Big Drum celebration to mark legacy of Vincentian cultural icon Vernalyn B. Blencowe

Vernalyn B. Blencowe.   Maria Blencowe
Vernalyn B. Blencowe.
Maria Blencowe

The Brooklyn-based St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ex-Teachers Association of New York, and the family of the late cultural icon Vernalyn B. Blencowe are urging the public to join them in celebrating the legacy of this “outstanding citizen, cultural guru, renowned teacher and dedicated sister, wife, mother, auntie and grandmother,” who went to the Great Beyond three years ago, with a grand exhibition of Big Drum in her honor on Saturday, July 9 in Union Island, the southern St. Vincent Grenadines.

The event, which will take place at the Captain Hugh Mulzac Square on Union Island, has been endorsed by the leadership of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Department of Tourism and Culture, the Department of Education, and the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Union of Teachers, the group and family said.

They said special arrangements are under consideration to accommodate persons who do not reside in Union Island.

“Carnival in SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) will be over, but there is still room for great cultural expression and learning,” Dr. Herman Ambris, a physician and trustee of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ex-Teachers Association of New York, told Caribbean Life over the weekend.

“Everyone — especially teachers, past and present students, artists, poets, dancers, musicians, story tellers and historians — is invited to share in this momentous experience, which marks one more step in our legacy as a nation,” said the Brooklyn resident. “Milestones in our lifetime define the path that marks the legacy of humankind. In this regard the trail that follows the path taken by Vernalyn B. Blencowe is a good example for anyone seeking a role model.

“The various facets of life – domestic, professional, spiritual, community and civic — are exemplary in their own way,” he added. “Our nation is more than blessed because Vernalyn was one of us. In choosing to promote Big Drum as part of our heritage, we, in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ex-teachers Association, are only continuing work in the unfinished agenda of this visionary.”

Dr. Ambris said Blencowe was one member of the group, formed 39 years ago, “whose contribution has helped define the organization.

“She faithfully and conspicuously exemplified the motto of the organization: ‘Together for growth, to learn, to teach and to help,’” he said. “Her family is our family, and that is why we have joined to celebrate her life in this the third year since she passed on to eternity.

“It will be fair to declare that we are mostly over grieving for her, and now she is alive in our hearts and lives,” Dr. Ambris added. “We find that she has left us with a legacy, which we feel compelled to share with the rest of our nation and to ensure that her story will be honestly reflected in his story.

“The legacy of our organization will not be authentic without the flavor and fervor that resulted from the influence and effect of Vernalyn B. Blencowe (and her family),” he continued. “We see the promotion of Big Drum, that cultural milieu which she almost single-handedly revived in Union Island, as a cultural gem worth preserving and promoting until the celebration is as ubiquitous as mango or breadfruit in our land.”

Maria Blencowe, Mrs. Blencowe’s only daughter, of three children, told Caribbean Life that the Big Drum celebration will be part of the activities to commemorate what would have been her mother’s birthday on Jul. 10.

“We will have a grand demonstration of Big Drum, which she took a critical and leading role in reviving on Union Island,” she said. “We are encouraging wide community participation, and expect persons from the other islands in the nation of SVG to join our celebration.

“We encourage sponsorship for food, trophies, travel accommodations, etc. to make this a truly memorable event,” Maria added. “The Blencowe-Hutchinson-Wilson families are humbled that the Ex-Teachers Association New York, of which mommy was considered a founding member, is undertaking this journey to continue the legacy of Vernalyn B. Blencowe.

“We look forward to have this event annually,” she continued. “We want the community to keep the colorful spirit of what Big Drum represents for all.”

In January 2020, while dedicating its 37th anniversary gala luncheon at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn to Mrs. Blencowe, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ex-Teachers Association of New York underscored Blencowe’s role in reviving the Big Drum in her native Union Island.

Blencowe – whose professional career spanned over 50 years of teaching both in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Brooklyn – died on Jul. 20, 2019 and was interred on Aug. 3, 2019 in Union Island. She was 79.

She was also a Licensed Practical Nurse in New York, community activist and poet, among other things.

In its souvenir journal for the annual celebration, which also commemorated the birthday of slain US civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ex-Teachers Association of New York, Inc. said that Blencowe believed that “traditions and culture of every nation should be cherished and preserved.

“If the young cannot read about their heritage, their self-worth diminishes, and they come to believe that the inhabitants of another country are better than they are,” the group said.

As early as 1965, the group said Blencowe began writing about the Union Island traditions, which was “dear to her heart.

“She went home to Union Island and brought the Big Drum alive,” said the ex-teachers, featuring a sample of Blencowe’s writing in the journal.

“In many of the West Indian islands, there is a certain kind of hand-down culture, either from ancestral past or from Negro slavery,” Blencowe wrote. “In Trinidad and Tobago [it] is the shango and calypso; in Haiti one would find voodooism. Here, in Union Island, the Big Drum Dance custom is hand-down from our African ancestors.”

Blencowe said North Americans and Europeans who visited Union Island always looked forward to seeing this dance.

They also sought to learn something about the strangely-worded songs, which characterized the Big Drum Dance, she said.

“Healing a sick person sometimes call for a Big Drum,” she continued. “Casting away evil spirits call for the Big Drum, the Orradah, and the Charnbah Dance is done. The chant is doleful, and the drumbeat seems to entreat some mysterious deity to come to their rescue. It is a belief and, sometimes, success comes.”

Blencowe said the use of the drum is “the African way of living, and is highlighted.

“In Union Island, it is practiced,” she said. “We dance Calendar or Nation, Bongay or Cheer-up.”

Blencowe said the Big Drum Dance is executed for many of reasons.

She said the most common is “when a spirit appears in a drum and asks for food.”

Other reasons she said include a festive occasion, such as the night before a wedding, a “Praise”, vessel launching, the end of a successful harvest and at the Maroon or Rain Dance festival.

Judge Emille Cox — a fellow Unionite, who shared the co-Master of Ceremonies, along with veteran Vincentian broadcaster Don Bobb, at the 37th anniversary celebration — said “everyone, by now, is aware of Vern’s (Vernalyn Blencowe) advocacy on behalf of the traditional Big Drum Dance and Maroon Festival, iconic Union Island events.”

“Although she lived and worked in the US for many years, she never lost the yearning for her Union Island traditions,” wrote Judge Cox in the souvenir journal. “She even mandated that they be an integral part of her memorial. Indeed, she was a true ambassador.”

For more information, about the Big Drum ceremony on Union Island on Jul. 9, email Maria at [email protected] or call (917) 803-7414.

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