Mr Winston Fleary passed away on 4 December 2019, after the 2020 edition of Ins & Outs of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique had gone to print, including this feature. The text below has been adapted to reflect this. We hope this serves as fitting tribute to his legacy and valuable contribution to Carriacou.
Mr Winston Fleary’s nephew, Trevor McIntosh, recalls visiting him in the nursing home where he spent his last days in Carriacou, barely able to communicate, and having lost both his legs to diabetes. Trevor played recordings of Big Drum music for his uncle, and describes his reaction: “His face softened, there was a twinkle in his eyes, and it was clear that he was being transported back in time. He looked like he was ready to jump up, grab a drum and start dancing.”
You’d struggle to find someone who has contributed more to Carriacou’s cultural heritage than Winston Fleary has over his 76 years. Credited with taking Big Drum from Carriacou and showcasing it to the world, and named by Grenada’s Ministry of Culture as a Cultural Ambassador for Carriacou, he dedicated his life to the artform, as a drummer, dancer, singer, playwright and charismatic leader of many Big Drums.
Carriacou is unique in its celebration of Big Drum. While the name focuses on the instrument, Big Drum is actually a series of dances, which are prepared for special occasions in the community. These include weddings, the raising of tombstones, boat launches and village maroons, where villagers come together, cook traditional food and partake in Big Drum often to give thanks for a good rainy season and hope for a better one. The music is mainly singing and rhythmic chanting, complemented with three drums, shakers and maracas. The dances have very direct roots back to particular parts of Africa; an oral story-telling tradition that links dancers to their ancestors. The purpose of Big Drum is two-fold: remembering lineage and honouring ancestors. And because of it, many Carriacouans, or Kayaks as they are affectionately known, are able to trace their lineage to specific tribes in Africa; something that most West Indians are unable to do.
Born in 1943 in the small village of Belvedere, Carriacou, Winston Fleary recalled his first experience of Big Drum at a relative’s boat launch. The leader was Sugar Adams, a legendary master of Big Drum who would have a life-long influence on Mr Fleary’s relationship with the artform. Just before starting medical school, while watching Sugar Adams perform in New York, he felt a profound calling, and decided to abandon his place at university and dedicate his life to Big Drum and promoting Carriacou’s culture around the world.
Mr Fleary founded Big Drum Nation, a cultural organisation based in New York, which brought singers, drummers and dancers from Carriacou to the United States to perform. It was a way of connecting the diaspora with their roots, and introducing Americans and people all over the world to the tiny Caribbean island that few had heard of. Always with a thirst for learning, Mr Fleary studied everything about Big Drum and the musical traditions of Carriacou, and what it meant to come from Africa. He successfully traced his family lineage to Ghana and Sierra Leone and in 2016, people from Ghana came to visit him in Carriacou and learn about how Big Drum had evolved there over the centuries. What Winston Fleary achieved through Big Drum Nation was astounding. Over the years, they performed at the White House, the Smithsonian Institute, Edinburgh Festival, and at Buckingham Palace.
Living in London at the time, Trevor remembers going to the Dominion Theatre, a fifteen year old in a bow tie, proudly watching his uncle perform a play he had written about Carriacou, incorporating song and dance: “It was the first black play ever performed at the theatre, and the royal family were in attendance. He was just an incredible performer. The best. And I’m not just saying that because he was my uncle!”
After moving back to Carriacou in 1988, Winston Fleary was one of the founders of, and regular performer at the Maroon & Stringband Festival, an annual event which showcases Carriacou’s musical traditions, along with contemporary music, and aims to keep the traditions alive and the younger generation interested in the artform.
In October 2020, a special event is being planned in Carriacou to honour Winston Fleary and his contribution to Carriacou’s heritage. Rare music recordings made in 1962 by Alan Lomax, a world-renowned ethnomusicologist, will be repatriated and played for Carriacouans for the first time. Mr Fleary’s play ‘Come to the Village’, which has only ever been performed at the Maya Angelou School of Arts, will finally be performed in Carriacou, thanks to Winston Fleary’s original hand-written script being uncovered. The event is to honour Mr Fleary’s legacy, and to continue his life work - inspiring the next generation of Kayaks to keep Big Drum alive in Carriacou.