"Meet a Carriacouan"
By Danielle Miller
Age catches up with us all eventually. Mr Winston Fleary’s nephew, Trevor McIntosh, visits him in the nursing home where he now resides in Carriacou, barely able to communicate, and having lost both his legs to diabetes. Trevor plays recordings of Big Drum music for his uncle, and describes his reaction: “his face softens, there’s a twinkle in his eyes, and it’s clear that he’s being transported back in time. He looks like he’s ready to jump up, grab a drum and start dancing”.
You’d struggle to find someone who has contributed more to Carriacou’s cultural heritage than Winston Fleary has over his 76 years. Credited with taking Big Drum from Carriacou and showcasing it to the world, and named by Grenada’s Ministry of Culture as a Cultural Ambassador for Carriacou, he dedicated his life to the art form, as a drummer, dancer, singer, playwright and charismatic leader of many Big Drums.
Carriacou is unique in its celebration of Big Drum. While the name focuses on the instrument, Big Drum is actually a series of dances, which are prepared for special occasions in the community such as weddings, the raising of tombstones and boat launches. The music is mainly singing and rhythmic chanting, complemented with three drums, shakers and maracas. The dances have very direct roots back to particular parts of Africa; an oral story-telling tradition that links dancers to their ancestors. The purpose of Big Drum is two-fold: remembering lineage and honouring ancestors. And because of it, many Carriacouans, or Kayaks as they are affectionately known, are able to trace their lineage to specific tribes in Africa; something that most West Indians are unable to do.
Born in 1943 in the small village of Belvedere, Carriacou, Winston Fleary remembers his first experience of Big Drum at a relative’s boat launch. The Big Drum leader was Sugar Adams, a legendary master of Big Drum who would have a life-long influence on Mr Fleary’s relationship with Big Drum. Just before starting medical school, while watching Sugar Adams perform in New York, he felt a profound calling, and decided to abandon his place at university and dedicate his life to Big Drum and promoting Carriacou’s culture around the world.
Mr Fleary founded Big Drum Nation, a cultural organisation based in New York, which brought singers and performers from Carriacou to the United States to perform. It was a way of connecting the diaspora with their roots, and introducing Americans and people all over the world to the tiny Caribbean island that few had heard of. Always with a thirst for learning, Mr Fleary studied everything about Big Drum and the musical traditions of Carriacou, and what it meant to come from Africa. He even went to Africa and traced his family lineage from Ghana and Sierra Leone. What Winston Fleary achieved through Big Drum Nation was astounding. Over the years, they performed at the White House, the Smithsonian Institute, Edinburgh Festival, and at Buckingham Palace.
Living in London at the time, Trevor remembers going to the Dominion Theatre, a fifteen year old in a bow tie, proudly watching his uncle perform a play he had written about Carriacou, incorporating song and dance: “It was the first black play ever performed at the theatre, and the royal family were in attendance. He was just an incredible performer. The best. And I’m not just saying that because he was my uncle!”
After moving back to Carriacou in 1988, Winston Fleary was one of the founders of, and regular performer at the Maroon & Stringband Festival, an annual event which showcases Carriacou’s musical traditions, along with contemporary music, and aims to keep the traditions alive and the younger generation interested in the artform.
In October 2020, a special event is being planned in Carriacou to honour Winston Fleary and his contribution to Carriacou’s heritage. Rare music recordings made in 1962 by Alan Lomax, a world-renowned ethnomusicologist, will be repatriated and played for Carriacouans for the first time. Mr Fleary’s play ‘Come to the Village’, which has only ever been performed at the Maya Angelou School of Arts, will be finally be performed in Carriacou, thanks to Fleary’s original hand-written script being uncovered. The event is to honour Fleary’s legacy, and to continue his life work - inspiring the next generation of Kayaks to keep Big Drum alive in Carriacou.
More about Winston Fleary:
Read the 2011 article about Winston Fleary in Brooklyn Rail here.