Episode 5 (transcript)

[00:00:00] Dev Ramsawakh: You’re going to want to hit that subscribe button.

[00:00:23] Clif Knight: With your hosts, myself, Clif Knight and Dev Ramsawakh.

[00:00:28] Dev Ramsawakh: On Jumbie, we’re going to hear dark and haunting stories from local storytellers that are inspired or about the spirits, monsters and other cryptids from colonized places.

[00:00:38] Clif Knight: These are stories that don’t often get to be told on larger stages.

Not everybody grows up with stories of vampires and werewolves, or at least like the ones you can buy books.

[00:00:48] Dev Ramsawakh: Then we’ll sit in conversation with our storyteller to explore their relationship with their story with horror and how colonization ties into any of that. On this episode, we have Miss Tania Lou or Tania Hernandez. Tania Hernandez, a “bawn” Jamaican and citizen of Canada is a teacher, author, poet recording artist and Jamaican folklorist.

She has delighted crowds in Canada and the USA with songs, poems, stories, and skits that reflect the wit humor and expressions of her island home. Her just released book One Pot serves up a delicious stew of humorous, true stories from Jamaica and Canada, along with her poems and Jamaican fusion recipes.

This is Ms. Tania Lou with Jonkonnu: Symbol of an Endearing Spirit in the Americas.

[00:01:43] Miss Tania Lou: Hello, my name is Tania Hernandez AKA Ms. Tania Lou. Today I will be talking about Jonkonnu: Symbol of an Endearing Spirit in the Americas.

I am from Jamaica and as a little kid, I would hear the beating of drums from way down the road. And then there came a group of masqueraders called Jonkonnu. They were all dressed in many different types of costumes then.

You would have the Devil, you would have the Bride, you would have Ku-Ku, you would have Horsehead, you would have Asshead. You would have just many different types of Jonkonnu characters, coming down the road, reveling and singing and dancing to the beat of drums. And you would hear fights as well. And they would come, you know, they seemed a bit menacing because as a child, you see these people with these masks on. You are exhilarated, but at the same time you are scared, especially Horsehead and Devil.

I was so scared. I would just run behind. My family members and hide, but they danced and they sang and you heard the drum beats and a lot of the kids would dance behind them because it was a procession that went down the road. And what they would do is they would come to homes or, you know, want to get some of, you know, some money for their own Christmas celebrations, because it’s usually during Christmas that they would come and sometimes they would come and they would ask for money from the spectators and they would use it for themselves. Or they would use it for charity.

So I, I also remember too, that there was a Jonkonnu song. These paraders, they would sing this song called Christmas Ah Come.

Christmas a come me wan me lama,

Christmas a come me wan me lama

Christmas a come me wan me deggeday

Christmas a come me wan me deggeday

And they would go

Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me lama

And it would keep going.

Pretty, pretty gal, me wan me deggeday,

What lama is, it’s a word for present and deggeday mean finery. So they would be in like tattered clothes. I remembered that. They would sing, um, apparently this is from the days of slavery, they would sing that. And of course it came right back down to us here for us to learn of what our ancestors did during those times of slavery.

So they would sing this song in merriment and, um, as they sang this song and this.

Christmas a come me wan me lama

Christmas a come me wan me deggeday

We would give money to them. Yes. It would be just to be a day of merriment and fun. And as a child, you don’t know much about them. You just knew that this was part of our heritage and it wasn’t until as I got older and I did my research that I realized that this was a part of our African ancestry. Yeah, and that’s why I named it Jonkonnu: Symbol of an enduring spirit in the Americas because our ancestors came from their world into our new world, into the Caribbean and into the south part of, of America. And it was a new life for them. And, and they’re trying to survive and endure and so they brought about merging their African culture here with our culture in the Caribbean world, in Jamaica.

Of course you had it in also Bahamas and in many parts of the US, also Belize. And so, yes, this was just a merging of the old with the new and coming up with this masquerade, this celebration of jonkonnu. And yes, I would like to further talk later about the history of it, what I learned, but I am glad to have known this very important part about my ancestors, about their ability to survive and you do merrymaking. They’re always merrymaking. The drums and the dance and the music.

