Sounding the Call

Kamau Brathwaite, an author from the mid-20th century, is notable for his contributions in poetry. He is a forerunner in using Creole as a viable language and relates much of his poetry to travels, exiles, and returns. He has written a history for the Caribbean through his poetry which speaks much to the African heritage of the Caribbean peoples. In his book The Arrivants, particularly Section One, “Rights of Passage,” Brathwaite addresses and embodies diverse types of music in his poetry including folk music and blues, jazz, and calypso.

Folk music is a major part of Brathwaite’s poetry in which he presents drumming, work songs, and blues. In fact, the first part of the “Rights of Passage” in The Arrivants is entitled “Work Song and Blues” pointing to folk aspects. According to author Amber Wilson: “drumming was an important part of gatherings and religious ceremonies for West African slaves,” who, when brought to the Caribbean, used drums to communicate with other slaves. Drums are important in African music as well. Since much of Brathwaite’s poetry focuses on a return to Africa and a remembrance of Caribbean blacks’ African heritage, drum sounds are a major part of Brathwaite’s poetry. Poet Edward Baugh notes that Brathwaite uses “short lines, with much use of repetition and variously deployed strong stresses, [evoking] the beat of the drum as an informing principle of the work” (Baugh). Brathwaite’s poem “Prelude” demonstrates this rhythmic beat of a drum even as the poem mentions it in the first stanza: “Drum skin whip / lash, master sun’s / cutting edge of / heat, taut / surfaces of things / I sing / I shout / I groan / I dream / about” (4). The beat is sharp and hitting, similar to the beat of a drum. When using two drumsticks while drumming, one hit of the drum is sometimes stronger and louder than its corresponding pair. Most of the lines in that first stanza reflect this pattern since there is only one stress per two-syllable line. Also the words that the stresses fall on are the most significant, drawing the attention of the reader to them – “sing,” “shout,” “groan,” and “dream” (Brathwaite 4). The verbs are being emphasized, portraying the emotions of the slaves.

Along the same lines, Brathwaite’s “Tom” reflects both the work songs of the slaves and the blues style. Tom is the legendary slave spoken about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (ten Kortenaar). “Tom” describes the landscape and the work of the slaves, speaking on the “cotton blues” (Brathwaite 13). Wilson notes that these work songs would be about working conditions and that many work songs would repeat words and phrases. About a quarter of the way through the poem, the words and phrases begin repeating: “nothing / nothing…nothing / now…nothing / now…nothing,” and the phrase “of the morning” is repeated in another stanza (Brathwaite 13-14). Furthermore, the poem has a blues feel with a negative tone overall. It is full of severe emotion-laden imagery and terms such as “screams,” “lashed sore,” “achieved nothing,” “lost children,” “weak,” “bitter,” “shame,” and “worthless / weeds” (Brathwaite 13-15). It sings of the trials endured by the speaker of the poem. According to the article “The History and Influence of African American Music,” many blues songs cover “heartbreak, loneliness, sadness, and the trials and troubles of daily life.” The speaker in “Tom” is bewailing his current circumstances: “we who have achieved nothing / work / who have not built / dream / who have forgotten all / dance” (Brathwaite 13). He also laments the fact that his children are not respectful, and he

[holds his] hat
in hand

to hide
[his] heart

hoping (Brathwaite 15-16).

“Tom” is demonstrating typical mood of blues songs with negative emotions. When Brathwaite performs “Tom,” he expresses sadness and depression. He does not sing in “Tom,” he only speaks in a self-defeated and depressed fashion, embodying the mood of the poem.

Brathwaite’s poetry utilizes African rhythms and Creole language, again emphasizing African heritage. His poetry reflects the influence of T.S. Eliot notably in the folk music and jazz present in Brathwaite’s literature. According to literary critic Neil ten Kortenaar:

Long after his trilogy was published, Brathwaite explained that the West Indian poets who made the breakthrough from standard English to ‘nation language,’ an African-based language closer to the folk and to West Indian musical rhythms, ‘were influenced basically…by T. S. Eliot.’

