Service-Learning as Carnival: Cultural Humility and the Aesthetics of the Invitation
Section I: Remember me, but forget my fate.
(2 minutes) [Sing excerpt from “Dido’s Lament,” then recite]
When I am laid
Am laid in earth
Let my wrongs create
No troubles/no troubles
In thy breast
Remember me/remember me But, ah, forget my fate.
I thought of this aria, “Dido’s Lament,” during my sabbatical in 2015. That summer, I had been commissioned to create a performance by Faena Arts, an international foundation that supports cutting-edge creative work. Over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year, and the Fall 2016 semester that followed, I collaborated with roughly 350 children and youth, 75 Barry students, dozens of community members, and two dozen local artists on a series of performances and a major art exhibit, all of which culminated in a procession of a hundred people in November 2016 on Miami Beach. Called “Siren Song,” this processional performance – or what we could call a parade that tells a story – staged a battle between cultural and consumer wealth. Of course, cultural wealth won.
The commission of “Siren Song” by Faena Arts was peculiar. Alan Faena, a developer from Buenos Aires, was opening a new luxury condo, hotel, shops, and a performing arts venue on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. The Faena District has been nicknamed a “billionaire’s playground.” Faena’s main investor, Len Blavatnick, is one of the wealthiest men in the world. Among his associates who purchased condominiums in Faena House were the owners and CEOs of the world’s richest hedge funds. The sale of the penthouse to one hedge fund CEO set a record for a single family home in South Florida, fetching $60 million.
I was one of 5 artists commissioned for a procession – or parade – that would inaugurate the new Faena District. The other artists are all internationally known and make their living on the global art circuit. Carnival Arts, the group I founded in 2007, is different. For the past 12 years, I have been working with more than 100 local artists to teach more than 1500 youth living at the Miami Bridge and other shelters across Florida drumming, dancing, and mask-making traditions from carnivals in Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Since 2008, more than 750 Barry University students have been assisting those artists and serving as arts mentors to the youth.
These young people come to Miami Bridge during a time of crisis in their lives. They may have been abused or neglected. Or they may be in the foster care system and have had an issue with their placement. Or they may have committed a non-violent crime, so a judge sent them to the Miami Bridge, rather than to juvenile detention. Or their parents may feel they have lost control
of their own children – that they have become what in legal terms is called “ungovernable.” In that case, the state covers the cost for the youth to stay at the shelter for 30 days, while the whole family receives counseling.
The young people at Miami Bridge are among the most vulnerable in our community. They are living in a shelter. They come from low income families. The vast majority are of African and/or Latin American descent. Many are already on their way through what has been called the “school to prison pipeline.” In my observation, their circumstances have also sharpened their resourcefulness and creativity. Carnival Arts recognizes these young people as artists and celebrates their creative power.
During my sabbatical, in the summer of 2015, I as invited to perform with these vulnerable young artists for the billionaires in the Faena District. Because the “Siren Song” procession was to be so large, Carnival Arts also collaborated with a number of other partners, including Thomas Jefferson Middle School; fifth graders from the St. Mary’s Cathedral School; high school girls at the PACE Center for Girls; the Gang Alternative after-school program; the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Arts youth arts program; and the K-12 students who drop in after school at the North Miami Public Library. All of the children and youth in these programs are of African and/or Latin American descent. The vast majority are Haitian or of Haitian descent.
That August, I began a series of exploratory sessions with the Miami Bridge youth and staff and with my principal collaborator, visual artist and fashion and production designer Damian Rojo. We debated whether we should perform for the billionaires at all. We discussed what we had to offer that they did not have. We settled on the concept of a battle between consumer wealth and cultural wealth. We eventually recruited two dozen professional artists to join us, incorporating their expertise and cultural content into the performance. Through this process, we devised four different sections of the procession, each represented by its own music, dance, costumes, and props.
The first section, representing consumer wealth, was the Scavengers. One group of Scavengers wore pointy-nosed plague masks inspired by Venetian carnival and carried giant symbols of luxury goods designed by Barry students and youth at Miami Bridge and painted and glittered by youth at Gang Alternative. These symbols served as signs in an absurd protest, where the masqueraders demanded not justice, but luxury: credit cards, private planes, and designer shoes. Another group of Scavengers wore vulture masks that Miami Bridge youth made in a workshop with the now deceased Haitian painter, Daleus. The vultures pushed shopping carts filled by Barry students with discarded appliances, toys, shoes, paintings and other goods. Young artists from the Bridge, Barry, and Gang Alternative transformed this trash into treasure by covering them with paint, glitter, and feathers. Because it was difficult to see through the vulture masks, a third group of scavengers, dressed in skeleton costumes and carrying red fire sticks, helped the vultures keep their shopping carts on track.
