I spent much of my early childhood on the north shore of Bermuda. The island shaped me in many ways, and I still have many friends and family there. So it was a special privilege for me to curate a program about the land that I considered my first home.
Bermuda Connections began as a project in preparation for a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program in 2001, but its goals were much greater. One aim was to entice tourists to visit the island colony by uncovering and exposing its local traditions. Another was to be a catalyst for Bermudians in their search for a renewed sense of national identity, one that recognized the shared culture of the islands and the cultural diversity of its population. This process impacted how the self-governing island colony saw itself and had far-reaching effects on educational, cultural, and tourism policy.
Two years before the Festival, several Bermudians were invited to discuss with Smithsonian staff whether Bermuda had enough of a culture of its own around which to base a Festival program. Representatives from Ministries of Culture and Youth, Education, Tourism, and Finance sat in a room with dinghy builders, storytellers, doll makers, cooks, cedar carvers, divers, researchers, bankers, calypso singers, kite makers, teachers, cricketers, journalists, and gardeners.
Many felt the history and local culture of everyday people had been undervalued. The wealth of hospitality and sociability which had helped hold the community together in the past had given way to the demands of the marketplace. Although Bermudians place a high value on ties between family members and neighbors, the high cost of living made it necessary for to work long hours and forgo many of the traditional social and cultural activities that previously sustained the quality of life of its citizens.
When the gathering came to a close, not everyone was convinced that researching Bermuda’s culture would reveal much that was different from that of the United Kingdom or the United States, but all were willing to give it a try.
The Bermuda Connections Festival program was organized around the ways Bermudians use their location in the Atlantic Ocean and their natural resources to create a prosperous life: Arts of the Sea, Arts of the Land, Arts of Play, Arts of Home and Hospitality. Bermudian foodways, music, and other performance arts were presented as fusions of English, African, Caribbean, American, and Portuguese cultural influences adapted to Bermudian circumstances and values.
Almost one million visitors attended the Festival that year, more than ten times the population of Bermuda. Many local visitors made repeat visits; others came from across the United States and Canada to attend. A charter trip organized in Bermuda brought many visitors, including at least one group of Bermudian seniors.
A word heard quite often was that the experience of Bermuda Connections was “transformative.” Bermudian participants and visitors alike expressed pleased astonishment at the depth and diversity of their culture as showcased at the Festival. Especially poignant was the sentiment that the program was the first occasion for significant conversations with other Bermudians across ethnic and cultural lines.
Every aspect of Bermuda Connections, from the title and the themes to the selection of participants, design, and narrative session topics, was carefully chosen to address needs identified by Bermuda’s diverse constituencies. The program set the building blocks in place for a new, inclusive cultural infrastructure for Bermuda. We trained Bermuda nationals in the concepts and methods of folklife fieldwork and presentation, surveyed Bermuda’s local culture and living traditions, structured learning experiences for teachers, and worked with Bermuda educators to develop classroom projects. In addition, researchers gathered materials for a Bermuda Folklife Archive containing fieldwork tapes and transcripts, photographs, and video and audio documentation of Bermudian tradition bearers at the Festival.
Bermuda’s participation in the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival presented a range of opportunities for support and recognition of the islands’ cultural resources and heritage that has extended far beyond the ten days on the National Mall. Bermudian teacher institutes were established, exploring local culture in the classroom. That initiative resulted in Bermuda Connections: A Cultural Resource Guide for Classrooms, a publication of multicultural, educational materials on cultural heritage, local history, and traditions. These guides were distributed to every classroom in the island’s system. Educators and their students displayed their work and participated in a local restaging of the Folklife Festival program, renamed Bermuda Homecoming. This event, held in spring 2002, drew record attendance and led to an expansion and restructuring of the Agricultural Exhibition, a yearly event much like U.S. state and county fairs where prizes are given for extraordinary fruits, vegetables, livestock, baked goods, and needlework.
Bermuda’s government, in continuing consultation with CFCH staff, implemented cultural policy changes which included the creation of a publicly accessible center, exhibition space and an archive for Bermuda’s community culture, and a cultural education website. In addition, the government created a “Folklore Officer” position within the Ministry of Culture and Communications; folklorist Kim Dismont Robinson was appointed to this position. By 2010 she established the Bermuda Folklife Apprenticeship Programme, with guidance from CFCH and involvement by many Festival program participants to serve as the apprentices’ master tradition bearers.
Flash forward to September 2014, when Robinson sent us the following report about her program and our former participants:
I’ve been doing the Folklife Apprenticeship Programme, where we pair a tradition bearer with an apprentice one-on-one, for quite a few years now, and it’s had precisely the effect I’d hoped for. Some of the more successful pairings have been:
Anson Nash with apprentices Frankie McIntosh and Mark Fox, who actually built a Bermuda punt named Grommet which I now see sailing around Ely’s Harbour on a regular basis. Frankie wants to continue building traditional wooden Bermuda boats, and Mark is currently sailing on a three-month stint with Spirit of Bermuda.
Beekeeper Randy Furbert and his apprentice Jennie Faries. After the program was finished, he set up an apiary at her house and bought her a beekeeping suit. They’ve gotten on like a house on fire, and I’ve seen them working at the farmers market together. This is a great story because it shows an example of how an older black Bermudian man passed along a tradition to a young Portuguese Bermudian woman who probably never would have met socially, but bonded over traditions. She calls him “Uncle Rand” now.
Milton Hill taught Ami Zanders about model boat building and working with cedar. Ami, an accomplished artist in her own right, regularly teams up with Milton, and they have created joint art shows.
Ronnie Chameau’s apprentice Cherri DeSilva put her own twist on banana-doll making. She learned the technique from Ronnie, then decided to forgo the Victorian-style designs and make Rastafarian dolls, Native dolls (with dried bermudiana flowers as arrows carried in a quiver on the back), etc. Ronnie was so pleased with the quality of Cherri’s doll making that she gave her the doll making concessions on the eastern end of the island of Bermuda.
Farmer Tom Wadson’s apprentice Quincy Burgess has moved to Kenya and is doing a lot of work with sustainable agriculture.
Florenz Webbe-Maxwell’s apprentice Sara Westhead has become an accomplished storyteller and volunteers a lot of her time at the library.
After the program was finished, goat cheese maker James Tucker , a former architect who researched and wrote about Bermuda’s vernacular architectural traditions for the 2001 Festival program book, gave his apprentice Ryan Smith a goat, to whom he seems pretty devoted. He’s hoping to slowly expand. He works for James on occasion when James is traveling and needs someone to watch his herd.
These are just a few examples of some of the great stories coming out of this program. We’ve also completed ten full-length films in a Folklife Documentaries series, with hundreds of pages of transcripts available to the public upon request.
If the impact of the Bermuda Connections program were judged by the ten days in Washington, it would still have been a success. However, to truly understand its reach, one must consider its role in community cultural development in Bermuda, the mobilization of culture in building community, and the creation of cultural responses to social conditions. Because life in Bermuda taught me to understand the values of community and tradition, to learn that the traditions are in such good care—almost fifteen years since the Folklife Festival program—is cause for celebration.
Diana N’Diaye is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She curated the Bermuda program at the Folklife Festival in 2001, and more recently The Will to Adorn in 2013 and A Tribute to Haiti in 2010.