Tuesday, 8 May 2012



On March 28, 2009 my wife, Elva, and I were walking along a jungle trail on the island of Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe.  We were nearing the end of a two-week stay there, renting a cottage from Reggie Arsenault, formerly of Abram-Village.  I was well ahead of Elva, so I stopped to wait for her.  While standing next to a bamboo tree, I began tapping the trunk with my knuckles.  To my great surprise, the hollow stem made a very clear sound.  Not only that, since the stem sections were of varying lengths and diameters, I could generate different sounds, depending on where I struck.

Eventually, Elva came along, and I made her listen to my discovery.  She didn’t seem impressed in the least!  So I asked her: "Aren’t you ever curious about things like this?" She answered: "It never would have crossed my mind to tap the trunk of a bamboo tree to see what sound it would make."  And thus was born the story of the brothers, Siba and Aloï.  To quote a well-worn disclaimer: "The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

The bamboo drum

Siba and Aloï, two brothers of the Arawak Tribe, lived on the island of Karukera.  Their father, Komaka, was a great hunter and fisherman, and their mother, Orehu, was the most beautiful woman in the village.  They lived near the ocean and got everything they needed from the waters and the forests around them.  They lived peaceful lives.  It was in the time before the white people came.
Siba was two years older than Aloï, and he never let his little brother forget it!  Although he listened to his father, Siba liked to show the boys his age that he was the strongest and the fastest runner.  Aloï liked to play close to the grass hut where the family lived, and to stay near his mother and grandmother, and listen to their stories.
Komaka had begun teaching Siba how to hunt and fish, and had made him a small bow and a fishing rod.  He would take Siba with him when he went into the forest to hunt for small birds and animals, and Komaka would show Siba how to hold the bow and to aim the arrow.  After they came back from the forest, Siba would practice shooting the arrows at trees for hours on end, until his mother told him to come home for the meal.
When Siba turned twelve, Komaka gave him permission to go into the forest alone to hunt with his bow and arrow.  It wasn’t long before Siba returned with his first kill, and his father and mother greeted him with great pride, saying: "You will be a great hunter, and will be able to feed a large family one day."
Aloï looked on and listened, but couldn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about.  His grandmother explained that, one day soon, his father would teach him to hunt and fish.  But Aloï looked at her and sighed: "I just want to stay here in the village, listen to the stories and learn how to play the drums".  Komaka complained to Orehu that she and the grandmother were spoiling the child and making him soft.  But, Orehu answered that it was his nature, and that Aloï would find his calling in his own time, and in his own way.
As was the custom, when Aloï turned twelve, his father tried to teach him how to hunt and fish.  But Aloï had no patience for fishing.  His line was always tangled and, when he caught a fish, he was too scared to take it off the hook!  In the forest, Komaka spent as much time looking for Aloï as he did teaching him how to hunt.  Aloï made too much noise, and he couldn’t shoot the arrow straight when he tried to kill an animal.  Komaka began to think Aloï didn’t want to hurt the fish and the animals.  This made him worry all the more about what Aloï would do when he grew to be a man.  "Surely, no young woman will want our Aloï", Komaka complained to Orehu late one evening after the boys were asleep.
Siba and Aloï fought over everything.  They were like night and day.  Siba played all the games the way he was taught by the other children, but Aloï wouldn’t.  He always wanted to make his own rules and, when the others didn’t agree, Aloï would run home crying to his mother.  Try as they might, Komaka and Orehu couldn’t find one single thing the brothers liked to do together.  To stop them from fighting, they even had to build separate rooms for Siba and Aloï to sleep in.
One day, Komaka told Siba to take Aloï into the forest with him to see if the older brother could teach the younger to hunt.  Siba didn’t like this idea at all: "But, Father, Aloï will scare away all the animals, and I won’t be able to bring any food home for supper".  His father said he understood, but he asked Siba to try.
Soon after they entered the forest, Siba had already lost track of Aloï.  He turned back on the trail and found Aloï tapping the trunk of a bamboo tree with a small stick. "What are you doing, Aloï?" said Siba.  "I’m listening to the sounds of the bamboo", answered Aloï: "Didn’t you ever try?  You walk past many bamboo trees every time you come into the forest.  Didn’t you ever want to hear the sound they make?"  But Siba just shook his head: "Why would I ever want to hear the sound of the bamboo when I’m here to catch something for our supper?"
Siba didn’t bring home any animals for his mother’s campfire that day, and he complained all that evening to his father about Aloï’s antics, and how he never wanted to take him hunting ever again.
