and body paint, which currently dominate the festival.
Crop Over is a Barbadian or what locals call, a Bajan folk festival, which evolved from the harvest festivals of two cultures, England and West Africa. Formerly known as “Harvest Home”, this annual celebration is also one of the Western World’s oldest festivals, dating back to the 1780’s when plantation workers declared the end of the sugar crop, by feasting and dancing in the plantation yards.
The festival starts from as early as May and culminates with the “street party”, called “Kadooment” on the first Monday in August. Many locals and visitors look forward to this festival which incorporates calypso competitions, visual arts exhibitions, literary arts and a host of other creative genres. One of the most spectacular aspects of the festival, however is the splendour of the costumes which are either displayed at Junior Kadooment or by the adults on Kadooment day.
The Crop Over festival, as the name suggests, signalled the “end of the crop”, and was a way of the workers “expressing themselves” or masquerading at the end of a long season. Masquerading was an old African tradition, where individuals paraded in masks and costumes through the villages to bring good luck and to remove evil spirits. The early costume designs were indigenous to the Barbadian culture. Individuals dressed in clothing that they would usually wear at home; and materials like grass and paper, sponge, recyclable materials, materials obtained locally, and later a variety of coloured fabric, were used to make costumes with masks and head-pieces made of feathers.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, costume design in Barbados was possibly influenced by the popular costume and fancy dress party traditions of Europe and North America. The Barbadian theatre tradition, which was active from the late 18th century, may have also influenced this type of costume design among Bridgetown’s white and black middle class communities, who dominated this kind of cultural expression.
As the sugar cane industry in Barbados declined, the Crop Over festival was revived in 1974, and included such attractions as the Cart Parade, the burning of Mr. Harding. As the last procession of decorated carts made their way into the mill yard, a labourer would beat a make shift gong announcing the “Crop Over”. The very last cart carried “Mr. Harding”, an effigy made of cane thrash stuffed into an old pair of trousers and coat, with a top hat on its head. Mr. Harding symbolized that period between sugar crops, when employment was difficult to obtain and money was scarce. This time was referred to as “hard times”, so that the crop time and the hard time divided the Barbadian year. The burning of Mr. Harding, a tradition which ended in 1979, symbolized the hope that the hard times to come would not be too severe.
The early bands of Crop Over were rather haphazard and not very well organised in terms of construction, uniformity and themes. However, the craftsmanship of costumes from the late 1990’s began to improve creatively, with the simplistic designs with highly interpretive storylines, although some individuals think that there was more structure to the costumes of the past which initially started from themes used within the school curricula. Revellers carried banners with hand painted or stencilled titles, and held card board cut out in various shapes. The banners signified the titles of the bands and the sponsors, and were used to identify each band.
Tee shirt bands were also part of the costume, and as the name suggests, persons wore Tee shirts and pants, but with the introduction of more artificial materials like vibrant colourful feathers and beads which took to the stage during the late 1980s to 1990s, and the move by the National Cultural Foundation to limit the amount of Tee shirt bands, dissolved these to a much smaller almost non-existent stage.
The costumes of the 1970s and early 80s aptly depicted elements of Barbadian culture and the natural environment. However, costumes of today are very similar, very simplistic decorative swimwear style, with a variety of themes which are often difficult to appreciate in the costume.
The costumes of today are targeted at a younger crowd and many of these revellers prefer to masquerade rather than become involved in wearing a costume which portrays aspects of Barbadian heritage and culture. The majority of the costumes today are in the form of a decorated two piece or one piece swimsuit. Some individuals believe that the focus today has changed to a street party atmosphere, rather than a cultural festival, and Kadooment has become dominated by bikinis, beads, feathers and most recently body paint. Much of this type of costume is evident in the Trinidadian and Brazilian carnivals.
We will now highlight those costumed characters which are usually associated with the festival, but more importantly with the Barbados Tuk band. The Tuk band is a Barbadian musical ensemble and the four costumed characters which will be highlighted, usually accompany this band. These characters were created specifically for the “Leaves to Beads: 100 years of Costume Design” temporary exhibition and had accompanying texts.
