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Monday, June 05, 2006




Indian Silambam stickfighter

I was deeply honoured to have been invited to represent the Guyana government and people at a recent public lecture by my old friend and cultural activist Elombe (formerly Elton Mottley) on the topic “Stickfighting”.

Stickfighting, called sticklicking in Barbados, is a type of sword fighting-like sport involving two or more participants using three to four foot long wooden sticks.

Held at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies, the lecture was most informative. It filled in the details about a working people’s grassroots activity many in the packed Lecture Theatre had only vaguely known about while growing up from the 1950s onwards.

It was a well researched delivery, drawing from sources as diverse as still practicing enthusiasts of the almost obscure art form to university academics. Elombe outlined the origins of stickfighting and the need to preserve it as part of our culture whether we live in Barbados, Guyana or elsewhere in the region..

The former Barbados government Director of Culture (1982) who now resides in Jamaica where he writes and hosts a radio phone-in programme, said the art form as used by people of African descent in the Caribbean and certain parts of Central and South America originated in parts of West Africa. Stickfighting skills were also brought to the hemisphere by indentured workers from India while European traditions further influenced it.

Aside from the preservation of cultural art forms as part of everyday life while relaxing and interacting with others, it was also used for defensive and other purposes. He cited for example, combatants of the 1816 slave rebellion in Barbados being armed with sticks.

Portuguese stickfighters

There were variations of it among the many islands and territories including Spanish speaking countries. The “rules” of stickfighting, Elombe explained, varied . For example in Trinidad where it is known as kalenda, the hitting of your “opponent” below the waist was frowned upon. In Barbados and some other places, any part of the body, including the testicles, could be a target..

The art form had different names. Aside from the kalenda, it was known as Setu in Guyana, Mani in Cuba, Mousondi in Haiti and Koko Makeku in Curacao. Among the other countries where research has been conducted on it are Suriname and Puerto Rico.

In some communities, the activity was accompanied by drums and singing. In Guyana groups sometimes took part in Setu activities in clearings in the canefields and forest areas, often at Christmas time.

For the most part, in its pure form, it was good natured, a sport-like activity instilling discipline and mental skills and “a certain bravado and indomitable spirit” as the lecturer put it.. A integral part of the art form, Elombe ventured, was its defensive skills. Indeed, the title of the lecture was “Cover down yuh Bucket”, a Bajan expression meaning “prepare your defence” or “watch yourself”.

Speaking before the Bajan audience, Elombe referred to what he described as the “martial” reputation of Bajans throughout the region during the heyday of stickfighting after Emancipation in the mid 1800s and well into the 1940s and 1950s. With labour shortages in English speaking countries, as well as Panama where they worked on the building of the Canal , Bajans spread out looking for jobs. Many worked as policemen There was a ripple of appreciative smiles, some would describe as an embarrassed reaction, in the audience when the speaker intoned: “Bajans headed out to B.G.. ! ”, referring to then British Guiana. In the early part of the last Century there were at least “four times as many Bajans” in the Guyana Police force as local non-commissioned officers, he said.

Bajans had a bad reputation.. In fact, he disclosed there was some similarity between the word “Bajan” and “Bad John” in Trinidad where they also went. They took stickfighting skills with them. They got caught up in gangs and lumpen elements including prostitutes and “wharf rats”or the “underworld culture” as Elombe described it. One police report described Bajans as being part of groups of “rogues and vagabonds”. As policemen, they were also feared.. Referring to research done by U.S.based Guyanese-born academic Juantia de Barros, Elombe said Bajans were found among the “Santapee” gangs in Guyana. He added other, more disciplined and focused individuals, including trade union leader H.N. Crichlow, were also involved in the early organized labour struggles.

Stickfighters in action

Stickfighting crossed racial boundaries and its origins reflected this, Elombe noted. “Stickfighting in the Caribbean (and Guyana) also absorbed European and Indian influences. Both European and Indian stick fighting seem to have long traditions.”, he said. In an interview after the lecture, Elombe told me he was informed that the word for stickfighting, namely Setu, in Guyana was a Hindi word. It is likely therefore, that the art form was practiced by Indo-Guyanese as part of their culture, but also incorporating local influences. It instilled discipline , learning and self defense attitudes.

The published author also paid homage to Joe Hoad, the son of a white Barbadian planter who tried to preserve the art form in Barbados during the 1940s and 1950s to the extent of organizing a competition in 1955 at one of the local cinemas.

Why did the art form become almost extinct? Elombe ventured that one of the reasons may be the “emphasis on American values and practices” instilled even more with the advent of television into the region in the early 1960s. One wasn’t sure whether his recollections as a teenager of (Australian/U.S. actor) Errol Flynn and his swordplay in movies such as “Captain Blood” and Robin Hood” as a “swordlicking god” was a criticism of the American culture’s influence or an appreciation of a skill similar to the indigenous sticklicking. Probably both, if I know Elombe.

The graduate from Canadian and US universities in Accounting and Finance praised the efforts of a small group of Barbadians led by sanitation worker Elvis Gill in establishing a Sticklicking Martial Arts School in 1987. Regrettably, Elombe said, the revelant sports and cultural authorities in Barbados had not provided any assistance nor encouragement to the art form. Instead, he lamented, they promoted such sports as fencing and archery. While these latter sports have a role, he felt activities which “define Bajan character” should also be preserved. He concluded his well researched and appreciated lecture: “Many of our (traditional) practices have been abandoned…it is imperative that we (as Caribbean people of all races) redefine ourselves for our survival. With imagination, we can create a new situation so as to revive these practices for future generations. It is not that what we have is archaic but that we don’t recognise our own expressions”.

Elombe is now working on a book “Cover down Yuh Bucket: the Story of Sticklicking in Barbados” and it should be released this year.


Guyana Chronicle

Link Posted by jebratt :: Monday, June 05, 2006 :: 1 comments

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