Brathwaite himself uses this “‘nation language’” of Creole in his poetry (ten Kortenaar). For example, in “Wings of a Dove” the Rastafarian speaker says “Them doan mean it, yuh know, / them cahn help it / but them clean-face browns in / Babylon own is who I most fear” and “pun de firm stones; na / good pickney born / from de flesh o’ dem bones” (Brathwaite 44). This Creole language has a particular pattern that brings out West Indian musical rhythms. The conversational style of the poem and the placement of stresses increase the flow of the poem and make it seem as if it should be sung rather than read, like the poem is music instead of literature.

Brathwaite uses jazz in his poetry to formulate history and as a form of rebellion. Jazz is an extension of folk music (ten Kortenaar). The article “The History and Influence of African American Music” claims that jazz is a combination of “African American spirituals and blues music with European classical and 19th century brass band music” which started in the early 1900s by musicians in “New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis.” Brathwaite also acknowledges T.S. Eliot’s importance to his literature, and as critic ten Kortenaar said, “‘Every moment that he sounds “like Eliot,” Eliot is alluding to jazz’” because Brathwaite uses jazz rhythms just like Eliot used “the rhythms of the black diaspora” (ten Kortenaar). Further, Brathwaite has somewhat of a history with jazz. Critic Norman Weinstein reported that Brathwaite said: “[Jazz] was regarded as devil music in Barbados, especially bebop, which I grew up on in the fifties there” in an interview with American poet and editor Nathaniel Mackey. When Brathwaite and some schoolmates put on a jazz radio show, the residents of Barbados wanted these “cultural traitors” jailed (Weinstein). Thus, Brathwaite rebels against common cultural beliefs of his time by using jazz in his poetry. He not only describes the musical form, but he uses its rhythms and characteristic content and style, practically playing the music in his literature.

The work “The Emigrants” is a vehicle by which Brathwaite imposes his political activism through jazz. Jazz has a very smooth rhythm. In “The Emigrants,” Brathwaite ends many of his lines with long “s” sounds. Irregular rhyme infiltrates the poem adding to the smoothness and gracefulness on the ear. Jazz songs are often ballads or include a speaker that is speaking to someone. “The Emigrants” tells a story about emigrants and includes some Caribbean history. Not only does the poem employ diasporic rhythms (i.e. jazz), but also speaks to the black diaspora in mentioning “the Mississippi mud,” and “Once when we went to Europe” (Brathwaite 52-54). The speaker mentions New York, Harlem, Brooklyn, and “Long Island Sound,” the last of which could have double meaning. The “Sound” is used here as a geographical location, but it is sandwiched between a list of musically significant cities and a description of multiple city sounds. During this part of the poem, the speaker is focusing much on sounds, describing the sounds of emergency vehicles, elevators, and bells. The cities referenced are musically important as well. Harlem is the origin of the Harlem Renaissance, a place and time when jazz gained ground in the United States. Keira Stevenson notes that Harlem attracted African Americans from the United States and the Caribbean. The Harlem Renaissance gave rise to jazz, “which quickly became popular throughout the world and is recognized as the first distinctly American musical form” (Stevenson). Hence, various parts of New York (where Harlem is located) are among the musically historical cities mentioned in “The Emigrants.” Because Harlem is a very important part of black heritage, Brathwaite chooses to address it and add it to the history of Caribbean blacks. Blacks in the U.S. and the Caribbean started out as slaves taken from Africa. Since both Caribbean and American blacks share this same ancestry, Brathwaite takes value in the musical forms created by American blacks shared history.