As a white, middle age woman – and the director of Carnival Arts – I claimed the role of the Scavenger Queen, riding in a black chariot and cracking my whip at spectators. I sang “Dido’s Lament,” an aria from the baroque opera, Dido and Aeneas. In Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, written 30 years or so before the Christian era, Aeneas seduces Dido, the Queen of Carthage, in North
Africa. Then he breaks her heart, sacks her land, and burns her city before going on to become the first hero of the Roman Empire.
In the 1680s, composer Henry Purcell and librettist Nahum Tate created the opera Dido and Aeneas to celebrate the glory of the nascent British Empire. In 1689, the year Dido and Aeneas was first performed, the British at once ratified the country’s first Bill of Rights and privatized the Royal Africa Company, intensifying the slave trade, not just by British traders, but by the other European powers as well. Just as Rome’s might was built on the plunder of Carthage, so Europe’s glory depended on the trade and forced labor of African people.
In “Dido’s Lament,” in words and melody written by two white British men, an African Queen tells her conqueror, Remember me, your one-time lover, but forget that you have ravaged me to build your empire.
Performance studies scholar Joseph Roach has called Dido and Aeneas “an allegory of Atlantic destiny” and a “paean to European conquerors who continually remember their ‘deep love’ for the people whose cultures they have left in flames” (N).
Literary scholar Elizabeth Freeman adds, “Even in its original context, [Dido’s] lament…can be read as both a rebuke to free market capitalism, and its need for slavery, and as an elegy for African culture” (158).
Both Roach and Freeman refer to a dynamic, especially powerful in the United States history, in which African – and African American – culture permeates the national popular culture, even as people of African descent continue to be oppressed. The culture is celebrated, but the people are exploited.
Indeed, “Dido’s Lament” may be even more haunting today. As sociologist Saskia Sassen points out in her article, “Predatory Formations Dressed in Wall Street Suits and Algorithmic Math,” today’s billionaires do not fit “the image of an invader [– like Aeneas–] who comes, grabs and leaves with the loot”(2). Instead, she argues, capitalism has undergone a profound transformation, not just since the 1680s, but since the 1980s.
Powered by digital technology, contemporary capital operates through what Sassen calls “predatory formations” built from otherwise “much admired and respected domains” such as advanced mathematics, accounting, logistics, and international law. As Saskia observes, “This mix of elements and its guiding logics has led to escalated systemic capacities for massive capture [of resources] at the top, environmental destruction on a scale we have not seen before, and a significant rise in the expulsion of people from reasonable life options even in rich countries” .
In this formulation, the billionaires who would be entertained at the Faena District engage in a global and more sophisticated form of Aeneas’ sacking of Carthage.
Meanwhile, the young artists performing with Carnival Arts do what they can to resist expulsion: from school, from their homes, and from what Sassen calls “reasonable life options.”
The Scavenger Princess, played by the Miami Bridge recreation director at the time, who also happens to be a talented singer, refused to entertain the billionaires while allowing them to ignore the suffering of the youth. She sang a version of “Dido’s Lament” as a gospel call with the youth and community members singing the response.
If you will please indulge me, let’s close this section by singing that version here. Please repeat after me: [Remember me/Remember me.] The Barry students, community members, and Miami Bridge youth sang a rebuke to our throwaway culture. [Remember me/Remember me.] They demanded recognition from the billionaires and their friends in the VIP section. They requested of the thousands of members of the general public gathered on the sidewalks: [Remember me/Remember me.] So the children and youth that society threatens to throwaway, ask us all, look at us and see our treasures. [Remember me/Remember me. Build intensity]
Section 2: You Can’t Know Me. You Can’t Know the Kongo.
But is “Dido’s Lament” really, as literary scholar Freeman claims, also an “elegy for African culture”?
Let’s sing a different song. This song emerged from the second section of “Siren Song”: the Kongo section. I’m going to need some help for this one. Today we have a special guest, another long-time Carnival Arts collaborator, master Haitian drummer Catelus Laguerre, better known as Ton Ton. Please join me in welcoming Ton Ton. [Applause.]
Ton Ton, can you please play a kongo rhythm?
