Yvette Brandy (Courtesy of Yvette Brandy)
Take a trip south to the land of fresh clove and mangos as Living on Earth presents its winter storytelling special with artists from the Caribbean. We begin with Yvette Brandy whose roots are in St. Kitts and St. Thomas. She spins yarns about those frequent Caribbean visitors, the Jhumbi ghosts, and brings us memories of Carnival, Christmas steel bands, and of her great-grandmother, who was a slave.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Our music is different this week because it’s time to take a break from news of the environment to celebrate the cool and dormant season in the north. We have a winter storytelling tradition here at Living on Earth as the sun hits its low point and folks get together. But you don’t need short days to celebrate and this year we’ve invited some storytellers from the Caribbean to share their fables and experiences from this time of year. It may not snow in the Caribbean but come winter the trade winds pick up and bring in a welcome coolness.
With us to begin is Yvette Brandy. She’s a native of St. Thomas with roots in St. Kitts. She’s a speech therapist, singer, writer, and storyteller and now lives in Pasadena, California. Welcome to Living on Earth, Yvette.
BRANDY: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Now, what kind of memories do you have of Christmas in the islands?
BRANDY: I know when people think of Christmas for them it’s cold in winter and they snuggle, but for me Christmas is you wake up in the morning to scratch bands singing and dancing and they’re singing, ‘good morning, good morning, I come from a guava berry! Good morning, good morning, put it on the table!’ And then the choir’s singing behind it and you give them something to eat and they go to the next house. And then you’re smelling (inaudible) and a ham in the oven, and that’s what Christmas means to me, that’s what I remember.
CURWOOD: Now your family is, as I understand it, is from St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, but also from St. Kitts. And at one point the Danes had the Virgin Islands but not for very long. But the British and French held onto St. Kitts for a good while—
CURWOOD: Of course, both had slavery. So tell me a bit about the culture of the Islands as you experienced it.
BRANDY: My mother was born in St. Kitts and so I would spend summers there with my grandparents. And I was born in St. Thomas. My mother was born in a small village called Monkey Hill. And there was no electricity yet. And there was no indoor plumbing yet. My grandmother worked in the cane fields and so I understood that the ground that she now owned was hard earned and if she wanted to cook soup she would send me into the garden to get the potatoes or to get the yams or to get the cassava, whatever she needed, it was right there. And so she taught me that. Growing up in St. Thomas, where at that time it was an American island, was very different. Definitely we had indoor plumbing and electricity and all of that, but there was also the expectation that you would do well, that you would serve your family well, and that you represented your family every time that you left your door. And so that was the expectation.
BRANDY: Yes. In fact my great grandmother was a slave. She remembers that. She never knew who her parents were. She never knew who her siblings were. But she was expected to succeed and so she built her own house. She had her own shop and so she baked and sold goods. It was expected regardless of your circumstances—you were supposed to rise above them, because circumstances will always be there.
CURWOOD: Now there’s a Caribbean character, a character who’s well-known on many islands apparently, and that’s the Jumbie ghost?
CURWOOD: And I was hoping that you would tell us a Jumbie story today.
BRANDY: I absolutely will. And a Jumbie is—as you said—a ghost. And you have many, many stories written about the Jumbie and usually they’re cautionary tales; they’re there to teach you a lesson. And so the Jumbie story I’m going to tell to you today is called ‘Mr. Leneman and the Jumbie head.’
