OF CABBAGES AND KINGS
“Life is full of trials
Of conundrums and cares
We hope that God the linguist
Will understand our prayers
He hears a babel of voices
Does he separate them one by one?
Or does he exercise choices
Because answer comes there none?”
— From Grumpy Champy by Bachchoo
In a conversation about multicultural Britain with my late friend and colleague the Trinidadian Mustapha Matura, I asked him how he would define ‘culture’.
His profound answer in his Trini accent was “Evyting is evyting!”
But not all would agree. The blame culture has invented the offence of ‘cultural expropriation’. The singer Adele was photographed with her hair done in baubles on her scalp — acknowledgedly an African fashion. She was castigated and deemed guilty of this new offence.
The accusers, with no sense of irony, used English to voice their objections. Had they expropriated the language? Or had history’s vicissitudes and cruelties imposed the language as legitimately theirs? Were Adele’s accusers wearing jeans and T-shirts instead of dashikis?
I suspect they weren’t Africans at all, but were most probably black Britons who were acting as referees in the blame game with the mistaken premise that Africa has a single culture and they are its guardians.
Mustapha’s Trinidad is 50 per cent Afro, the descendants of the slave population and 50 per cent Indian, descendants of the indentured labour that were shipped to the Caribbean to work the same plantations after Britain’s abolition of slavery.
In Trinidad the entire population eats ‘roti’.
Very many Trinidadian citizens grow and smoke ‘ganja’. These predilections are not seen as ‘cultural expropriation’ — they are the adoption of eating habits and the use of a natural drug both of which originated in India but are now Trinidadian. Evyting is evyting.
I recall my trip there, where I saw an Indian band on stage playing and singing calypso. The musical form is undoubtedly an evolved form of jazz with journalistic lyrics Afro in origin, but here was an Indian calypso ensemble with a woman playing the double bass and the enthralled audience singing along to the chorus which went “Gimme de woman on de bass” with the bass responding with an answering “boo-boom-boom”!
Then there was the linguistic mingling of another calypso which told the story of a grandma who goes to town and is run over by a bus.
The calypso is addressed by the grandchild to the bus driver and as the lyrics tell the story of her descent to the town and the accident, the chorus, again enthusiastically screamed by the audience, goes:
“How could you lick up me naani,
Lick up me naani,
How could you lick up me naani
So, so, so!”
And the enthusiasm with which the crowds receive this anthem is accounted for by the double entendres of the words. The ‘naani’ in Hindi is the maternal grandmother. In the evolved English of Trinidad it means the female genitalia — a yoni.
The phrase ‘lick up’, while retaining its ordinary English meaning in Trinidadian, also means to assault or beat. So, no cultural expropriation in the lyric.
A cultural amalgamation to make bawdy mischief. Evyting is indeed evyting!
The blame-game-wallas should, to mix my metaphors, stand back and pack it in! They recently attacked celebrity chef and recipe-book writer Jamie Oliver for using the word ‘jerk’ in one of his recipes.
Jamaican cuisine contains various ‘jerk’ dishes – ‘jerk chicken’ which is delicious (and nearly as good as Dhan Sak?) for example – and Jamie used the ingredients for his own concoction.
He was pilloried for it. Poor Jamie does a lot of good philanthropic work, influencing school menus to come off fatty foods and cook cheap but healthy alternatives, probably with West Indian derivations.
The incident indicates that cultural expropriation is only a crime or misdemeanour when white people use that which originated in black culture.
It doesn’t work the other way round. The use of the cultures, inventions, science, of the West by other cultures isn’t labelled ‘expropriation’.
The Chinese didn’t split the atom or invent nuclear weapons or indeed computer science. The world may object to their using these for soft-imperialist purposes but calling their acquisition of these ‘cultural expropriation’ gets no one anywhere.
The new shibboleth is not just silly, it’s tribal and racist. Only isolated communities and civilisations develop without contact and borrowing from the developments of other civilisations and, therefore, cultures.
Aren’t all the languages of Europe, for instance, the result of interaction between those who spoke Latin or Greek and those who spoke in Celtic or other families of tongues?
The attack on Jamie Oliver should take into consideration that Marco Polo brought the recipe for turning wheat into thread-shaped treats from China. Should the Italian nation now be deprived of all its ‘ettis’ and ‘innis’ and ‘tellis’?
I can, gentle reader, think of even more extreme examples, but will spare you the tedium or the laugh as I’m sure we can all trace the attribution of elements of one practice, culinary, religious, linguistic, ritualistic etc. to the cultural borrowing between peoples.
Of course, not all this borrowing is wholly voluntary. Why am I writing and you, gentle reader, reading this in an imported language? The blessings of colonialism? So that we understand and can laugh at Donald Trump’s statements?
That being said, with the age of hard colonialism (soft forms still persist!) and the era of the enslavement of nations (modern slavery takes different shapes) having passed, most cultural exchanges are voluntary and should flatter the cultures from which they are borrowed.
In East Dulwich in London, the two Turkish fish-and-chips take-away shop proprietors, on noting that I was Indian, burst into “Sur jo theyra chakrayeh/ Ya dil dooba jaayeh/Aaaja pyareh paas hamarey/ Kahey ghabooraein…”.
Their accents weren’t perfect, but I was entertained and asked them where they picked the song up from. They said they’d worked for years in Mumbai.
So, let’s hope evyting remains being evyting....