- Carriacou String Band Serenade: Performing Identity in the Eastern Caribbean
Carriacou String Band Serenade: Performing Identity in the Eastern Caribbean is a thorough study of how tradition and national identity are invented and carried through music. Like Ruth Glasser’s My Music Is My Flag: Puerto Rican Musicians and Their New York Communities, 1917–1940 (University of California Press, 1997) and Katherine J. Hagedorn’s Divine Utterances: The Performance of Afro-Cuban Santería (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), Miller’s text reveals how Caribbean musical cultures carry deep meanings about place and history that seek to address colonialism and displacement on multiple levels. Also, as the studies mentioned, Miller’s training as an ethnomusicologist allows her to speak the detailed language of music, of craft and performance, used by her collaborators. The result is a thoughtful volume that offers light on an under-studied expressive culture of the Eastern Caribbean.
Carriacou is a small island of the Lesser Antilles that also makes up the largest of the Grenadian islands. Miller uses the musical traditions of the people of Carriacou as signposts [End Page 384] that point to different aspects of history and de-colonialization of the island. The prime example she explores is the institutionalization of the parang tradition of musical serenades during the Christmas season into an official festival that is now creating its own set of traditions. The parang becomes the focus of much of the text’s later chapters, revealing an in-depth musical and cultural analysis of the festival and also of the string band musicians who perform in the culminating event, a competition on the last day. Miller adeptly weaves the voices of musicians, the music itself (via a webpage guide and her own musical transcription), and postcolonial analysis in rendering the importance of this event on an expressive as well as symbolic level for the island’s inhabitants.
Miller describes how the island suffered a “double dependency” (p. 17) from both the colonial rules of France and Britain, as well as feeling an economic and political deference to Grenada. Yet, throughout this process, or perhaps because of it, the people of Carriacou developed an intra-island economy rich in reciprocity that relied on folk institutions as a cultural staple. The post-independence governments of Carriacou continue to rely on these institutions, or reinvented versions of them, for creating a sense of shared national identity and cooperation. However, even within this history of cooperation, Miller argues, there is a sense of “cultural ambivalence” (p. 19) that she attributes to the appropriation of European culture and cultural tropes in expressive forms. I would also add, as Miller does a little too tacitly, that it is precisely this ambivalence that is worked through in the construction of uniquely Caribbean post-colonial forms of vernacular expression. From the beginning of her text, she speaks to the shared African ancestries, in terms of ethnicities, of the inhabitants of the island. Yet, it is unclear why these African forms do not contribute to certain kinds of ambivalence that also reveal the micro-historical dimensions of musical changes and cultural tensions among different African ethnic groups on the island.
Another interesting insight Miller’s book offers concerns the ways that religious culture and music on the island are integrated into the lives of practitioners and musicians. Miller describes the participation of different communities in the Afro-Caribbean Big Drum Ceremony (pp. 10, 87–93, 136) as well as in the Afro-Christian Hosannah Band Competition that occurs on Friday night of the parang festival (pp. 99–122). Her analysis indicates how these musical traditions reflect change and innovation. The detailed discussion of negotiating the limits of “authenticity” in song selection and performance aesthetics among Hosannah band members is a particularly strong example of the meta-communicative work done by musicians on the island (pp. 107–18). Religious performances are especially fraught with the responsibility of performing history. And in Afro-Caribbean contexts...