It just symbolizes their strength and I have this proverb that says, Tek kin teet kibba heart bun.

What it means is we take our kin teet, mean we smile and made the pain that we’re going through. And so I have learned that from my ancestors through the jonkonnu people. They reveled and they performed. And while it might seem to some people that the masks were terrifying, you know, they just represented their culture, parts of their culture and the Jonkonnu. What I remembered hearing that the Jonkonnu was called, like Ku-Ku, and what that meant was a symbol of strength. So I really remembered this very fondly about my childhood and yeah, I hope it’s something you want to hear more about.

[00:07:55] Clif Knight: Thank you, Ms. Tania Lou. One of the things that I have questions usually for people who are a little bit more deeper into certain parts of Caribbean culture, especially Jamaica, you know, the, the origins of some of these celebrations. Can you like fill us in a little bit more on that?

[00:08:12] Miss Tania Lou: Well, from my research, I realized that it’s more from West Africa and no scholar can be definitive about the real nature of Jonkonnu, except that it has elements of.

African drumming and masking some believe that it was spiritual because our African ancestors, they would use drumming and dancing and music to honor their ancestors and also to invoke their ancestors too. So it’s a bit spiritual, it’s cultural. And I can imagine, if you can imagine Clif, you, you leave your world to come to a new world and just like how they have to learn a new language. We speak Patois in Jamaica, which is a merger of the African and the English and the French and Spanish, Portuguese. I see the same thing as our African ancestors coming here to the new world and they have to assimilate and they have to merge your cultures, because I’m sure all our ancestors work from different tribes and they had different languages and cultures.

So they have to come learn a new language, do everything, but because their spirit was always to thrive and always had a celebratory spirit. I can imagine they all came together and made a new Creole culture, one of which is Jonkonnu masquerading and celebration. So I would say yes, many of the elements came from West Africa.

I was told that one of the masks, one called Pitchy Patchy. It was reminiscent of the Egungun maskers in of the Yoruba tribe. You know, there are many elements, but I believe that there were many derivations came about from the early 18th century until now, because I was told that back in the 18th century, and this is coming from lithographs.

I don’t know if you have heard of Bellisario, but he’s a Jewish artist and lithographer. And he had this painting called Band of the Jaw-Bone John Canoe from 1837 to 1838. In this lithograph, I saw Jonkonnu wearing hats. They were not in these masks, right. And you saw three men playing instruments with a small child, one man playing a conventional Western drum. I believe a bass drum while another played the gumbe also called the bench drum. It’s a small wooden frame and they put the hide of goat skin over it. And there was one person where they were playing arrest. And what that rasp is, was the jaw bone of a horse on the teeth of which a piece of wood is passed quickly up and down, occassioning a rattling noise.

So these Jonkonnu, they call them the Band of the Jaw-Bone John Canoe. You can see from the 1837, they had a different way of portraying this celebration. But we also saw similarities because there was a drum, the gamby, which is African. I guess, you know, I could say that yes, a lot of it came from Africa, but as to the entire thing, I just think it’s an amalgamation of the different cultures that came here, plus the immersion into this new culture.

And then they used masks and different things from our culture to make it a very unique jonkonnu celebration. There was another lithograph that I saw, it was called Jaw-Bone or House John Canoe. And this man was dressed in a red coat, white mask, a long haired wig, and carrying a model house on his head.

It was a big house, right. So here is this man in pseudo military dress style. This was our Negro ancestors doing that, and he would carry this house. He had this long hair, but the house was decorated. Usually constructed of pasteboard and coloured paper and ornamented with beads, tinsels, pieces of looking glass.

And this man, he would carry on his head and he would be doing many contortions of body and limb dancing. Just the way, how the Jonkonnu, they jump and prance and they move around. He was doing the same thing back then, in the early 19th century. Yes. It’s very Africanist. The masks, dance, the drumming, the singing, the parading, but no scholar can really be definitive that yes, this Jonkonnu parade, this celebration the way how we perform it now that is, this is how our African ancestors, this was their culture back in the day. So I don’t know if I answered your question there.