[Sing: Bel Kongo/Kongo a bel/ou po po kone mwen/Bel Kongo/Kongo a bel/ou pop o kone li/Bel kongo/Kongo a bel Bel kongo/kongo a bel/you don’t know/don’t know me/Bel Kongo/Kongo a bel/Don’t know what I can be/Bel Kongo/Kongo a Bel]
I know that “Dido’s Lament” was composed in England in the 1880s by Henry Purcell to lyrics by Nahum Tate. Because I have a copies of the written score, I know exactly what notes to sing and how long to hold each note.
I do not know when or where “Bel Kongo” was composed. I do not know the name of the composer or the person who wrote the lyrics. I do not know the exact notes to sing, or how long to hold each note.
Ton Ton taught me this song in December 2013, singing it to me, then having me sing it back to him, over and over. Since then, I have taught the song to dozens, maybe even more than a hundred, people. But any of us might pick a different key, a different rhythm, any time we sing. I have scoured the books and articles on Haitian vodou and folklore. This summer I traveled to the Library of Congress Folklore Collection to research the famous anthropologist Herskovitz’s field recordings of Haitian music. I have not found any written or digital record of this song. Yet when I sing the song for Haitians, more often than not they know it and sing along.
So what can we speculate about when it was composed? The first Africans arrived in what is now Haiti in 1517, the year when the Spanish forced 15,000 people into slavery on the island of Hispaniola. By 1789, there were half a million people enslaved on the French-ruled side of the island. Haitian historian Laurent Dubois observes that the majority of people trafficked to Saint Domingue in the late 18th Century were captured in Central Africa. Another historian, John Thornton asserts that Kongolese soldiers were “the source of the militaristic skills exhibited by the revolutionaries” (Davis, 4) who brought an end to slavery and the forcible transportation of Africans to the island in 1803.
So “Bel Kongo” may have first been performed between 1517 and 1803? Or perhaps it was performed in the years after the Revolution, as a tribute to those soldiers?
There is no way to know. In fact, the song “Bel Kongo” demands a recognition of what cannot be known. The second line warns: ou po po kone mwen (you can’t know me). I translate the fourth line as “can’t know what I can be” for the sake of rhyming in English and because this is a song meant to inspire youth in crisis. However, the more accurate translation of the Kreyol, ou po po kone li is you can’t know it.
What is the “it” that cannot be known? The Kongo land? The Kongo people? The Kongo rhythm? The Kongo songs? The Kongo dance? The Kongo deities? Is it perhaps the ancestral past forever interrupted by the slave trade? There is no way to know.
This rupture with past is common across all of Africa and the Americas. As performance studies scholar Diana Taylor argues, in her book The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, one weapon the Spaniards used to conquer the Americas was to devalue all indigenous forms of knowledge and to prohibit any form of sharing knowledge other than the written word, the book.
As Taylor writes, “Those who had dedicated their lives to mastering cultural practices, such as carving masks or playing music, were not considered ‘experts,’ a designation reserved for book- learned scholars” (18). The stakes in this devaluation were high. As Taylor explains, “If the performance did not transmit knowledge, only the literate and powerful could claim social memory and identity.” [Repeat]
This devaluing and prohibition of indigenous knowledge took place everywhere with the march of modernity around the globe. Modernity brings with it wonderful things like the scientific method, the cash economy, electricity, and the written word. Imposed through the violent spread of colonialism, however, it also threatened every alternative form of relationship and knowledge, all justified as “progress.”
But the indigenous Americans and the enslaved Africans continued to “transmit knowledge” through performance just the same. Drumming, dancing, singing, and masquerade played a critical role in the Haitian Revolution. Elsewhere in the Americas, enslaved Africans and their descendants claimed “social memory” and “identity” by performing during the night in secret or under the cover of European celebrations.
One important time for such performances was Carnival. The celebration of carnival originated in Europe in the 14th Century. Carnival turns the world upside down: paupers become kings, and kings are ridiculed for their self-interest. Mikhail Bahktin, the preeminent theorist of medieval European carnival, maintains that “in the carnival crowd, as [man] comes into contact with other bodies of varying age and social caste [h]e is aware of being a member of a continually growing and renewed people” (92). In other words, carnival brings together diverse people in society into a temporary, non-hierarchical community.
As Bahktin continues, “This is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts” (92).
Carnival is a performance of freedom and community. Carnival is a practice of resistance.
In the Americas, the “world upside down” of European carnival also provided cover for enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples to preserve performance traditions that were otherwise prohibited by slavers and colonizers.
