The sounds of Banja have a habit of fading into your consciousness like how the glow of morning light burn your eyelids. First it is the flute, like a long tail Dr Booby, dancing on the air from over there or over here or somewhere. And then like a chorus of blackbirds chattering on a galvanize roof, in comes the kittie snare with its buzzing after-burn, sparkling wet chrysanthemums of rhythms. And in the bottom of your belly, cradling your heart-beat, you discover the bum drum, echoing in the swallow of your hips.
My response to Banja music was and has always been genetic. Socialization was not a reason since respectability could not accept Banja, that most African of Bajan musics, because it was low class non-music performed by low-class people outside rum-shops.
Yet this music that found favour at bus outings and excursions on bank-holidays, at fairs and exhibitions accompanying Maypole dancers and wooden-horse riders, and outside your house on Saturday nights, was deprecated because it was not European or specifically English in its origins.
None of its performers studied at the Royal conservatories or academies. Many could not read a note of music. A few may have been exposed to the sol-fa melodies of Village Choirs or the rum-laced harmonies of Singings. And this certainly was not enough to give Banja respectability.
“Don’t sing any Banja in this house and not at all pun a Sunday!”
That was the cry, stifling genetic responses across this island. But when Banja play, Bajans always come out to see, to laugh and to dance.
When I speak about the swallow of the hips, I am speaking about the natural response that comes from the hips. It is almost as if the music enters your hips from a gulp and ignites an engine. The soles of your feet plant themselves apart. Your knees bend, your back arches, and your hips latch on to the Bumbatuk. Wuk up time.
In the late 1960s, I first met the Benn Hill Sports Band from Mile-and-a-Quarter and recorded them on the beach at Lower Carlton, St James. The Sports in the band’s name comes from ascribing all non-work activity as sport. I was deemed a madman when I played this music on CBC radio.
At YORUBA YARD, we concentrated in exposing many young people to Banja music as performed by the Bumbatuk bands. My original choreography of the Landship for the Yoruba People still remain the definitive stage performance. And the Landship Movement remains a living repository of the traditional dance movements used in dancing to Banja.
Some people see these traditional dance movements as just wuking up. This is not so. The dance movements to Banja need to be analyzed, evaluated and reproduced in new and additional contexts to raise the value and respect for the tradition. Perceptions of lewdness can be eliminated thru careful ritualization of the dance process.
Crop Over has allowed some of these dance elements that were under pressure of annihilation before Independence to become part of the popular expression. This should give young choreographers an opportunity to sift this traditional vernacular in Bajan dance to evolve a comparative contemporary idiom to match what has been taking place in Bajan music.
The success of Bajan music in the last four or five years has to do with the incorporation of Bumbatuk rhythms into the contemporary music. Many people think of it as Calypso or Soca music but it is neither. It is Banja.
On my radio programs in Jamaica, Jamaicans recognise the difference between Bajan music and Trinidad Soca music and Soca music in general. When I play Bajan music especially those that capture the Bumbatuk music, what I call Banja, the response is immediate. This has been particularly so since the Bajan Invasion of 1995.
The differences are so clear that I wonder why our producers and our performers, and the NCF have failed to capitalize on marketing our music as Banja music or Bajan Banja. Labeling gives a product a separate identity. Labeling has already given Crop Over a separate identity. Why not the music! In this crowded world of entertainment, identity counts. We have identity, let us use it.
When Banja play, people come.