One day, Mr Leneman saw a piece of property he wanted to buy. But everybody knew how cheap he was. And he had no intention of spending that kind of money on that land. And so he went to the seller and he offered him a price. He said ‘I want to buy that piece of property for that amount of money.’ The seller thought he was stone matto crazy. ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ Well no matter what happened, Mr. Leneman kept going lower. The seller got so frustrated with Mr. Leneman. He said ‘okay, you know what? I have a bigger piece of property on the other side of the island. You could have that for whatever price you want. Well, Mr. Leneman was so excited. Of course he took it. And he ran over there so fast I mean you couldn’t see him move. Next thing you know he got there and he was like ‘but wait a minute the land is bigger!’ And so he started ‘okay, let me think, what am I goin' to do first, I’m going to plant some corn. Then I could take it to the market and really make some good money. So he started to clear the property. So he pulled the bush. Next thing you know he hear a voice say ‘a who dat a pull da bush?!’ Mr. Leneman turn around. He ain’t see nobody. So he went back to pulling the bush. He hear the voice say again: ‘a who dat a pull da bush?!’ Mr. Leneman say, ‘it’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ Then the voice say ‘help Mr. Leneman pull da bush. Big and little, get up, get up. Big and little, get up, get up! No bush left here today there will be. No bush left here today.’ The next thing you know, big hands, little hands, fat hands, skinny hands just come up from under the earth and start pulling the bush. They clear the land in two twos. Huh. Mr. Leneman was so happy with what he saw he forgot how scared he was. You know, all he saw was free labor. He had them Jumbie plowing the land and planting the corn and maintaining the crops. The next thing you know he had rows and rows of beautiful corn. He was so proud of hisself he called his wife up to take a look. The wife look around and say ‘but honey, how you do all of this here by yourself?’ He say ‘all by myself.’ Well (inaudible) to brag about it, and he tell the wife before he left, ‘don’t touch anything.’ She agreed. When Mr. Leneman left, Mrs. Leneman looked around and she was like ‘lord, look at this corn. My husband works so hard, the least I could do is to make him something from it.’ She pull the corn, and then a voice say ‘a who dat a pull da corn?!’ Mrs. Leneman turn around. She didn’t see anybody. ‘A who dat a pull da corn?’ ‘It’s me, Mrs. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mrs. Leneman pull da corn! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No corn left here today there will be, no corn left here today!’ When Mr. Leneman come back and he see all of his corn gone he was so mad. He say ‘woman, me ain’t tell you not to touch nothing?!’ He didn’t even think straight. The next thing you know he give she one clout. ‘A who dat a clout he wife? A who dat a clout he wife?’ ‘It’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mr. Leneman clout he wife! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No wife left here today there will be no wife left here today!’ When Mr. Leneman realize what he had done, he start a balling and a wailing and he started scratching he head. ‘A who dat a scratch he head? A who dat a scratch he head?’ ‘It’s me, Mr. Leneman.’ ‘Let we help Mr. Leneman scratch he head! Big and little, get up, get up! Big and little, get up, get up! No head left here today there will be, no head left here today!’ Well, around midnight, if you go walking through Shalitamale, you will find Mr. Leneman’s Jumbie looking for he wife, and looking for he head! (laughter)
CURWOOD: (laughs) Ooh, that’s a scary story, huh? So what’s the moral of your story?
BRANDY: That you will definitely get what you buy. That he thought he was getting this cheap piece of land for nothing and there is always a price. There’s always a price. Nothing in this life is free.
CURWOOD: And then I suppose, be careful what you ask for, you may get it.
BRANDY: Be very careful for what you ask for.
CURWOOD: Now, one thing I think about with the islands of course is Carnival time. What relationship between the Jumbies and Carnival, if any?
BRANDY: We have what we call the Moko Jumbies, and they’re the guys that walk on stilts, and legend has it that they’re going to protect you from evil spirits and so they’re different in the sense that if you see a Moko Jumbie coming that’s something good. They’re decked out in their costumes and music is blasting and they’re dancing and it’s a celebration of our Carnival time and a celebration that we’re here another year. Whereas if you see a Jumbie coming you might want to be careful.
CURWOOD: (laughs) Run the other way, huh?
BRANDY: Yes, absolutely.
CURWOOD: So, what was it like at Carnival there in St. Thomas?
BRANDY: It was fabulous. Carnival was weeks at a time. And you had music and the steel orchestras would compete against each other for panorama. And of course you’d have the parades. You had two parades, a children’s parade and the adult parade and all of this was a huge celebration of our culture and our past and just saying thank you for another year.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you so much for sharing those memories and those stories with us here on Living on Earth.
BRANDY: Well thank you so much for having me!
CURWOOD: Yvette Brandy tells stories, practices speech therapy, sings, and writes, and loves in Pasadena, California.
BRANDY: (singing) Good morning, good morning! I come from a guava berry! Good morning, good morning! Put it on the table! Good morning, good morning! I wish you a merry Christmas! Good morning, good morning! And a happy New Year! Good morning!
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