Firstly, we look at the Mother Sally,pronounced by Barbadians as ‘muddah sally’. This character was traditionally performed by a male who wore a mask worn to hide his identity. It is an Afro Caribbean cultural expression which is believed to represent fertility. Similar cultural expressions can also be found throughout the region, as well as in the Gelede Masquerade of Yoruba in South Western Nigeria and in Ghana among the Ga ethnic peoples. The original Mother Sally was made of banana leaves, pillows or stuffed sacks which served to exaggerate their bosoms and posteriors.
Within the past two decades, Mother Sally has been increasingly performed by women who wear no mask. Their comical performance is a favourite among locals and visitors alike, specifically since the movements of rhythmic pelvic thrusts and gesticulations are heightened by the voluptuous shape of the wearer.
Alongside the Mother Sally, there is The Donkey Man. According to the authors of A-Z of Barbados, “this masquerader dances in a costume shaped like a leg less donkey, the legs being provided by the dancer who simulates riding a very active and energetic animal. Having its origins in Africa, this costume was adopted to symbolize the importance of the donkey in the sugar cane crop during the era of animal-drawn carts. In the other parts of the Caribbean, it is manifested differently, in Jamaica, it is known as horse head, while in Barbados, it has been suggested, that the costume component of the expression, evolved into a donkey because of the large presence of donkeys in Barbados between the 17th to the mid-20th Century.
The Shaggy Bear is another character believed to be of African origin possibly of Senegambian extraction, where a similar expression is represented in the yam festivals of that region. The masquerader who performs the Shaggy Bear is male, and his performances are acrobatic in nature, and designed to frighten as well as impress onlookers. The original costume, complete with a mask to conceal the identity of the performer, was originally made from vines, banana leaves and other plant material. Today, the costume is made from pieces of colored fabric created in the form of a rag mat to conceal the identity of the wearer.
Moko Jumbies, as they are commonly known in Trinidad and Jamaica, is a Congolese derived phrase translated to mean ghost or spirit. In Barbados, this character was called the ‘tilt man/stilt man”, and was first recorded in 1880 but is believed to have been present in Barbados from as early as the 18th Century.
The Stilt man not only accompanied Tuk Bands during festive occasions such as Harvest Home or Christmas but they would direct the Tuk Band ‘where they had authority just by walking’ above the bands. During the early post emancipation period right through to the mid-20th century, the costume of the stilt man imitated the style of clothing worn by elite men of Barbadian society and was made complete with the use of a mask which was intended to look European. Today the tilt man wears brightly coloured clothing and seldom wears a mask.
Also on display, but demands its own paper separately, is the uniformed male who stands apart from the first four characters, wearing a ‘stiff white’ uniform of symbolic of the Royal Navy. That uniformed male is the Captain of the Barbados Landship. Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2013, The Barbados Landship was considered by many to be a ritualistic or ceremonial copy of the Royal Navy. Many locals believe that it was through the Landship that working class people were able to ‘claim possession’ of public spaces.
The Landship is best known for its performances or naval movements, which included dances and drills. These dances and ‘drills’ included, and still feature the ‘wangle lo’, a dance which performers place their hands on their hips, bend their knees while making a circular motion with their hips and lower their bodies to the ground. The drills indicative of the ‘rough seas’ would be initiated by the drill master who would give the instruction ‘‘Yuh gine rock out de ship now”, and the members of the ship would spin their arms like the sails on a windmill and rock their bodies from left to right. These dances and drills were all usually performed to the music of the Tuk Band, which is considered to be the “engine” of the ship.
During 2013 and into 2014, there will be a series of activities relevant to the Barbados Landships’ 150th Anniversary, but although this paper does not speak to this uniformed group, detailed information on various aspects of this group is available through various articles and in the recently published “Full Steam Ahead: The Barbados Landship” book.
Apart from the costumed characters mentioned above, the BMHS has and continues to acquire costumes to its collection on a small scale. The inability to display or exhibit them temporarily is due like most museums to space restrictions and this may be a reason for having a limited costume collection there.
However, that does not lessen the value and relevance of costumes in our collection. It is expected that the small collection of costumes at the BMHS can be used as an educational tool in the near future, to inform persons on how fashion has evolved in Barbados.