[00:13:32] Clif Knight: Somewhat. I mean, an including yeah, if part of this recounts is from like 1837, this is a very long surviving tradition. And I imagine there must have been like a fair amount of change, maybe improvement and inclusion and a lot of that that’s happened since then.

Yeah. What sort of changes might you see, even within your own lifetime, how things have adjusted and changed and shifted in all this time?

[00:14:00] Miss Tania Lou: Yes. Well, first of all, the costumes that they wore, it’s different now because as I said, they had a houseboat on their head and there was a military style costume. Also, I think it’s more similarities than differences, really. Costumes for sure changed, but the similarities endured: the same masking and the dancing.

What I do know what’s different in the early days, as I said, they used to walk around asking for money from the spectators. And this was from days of slavery. After Crop Over, they would be allowed, the massa, the plantation would allow them to do their own celebrations and they would go and they would ask for money for the spectators. Nowadays, it’s only a few places where the Jonkonnu go and ask for money. But I do know that in North and South Carolina and in Jamaica as well, and we don’t really collect the money, but some of the costumes are nicer and more celebratory and carnivalesque.

Whereas before the costumes might be more tattered. It depends on where you live. The costumes were all different. So for Jamaica, I can only speak really from my country, is that the only difference is possibly the costuming. As I told you, we had Jaw-Bone, we have Cow-Head, we have Horse-Head, we have the Belly Woman, we have the bride and the devil. In the days of old they did not wear these kind of masks. We didn’t see that. So I guess there were just different derivations as the years went by.

And I just believe that they were just trying to celebrate and make something good out of something bad. I remember as a child, we were really scared of the devil or Horse-Head. One of them would carry a wooden sword in their hand. Well, it was a wooden stick, rather.

But in the old days, they carried a wood sword. You know, we were scared when they would go around and moving around the stick at us and jumping at us and everything. But as a child, that’s all I remembered. And then when I did my research and let me tell you, I did research from the dictionary of Jamaica and English and they found etymology of the word Jonkonnu and parts of it had healer, sorcerer, something, witch doctor, that’s what I do know.

I do know that the Jonkonnu is also, he is the leader and the chief dancer of the troop of negro dancers. And he wears an elaborate horn mask or a head dress, but by the end of the 18th century, He, they started to wear the estate house or the houseboat.

It was never a canoe though, because sometimes you hear people say John Canoe, C A N O E, but there was never a canoe. It was a houseboat. So we don’t do that now. With our Jonkonnu, we don’t wear, we don’t carry a houseboat. We don’t have any canoes. They wear their mask. Right.

And it takes place during the Christmas holiday. Same around the time of slavery, other countries, though, it would happen at New Year’s or after Christmas. Boxing day, new years. For Jamaicans, we have ours normally during the Christmas holiday.

And they have this big procession with, you know, lots of music. Other places like New Orleans and places, it’s a very elaborate carnivalesque type. So that’s where a difference is this is not a huge carnival back in the day. But now there are big carnivals that you could go to in The Bahamas or North, South Carolina or New Orleans. Yeah.

[00:18:10] Clif Knight: Okay. Uh, you mentioned a lot of characters: Cow-Head, Horse-Head, the Devil and the Bride. Is there like a story, some sort of significance to them?

[00:18:19] Miss Tania Lou: No, but some people believe that they wore it to give some subliminal message. Some people thought they were making fun of the massas in their costuming. They were trying to send messages. Some people believe, this is not definitive, there’s nowhere that you can find out why they wore these masks, but people made some good guesses to say that they were representing their experience and telling how they felt about their massas. I don’t know when they’re put on the devil outfit. I don’t know. They’re probably looking at their massas as devilish. I really can’t say that for sure. But most people just says that because of their culture of masks, they created their own Creole culture here and came up with these new type of masks because this was not apart of the African experience.

