The Sound of Gullah Culture

The Sound of Gullah Culture

 

“THE SOUND OF GULLAH CULTURE”

WRITTEN BY CHRIS KATON | PHOTOGRAPH BY ROB KAUFMAN

Published HILTON HEAD MONTHLY MAGAZINE | 29 JANUARY 2014

As a musician and active member of the Hilton Head Island Gullah community, Lavon Stevens has always been fascinated by local history.

“Not to take anything away from New Orleans, but I’m reading a book right now that makes a strong case that jazz music was actually started in Charleston,” Stevens said. “The impact that Charleston had in the world of jazz is one of those things that has gotten lost in time.”

According to the Charleston Jazz Initiative, a multi-year research project that documents the African American jazz tradition in Charleston and its movement throughout the U.S. and Europe from the late 19th century through today, the beginnings of jazz music on the southeastern coast of the United States was centered here.

“As the story goes, enslaved Africans infused the culture with African style and substance, creating American culture,” Stevens said. “As happened in many other places, black music on the southeastern coast manifested itself through spirituals and fi eld holler songs.”

When Europeans settled Carolina more than 300 years ago its capital, Charleston, was the crown jewel of the British Empire before the American Revolution, and it was the North American cradle of the African slave trade.

Charleston is only one of a handful of places in the Western Hemisphere where Africa inter-acted with Europe in a seminal way to produce New World culture. Records indicate that as many as 40 percent of all slaves in the United States made their way through Charleston.

At Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston recently freed slaves played music in the streets. It is staggering how many American jazz greats received their start in the state.

Famous son, Dizzy Gillespie, was born in Cheraw, S.C., and is heralded as one of the greatest pioneers of modern jazz. He is recognized as one of the country’s greatest trumpeters and bandleaders, and South Carolina’s most celebrated jazz musician.

Gillespie was a self-taught trumpeter who emerged in the 1940s as a pioneer of bebop. His most memorable gigs were with Cab Calloway’s band from 1939—1941 before the outset of World War II. Gillespie famously worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, among others.

Other famous South Carolina jazz artists include Charleston’s first lady of jazz, Ann Caldwell, Freddy Jenkins, Blood Ulmer, Speedy Jones and Lucky Thompson.

“History was lost and wasn’t very well documented,” Stevens said. “Recently people have started to embrace the history and how rich it is. One thing I’ve always hoped for is that people would embrace and share our history.”

Much of Gullah musical history can be traced to the settlement of Mitchelville off Beach City Road, where songs in native island churches mirrored popular music of the day.

The popular Negro spiritual “Kumbahyah” was first recorded and documented at First African Baptist Church, the oldest native congregation on Hilton Head Island.

“A lot of the songs people sung in church were about not giving up hope and are songs about actual freedom and spiritual freedom,” Stevens said. “One line goes, ‘some day I will be free.’ It’s a song about hope as well as about despair.”

Many of the earliest Gullah songs can be traced to call and response, when a leader would call out and the remainder of the congregation would respond with the refrain.

The popular Negro spiritual “Kumbahyah” was first recorded and documented at First African Baptist Church, the oldest native congregation on Hilton Head Island.

Although their origins are not well documented, popular songs of the day included “Michael Rowed a Boat a Shore”, “I Want to be Ready”, “Walk Together Children” and “Traveling Shoes”.

“It’s important to remember that many of the songs had a double meaning and were meant as a way to communicate between the oppressed people,” Stevens said.

First recorded in St. Helena, down the coast from Charleston, are field hollers, changes, work songs, and the blues. The 20th-century brought ragtime and jazz, which is still thought of by many as the highest form of American art.

From enslaved African drummers, to black drummers attached to white militias, to military bands, to community brass bands — the music became Charleston jazz.

Ragtime, a composed musical form that is highly syncopated and a kind of blend of European and African American music, is considered a precursor to jazz, was prominent from the 1890s to the 1920s.

The democratic principles of African culture are found in jazz. Everybody has a chance to say something, to solo, to play by him or herself while everyone else listens as they wait their turn.

“Jazz is diverse and inclusive. It’s an experiment and will always be a work in progress,” Stevens said.

Observing Charlestonions inspired the wildly popular dance “The Charleston” and Jenkins musicians dancing movements called Geechee, a term applied to South Carolina Gullahs.

There was a point when the slave masters had to stop the slaves from singing because they were known to be communicating through their singing. Many years later it was learned that coded messages such as covert resistance meetings were being shared.

As and example, an early Gullah lyric of Down by the River, was sung to let the community know there was to be a meeting at the river later that night or a mention of Harriet Tubman may mean that a special guest was making their way through the area.

“Field holler songs, expressed raw emotion, often resentment, downtrodden, despair,” Stevens said. “This is where we get what we know now as the blues.”

Back in the early days the instruments were very primitive. “You started with your voice and your hands,” he said Drums or conga’s were probably the earliest local instrument. “I have no doubt in my mind that if it happened here, it happened all over the country,” he said.

“The minute you hear those drums you start bobbin and weaving and doing whatever your going to do.”

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A Taste of Gullah Culture

A Taste of Gullah Culture

 

“A TASTE OF GULLAH CULTURE”
BY CHRIS KATON | PHOTO BY ROB KAUFMAN

Published HILTON HEAD MONTHLY | 29 JANUARY 2014

 

World famous Lowcountry cuisine consists of everything fresh and local
In the Gullah culture, storytellers have the important function of reciting and remembering genealogy and historical information for their village.