Because these practices were preserved in secret or under cover, we know little about them. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson traced what he called “Yoruba and Kongo Concepts of Parading and Processioneering” (20) in carnivals in the Americas. The Yoruba people, who hail from what is now Nigeria, made up a large portion of those people enslaved in Cuba and Brazil in the 19th Century, while the Kongo from Central Africa, as we have mentioned, made up a large portion of the people enslaved in the late 18th Century in what is now Haiti.
Based on field work in contemporary Africa, Farris Thompson observed that in certain Yoruba processions, masqueraders would “enter a town in a…circular manner, [and] roll into the city, to roll away discord, death, and terror” (20). Similarly, Farris Thompson found, some contemporary “Bakongo believe that an entire village can be ritually circumscribed by a band of maskers or celebrants. Circling the village brings the ancestral, otherworldly power back to the center” (20).
It is impossible to know precisely which traditions have survived the Middle Passage to the present day. Performance studies scholar Joseph Roach – who I referred to earlier – reveals how carnival also served as a means of inventing new identities and practices in the new world. Through carnival, people forced together by colonialism and the slave trade “invented themselves by performing their pasts in the presence of others. They could not perform themselves however, unless they also performed what and who they thought they were not. By defining themselves in opposition to others, they produced mutual representations from encomiums to caricatures, sometimes in each other’s presence, at other times behind each other’s backs.”
In a time of crisis, carnival revelers produce identity not in isolation, but through relationships. For this reason, carnival can serve as a valuable model for service-learning and community engagement – especially in our current time of economic inequity, resurgent racism, and climate crisis.
As Ann E. Green has pointed out, across the United States, “Service learning is being implemented mostly by white faculty with mostly white students at predominantly white institutions to serve mostly poor individuals and mostly people of color (Green, 2003). Tania Mitchell has identified as service-learning as a “pedagogy of whiteness” because it reinforces the privilege of white faculty and students to serve and the position of people of color as needing help.
That is not an accurate description of service-learning at Barry University, where so many of our students, and to a lesser degree our faculty, share cultural heritage with our communities and where one of our core commitments is to “collaborative service.”
Nevertheless, the position of the university – any university – as an instrument of promoting Western knowledge calls for what Marie Watkins and Lauren Jimerson have defined as “cultural humility” – “a process that requires scholars, professionals, and students to continually engage in critical self-reflection, actively work to bring power imbalances in check, and develop and maintain mutually respectful partnerships with communities” (2018).
Carnival demands “cultural humility” and counters service-learning as a “pedagogy of whiteness” by turning the regime of Western knowledge upside down, inviting participants to “re-invent themselves in the presence of others,” and “bringing ancestral power back to the center.”
In “Siren Song,” the Kongo section brought ancestral power to a luxury district in Miami Beach. As we processed past the luxury hotels and condos that would be closed to us except on this special day, Haitian-American choreographer Yanui, and her company Lakou Lakay danced while Ton Ton drummed and Haitian folk singer Kettlie, along with Haitian American singers Inez and Michnique Barlatier, sang Kongo dances, rhythms, and songs.
Please join me in calling some of that power here, to Weber Grand Hall, today. Ton Ton, please play a kongo rhythm.
[Sing: Kongo/Kongo/Kongo aid’m, kriye/pa gen mama/pa gen papa/Kongo aid’m, kriye (Kongo/Kongo/Kongo help me/I cry/Don’t have a mother/don’t have a father/Kongo help me/I cry].
Section III: Oh, Child, Cherish Your Light. (Aesthetic of the Invitation)
In “Siren Song,” the Scavengers pursued the Kongo dancers and musicians, just as consumer wealth threatens to overtake cultural wealth. But before that could happen, a group of gueirreiros, or Brazilian warriors, burst out of an alley and battled the scavengers, while beating a maculele rhythm on drums and sticks. Barry University adjunct professor, Brian Potts, led the drumming, along with a trio of carnival drummers visiting from Rio. Barry alum Joseph Greenfield, then in his junior year in Fine Arts, led the dancers in the battle.
The majority of the youth from Miami Bridge chose to perform with the Guerreiros. On this afternoon, they embraced carnival as freedom, carnival as resistance.
But on most Sunday afternoons, when Carnival Arts meets here at Barry, the youth are more likely to resist participating in the program. This resistance is so strong, and so consistent, that the working title for the manuscript I am writing about Carnival Arts is “We Never Asked for Carnival.”
