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Culture: The king of the ‘Gullah Ting’

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

While visiting the countries of Ghana and Sierra Leone in west Africa nine years ago, Ron Daise heard the familiar rhythms of songs from his youth on St. Helena Island. Enslaved Africans brought the music across the Atlantic to South Carolina rice plantations, and it survived for centuries as part of Gullah culture.

Daise, vice president for creative eduction at Brookgreen Gardens, traveled to Africa to help document the journey of Thomalind Polite, descendant of a girl kidnapped in Sierra Leone, sold into slavery and renamed Priscilla in 1756. Researchers identified Polite, who lives near the plantation where her ancestor was a slave, through a rare, unbroken document trail. She was invited on a “homecoming” journey by officials of the government of Sierra Leone.

Daise wrote a book, “Gullah Branches, West African Roots,” about the experience of tracing Priscilla’s path through the “Door of No Return” on Bunce Island and into a life of slavery. He discovered his own west African roots in the meantime, seeing people who looked like his American relatives and even a younger version of himself. “When I traveled to Ghana and Sierra Leone,” Daise said, “I heard the songs, old spirituals, from my childhood.” He quickly wrote new lyrics to the tunes to express his deep feelings at being reconnected to Africa and was invited to sing them the next day to the traveling party and their hosts.

“I read the words off the paper,” Daise said. “Thomalind had these teary eyes. She had known she was coming, representing her family, but not till that moment had it become ‘so real, so true,’ the words of the lyrics. The connections began the healing. Priscilla has come home. Her legacy endures.”

Daise said he had hoped to include the songs on a CD with the book about his experiences, but that didn’t happen — until now. “Gullah Tings Fa Tink Bout” is the recording he has waited nine years to make. It was made possible through funding from the South Carolina Arts Commission that paid part of the cost. Daise performed the songs and readings on the CD at the coffeehouse Barefoot Barista last week.

Daise said the recording, made in collaboration with Travis Winbush of Savannah, Ga., is not a traditional arrangement of the old songs. He has injected blues, gospel, pop and Caribbean rhythms into the Gullah-Geechee, west African sound. “It makes the music more exciting,” he said. “A number of people have said it seems like a musical. The CD puts listeners on a musical journey telling about connections.”

Daise said visiting the stone cells where Africans were imprisoned before being herded through “The Door of No Return” and onto slave ships was a moving experience. “Some marched miles upon miles from inland,” he said. “Africans who had never even heard the roar of an ocean, or knew there was an ocean, passed through that door to small boats that ferried them to large slave ships. There they left their homelands.”

The song “Tears and Horra” expresses Daise’s feelings about people being herded into a pen and treated like animals. “Many thought they might be cooked — boiled and eaten — by these strangers who had captured them,” he said. “Visiting the ruins of Bunce Island slave prison, those are the words that express my feelings: tears and horror. Africans on slave ships last saw their homeland when they left Bunce Island.”

The song “African Diaspora” represents the scattering of the culture. “When Africans were transported to the New World,” Daise said, “some were taken to the coastal communities of South Carolina and Georgia, others to the West Indies and Brazil. The cultures are similar. The Patois spoken in Jamaica is very much like what you hear listening to Gullah-Geechee speakers. People from the Gullah community who end up in Jamaica are astounded to hear familiar language.”

Other songs like “There’s A Connection” and “De African Sperit Come Dong on We” all add to the story’s fabric.

Daise said he felt an obligation to get the words and music down authentically. He and his wife are both residents of Pawleys Island now that their children have graduated from Beaufort High School — created and performed a Sea Island montage of the Gullah culture before their television show “Gullah, Gullah Island” became popular. Daise spent a year as chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission. He emphasizes that Gullah is a living culture, not something from 200 years ago. “I wanted people to know that it’s more than one thing. It’s multi-dimensional,” he said. “The best way I could think of a Gullah-Geechee way of expressing it was ‘Gullah-Geechee Mean A Lot.’” That was a song he wrote that was played from the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission float as it passed the presidential reviewing stand in the second inaugural parade for President Obama. It’s the first song on the CD.

“Many Gullah-Geechee people believe the culture began with slavery, and it did not,” Daise said. “Our heritage began in west Africa, primarily from those rice coast countries. This tells about the connection that I saw firsthand.”

The CD “Gullah Tings Fa Tink Bout” is available by going to rondaise.com and following the link to the distributor.

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