That was not the type of mask, even though I heard of one, the Pitchy Patchy, but that’s just as far as I read and research. They performed antics, right. I guess it’s just their own way of their own carnival because Jonkonnu was called a celebration and a carnival. And as you know, carnivals, there’s a lot of masked people dressed up in different types of outfits.

The instruments that they use is basically the same. I hear back in the day they had a bangie. That’s the type of instrument that they use. One thing I found out too, that there was this man called J O H N C O N N U. John Connu. People are surmising the Jonkonnu dance is probably an honorable Memorial.

He was, they called a Cabacero in Tres Puntas, in Axim, in the Guinea coast. It’s the African coast of West Africa. And this was way back in the 1720s. And they said he bore great authority among the Negroes of that district and the town of Axim, it’s a coastal town in the Western region of Southern Ghana.

So here we have this account and then it morphed into many different Jonkonnus now, where we have different masked people, but I believe from the day back in the 1720s, they were actually representing a great leader. And then I continued to read and it said several new masks appeared and it was usually male people who wear masks. And now, you, you have both male and female masking. Okay.

[00:21:09] Clif Knight: You seem to be very deeply read on this particular subject. Like how did you even get into researching this type of thing?

[00:21:16] Miss Tania Lou: Well, that’s a good question. Yeah. I love history. Thanks. I love history, from a Jamaican folklorist so I continue to carry on the works of the Hon., Dr. Louise Bennett Coverley, the mother of Jamaican culture. And so I go around and I perform her works, and plus works that I have done about Jamaican culture, who artistic expressions of poetry, songs, riddles, Anansi stories and different types of other stories. And I go around and I perform.

So in order to be authentic and to let people know what our ancestors, what they were all about, I have to research because Ms. Lou, that’s what she was lovingly called, she actually went around to the different country areas and collected folklore. She was a drama officer for the Jamaican Social Welfare Commission that center around the island to learn about the culture and also to infuse and to promote the culture to our people.

So I read a lot from her books. I read so much, plus I go and Google research papers. There is one called Bilby.PDF. That’s a good place to go. And also I’m a member of the, it’s called Vintage Jamaica on Facebook. They have so much information about Jamaica. So I collect a lot of witness accounts. I collect stuff from books I’ve read from people’s personal experiences.

What I did find out too, that was very interesting was that the Jonkonnu celebrations were almost similar to the Dinki Mini celebrations that happen in Jamaica. When a person died, they had eight nights of celebration. And no one was allowed to be unhappy. They wanted to really cheer up the family members of the person that died. And so it was like eight nights of revelry, loud dancing, loud music. And that was where the potpourri of cultures came about because people would just make up a song right dere. And, and, and do dances. And so the Dinki Mini celebrations remind me so much of the jonkonnu celebrations, where they would perform, they would be full of gaiety and full of merriment.

Our people, they really came from some real dire circumstances. Taken out of their home and they had to make it. We have this propensity to be able to be creative. Tek our hand make fashion. We take what we have and we make the best out of it. And I think you can agree with me Clif when you see our rich culture, our rich African Caribbean culture, you can see that the people are strong, they’re happy and they make the best of what we have. And as we call them in Jamaica, we’re likkle, but we tallawah, we might be likkle, but we overcome. And dey came to the Caribbean, to the US, to this new world, not having their spirits been destroyed. But instead they created their own Creole culture, their own folk culture with elements of their African culture.

And I have more of appreciation of these Jonkonnu masqueraders, more than when I was younger. Cause when I was younger, I’m telling you some of the masks really did scare me. However, I was fascinated by Belly Woman, belly so much she had this huge little tummy and when she roll her tummy man, it was so funny! And it really uplifts the spirit of anyone watching it and feel proud.

Like for me, I’m from Jamaica, I’m mixed, I’m out of many, one people: Jewish, Irish, Indian, Black, everything you can think of. Heinz 57. And I am glad to have in my potpourri of culture, my African ancestry. I believe that’s one of the reasons why I’m so strong. I mean, I’m a woman of faith, but I believe our culture has a lot to do with the way we are.

