Dancing the Archive: Rhythms of Change in Post-Volcano Identities on Montserrat, West Indies

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In this dissertation, I demonstrate how improvisations within the structures of performance during Montserrat’s annual festivals produce “rhythms of change” that contribute to the formation of cultural identities. Montserrat is a small island of 39.5 square miles in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands, and a volcanic disaster in the 1990s led to the loss of villages, homes, and material possessions. The crisis resulted in mass displacement and emigration, and today’s remaining population of 5,000 is now in a stage of post-volcano redevelopment. The reliability of written archives for establishing cultural knowledge is tenuous, and the community is faced with re-energizing cherished cultural traditions.

This ethnographic research traces my embodied search for Montserrat’s history through an archive that is itself intangible and performative. Festivals produce some of the island’s most visible and culturally political events, and music and dance performances prompt on- and off-stage discussions about the island’s multifaceted heritage. The festival cycle provides the structure for ongoing renegotiations of what it means to be “Montserratian.” I focus especially on the island’s often-discussed and debated “triangular” heritage of Irishness, Africanness, and Montserratianness as it is performed during the festivals.

Through my meanderings along the winding hilly roads of Montserrat, I explored reconfigurations of cultural memory through the island’s masquerade dance tradition and other festival celebrations. In this work, I introduce a “Cast of Characters,” each of whose scholarly, artistic, and public service work on Montserrat contributes to the shape and transformation of the island’s post-volcano cultural identities today. This dissertation is about the kinesthetic transmission of shared (and sometimes unshared) cultural knowledge, the substance of which echoes in the rhythms of Montserrat’s music and dance practices today.