Fri | Jul 23, 2021

Tony Deyal | That old black magic

Published:Saturday | June 29, 2019 | 12:00 AM

‘That old black magic has me in its spell,

That old black magic that you weave so well.

I’ve got those icy, icy fingers up and down

my spine,

The same old witchcraft when your eyes

meet mine.’


We in the English-speaking Caribbean have different names for the same things, for example, ‘callaloo’ in Trinidad is a soup made with spinach as a main ingredient. However, in Jamaica, it is fried ­spinach or what Trinidadians (Trinis) and Guyanese call ‘bhaji’.

However, the Trinidad ‘callaloo’ is called ‘pepperpot’ in Jamaica, which is not the same as the Guyanese pepperpot, which is based on an Amerindian recipe for preserving food using a cassava-based substance called ‘cassareep’.

In addition, some Jamaicans add an ‘h’ before words like ‘eggs’ and ‘auspice’ but drop it in ‘hospital’. Guyanese pronounce ‘boy’ as ‘buy’, and whereas Trinis put their ‘curry’ before ‘chicken’, the Guyanese put theirs after (as in ‘curry chicken’ versus ‘chicken curry’).

In the English-speaking Caribbean islands, people ‘form’ the ass whereas in Trinidad people ‘play’ the ass. My Grenadian friend Agatha used to ‘slip’ in her ‘sleep’ (meaning that she ‘slept in her slip’) and a calypso referred to the Trinidad police asking a suspected illegal immigrant from Grenada to pronounce the word ‘box’ and “as he say ‘bax’, licks in de police van”. Even more confusing is that a male homosexual Trini is called a ‘bulla’ or ‘buller’, but in Jamaica, a ‘bulla’ is a sweet, ginger and cinnamon-flavoured cake.

‘Don’t mess with the word obeah’

However, there is one word that every Caribbean person, regardless of language or location, knows the meaning of, makes no mistakes in pronouncing, and is quite clear about. It is the word ‘obeah’. It is not a word you mess with.

Obeah is a system of spiritual and healing practices developed among enslaved west Africans in the West Indies from The Bahamas to the Virgin Islands, Barbados to Suriname. Over the years, I have insisted that we in the Caribbean have more in common than we have differences, and that it is the media and our politicians who stress the minor variations and underplay the significant similarities. Obeah, whatever we think about it, regardless of how much we fear or use it, is even more than cricket part of the common culture, the glue that holds us together, whether in fear, trembling, superstitious awe, retaliation for wrongs suffered or imagined, and even pre-emptive strikes against enemies real or invented.

Obeah, though, was not cricket. While the British made much of our learning its game of glorious uncertainties, they were certain that obeah was anathema and Antichrist rolled into one and made it illegal in every Caribbean country it ruled, later deeming it fraud, pretence and even vagrancy.

The first law against obeah, Jamaica’s ‘act to remedy the evils arising from irregular assemblies of slaves’, was passed in 1760 and obeah is still illegal in many countries today, including Jamaica. Professor Diana Paton, in Obeah Acts: Producing and Policing the Boundaries of Religion in the Caribbean, makes the extremely interesting point: “Obeah is a creation of colonialism as much as it is a construction of Africans in the Caribbean. Because the stigmatised status of obeah was produced to symbolise African culture, Africanness, and, ultimately, blackness, it has helped to perpetuate the persistent race, class, and cultural hierarchies that continue to play a significant role in Caribbean dynamics of power and control, despite the emergence of powerful black leaders in many walks of life in the period since independence.”

In Trinidad, the fishing village of Moruga on the south central coast is known as the home of the second-hottest pepper in the world, the Moruga Scorpion, and it might be the hottest spot for obeah in the region. A newspaper article in 2010 stated, “Moru­ga con­tin­ues to be haunt­ed by a dark past in­volv­ing obeah and witch­craft. The late Pa­pa Nez­er and Moth­er Corn Husk – the mere men­tion of these two names still strikes fear in­to the hearts of many. Dubbed the king and queen of Obeah dur­ing their reign and sev­er­al years af­ter their death, Moru­ga was then, and to an ex­tent still is, con­sid­ered the cap­i­tal of obeah.”

There is even a song that goes, “Down Moruga Road/down Moruga Road./ Looking for Obeah Man/ Down Moruga Road.” The Mighty Sparrow in his calypso about Melda, who was always making wedding plans and carrying his name to ‘obeah man”, refers to the Obeah King, Papa Nezer, as his “godfather”.

These days, the Caribbean person does not have to go to Moruga to find, encourage or ‘commit’ obeah. In August 2013, the BBC news reported ‘Obeah: Resurgence of Jamaican Voodoo’.

Earlier this month, sprays and oils were found in the bag of a Montego Bay woman who was then detained on suspicion of practising obeah and, at almost the same time, a Canadian Musical Obeah Opera opened in Toronto and the Cricket World Cup in England. What does the World Cup have to do with obeah? My friend James believes it is responsible for the demise of the West Indies team. “Is all dem big gold chain dey does wear,” he said. “They all curse. From the time they start to wear fat, heavy gold chain, the team start to lose. You ever see Mitchell Starc or Rabada with a gold chain weighing dem down?”

Tony Deyal was last seen talking about the dyslexic obeah man who sold his soul to Santa.