Not only does “The Emigrants” offer a similarity to jazz, it sings of the blues and continues to critique multiple societies in terms of blacks’ treatment. The poem describes the injustices suffered by Caribbean blacks and focuses on the negative aspects of exiles. Columbus came and was the reason for many Caribbean natives’ and future slaves’ deaths; there is no reason for the people travelling to Europe and North America (Brathwaite 51). The poem talks about death and coldness, of what the blacks do not have – a “language of [their] own,” no unique traditions, city bus troubles, refusal of services, among others (Brathwaite 53-56). Brathwaite is doing a social critique on how blacks are treated in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America, pointing out the discrimination laid against blacks in all of these areas. Towards the end the speaker asks: “So what to do, man?” and proceeds to list ludicrous suggestions (56). These unlikely suggestions reek of cynicism in the point of view of the speaker. The blacks have suffered so much that they are dejected and have little patience left for the aristocrats. In the end, drums return in Brathwaite’s poem once more: “Our colour beats a restless drum / but only the bitter come” (56). What Brathwaite is suggesting is that the blacks are tired of ill treatment. Drum beating was used to send messages to other slaves before emancipation in the various Caribbean countries (Wilson). The blacks that are tired of ill treatment are answering a call to action. The blues adds to the message: Brathwaite is sending a political message describing the discouragement of Caribbean blacks and notifying the discriminators that they want the injustice to end.

Calypso is another musical form that Brathwaite employs in his poetry, using the form for political satire. University of West Indies Professor Gordon Rohlehr writes that calypso was popular in the 1800s and 1900s, and it is known for its creation of festival laughter and its use of sexuality (1-6). Throughout calypso’s history, the upper classes tried to censor content (Rohlehr 7-26). Rohlehr remarks that in the 1950s, calypso made a comeback with calypso artist Sparrow, “whose risqué calypsos were more risqué than any had ever been before” (10). Brathwaite brings out both the political and sexual themes in his poem appropriately titled “Calypso.” In Part Two of “Calypso,” Brathwaite speaks on slavery on the islands, where “of course it was a wonderful time / a profitable hospitable well-worth-your time / when captains carried receipts” (48). Since Brathwaite himself is black, these lines come across very sarcastic, initiating laughter among Caribbean blacks who know that slavery was not profitable for them. The first stanza in Part Two talks about the slavery and the hard work required to farm the sugarcane (presumably done by slaves), and the following stanza says that the times were “profitable,” and “hospitable” (Brathwaite 48). Brathwaite is contrasting slavery with the well-to-do state of the colonizers and capitalists. Brathwaite also addresses sex scandals among the aristocracy – “young Mrs. P.’s quick irrelevant crime” (Brathwaite 48). The poem comments on the underlying theme that aristocrats are considered always right; they can ignore slavery just like they can ignore Mrs. P.’s crime. Mentioning the names of a prominent person is frowned upon. Court cases have revolved around calypsonians dragging the names of people into the street. Brathwaite does the opposite of what most calypsos do by refusing to mention the person’s name who committed the crime. Thus he critiques the policy of calypsos naming names, and he speaks satirically so as to offend the aristocrats. He uses the name Mrs. P almost like an offensive nickname, writing in a way that sounds mocking. Then Brathwaite discusses how someone with the European name John is educated but is fired from his job by a man who never attended school (49). An uneducated man being boss over an educated man is illogical. On top of that, it seems illogical to fire an educated man, especially one that has assimilated into the boss’s desired culture (he has a European name).

Ironically, Brathwaite uses the calypso’s upbeat nature to criticize society. He uses a form that is generally associated with laughter while speaking on injustice in the Caribbean, contrasting happy times with injustice, positive with negative. Additionally, calypsos are the music of the lower classes. The themes present in “Calypso” address problems and discrimination that West Indian blacks and the lower classes might face. The poem is sounding the music of the people it is defending.

