RIPSAW MUSIC & OUR MUSICAL HERITAGE
& Photos by David Bowen,
Cultural Officer, Turks & Caicos Tourist Board
I can still recall the
day I was reintroduced to the sweet, unique sound of ripsaw music. It was
exactly two weeks to the day since I had moved back to Grand Turk after being
away for close to 20 years. There was some kind of party going on in the Over
Back settlement and I happened to be driving on Lighthouse Road on my way back
home. As I made the turn on Duncombe's Alley, I saw a group of guys sitting on a
wall banging on a drum, scraping a saw, hitting on a few bottles and singing at
the top of their lungs the old folk song, "Uncle Lou."
"Did you see Uncle
When he fall in the well
Oh, Oh Uncle Lou when he fall in the well.
He fell so deep,
til he went straight to hell
Oh, Oh Uncle Lou
when he fall in the well."
Being a musician
myself, I was drawn to the music and immediately struck by how powerful the
sounds of these simple instruments were. I sat and listened for close to two
hours and even ended up tapping out a rhythm on an old beer bottle with a nail,
but it was the saw player that really held my interest. The simple, but
ingenious way he got high and low sounds by bending the saw to extreme angles
while "ripping" out a rhythm with an old knife across the teeth of the saw was
fascinating. Every once in a while, I was able to hear the wobbled over tones
produced by the hitting, bending and scraping that really made the music come
I left those guys playing on that wall and I sang all the way home, very much
moved by the experience of hearing my native music once again. I even got out
the old saw from the shed in my grandmother's back yard and quickly discovered
that "ripsaw" was as much fun to play as it was to listen to.
is Ripsaw Music?
Ripsaw music is the national music of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Accompanied by
instruments such as the accordion, concertina, goat and cow skin drums,
triangle, shakers (maracas), box guitar and conga drums, the common carpenter
saw is used as the featured instrument, producing a rhythmic foundation for the
rest of band.
The term "ripsaw"
comes from the local name for the handsaw. The term also refers to the "ripping"
sound produced by the action of passing a metal object called the "scraper"
(usually an old knife) along the side of the saw's teeth. The resulting sound is
similar to that of paper being torn or ripped. There are several theories as to
why the carpenter saw was used as an instrument and like all indigenous folk
music, our ripsaw is the product of the passion of a people looking for a way to
produce sound and music with available materials.
According to one
theory, the natives of the Turks & Caicos were exposed to the music of the
Dominican Republic and Haiti through trade. Both of these countries have a
vibrant cultural heritage where music plays a major role. Their use of
instruments such as the accordion, Guido, grater and round goat or cow skin
drums, called conga or tambou, influenced the music and musicians of the Turks &
Caicos. Due to a lack of natural resources and materials in the Islands to
reproduce the instruments, our ancestors found ways to make square and round
drums which were heated over a fire to tighten and tune the skin and they
duplicated the ripping and scraping sound of the Guido by using the jagged edges
of the saw.
Another theory states
that the slaves of the Loyalists who fled the United States and settled in the
Caicos Islands brought saw playing here. These slaves reproduced on the saw the
sound of their native African instrument, the Shekere (pronounced Shaker-ray)
and made simple hand drums to duplicate the sound of the Djembe (pronounced Jem-bay).
Ripsaw and Rake & Scrape
There is much debate as to the origin of the use of the saw, but it is safe to
say that our style of Ripsaw
music originated and developed in the Caicos Islands--Middle and
North Caicos in particular. According to local musician and cultural historian Lovey Forbes, it is in these Islands where we find the roots of
cultural explosion. To this day, most the best drummers and ripsaw players come
from Middle and North
The Bahamas has also
claimed ownership to ripsaw but Junkanoo is considered their national music.
Their version of Ripsaw is called Rake & Scrape, a term which describes the
action and method of playing the saw by the musician. (He "rakes" and
"scrapes.") As our countries share a common history and cultural heritage, it is
difficult to dispute claims by either side. However this much is clear, Ripsaw
music is played on every inhabited island of the Turks & Caicos and is
nationally celebrated as a Turks & Caicos cultural art form.
Cat Island is the only
Bahamian Family Island that celebrates "Rake & Scrape" on a grand scale. The
whole island is involved in the annual Cat Island Rake and Scrape music festival
during the Bahamian Labor Day holiday in June. The Turks & Caicos have strong
ties to Cat Island, where many of our people settled during the lean years here
at home. Eris Moncur, president of the Cat Island Rake & Scrape Festival
Committee and local historian, himself is a descendent of the Stubbs family of
the Turks & Caicos. In the Cat Island festival, only the saw, concertina and
conga drum are used as the main instruments for the contest.