This is a quote from a young man who resisted participating in the very first Carnival Arts workshop, back in 2007. That is, until he conceded to make a mask, but stated that he would not drum. Until he was seduced by the bass of the Brazilian batucada, and by the end of the week stood proudly as the lead drummer.
One of the principles of service-learning and community engagement is reciprocity: the field holds that community members must want the service provided. That may explain why, to date, I have not been able to find anything in the service-learning literature about resistance, which in my experience working with youth is so common place.
Instead, to understand this resistance and the transformation that almost inevitably follows, I have turned to theater scholar Gareth White and his brilliant book, Audience Participation: The Aesthetics of the Invitation. Sitting here this afternoon, wondering what I’m going to ask you to do next, you might be inclined to agree with the observation White makes in the first sentence of his book: “there are few things in the theatre that are more despised than audience participation” (1).
Usually, when you come to an academic talk, you can count on not being asked to participate, beyond sitting quietly, staying awake, and politely clapping at the end. Those of you who have been to my presentations before know that I am not likely to let you sit there passively.
White explains that participation is shaped by the expectations we bring to each event. In performance studies, these expectations are known as “frames”: at a lecture, I will sit; at a party, I might dance.
When youth come to Carnival Arts for the first time, they have no idea what to expect. Perhaps the staff or a peer who has been to the program before will clue them in on the frames: we start with the energy game; we play the samurai game; we might sing or drum or dance or write a poem or make a mask.
Participation, White points out, brings risks. Participants risk “embarrassment” and “reputational damage.” (Right?) These risks are particularly frightening for teenagers in a group of peers. For the professional artists counting on community participation, there are risks as well: “A participant may do almost anything or they may do nothing: they may do what is invited and do it badly.”
But, as White concludes, the “payoff for this risk is that a performance is produced that is even more ephemeral and unique than most live performance, and that is demonstrably a product of the people who are present at the event.”
That, for me, is the payoff in Carnival Arts. The youth do not want to participate initially. But the framework of carnival invites them in, offers them an opportunity to explore practices with deep connections to the ancestral past, and inspires them to adapt those practices to their personal experience and artistic expression. We invent ourselves, despite and through our differences. By the end, what we create together, is “unique” and it is theirs.
On November 30, 2016, each of the one hundred or so professional artists, Barry students, community members, and youth made choices that shaped and re-shaped “Siren Song” in ways I could never have imagined. The message that I hoped all of the participants would take away from the shadows of the luxury towers came not from the African past, but from the African present and a very special surprise collaborator.
The battle between the Scavengers and the Gueirreros stopped when the Siren Queen and her Court descended in a glass elevator from the Faena Car Park, a luxury parking structure where luxury cars exit on elegant elevators rather than plebian ramps. When the elevator doors opened, out stepped Kaïssa, a pop star who hailed from a village on the coast of Cameroon where the women are known as “jenga” – sirens or mermaids.
Kaïssa was a stranger who contacted me out of the blue on Facebook when she moved temporarily to Miami. She stayed 9 months, just enough time to collaborate with Carnival Arts and be our Siren Queen. She gave us the gift of a song by Manu Dibango, the biggest Cameroonian pop star, who you might know from his greatest hit: Mamma se, mamma sa, mamma koussa.
To close this afternoon, I would like you to join me in singing and dancing a little to Kaïssa’s siren song. This is the gift she gave the youth resisting expulsion from the global economy in the shadow of Faena’s luxury towers. This is the gift I am passing on to you as we all face the uncertainty of a society where ordinary folks find it hard to pay for college and all of us find it a challenge to pay for housing and make ends meet, even while we are immersed in a city of luxury.
Please stand up. If you don’t want to stand up, you can dance along in your chair. Don’t worry, the dancing part is hardly dancing. First we will sing the song in Kaïssa’s native language, Douala. Please follow me:
A muna kassa la fam/kossa mangobolo/hoi na hoi
[Right on! Joke]
O, child, cherish your light/O child cherish your light
Cherish the light in side you, know your worth! X2
Oh, oh, oh, oh, Cherish the light in side you, know your worth! X2
“Siren Song” did not alter the economic inequality between the billionaires and the young artists and performers who contributed to the procession. In the midst of the dazzling architecture of a
billionaire’s playground, the procession confirmed that a person’s value is not determined by buying power or by objects consumed. “Siren Song” celebrated the creative power and cultural heritage of the artists, the youth, and the community.
Kossa mangobolo! Hoi na hoi! Cherish the light in side you, know your worth!