Arts Today: Behind the Back Burner?
Things are 'on the back burner' is a popular expression we use when no one seems to care, or when no attention is being given to something. Well, it hurts when I am forced to admit that the Arts and sports are on the back burner in our island. Notwithstanding the opening of the Centre for Creative Arts at the Old Mill Cultural Centre, the efforts of Raymond Lawrence in initiating training through the Cultural Division, the showcasing of the traditional arts during Independence, Pearle Christian's outstanding work with the Sisserou Singers and the strides made in Calypso over the past decade and a half, the Arts and sports seem to be "In de same spot" or has gone backwards over the past two decades.
Let us examine what obtains now since we have just concluded the Schools Arts Festival at the Arawak House of Culture. There is no doubt about the immense talent displayed in dance, drama, music by both individual and groups. It must be remembered that it was in such school settings that many of today's outstanding artists found expression; these include Michele Henderson- Delsol, Dennison "Dice" Joseph, Merlin "Wizard" St Hillaire and scores of others.
Some 35 years ago several young person's obtained scholarships to study various subjects related to the Arts: for instance in drama-Steve Hyacinth and Nigel Francis; painting- Earl Etienne and Arnold Toulon; dance-Flora Moreau and Jacinta David, all benefited from training in Jamaica and we saw, and are still witnessing, the fruits of their labour. One would think that by now, there should be specialized teachers in every school, trained at degree level in the performing and or visual arts. Instead the natural gifts of teachers are being used to prepare students to showcase talent, while little or no formal training is given despite the many scholarships we have sourced from friendly governments.
Our policy makers still focus on management, (seemingly to further mismanage), law, medicine and the social sciences. There is nothing wrong with this, but our development cannot be lopsided; and so, at least, if not on the front burner, the Arts should be on the back burner. But lo and behold, it's not on the stove at all! Let's examine this practically: do you know that Jean Rhys is about the only Dominican in literature books used at our schools in spite of decades of submission of short stories and poetry competitions at Independence to the Cultural Division?
Do you know that Dominica is one of the most talented and artistic countries in the region yet there has been no National School of Music since the Kairi School of Music closed its doors over two decades ago? Do you know we now have fewer persons who are competent in terms of music, literature and fine arts than in the 60's and 70's? A quick examination can put doubters to rest. Best bassists: Freddy Nicholas, Vivian Wallace, Tepam, Brian Rocque, Franklyn Harris; best guitarist: Julie Martin, Jerry Moulon, Tyson Johnson, Leroy Guiste, Cameron Pierre, Friere Soul, Andrew Bellony Bird, Avril Henderson, Marcel Mark; best keyboard players: Fitzroy Williams, Armstrong James, Patrick Pemberton; best pannist: Athie Martin, James Gregoire, Eddy Andre and the Jno- Baptiste brothers; best drummers: Sly Larocque, Bellony Bird, Baby Boy, Professor Oils; vocalist/front men: Levi Loblack, Jeff Joseph, Greg Breaker, Linford and Glen John; horns: Purcel Christian, Norman Letang, Bing Casimir Bentley James, Natty Wayne; singers/ composers: Gordon Henderson, Phillip Horsford, Ophelia, Nasio Fontaine, Pat Aaron, Dennis Joseph, Rah Peters, Julian, Riviere, Desmond Aaron; bands: Exile One, Grammax, Swinging Stars, Gaylords, Groovers, End Time Singers; theatre groups: People's Action Theatre, New Dimensions; artistic directors/ playwrights: Alwin Bully, Steve Hyacinth; actors: Benji Shillingford, Ashworth Simon, Lennox Rock, Slas Bannis; painters/authors: Phyllis Shand Alfrey, Alwin Bully, Lennox Honychurch, Ralph Casimir, Alick Lazare, Dr. Kay Polydore, Earl Etienne.
You know what is significant about the persons and groups mentioned above? They are still rated the best today and most are children of the 60's and 70's. In the last two decades we have produced some quality that can hold their own on any regional or international stage: Original WCK, Cornel Phillip, Dice, Michele Henderson, Daryl Bobb and Sisserou Singers, to name a few. Many others have surfaced such as Tarina and Joy Stoute but, sadly, for whatever reason, they have failed to blossom to become success stories as say the Gaylords, Ophelia or Jeff Joseph have achieved.
The same can be said about our painters and poets. Where are the Ras Mo's, The Gregory Rabesses, Mark Sylvesters of today? Surely we can reproduce performance pieces such as Arundel Thomas's classic "If Dominica Could Talk"! Where are the books and recipes of our culinary artistes such as Ma Symes, Joan Cools-latigue and the late Hyacinth Elwin?
It is sad that we have not learnt or progressed from the high standards set by our predecessors. I'm not sure whether it's the social environment, lack of support by government and private sector, a general attitude for mediocrity and lack of professionalism or just a lack of belief that we have what it takes to be world famous. We remain at the back of the development burner; we should be doing much better. But it seems that artists are remembered only at Carnival, Independence and, of course, for the sewo, to draw large crowds during election campaigns. I wish to submit, we can do better than that.