On This Hideout Faintly, A Beating of Drums

The National Stadium, Barbados.  Runners before the starter's pistol.  Photo by Steve "SD" Devonish, 2017.

Runners before the starter's pistol.
But where are the drums? 
Photo Copyright © 2017 by SD.


THIS RYHTHM is set before the collapse and closure of the spectator stands at the National Stadium.

This rhythm begins with a river that shimmies on the far side of the track where, moments ago, there was only asphalt. Through binoculars, truth reveals itself: not a river but girls! More than a hundred of them—jubilant figures in electric blue with the lightning flash, they gather in waves and begin a fluid, rhythmic motion down the backstretch. They sport tiaras as befits champions and, in the afternoon sun, it’s like all that gold just catch-a-fire above their heads. And as it shimmers the river hums, for the girls are chanting: a tribal sound that resonates and, as it nears the stands, culminates in a roar that is like a thousand drums. 

It is March; too early for Crop-Over or Independence, but the girls are participants in an annual ritual that might be counted, if we were smart enough, as a national festival, as Grand Kadooment. They are athletes and this is Track and Field Season in Barbados: festive and boisterous, yes, but pay close attention and see a community of people at their best, or the promise of their best. Young men and women gathered in the stripes and markings of their schools and clubs. Agile, spring-loaded bodies, not yet even fully aware of their own beauty and power, they leap and stretch, flex and bounce in preparation and anticipation. They gather to compete against each another, against themselves, against history—at the very least, against an unforgiving sun that plays tag with the rain and stiff breezes over Waterford.

The rest of the people congregate in the stands to cheer this young talent, these dreams and promises, around the asphalt that sometimes shimmers like a river and other times blazes like a fire—and to support them in the deep, beckoning field. The people shout and groan, grieve, hold collective breath, debate, argue, rejoice, dance, jump and wave; and, among them, certain bodies with a faded but still unmistakable spring twitch with additional nervous excitement or bittersweet memory of athletic seasons long past. Limbs and torsos feel to up and move to relive or reclaim those seasons. They still feel the Grand Kadooment and feed off the ritual. 

In these stands, through binoculars, a spectator studies the athletes and wonders: What kind of guts does it take to line up like that, to face the starter’s gun? What kind of discipline to leap from blocks—clean; to transfer batons safe around the track? What strength of character to bounce back after a false start and learn from it. What kind of effort to cross the line first, second, third, to cross the line at all, to finish? What kind of spirit to embrace the loneliness of the mid- and long-distance run—to chase down that blur in front, to be that blur in front? To keep going, barefoot or in spikes, especially when you’re hurting? To hurl that disc, that shot, that spear; to gather nerve and conquer hurdles, jump the longest, highest, to be the fastest, to fly—wind at your back and wings on your heels? How does it feel to hear a thousand people roar your name?

Blood echoing,
like a drum to the rhythm
of the stands?

Drums. They heighten the tension, complete and convey the drama and ritual of competition—but there are no skilled or purposeful fingers to be heard right now pounding skins. Underneath the National Stadium noise and clamour, the absence is deafening. 

The spectator shifts and squirms a little at the absence, but it is not simply the silenced drums that are unsettling. In the next seat is a big-boned woman who, in her enthusiasm, encroaches from time to time as if wanting to claim both their spaces. When she stands to cheer the athlete from her alma mater, she blocks the view of runners rounding the 200m bend and most of the available daylight. She jumps up and down and pounds the railing in front of her, yelling the girl’s name like some terrible war cry. The ground beneath her, the very air thrums. She is the closest thing in the stands to a drum right now but still she doesn’t make up for the absence.

Nearby, some unfortunate soul is sitting directly in front of and immediately beneath the only vuvuzela in the stadium—a large one. The man with the vuvuzela is unapologetic. He is there to support his godson and, by God, the godson got to hear him, he says. Between each ear-splitting monodrone, the same question that arose during two-and-a-half weeks of World Cup football in South Africa goes cap in hand again: Where are the drums?

The answer is simple. Drums have been banned—a knee-jerk response to an admittedly very real problem: the combination of drumming, chanting and general euphoria at the National Stadium during inter-school sports were drowning out the starter’s gun, interrupting and delaying play. The children simply did not know when to stop—indicative, perhaps, of a lack of self-control and discipline seen across society: in the free-for-all of the bus stands; during Crop-Over, when the wuk-up ceases to be a thing of beauty; in the acceptance of expletive and quarrel as an everyday, standard mode of self-expression and communication; in our miserable excuse for customer service; in the way we disturb our neighbours—simply put, in the way we treat each other.

In the case of the drums, though, it could also be said that Barbadians are guilty of missing the point; of disregarding the unwritten, unspoken contract that exists as part of the ritual of sports in the Caribbean, a contract that seems to be honoured everywhere else up and down these islands where drums are beaten, or steel drums are played, or conch shells are blown: Silence for the starter’s gun, please. The Amateur Athletics Association (AAA), as the governing body of Barbados’ Secondary Schools’ Athletics Championship (BSSAC), had no choice but to take action. However, instead of throwing out the misbehaving babies with the bathwater, some brighter spark might have found a more creative solution: a way to nurture, practise and mould the youth in small doses in the way it should go. 

The observer scotching in her seat starts playing What If?. What if the ban was revoked? What if they brought back the drums in the context of structured, supervised competition between school bands, in different stands and on the field, as part of the event? What if there was a contest or showcase for the wonderful extreme and fantasy hairstyles that have also been banned? What if the dance and cheerleading displays were properly organized and allowed to flourish? What if the talent and achievements on the track were nurtured and fervently supported far beyond the schools competition? What if all this group creativity was allowed to just be in a structured format each track and field season? The worst that could happen is that a positive outpouring of youthful expression occurs within the confines of the National Stadium rather than a negative overspilling of it on the way home and in Bridgetown afterwards.