As for the musical structure of “Calypso,” the reader can feel the beat and the hyperactivity of the words even in the first stanza. When performing, Brathwaite sings portions of the poem. He remarks in an article by Edward Baugh that “‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameters,’” pointing out “that nation language poets, in their determination ‘to break down the pentameter,…discovered an ancient form which was always there, the calypso…It does not employ the iambic pentameter.’” Brathwaite’s poem, “Calypso,” does not follow a specific form, especially not pentameter. However, it does follow the iambic pattern – stressed-unstressed – much like the beating of a drum. In “Calypso,” Brathwaite mentions steel drums and the banjo. A simple search of calypso music on YouTube reveals the high usage of steel drums in calypsonian songs. One of the stanzas in “Calypso” mimics the sound of the steel drum in calypsonian music: “Steel drum steel drum / hit the hot calypso dancing / hot rum hot rum / who goin’ stop this bacchanalling” (Brathwaite 49). Brathwaite uses the rhythm of the poem to denote the sound of a true calypso while describing a bachanal (yard party) featuring calypso, and to capture the history of the calypso and steel drum in the Caribbean (Morrison).

Kumau Brathwaite uses music to add depth to his works. He builds “Rights of Passage” around music, making the titles of his poems the names of songs and including references in many of his poems to music, musical instruments, or musically historical cities. He references folk music, jazz, and calypso employing the rhythm to imitate the musical forms described in the poems. Not only does he imitate musical sounds and patterns, but he uses the music to create irony and make political statements. His works forms a type of political activism as he criticizes society. He uses music in contrast with his content like with the calypso, or in congruence with the content like with the work songs and bluesy pieces. Since music is a major part of Caribbean black heritage, which Brathwaite is creating in his poetry, he integrates it into his poetry to fully describe and more accurately reflect Caribbean history. The music also demonstrates the black diaspora consumed by much of his poetry: Brathwaite uses musical forms taken from Africa in combination with the uniquely Caribbean (folk music), Trinidad (calypso), and North America (jazz). So not only does Brathwaite describe the music in his poems, he uses it to further his purposes of creating history and describing the black diaspora.


Works Cited

Baugh, Edward. “‘The Pain of History Words Contain’: Language and Voice in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry.” PN Review 36:6 (2010): 18-23. Literature Online Reference Edition. Web. 10 Nov 2011.

Mackey, Nathaniel. “Wringing the word.” World Literature Today. 68.4 (Autumn 1994): 733- 40. Literature Online Reference Edition. Web. 10 Nov 2011.

Morrison, Derrilyn. Macon State College. Macon State College, Macon, GA. Lecture.

ten Kortenaar, Neil. “Where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean: Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Research in African Literatures 27.4 (1996): 15-27. Literature Online Reference Edition. Web. 10 Nov 2011.

Stevenson, Keira. “The Harlem Renaissance.” Harlem Renaissance (2009): 1-2. History Reference Center. Web. 20 Nov 2011.

“The History and Influence of African American Music.” North Carolina African American History & Culture. (2007): 85-90. History Reference Center. Web. 20 Nov 2011.

Weinstein, Norman. “Jazz in the Caribbean air.” World Literature Today 68:4 (Autumn 1994): 715-18. Literature Online Reference Edition. Web. 10 Nov 2011.

Wilson, Amber. “Word, sound, and power.” Jamaica: The Culture. (2004): 22-24. History Reference Center. Web. 20 Nov 2011.



Busia, Abena P A. “Long memory and survival: Dramatizing the Arrivants trilogy.” World Literature Today 68:4 (1994): 741-6. Literature Online Reference Edition. Web. 10 Nov 2011.

Macías, Anthony. “Detroit Was Heavy”: Modern Jazz, Bebop, And African American Expressive Culture.” Journal Of African American History 95.1 (Winter 2010): 44-70. History Reference Center. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.


About Allison L. Goodman

I am a stay-at-home wife and mother. I fill my days making taking care of my daughter, encouraging others, cooking meals for my family, managing my resources through DIY projects, and writing.
This entry was posted in Caribbean Literature, Criticism, Culture, Literature and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sounding the Call

  1. Its a pity you dont have a donate button, i would donate some =)


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