Aloï spent all the next day telling Orehu and his grandmother about the wonderful sounds that came from the bamboo tree.  The women had never heard a story like this.  There were drums in their village, but they had always been made of animal skins.  No one had ever heard of making music with a stick and a bamboo tree.
So, Aloï asked his father if he could come to the forest and listen to the sound of the bamboo tree.  He wanted to make the sound again for the others in the village.  Komaka answered: "Aloï, you must stop this foolishness and learn how to hunt and fish like the other young men.  Do you want to spend the rest of your life alone around your campfire?"  But, Aloï wouldn’t give up.  He begged and he begged and, finally, his father took him to the place where the bamboo grew.
Komaka took his best stone axe, and cut down the tree Aloï had found beside the trail.  Then, he cut off a couple of sections of the stem, and Aloï showed him the sounds he could make by striking the stem with a stick.  Komaka heard with his own ears that the boy had been right.  Music did come from the bamboo, and it was different than the sound of the drum from the village.  Not only that, the boy showed him that different sounds came from different sections of the bamboo stem.
"How did you know this, Aloï?" asked his father.  "I’ve been sneaking into the forest to learn the sound of the bamboo when you thought I was practicing my hunting", said the boy.  "I know I’ve disobeyed you, Father, but I just had to learn."  "Very well", said Komaka.  "If you don’t want to become a hunter or a fisherman, then you must learn this new skill, and perhaps others will provide for you."
So, every morning, Aloï took out his bamboo pieces and his stick, and he went off into the forest to practice, far away where no one would hear.  He’d spend whole days away from the village, returning only at nightfall.  He asked his father to cut other pieces of bamboo for him, some smaller and some larger than the first ones, and he learned how to make many different sounds.  He learned how to tie the bamboo stems together so that he could strike different ones at different places.  Then, he tried to make them sound like the songs the men and women sang at special occasions.
While Siba got better at fishing and hunting, Aloï got better at making music.  It didn’t take long for the young women to notice Siba’s hunting skills, or his striking good looks.  They gathered around him when he returned to the village with fish and animals from the hunt, and each one kept an eye on him, hoping he would notice her when the time came.  But none of them noticed Aloï, although he was now fourteen.  Why would they?  He knew nothing of hunting and fishing.  A woman would go hungry around his campfire, and never be able to feed her children.
Once every year, the village held a great feast to celebrate the equinox.  It was the time of the year when the days were longest, and the cooling breezes from the waters around the island made it seem even more like paradise.  People from other villages were invited to share in the great feast, and it was a time for old and young to renew acquaintances.  Young men like Siba looked forward to the feast because it meant meeting young women from other villages.  Komaka and Orehu watched their oldest son carefully, because they knew it was time for him to choose a bride.
As for Aloï, finding a bride seemed hopeless.  But, Aloï had a surprise for all of them!
The old village shaman arranged the entertainment for the feast.  Aloï had begged him to listen to the new music he was making on the bamboo stems.  Finally, the shaman agreed.  At first, the shaman didn’t believe what he was hearing.  Surely, this wonderful sound couldn’t be coming from a tree.  Although bamboo trees were everywhere on the island, no one had ever thought of using one that way.  Aloï played a tune on the instrument he’d made, and the shaman heard that it sounded a lot like the songs the people would sing at the great feast.  So he told Aloï: "After the drummers have finished playing, I will ask you to play the sounds of the new bamboo instrument."
When the time came, Aloï went to his parent’s hut and returned with his strange-looking instrument.  The people laughed when they saw it, but when Aloï started to play, they suddenly fell very silent.  No one had ever heard such beautiful sounds, and they couldn’t believe they were coming from bamboo.  Aloï played all the familiar songs, and he played them with such great skill that the people began to dance.  And they asked him to play the songs over and over again, long into the night, until Aloï could play no more.
From that day on, Aloï was hardly ever alone.  People would come from all over the island just to hear him practice.  Whenever there was a celebration, the village people would send for Aloï.  He taught others how to make and play the bamboo instrument, and he learned how to play with the drummers.
And, just as Komaka had predicted, Aloï was provided for.  He never went hungry, and neither did his family.  A young woman from a nearby village fell in love with Aloï’s music the first time he played, and soon she fell in love with him too.  Her name was Esa.  They married and had many children.  Some became hunters and some became musicians.
As for Siba, he too married and had many children. 
Although they were so different, Siba and Aloï became very close.  The two brothers put aside their differences, and they looked after their parents until Komaka and Orehu passed on to the next life.  Soon, they became the new leaders of their village on the island of Karukera.