Ital is Vital

Posted on 26/06/2017
By Commonwealth Foundation
Still from PAYDAY, written and produced by Shakirah Bourne

“Millie gone to Brazil

Oh Lawd, poor Millie

Millie gone to Brazil
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face


Millie down in the well
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Millie down in the well
Oh Lawd, poor Millie
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face
Wid de wire wrap round she waist
And the razor cut up she face”

-Millie Gone to Brazil, Barbadian Folk Song
I still remember singing these lyrics at the top of my lungs, and hoisting up the edge of my green school uniform to hold onto my knees for support, while my friends and I shook our backsides to the upbeat tempo of this song.

Imagine my horror years later, when I realised that it depicted the true story of a woman about to leave her abusive husband, when she was killed and body hidden in a well. To explain her sudden disappearance, the husband told everyone that Millie had gone to Brazil, until the strong odour revealed the location of her body.

This song serves as inspiration for my piece, Corn Curls and the Red Bicycle, which was recently published on Adda Stories. I was very nervous about the upcoming “detailed editorial attention” from Commonwealth Writers. You see, the story is written entirely in Bajan dialect, and even though it has been disproved with every publication that accepts one of my stories, I always have a niggling fear that international audiences would think the style is simply bad spelling and grammar.

My lovely editor, Rukhsana, re-affirmed her love for Kayla’s (the protagonist) voice, with key notes on how to maintain the flow of the story. It was refreshing to see that once again, the rhythm of the writing that reflects the Barbadian accent was not lost on international readers.

It’s very first time I would have used a song as the basis for a short story. Folk songs in Barbados, mainly by authors unknown, have always told unique stories, some of which are still relevant to issues plaguing the society to this day. Every Time She Pass (Standpipe Song) humorously depicts the sexual harassment endured by a woman trying to collect water from a standpipe. Sugarcane illustrates the brutal slave labour on the plantations, where slaves were forced to cut sugarcane in the fields “til it burn de hand”. Nut Seller describes thick women who sold nuts and sweets in trays delicately balanced on their heads.

I watched choirs singing these songs on a square, tube TV, most often during the breaks between Days of Our Lives and the Evening News. I would watch mostly with impatience while waiting on my favourite programmes to start, and would never understand how much of an impact these song-stories had on me until I started writing.

Their influence has also made its way into my film scripts. In the movie, A Caribbean Dream, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream re-imagined in Barbados, Bottom, now a fisherwoman, enchants Titania, now a water goddess, with the folk song Da Cocoa Tea, a folk song about a man lamenting that his woman has bewitched him with Obeah.

Instead of acting out the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, the mechanicals, re-imagined as fishermen, perform a play called the Untold Love Story of King Jaja and Young Becka, based on a popular folk song, which tells the love story of a visiting African monarch and a Barbadian woman.

My main purpose of storytelling is to showcase Barbadian culture to the world, and to preserve our traditions. This even includes the cultural elements that are so ingrained, that locals rarely recognise they are unique to the Caribbean.

In Corn Curls and the Red Bicycle, there is a reference to ‘ital’, the meaning of which I assumed was universally known, until Rukhsana asked me to clarify the term. ‘Ital’, a variation of the word ‘vital’, is food eaten by Rastafarians. The diet is normally vegan, celebrating foods that are pure and from the earth. I made an edit that put the word into context so that it could be understood by an international audience.

This reminded me of an instance on the set of A Caribbean Dream. We were doing a closeup of a fruit and vegetable arrangement, when my British DP asked if we could move some bananas from the shot since some parts of the fruit were black, and “unsightly”. I soon realised the “bananas” he was referring to were actually plantains! Fried plantains are regularly used as breakfast items in the Caribbean, and those thin, black lines on the peels are signs of ripeness. He seemed sceptical when I told him that plantains were supposed to look like that, and they would remain in the shot. It really highlighted the importance of telling your own stories. A foreign director may have discarded the plantains for imported perfect-yellow bananas, which may be more pleasing to the eye.

I want to commend Commonwealth Writers for continuing to bring light to unique voices and culturally diverse narratives. Many of the phrases and cultural elements described in fiction sometimes cannot be found elsewhere, even with a million Google searches. Writers are imperative to the documentation and preservation of a culture, and should be encouraged to write their own stories without caution, due to fear of incomprehension by mass audiences.

I recently saw a video of a folk group in Baragua, Cuba, made up of Barbadian descendants singing their version of Millie Gone to Brazil. The folk group has never visited Barbados, or any other English-speaking Caribbean country, yet the story lives on…

Shakirah Bourne

Shakirah Bourne is a Barbadian writer and filmmaker. Her stories have been featured in several literary journals including The Caribbean Writer, Arts Etc, POUI, and Journal of Caribbean Literatures. Her first collection of short stories, In Time of Need, won the prestigious Governor General Award for Excellence in Literary Fiction in 2015. She has written four feature films: PAYDAY (writer/producer), Two Smart (writer/co-director), Next PAYDAY (writer/producer) and A Caribbean Dream (writer/director). She is currently at work on her first novel.

www.shakirahbourne.com