Cultural heritage, shockingly, is actually not unique to or owned by a people unless it is inscribed as such. So, as a nation, we think we are the sole practitioners of Junkanoo the way we perform it on Boxing Day morning and New Year's Day morning, however, this unique cultural relationship does not endow us, The Bahamas or the Bahamian people with the right to use Junkanoo as we wish. We do not own the practice nor do we benefit from it, despite the fact that whenever we are invited as a country to an arts or culture festival we tend to drag an entire Junkanoo group with us. The nation and the state have been historically irresponsible when it comes to officially claiming and so protecting our cultural heritage.
A lesson learnt
Trinidad is renowned for creating steelpan, which has its own festival, “Panorama” around Carnival time and may also be incorporated into Carnival groups. Be that as it may, because Trinidad was slow on the uptake when it saw the time come to protect steelpan, it does not own it or the rights to it. That means that Trinidad, although the indigenous home of the steelpan, is neither legally identified as the creator of the instrument, nor can it trade on its fame or fortune. The international community now insists that Intellectual Property be tied to a place through legal registration and clear and obvious legal title. The World Trade Organisation and other groups such as World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), UNESCO, and other UN organisations and groups have created serious and complex systems of registering what we would call indigenous knowledge and indigenous culture. Much of this is studied under Intellectual Property (IP) Law, and is often included in some aspects of Public International Law and Trade Law, all of which The Bahamas participates in, even if begrudgingly. A part of this is Trademarking, Copyright and Patents etc, all of which make up intellectual property. So, just as Trinidad lost the rights to own and benefit from steelpan, other indigenous cultures have lost access to their indigenous knowledge because they never claimed their ownership over it; they understood that this was theirs by nature and by virtue of their location, they could simply benefit from their indigenous culture.
Recently, the government of The Bahamas has embarked on a journey to show that it owns certain parts of its intangible culture. Remember that one must demonstrate through documentation and numbers of practitioners that one owns culture. In The Bahamas, this would include Rake-n-Scrape, Goombay and Junkanoo, for example. The process by which we must begin to ‘own’ our intangible culture is through documenting its practice and that people ascribe it to their culture. This process is referred to as establishing the Geographical Indicators that would link the country and its people with these cultural forms. This means now that there must be documentation of all communities where these cultural forms are practiced.
UNESCO is the official UN body for this kind of cultural inscription and so the country, not the government alone, must now step up and work on this process.
The Bahamas certainly has a captive audience on New Providence for Junkanoo, but not every community around the archipelago practices Junkanoo. At the same time, the other forms of music above-mentioned are also important to Bahamian indigenous culture. So, although the country has been invited abroad on numerous occasions and has taken these cultural forms to perform our culture across the Americas, we must now really do the work to protect these intangible forms of culture.
Cultural protection requires detailed planning and complex identification of sources and also of desired outcomes and outputs. What is the country willing to do to protect its culture? How can it protect its patrimony in the long term? Can it really protect intangible culture without protecting tangible culture? In reality, all of these considerations must be dealt with simultaneously. Without protecting our landscape and seascape, we cannot protect our culture. Without understanding the importance of place to music, folklore and other cultural practices, we stand to lose our identity and our culture.
As a part of a team that will work on documenting Bahamian cultural heritage and thereby ascribing a name to our cultural practices, or owning them outright, I have been involved in seeing how culture survives on different islands and in multiple communities. So, for example, a plastic drum is not the same as a goat-skin drum and the quality of the sound are all distinct and can change the way our culture survives, especially if another culture adopts our cultural practices first.
It is now time to take cultural heritage seriously. We stand to lose a great deal if we do not embrace and engage this process actively. As many of the old ways are being lost to death and the creep of time and cultural globalization, we need to save what is ours. That is to say that we must document, demonstrate and identify what forms the Bahamian vernacular and how these are linked to our physical environment.
We must invest in the culture or it will vanish and, like so many other places, we will not be able to capitalise on our cultural heritage because it will be the property of another. This is particularly poignant given that so many skeptics argue that culture is not important to the bedrock of our society and that we can benefit from tourism without so much as owning what we argue makes us a unique destination. We talk continuously of being an attractive destination, but do little to protect and ensure our continued success and attractiveness. One way to do this is through the creative industries or the orange economy. Creative Nassau has started this process, let us join them in putting The Bahamas truly on the cultural world map. Our culture needs documentation and protection, let us do it now and benefit from it in perpetuity.