Questions continue to line up in the blocks: What seeds are planted when children are granted freedom to creatively express and to showcase on such a national stage? What stars are born? And not just in the sporting, artistic or entertainment fields—but across the whole of society. What kind of independent thinkers do we breed? What teachers? What parents? What builders? What leaders? What followers? And what of those who choose the sporting or cultural fields? They might be given a chance, finally, to more fully demonstrate, to live the dream that success can occur and be measured outside the academic realm. To show that success in these fields is valid and of value and is equitable to that in the academic realm, that both, all, types of success are needed for the development of any society or nation; and that one should never be held up as a poor or rich relation to the other. 

What kind of wholesale societal shift would such a lateral leap in thought and action require? How might this crowded rock-island-nation re-determine and redefine success? 

The dreamer in the stands, with ideas steeplechasing, visualizes an alternate reality where a child is rewarded for a good idea or for considerateness or peacekeeping, just as another child might be rewarded for achieving an “A” in a Maths test or for model behaviour; where classroom charts are shiny with gold stars for full choir attendance as much as for homework done. She magics up a universe where doctors, lawyers and economists are not regarded as the exclusive holders or keepers of power, privilege and wealth. Athletes, artists, musicians, writers, and, importantly, children with these skills are recognized and rewarded for them throughout their school careers. Future farmers and feeders of the nation, likewise. She imagines a space on this hideout in the Atlantic ocean where a child has a chance not only to shine in a non-traditional academic field, but to challenge the status quo, and be a success on his or her own terms. To confound the system. To bang the drum. Loudly.

The onlooker downs binoculars. Picks up a book. In quieter intervals between events, she reads about other moments in history: other banishment and suppression of energy, expression, communication and development; the struggle of cultures, fragile survival and triumph. She eavesdrops on the Haitian rebel patriot, weaving together his unlikely army, playing opposing forces against each other: a mighty warrior with the weight of his people on his shoulders and in his heart. 

The words spring off the page, create a tension rivalling that on the track. Another time, in another book, but in a story not too far removed, words cart the reader mercilessly back 70 years to a Barbadian village tripping over itself trying to run from the past but also wary of the future: a strict and determined single mother for whom tenderness is a luxury, whipping her boy in full view of neighbours, scolding him into obedience and a chance at success; a schoolroom of boys worrying over slavery: Did it really happen—here? And why will no one discuss or admit it? It’s as if denial is vital for their continued forward motion; to stop their world from closing in or collapsing; nothing so terrible as that could ever have happened here, could it? To admit it would be to stop, to stumble and fall. Keep moving, that’s the idea; keep running, overcome, outrun history,

mek we own, chase it
down de track—wings on our heels
an’ no looking back.... 

The starter’s gun startles. Words blur off the page and puff of smoke hangs even as the sprinters, who are also a blur, reach halfway down the track. In the distance, long, tall silhouettes emerge in the late March afternoon. Relay teams. Hands, limbs and eyes get set for the transfer of batons and the raising of flags. Earlier, there was disbelief, upset on and off the track; tantrums thrown. But there was also silent, mature acceptance driven by faith that, left alone to perform their duties, the officials will choose to stand firm, neutral and professional. 

Records tumble like meteors, or hold; personal bests and qualifying times are clinched; the scoreboard shuffles—the surrealistic drama plays out and the promise, this youthful threat of gold, moves up and on to the next level. But there is a persistent sense that beneath all this exertion there is real need for an understanding of why. Why and where are we all so busy running, going; and where and what from? Maybe with some of this hindsight, foresight and insight, there would be no need for the banning of drums.

The sports commentators and announcers play up and play down the old school tie, reducing the Olympian efforts to one of superficial, tribal one-upmanship. But the competition itself rises above that small game. Home drums may beat loudest in some quarters, but, on the track and in the field, the competitors, the children, not least through their camaraderie, humour and true sportsmanship, are redefining “home.”

And the announcers understand that, too, though perhaps at a deeper level that has yet to surface. They, for instance, could have a role to play in the unbanning of drums—by using the power of the microphone to control the stands, to encourage quiet when the starters need it instead of hyping up the noisemakers with their partisan rabble-rousing. And it can be done: in the C stand, a fight breaks out. Uniformed officers and the curious converge to catch a glimpse, while, over the loudspeakers, spectators are urged not to condone this behaviour: Anyone fighting should be ejected from the grounds. This is about our children, about the game, so let’s not ruin it, the announcer motions. 

Approval thunders through the stands in the electrified hamlet of Waterford, St Michael. Someone picks up a large drinks cooler, suspends it from his neck, improvises a pair of sticks and a wicked rhythm…

and on this hideout
faintly—the forbidden
sound is heard. 

In November, Linda M. Deane received the Governor General's Award of Excellence in Literary Arts, the top prize in Barbados' 2017 National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) literary competition (www.ncf.bb).  She won for "A Way Back: Phyllis, Freddy, Dexter & Wow!"—an essay exploring memory, memory loss, and the power of music—which will appear in an upcoming edition of the NIFCA Winning Words Anthology (http://artsetcbarbados.com/news/winning-words-shows-diversity-bajan-lit).

The above essay was another of her award-winning submissions to NIFCA 2017.  Past winners of Barbados' GG for Lit have included Shakirah Bourne, Winston Farrell, Esther Phillips, and fellow ArtsEtc Editor Robert Edison Sandiford.