And I think you can agree with that.

[00:26:08] Clif Knight: For sure. We have a whole thing in Guyana, specifically, acknowledging we have six peoples that come together, you know, specifically during the time of colonization, you know, basically forced together by our European overlords, but coming to recognize that all of these people are people and we have to live together and find our, you know, it’s the whole, the, the national motto is one people, one nation, one destiny.

And you mentioned you have a background in performing, like how did you get into that? And what was your original discipline?

[00:26:41] Miss Tania Lou: From a child, I always liked to sing and write. I talked about the Hon. Dr. Louise Bennett Coverley and she is the mother of our Jamaican culture and what she did back in the day in the seventies, when I was a little, little pickney girl, on, you know, our black-and-white TVs, right? We had every Saturday morning Ring Ding and Ring Ding is symbolic of the ring ding of our ancestors when they had the moonshine dial in Ring Ding affair, when everybody would come outside and perform something. So Ms. Lou always tried to promote the culture.

She would have this children show, which I was a part of, I was actually invited to come on. And we would sing Jamaican folk songs, or Caribbean folk songs and dances and riddles and poetry. And I realized from then on, I was a very artistic person. And so I, I would enter festivals at school and I would perform a lot of both prose and poetry and public speaking, and I would dance in Jamaican cultural development association, festival competitions.

So I did that as a child. And then as I got older, I did perform at private functions. So when I really got into it is after we moved to Canada. I’m here in also old, let’s say 26 years and my little kids, in order for them to remember their culture, not only what I cook Jamaican, Caribbean food, but I would go into those schools and I would wear the bandana.

I don’t, if you know about the plaid skirt that you see a lot of Caribbean people wear. Jamaicans love that plaid bandana outfit. And so I would wear it and people would ask, and I would tell it was a way to begin a conversation about our culture and also for my children to see that I’m living my culture in Canada. And so I started doing folklore work and promoting it in the schools and the libraries.

And then someone saw me. I was just speaking to someone and they say, you have this ability to reach people and to make us laugh. Would you like to perform at this Jamaican Canadian Association of British Columbia event? And I went and did my first standup skit, my first, some called it, Stand Up Comedy Caribbean skit called Canada night [indiscernible].

And it took off. They even gave me a nice little plaque for my theatrical performances and I did my first video. And from there people inviting me to different Caribbean associations to perform. And then people started saying, wow, you remind me of Ms. Lou, you know, I have the big eyes and I guess expressive.

And then I continued to research her more. I love to perform her poems. And then that brought me to writing a book called One Pot, which is a blend of Jamaican Canadian caribbean recipes, my own poetry and my own true stories about the culture shock I experienced here. I’m now performing in Ms. Lou’s Room, which is a room set out to show Ms. Lou’s works at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. And I do the Caribbean markets. Jamaican eats, Grace Cameron always asked me to come and do performances. And of course, Dev, he saw me at the Caribbean cafe recently that was held in Toronto. It is so good to be a mouthpiece for our very unique culture.

And as you know, Canada, it’s a multicultural country. It has many different peoples from all over the world. And so just like Guyana and Jamaica, we’re out of many. We are out of many one people. We have the same flesh and blood, but we have different cultures and we are coming together in unity with the best of ourselves, teaching each other about who we are. And that is the only way that we can really survive. With so many different cultures is if we understand where we are coming from, and we feel proud about where we’re coming from.

I find my life in my mid fifties now feeling just so happy that from a child where I would, I would love to perform on my veranda and write songs that now here are my, I actually have my own album now. And I, my music album is called shades of my heart. And in that album, I actually dedicated a song to Miss Lou and I also do songs about present COVID crisis. I do Calypso type songs, reggae songs, R&B songs. I’m pretty eclectic.

I have three books. Two are educational and motivational, because I’m also a teacher, I teach kids how to read. And I also have a lot of experiences with dealing with kids with autism and different developmental disorders.