The movement of a people from one country to another is bound to affect the
culture and cultural development of the host country. During the 1920s, 1930s
and 1940s, on invitation from the Bahamian government who was looking for
laborers and contract workers to augment their work force, there was a mass
exodus from the Turks & Caicos Islands to the Bahamas. Since things were tough
in those days, many Islanders left looking for a better life in Inagua, Cat
Island, Nassau and Pine Ridge in Grand Bahama.
As the Bahamian
economy grew, many choose to remain and settle in the Bahamas and sent for their
families to join them. Naturally they took with them all aspects of their
cultural heritage, such as ripsaw music, folk songs, stories and ring games.
Over time, this has woven itself into the cultural fabric and folklore of the
Bahamian music and
culture was highly influenced by Turks & Caicos natives and their music. It was
amazing to discover that so many "Bahamian" musical stars are actually native
Turks & Caicos Islanders and many others are first generation descendants of
Turks Island workers. For many years it was difficult to be a Turks Islander in
the Bahamas. Many of our people held their tongues and claimed Bahamian roots to
avoid ridicule, prosecution and deportation.
Bahamians are often surprised to discover that many of their local artists and
musicians are indeed Turks Islanders. The #1 gospel group in the Bahamas, The
Cooling Waters, are all Turks Islanders. Singing stars and musicians like Marvin
Handfield, Count Bernardino, Perry Delancy, Leo Jones, Sly Roker and Bradley
Dean, just to name a few, are all native Turks & Caicos Islanders who helped
shape the Bahamian music scene.
recent years, with the return of many Belongers and their descendants from the
Bahamas due to the economic
boom we are now experiencing in the Turks & Caicos,
there are bound to be significant cultural changes in music, dance and
entertainment as these "T.I.--Bahamians" are in effect reintroducing a hybrid of
Turks & Caicos culture in the form of Bahamian-style calypso and Junkanoo.
Bahamian Junkanoo is now influencing our local festivals. Junkanoo parades were
known as "Massin" or "Jump Up" in the early years and the groups were mainly
made up of ripsaw musicians. Now, cowbells, whistles and a brass section have
replaced the saw, accordion, shakers, conch shells and glass bottles.
The two biggest and
most popular Junkanoo groups are the We Funk Junkanoo Group led by Kitchener
Penn and The Predators led by Wesley "Tanka" Williams. Both were involved with
the top groups in Nassau and Freeport and when they returned home to the TCI
brought with them the cowbells, horns and big bass drums of the exciting,
colorful Bahamian-style Junkanoo that has now added a
new dimension to Turks &
Playing the Ripsaw
Playing the saw is not as easy as might appear to the casual observer. One must
have an incredible sense of rhythm, strong hands and stamina. The saw is held
handle side up by the support hand with the teeth facing away from the body. The
narrow tapered end is braced on the outside or inside of the player's thigh.
Many players choose to cover this part of the saw to avoid their clothes or skin
from being cut by the blade.
The working hand
holds the scraper, usually an old kitchen knife but screwdrivers, long nails and
bits of strong wire have been used. The thigh acts as a brace for the saw and
the support hand bends and adjusts the tone as the working hand scrapes the
scraper over the teeth in time to the music.
Many first time
players make the mistake of using the whole arm of the working side and tend to
tire easily. According to Desmond "Dez" Misick, a local drummer and saw player,
the trick is to use only the wrist to cut down on fatigue. This will enable a
player to play a full show, which usually lasts between two to three hours.
When playing in a
band, it's also important to choose the right type of saw. Lovey Forbes suggests
an 11 point saw with its fine teeth. The lower the points, the coarser the teeth
and deeper the "Rip;" it is also a more difficult saw to play. The higher the
points, the finer the teeth and the "Rip" is smoother and easier to maintain.
If saw playing is not your calling, there are many other instruments that can
accompany a band. In a typical ripsaw band of yesteryear, the main instruments
were the saw, the goatskin drum and the accordion or concertina. Over the years,
the name "concertina" has been used to describe the accordion but they are two
different instruments. They both use air to produce the sound and are similar to
bellows in their construction, but their shape, size and keys are very
different. The concertina is a lightweight, six-sided instrument with a keyboard
a little larger then the size of a man's hand. There are between 10 to 30 keys
or knobs on each side, laid out in rows of five. Both the melody and chords are
played with both hands. The accordion is much larger and heavier. It needs to be
strapped on the player for support. The melody is played with the right hand on
a piano-like keyboard and the bass and chords use knobs on the left.
instruments such as the box guitar, harmonica, triangle, shakers, glass bottle,
tin canister, conch horn, homemade tinhorns and the simple comb and paper we
call "mouth organ" were all played. According to Mr. Samuel Simmons of Salt Cay,
James "Jaimsee" Bassett played trumpet and jazz horn in their Salt Cay ripsaw
Nowadays, the electric guitar and keyboard have replaced the accordion and
concertina as the lead instruments and the bass guitar and drum set make up the
rhythm section, but through all these changes, the saw has maintained its place
as the binding glue and rhythmic support for the band.
