Montreal-produced film about Caribbean folklore aims to connect past and present

Canboulay is an experimental dance film produced by Montreal's West-Can Folk Performing Company that uses Caribbean folklore culture to draw parallels between the Canboulay riots, which took place in Trinidad in 1881, and the ongoing fight against injustice.

Canboulay is an experimental dance film linking 1881 riots in Trinidad, ongoing fight against injustice

Two of the dancers who appear in Canboulay, a film by Montreal's West-Can Folk-Performing Company, smile for a photo while on location last year. (Submitted by West-Can Folk-Performing Company)

A new film released by West-Can Folk Performing Company, an Afro-Caribbean performing group in Montreal, is using lessons from the past to inspire and empower present and future generations.

Canboulay is an experimental dance film that uses Caribbean folklore culture to draw parallels between the Canboulay riots, which took place in Trinidad in 1881, and the ongoing fight against injustice.

During the riots, emancipated Trinidadians protested in order to be able to participate in festivities before the start of Lent, festivities now known as Carnival.

Director Shiata Lewis-Rouse applied for a grant to make the film last year, right around the time George Floyd was murdered in the U.S.

She said there was a sense of helplessness following his death, and the project shows how the fighting spirit needed to overcome challenges lives within.

"This film is about finding that sense of purpose, that energy when you like feel all is lost," she said.

"It's to remind people from the Caribbean diaspora that we do have a value here in North America, a rich cultural heritage and also to [instill] a sense of pride in our Caribbean culture."

Shiata Lewis-Rouse makes her directorial debut with Canboulay. She is also West-Can's artistic director. (CBC)

Learning about Caribbean roots

West-Can has been around for more than 40 years, showcasing Caribbean folk dance, folk drumming, folk songs and storytelling.

Melika Forde, the group's president, said they teach the descendants of Caribbean immigrants about their roots, and give elders a dose of nostalgia, allowing them to feel a sense of belonging even though they are far from home.

She said a lot of the group's exposure and income came from performances at weddings and community events. When those events were cancelled due to the pandemic, they had to figure out how to keep doing their work.

They applied for a grant through the Canada Council for the Arts meant to help groups create work that could be shared online and made Canboulay.

'More than beads and feathers'

The film showcases various elements of folklore culture such as spiritual ancestral guidance, calypso and stick fighting.

It was released to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, and the hope, Forde said, is that people will learn more about the traditions and customs beyond just carnival.

As Lewis-Rouse put it, the Caribbean and Caribbean people are "more than beads and feathers."

"It's lovely seeing the parades in the streets, and going on vacation and staying in lovely resorts, but there's such a beautiful spirit and energy that comes with people in the Caribbean."

Watch the film below:

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Based on reporting by Valeria Cori-Manocchio


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