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A Maroon masterpiece
published: Sunday | June 13, 2004

By Tanya Batson-Savage, Freelance Writer

A group of dancers with vines wrapped around their torsos as a symbol of ambush, perform with drummers at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) on East Street, Kingston, on Wednesday. The group is the Maroons from Moore Town. - Rudolph Brown/Staff Photographer

WITH THE first booms of the drum, the sweet smell of white overproof rum begins to permeate the air of the usually odourless lecture hall. On the small stage, the drummers are soon joined by a group of dancers wearing a medley of folk and modern garb, all with varying numbers of vines wrapped around their torso. The dancers spin and dip and make several intricate movements before the drummers.

The dancers and drummers are the Maroons from Moore Town and their musical heritage has been declared a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Their dance took place at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) on East Street, Kingston on Wednesday, during a presentation ceremony organised by UNESCO, the IOJ and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture to celebrate the significance of the occasion.


The first 19 masterpieces were declared on May 18, 2001. These included The Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre (India), The Mystery Play of Elche (Spain), and the Nogaku Theatre (Japan). The music heritage of Moore Town was one of 28 masterpieces that were declared in November 2003, along with the Oral Traditions of Central Africa (Central African Republic), the Tradition of Vedic Chanting (India), and the Carnival of Barranquilla (Colombia).

The attempt to earn the Moore Town Maroons their recognition was spearheaded by Dr. Olive Lewin, who has been inducted into the Moore Town Maroon clan. To help safeguard and develop their culture, the Moore Town Maroons have been granted US$900,000 by UNESCO.

Though clear roads now lead to Maroon settlements in Jamaica's mountains, the history and heritage of the group are still cut off from much of the country. Their ways are still shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding and while the presence of SUVs may now make the distance seem shorter, it exists nonetheless.


In safeguarding our nation's history and heritage it is important to safeguard the heritage of the Maroons. A culture which was able to stave off the mighty British Redcoats through ambush, dexterity and brilliant strategy, is having trouble outmanoeuvring the far-reaching grasp of modern society.

Following the performance of the adults, the students from Moore Town Primary and Junior High presented a dance dramatising the defeat of British soldiers at Seaman's Valley, starting with the sightings in Watch Hill. Their performance, which won a gold medal in the regional finals of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) Festival of the Performing Arts, signals hope for the continuation of the Maroon heritage.

However, in Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica Olive Lewin notes that some of the heritage, among them Kromanti Play (the religion) and the Kromanti language, is not being passed on to the young because the elders in the community believe they are not interested enough. "As the old folk die they take these (traditions) with them and most of the young ones haven't enough interest to spend the necessary time and effort to learn the ways and expressions of their forefathers," reads Rock It Come Over.

As such, the grant from UNESCO is particularly important. Colonel Wallace, leader of Moore Town, noted that the most important thing is to establish a 'working museum'. He noted that the museum would aim at teaching about the abeng, both how to blow the instrument and how to decode the messages, as well as teach Maroon songs and traditional toys.


"At this point in time, it is not about keeping anything secret," said Colonel Wallace an intriguing statement, given the history of secrecy of the Maroons. He noted that technology, through audio-visual equipment, would have to be harnessed to save the culture, rather than merely drawing the young away from it. Cabins and a herb garden would also be created in an attempt to encourage eco-tourism.

Colonel Wallace noted that tourism in the area would have to be carefully managed. "We want people with a love for nature, people who love and respect other people's culture," he said.

Interestingly, the recognition of Moore Town's heritage is not merely valid to the survival of our culture; it is further validation of the value of Caribbean life. In addressing the audience at the presentation ceremony Professor Barry Chevannes, chairman of the Council of the IOJ, said: "The brick and mortar of history is what most countries of the world use to commemorate their heritage." Indeed, the Caribbean has already been indicted for the lack of great edifices to man's creativity. It has been suggested that the major problem that plagues the West Indies is that 'nothing was built here'.


Such a suggestion belittles the intricate cultures that have sprung up. It belittles the value of Kumina, Tambu, Ettu, Revivalism and even reggae. As the UNESCO masterpieces declare and Professor Chevannes echoed, oral traditions can also be treasures, though they are enjoyed in a more transitory way.

The intangibles to be treasured include craft, language and mythology. Lewin noted that culture is a 'vital factor in the creation of identity'. Also speaking at the ceremony, Lewin spoke of globalisation's ability to erode differences, rather than celebrate them. She noted that what can be created is a 'big grey mass' rather than a 'tapestry'. Intangibles have been eroded by globalisation, armed conflict, careless tourism, industrialisation and rural exodus, she said. Lewin pointed out that exodus from Moore Town was being helped by the lack of a school in the district.

Lewin noted that the UNESCO proclamation aims to raise awareness of the importance of Maroon heritage, as well as preserve it. The proclamation also aims to evaluate and take stock of the heritage, as well as promote participation of local artistes in revitalising the heritage.

"It's not scholars who keep cultural heritage alive," she said. "We learn from the cultural bearers."

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