These islanders, former slaves from the West African coastal countries of Senegal and Sierra Leone, have inhabited the Sea Islands for generations, and their unique traditions remain largely intact. Equally important to local culture are the recipes they preserved.

“Growing up Gullah means that you learn to make do with what you’ve got,” said chef David Young, owner of Roastfish & Cornbread restaurant on Hilton Head Island.
Young is a locally famous island ambassador and institution to Gullah cooking. He invited us into his kitchen to experience the flavors of the Lowcountry.

On the morning of our visit a delivery from a local farmer brings a bounty of fresh vegetables including collard greens, celery, parsnip, onions and carrots. Minutes later, the fish truck arrives. Today’s fresh catch is red fish and Young is all smiles.

“Traditional Gullah cooking is very vegetarian based, with lots of fresh vegetables, fish and shellfish Anything that’s local,” he said. “We were raised to live off the land, so we planted our vegetables and fished our waters and caught our shrimp and did the best we could with what we had.”

On the day of our visit, Young featured shrimp and grits with sides of collard greens, sweet potato cornbread and red rice that looked, smelled and tasted like a slice of heaven.

Other house favorites include heirloom tomato salad, roasted portabella mushrooms and shrimp gumbo, which includes local shrimp, diced peppers and stewed okra. Native treats include fruit cobbler, homemade meringues and sweet potato cheesecake pie.

Gullah-style grits are a staple in Young’s kitchen as a quick, easy and versatile side dish. In his recipe, Young uses four cups of water, half cup of butter, one cup of stone ground grits, half teaspoon of black pepper and half teaspoon of garlic.

The new Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s is located at 840 William Hilton Parkway in the Atrium Building on Hilton Head Island. Scott Rhodan is an outland Gullah, raised in Ridgeland. Her late father Nathaniel Scott was a skilled farmer. Her mother Earline is a master chef, perfecting recipes handed down from generation to generation. Scott-Rhodan uses those same recipies in her popular restaurant today.

“I often serve them Gullah-style with sautéed shrimp and onions, fresh tomato’s and basil,” Young said. “I also like to pair them with gumbo, bean dishes and fresh vegetables.”

Young is locally famous for his veganstyle Lowcountry red rice, which he serves with collard greens and ovenroasted fish “Slow roasting is a gentle cooking method that guarantees the fish remains moist and tender,” Young said.

He said the most versatile ingredient in his kitchen is homemade vegetable stock. He recommends simmering a hearty mixture of carrots, parsnips, leeks, onion, celery, mushroom, garlic and assorted herbs. The user-friendly stock is then added to flavor vegetarian style soups, stews, bean dishes and rice.

“My goal is to cook it real slow, so that I draw all of the flavor out of the vegetables,” he said.

Hilton Head Island native Elnora Aiken is chairperson of the 18th Annual “Taste of Gullah” to be held from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Arts Center.

Aiken’s favorite local dish is Conch Stew, with includes meat from the shellfish cooked with a ham hock and served over white rice. Some people serve the dish with a side of fresh collard greens.

“Either way you serve it, it tastes real good,” she said.

Visitors to the event should try her family recipe for Hoppin’ John, which is served with red field peas and rice. “It’s red in the package and after it’s combined with the rice some people put in a hog jowl or ham neck bone combined all in one pot,” she said.

Other local favorites to be featured are shrimp and okra gumbo, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, oysters and grits and stewed crab. “For us it’s a breakfast meal or dinner meal, depending on your mood,” she said.

Stewed crab and grits include the meat of crab, fried with bacon, then layered with gravy. “Today some people put green peppers in it, but back in the day it was only onion, salt and pepper,” she said.

We discussed the importance of oysters on local culture.

“My mother made a living out of opening oysters at the Oyster House,” Ms. Aiken said. “I remember the men would go out and pick the oysters and the ladies would be back in the oyster house opening them up, then we’d go home and make oysters and grits.”

Her mother’s recipe was fried oysters and rice with onions, bell pepper, celery and seasoning. A traditional Gullah dessert is bread pudding.

“As time passed on people used different flavors but traditionally we used peaches and sugar and real cream and butter,” she said.

Across the island, visitors and residents alike can enjoy homemade oldfashioned pound cakes including “Plucker up Lemon Delight” and “Butter Pecan — Coconut” courtesy of Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s.

“My father was a skilled farmer who was rich in something that money could not buy — the cultural heritage that was passed along from generation to generation,” said chef Dye Scott-Rhodan. “One of the skills he mastered was farming the fields My mom added perfection by preparing the dishes with recipes she got from her mother and grandmother and their mothers. That was passed to my sisters and I.”

Popular menu items include the shrimp burger, crab cakes, whole fried catfish and Lowcountry Boil of shrimp, seasoned with onion, peppers, country sausage, taters and special seasoning. A favorite dish is Grandma’s Pork Chop, served fried or soaked in whiskey sautéed onions with homemade butter sugarcane sauce.

Chef Dye Scott-Rhodan is proud of the rich tradition of the Gullah culture and is doing her best to keep the flavors of the Lowcountry alive. With recipes passed down through generations, she uses only the freshest ingredients from the land and sea.

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