So I think I’ve been blessed. I just thank God for the life he has given me. And that you would invite me on today. And by the way, I should ask you Clif, do you have jonkonnu in Guyana? Because I, I didn’t see Guyana as part of that.

[00:32:35] Clif Knight: No. But we do have different celebrations. We have something called Mashramani, which typically happens around the time of like Carnival, you know, or early in the year, we do it normally in February, which is the traditional time for that. But we’ve moved Mashramani to sometime in June, late May, around our independence day, but it’s a different type of celebration.

Mashramani is a Indigenous word that means a celebration after hard work.

[00:33:03] Miss Tania Lou: Wow!

[00:33:04] Clif Knight: Because we were one of the latest Caribbean nations to get independence from Britain. There’s a very different feel about how to portray Europeans in general, but our celebrations, we don’t have so much of that blend of Spanish and French. There’s a little bit of it, but Guyana’s still very British in it’s styling. Parts of its culture, as it relates to Creole and then the extension of our culture as it relates to the rest of the Caribbean as well. So we have some similarities, but I like to say we’re kind of our own thing.

[00:33:42] Miss Tania Lou: Yeah. You are your own thing, but I see a similarity.

You said something. It was a kind of celebration after hard work, is that what I heard you say? Do you notice the common thread of a lot of our cultural celebrations? The Jonkonnu. The Dinki Mini, which I spoke to you about, the carnival. Even though we’re from different countries and whatever, but we still have this celebratory feel about us and we go hard with it, right. We celebrate really hard. I would say, yes, celebration after hard work. That’s what our ancestors did as I said after Crop Over.

They kept this enduring celebratory spirit about them to now, and look at us now, descendents, we are doing the same thing. So we might have different names for different things, but it’s all the same when we think, why did we do it?

And I’m glad to have met a new Guyanese friend Clif. I really believe that we really need, as a group of Caribbean, African people, but I really believe we need to stick together and stop looking at our differences and look at our sameness. So if you are ever in the Hamilton community and you ever want to have a nice chat, a nice talk \here and just talk about life Ms. Tania Lou is here. I love to meet young people. I just really love people.

[00:35:15] Clif Knight: Thank you so much for coming on. And yeah, this is kind of a new project for us, but can you tell people where to find you?

[00:35:23] Miss Tania Lou: I have a website, TaniaLHernandez.Com. You can find me there. You can find me on Instagram @doraytee. I’m a Facebooker. So if you put in Tania Hernandez, just put in Miss Tania Lou, you will find me. If you put in Tania Hernandez, and you put in my album, shades of my heart, or Tania Hernandez, Ms. Tania Lou, a lot of things will come up on Google and on YouTube.

I am just kind of, as we call it in Jamaica, bussin out. In my fifties, trying to keep up.

Because I’m a mentor and I like to empower people on Facebook, I have a page called A Mother’s Heart, nee Mayne, because that was my surname before I was married. But yeah, that’s where you can find me.

[00:36:24] Clif Knight: Fantastic.

[00:36:25] Miss Tania Lou: Celebrating with hard work.

[00:36:28] Clif Knight: Thank you once again to all our listeners, of course, make sure you hit the like and subscribe. Go follow us on Instagram and Twitter @JumbiePod. You can find me, @Cliffy_So_Funny on Twitter and Instagram. And of course our producer Dev you can find, @merkyywaters, and that’ll be easy.

Thanks again so much to Ms. Tania Lou and our listeners. And don’t forget to always check those dark corners.

[00:36:57] Miss Tania Lou: Thank you Clif and Dev. Thank you for having me. Blessings and wah good.

[00:37:05] Dev Ramsawakh: You’re listening to Jumbie. Produced by Dev Ramsawakh, hosted by Clif Knight. Music by Zee Thompson. Sound effects are creative common sounds from FreeSound.org. Make sure you’re subscribed so you can catch our next episode. We’ll be featuring Wiidaaseh. We can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, and a bunch of other different directories.

Thanks for joining us. And don’t forget to check those dark shadowy corners.