Thursday, April 3, 2008

Some notes about the culture of St. Martin

One of my motivations to travel to Latin America and the Caribbean is to collect recorded music, particularly folk music. There is much one can collect via and in more conventional retail stores, but there are many places that you can only learn about by going there. St. Martin, well-known as a tourist mecca, is a case in point. In the mad rush to cater to foreign visitors and revenue, the culture of the island and the need to preserve its uniqueness as a legacy for its inhabitants are sometimes neglected.

Fortunately, there are people on the island who are serious about promoting the culture and teaching it to their children. One such person is Clara Reyes, who when I met her was finishing up a Master's program in dance at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Brockport. Clara did research into St. Martin's "ponum dance" as part of her Master's degree. The dance originated as a celebration of the liberation of the slaves on the island in 1848. Back then, as today, the island was divided between the French and the Dutch. France abolished slavery in its territories in 1848, and when the slaves on the Dutch side learned of this, they fled to the French side and ultimately the Dutch side of the island would have to grant freedom to its slaves as well. The Dutch would not abolish slavery in the rest of its territories until 1863.

Clara later took time out of her schedule to perform the dance in a presentation that we organized in Philadelphia in 2002. Shortly afterwards, Clara returned to the island after completing her studies in New York to begin teaching in a primary school on the Dutch side.

I made a follow-up visit to St. Martin in 2003 to meet people who practiced different types of folk arts. Among those I visited was Clara's mother, Regina Millet, who owned a souvenir shop in Philipsburg and posed for this picture. Regina was wearing a madras skirt which often appears in Caribbean folk dress.

Visit my webpage on the Caribbean at

Other websites:

Caribbean Folk Arts Network (Caribfolk) - Caribbean cultural network:

Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots) - a nonprofit organization I founded in 1991 that presents Latin American cultural shows, exhibits, and workshops:

Raicesnews - Latin cultural events in the Philadelphia area:

No comments: