Remembering Alwin Bully and Jah Shaka, two Caribbean pioneers with distinctly personal styles and a humble approach

Image of Dominican cultural change maker Alwin Bully (L) taken from the YouTube video ‘Dr. Alwin Anthony Bully […] Shapes in The Clouds’ by DBS Radio. Photo of Jah Shaka by anviss on Flickr, (CC BY-NC 2.0.)

Both were enormously influential in their respective spheres, breaking new ground. Both had a strong sense of community. Both were closely connected to their roots, and both — Dominican playwright Alwin Bully and Jamaican dub pioneer Jah Shaka — who passed away recently, were quintessentially Caribbean.

A Dominican cultural icon, Alwin Bully was born in the capital of Roseau, and died there on March 10 at the age of 74. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Growing up, Bully was strongly influenced by the island’s rural storytellers, and by Carnival, which unfolded each year practically on the doorstep of his home. While studying for a degree in English and French at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill campus in Barbados, he established a drama society and began writing plays. One of his earliest, “Good Morning Miss Millie,” was a one-act comedy that became popular throughout the region.

Jamaican poet and theatre arts teacher Fabian Thomas called Bully “a member of his ‘Caribbean Theatre Triumvirate,'” the other two being Guyanese playwright Eugene Williams and the late Barbadian dramatist Earl Warner. Via a direct message to Global Voices on Twitter, Thomas expressed his feelings about Bully's passing:

Aaahh…Sir Alwin. He was a warm, charming, vibrant and wise Master Theatre Practitioner. His craft, vision and passion were steady flames that ignited imagination and artistry regionally. He was perennially supportive and inclusive.

Professor Emerita at Canada's York University and former director of Jamaica's Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Honor Ford-Smith, described Bully this way:

Never arrogant, he sought out common ground in a quest to serve the region and especially its poorest. He did this by listening and avoiding polemic. His was uncompromising service grounded in community and dedicated to that ‘repeating island’ as the Cuban writer Benitez Rojo controversially called it.

Bully was well-known as the designer of the Dominica flag (the island gained its Independence from the United Kingdom in 1978) which features the Imperial Parrot, known as the Sisserou, a colourful endemic species listed as endangered. Bully received the island’s highest honour, the Sisserou Award, for his multi-faceted work, not only as a cultural administrator but as a playwright, director, graphic artist, set designer, poet and short story writer, carnival designer, and composer:

Bully, who wrote 10 full-length plays, four radio serials, numerous short stories and four screenplays, also had a career as a cultural administrator. He lived in Jamaica for 20 years, where he served as UNESCO’s Caribbean Cultural Advisor, and was instrumental in establishing the regional Carifesta arts festival. He received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of the West Indies in 2011, and was also the recipient of several other awards, in both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

He was accorded an official funeral in Dominica after two days of national mourning, and was laid to rest on April 5. There were numerous tributes on his native island and beyond, including from the People’s Action Theatre, which he co-founded in the 1970s.

London-based cultural activist Miranda Grell shared:

Trinidadian journalist Wesley Gibbings noted:

Jamaican journalist Rodney Campbell also shared his thoughts:

One of Bully's early, hugely successful plays, “Streak,” focused on the arrival of Rastafari in the Eastern Caribbean, and the sensational case of Rastafarian Desmond Trotter (Ras Kabinda) accused of shooting a white man during Carnival in 1974.

At around that time, a young Rastafarian named Jah Shaka, aka Zulu Warrior — his real name and exact age are not known — was establishing his iconic sound system in south-east London, U.K. Born in Clarendon, Jamaica, he was among the Windrush Generation migrating to England as a young boy. The 1970s, for Bully, Shaka, and other Caribbean creatives, was a time of growing black consciousness, vividly expressed in cultural expressions. Shaka played himself in a dramatic scene in the 1980 cult film classic “Babylon,” which dealt with racism and other socio-economic issues impacting London's Black population.

Like Bully, Shaka enjoyed a long career with worldwide influence. He gathered legions of fans as he toured the world, including appearances at the Kingston Dub Club. This tweet is from an Afro-Colombian record label:

Jah Shaka died on April 12; the cause of death is unknown, but his son, also a sound system man, was devastated. Shaka had been preparing for yet another tour; a video clip from his last session, on April 1 in Paris, has been widely shared on social media. London-based sound system engineer Mad Professor posted a nostalgic tweet:

Veteran British DJ David Rodigan shared on Facebook:

I am devastated to learn of the passing of Jah Shaka, The Zulu Warrior. A truly iconic figure-head of Roots Rock Reggae Music who touched so many people’s lives all over the world. Heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. David.

The Voice newspaper described the Jah Shaka experience thus:

With his thunderous bass lines, pulsating rhythms, and powerful lyrics, Jah Shaka created a musical experience that was truly transcendental.

UK-based journalist Nadine White added:

The Windrush Caribbean Film Festival also paid him tribute:

Although their life journeys were very different, the passing of both Alwin Bully and Jah Shaka is a sad loss in the remarkable network of Caribbean culture, in the region, the diaspora and beyond. Tributes to both cultural pioneers describe them as humble and unassuming, with the shared goal of bringing people together through their art.

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