It is interesting to note that H.E. Sadler, on page 278 of his book,
Turks Islands Landfall, refers to a
local "steel band," but does not list the steel pan among the instruments, all
of which are those played in ripsaw music, so he was obviously referring to a
"ripsaw band." It is only in the last few years that the steel pan has become a
part of the local music scene. It began with Allison Williams and the wonderful
Provo Primary Steel Band and really made an impact with the Clement Howell High
School Steel Band, under the skillful direction of music teacher Kenton Wyatt.
The H.J. Robinson High School joined the trend by forming a steel band in 2001
under the direction of Mrs. Lyons, a music teacher from Trinidad.
The Saw and the Wider World
Beyond the boundaries of the Bahamian and Turks & Caicos archipelago, the saw
was used to some degree in local folk music in the U.S., Europe and the Eastern
Caribbean. I've discovered saw playing in the Caribbean island of Antigua, the
"hillbilly" community of the Southern U.S.A.
and, much to my surprise, Quebec, Canada.
One day, when
discussing local culture and ripsaw music with Marielle and Serge Tuyssuzian,
who run the Turks Head Brewery, I was quite surprised to learn that saw playing
existed in Canada.
The French-Canadians have a style of ripsaw music called Equoine (pronounced
Aqwin). Accompanied by the violin and spoons, the saw functions as a rhythmic
support for the other instruments.
In Europe, the saw was used but it was the smooth edge that was played. Instead
of a scraper, a bow like those used to play the violin was used. These saws
could actually play melodies and were used mainly as a solo instrument. I plan
to follow up my research on the use of the saw in music throughout the world in
hopes of putting on a truly international saw festival right here in the Turks &
Future of Ripsaw in the Turks & Caicos
Like most of our cultural heritage, ripsaw is now being rediscovered and
appreciated by the local and expatriate population. I have big plans and dreams
to expose ripsaw music to a wider audience and encourage the youth of the
country to learn and develop ripsaw and take it to the next level.
Mr. Lovey Forbes has
already begun a new style of ripsaw called "Combina" music. The concept came
about in 1981 and the term "Combina" comes from the word combination with the "tion"
removed, giving it that cultural T.I. feel and dialect. Mr. Forbes has taken the
basic rhythm and sound of the saw and incorporated it into different styles of
music such as reggae, pop, blues, country, gospel and calypso.
Combina music came
about through a conscious effort on the part of Mr. Forbes to fuse the musical
taste of our truly international population. Lovey also started a Ripsaw
Jamboree to showcase the saw and its players. His son Correy held a Jamboree in
North Caicos in 1995 with the hope of enticing saw players to form new bands.
Bernard Been held a Junior Festival in Grand Turk in 1999 with groups from
Middle Caicos, South Caicos and Grand Turk in hope of enticing the youth to take
up saw playing and refocus on local cultural music as a balance for their
fascination with American hip hop and rap music.
These men and these
events were on the right track to promoting and exposing the ripsaw to the
younger generation. Though it is important to have freedom of choice, I truly
feel that our youth should be exposed from an early age to the positive aspects
of their indigenous culture. This will instill pride and appreciation for their
country and culture and they will be able to better manage their passion,
fascination and understanding of the music and lifestyles of other cultures.
The summer of 2003
will see a spectacular performance of ripsaw music during the First Annual Turks
& Caicos Ripsaw Festival. There will be bands from each island participating in
this two-day event. A ripsaw competition will be held for the younger bands with
cash prizes and trophies going to the best saw player, the best drummer, the
best original song and, of course, the best overall band.
This festival will be
a long overdue celebration of Turks & Caicos culture and ripsaw music. Liam
McGuire, who held the post of Minister of Tourism from 1976-1980, realized the
importance of ripsaw as a vehicle for tourism by having a band greet visitors at
the airport and play for special guests at the Admiral Arms Hotel in South
Caicos. I hope to revive the passion of this native music and to once again have
ripsaw bands play at the airports and hotels throughout the Turks & Caicos.
I encourage you to contact me in care of the Turks & Caicos Tourist Board with
names and information on other ripsaw musicians, so that my list will continue
to grow and these special persons become an integral part of our cultural