Sat | Nov 26, 2022

‘Chaw Chaw Benz’ preserving authentic Kumina

Published:Monday | September 26, 2022 | 12:07 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer
Kumina maestro drummer Ronald ‘Chaw-Chaw’ Benz says Kumina is his life and he is going to die with it. Beside him is Novelette Buchanan, daughter of the late Kumina Queen Bernice Henry.
Kumina maestro drummer Ronald ‘Chaw-Chaw’ Benz says Kumina is his life and he is going to die with it. Beside him is Novelette Buchanan, daughter of the late Kumina Queen Bernice Henry.

Ronald Perry is slim and wiry, but when he slaps the Kumina drum, the power with which he does is belies his narrow built. The power also emanate through his animated style, which makes for an enthralling piece of theatre. But there is nothing theatrical about what he does. It is real and purposeful.

Kumina is a ritual that consists of a peculiar type of singing, drumming and dancing that evolved from what was brought here from west Africa by enslaved and indentured people. It is a major part of the cultural heritage of St Thomas where it is mainly practised. It is held for many purposes, including funerals, celebrations, christenings, weddings, house-opening, etc.

It has deep-rooted spiritual elements, and, as such, it cannot be carried on arbitrarily. Perry will tell you. Known popularly as Chaw Chaw Benz, he has been one of the parishioners who have been making sure it is kept alive and well. Kumina is part of his life, and he said it is so powerful he is going to die with it.

He has been involved with the ritual since he was 18, and, at 19, he said a man predicted that he was going to be a great Kumina drummer in St Thomas. He said he felt like he was perhaps drumming before he was born. “From mi a go a school mi just get dah riddim yah and knock it pon the desk. So, every lunch time pickney would gi mi some a dem lunch money fi knock it mek dem hear,” he recalled.

And, he discovered that there was something strange about the impact of his drumming. It was like some ancestral interference. He could do things with the sounds of the drum, such as, if he intended for a “light post” to move he could do so by knocking the drum. The impact of his drumming is still mesmerising, and people love to see him perform.

His sounds are quite hypnotic, and he can go on and on and on, even for 24 hours. “Mi get help,” he declared. But help from whom? “I am not alone,” was the answer. And though there are standard rhythms he said he can go for consecutive days with the sound for each day somewhat different from the previous and the one to come.

AUTHENTIC SOUNDS

The sounds that he produces, he said, are similar to what he had learned from the elders who have passed on. They are more authentic than what the younger players now are producing. And, as such, there is some amount of tension between himself and them. Playing with them, thus, does not allow him to play at his best. Even the dancing, he said, is being infiltrated with “go-go and dancehall” movements.

This is happening because the younger players do not know exactly what they are doing, are averse to instructions and guidance, and are hell bent on satisfying current sensibilities, giving their peers what they want, and making it clear that Chaw Chaw Benz’s time has long gone. But, this laissez faire approach to playing Kumina, he is trying to drum out, for Kumina is a serious ritual that can be used to accomplish many objectives, and there is nothing inherently evil about it as some people might believe.

The sentiments that Kumina rituals have crossed the threshold between good and evil are strong. This seems to be a misunderstanding, however, to which Perry said, “The people who no understand Kumina mi a try fi tell dem say dem fi just look, listen and say, a no obeah. A fi wi African culture. Our ancestors still a look pon wi yuh know. And dem did love it.”

So, some elements of the rituals, such as the killing of animals and fowls are to appease the departed, especially the ones who used to love eating them. The Kumina then is to invoke the presence of the departed through drumming, the pouring of libation, and sometimes the slaughter of animals. Traditionally, some west Africans communicate and have communion with their deceased elders, to continue to honour and respect them. Kumina is a medium through which the communication can be done.

It is all about the purpose of the Kumina. Some might want to use it to heal and celebrate, to commemorate, and convey ancestral messages; other might want to use it to hurt and vindicate themselves. “A help mi help people. My finger come pon Earth fi help people,” he asserted.

And Kumina is his elixir. “A dat mi know bout, mi no know bout no four-yeye man a St Thomas or nowhere else, like yuh hear people a say … And look yah nuh, mi affi dead wid it,” he looked straight into the lens and said. There was Kumina glinting in his eyes.