A Complete Guide to the Rake and Scrape Music of North Andros Island
There is a good reason why you may have never heard of the sixth largest island in the West Indies, The Bahamas’ North Andros (after Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad). Although it borders a sea trench, there are no deep harbors at island’s edge, and the cruise ships go elsewhere. That leaves its emerald waters and white sandy beaches to those who prefer to create their own itinerary in paradise. For me, it was three botanical expeditions in the early 1990s to North Andros, with meals and lodging on the beach at Miami (Ohio) University’s Forfar Field Station (now closed). I was accompanied on all three journeys by one or two other botanists from the States.
Greater Andros Island is a collection of many islands crowded together, and North Andros is larger than the rest of them combined. The distance from the north end of North Andros to the south end of South Andros is over 100 miles. North Andros itself is nearly 70 miles long, and 45 miles wide at its broadest. The sparse human population is almost entirely of African descent, with many tracing their ancestry to people who had been freed from slave ships by the British during the early 1800s. They were deposited on the island rather than being returned to Africa. The original inhabitants, the Lucayans, had been completely wiped out by slavery and disease by 1520. “Lucayan” derives from the native Taino phrase meaning people of the islands, and is the root of the British “cay” and American “key,” as in Key West.
North Andros is the water supply for the Bahamian capital, Nassau, located about 35 miles to the east on the island of New Providence. It is one of the smaller islands in The Bahamas, but has deep harbors.
On our third expedition to North Andros, in 1993, we arrived by commercial flight from Ft. Lauderdale on a plane so small that one of the passengers sat next to the pilot. The Bahamian government required that the field station transport its guests from the airport by local taxi. When the guests departed, the taxi again had to be summoned. But in between, we didn’t have to use the taxi at all, and never did.
Our taxi on arrival was driven by a large, good-natured woman who sang for us with a very fine voice. I told her we were interested in hearing some traditional island music and she said there was a “rake and scrape” band playing that night in Nicholls Town at the north end of the island. With 600 people, it was the largest community on all of Andros.
As we neared the field station, our driver invited us to come to her church to hear some gospel music. “Come any night but Wednesday,” she said. She told us Wednesday was the night the preacher drove the devil out of everyone, and all of that disembodied evil gathered into the most sinful person in the building. Her warning was generous, but I had a nagging feeling that behind her kindness was a simple certainty the most sinful person would be among us.
Although my sample size is small, religion with a touch of the old ways strongly influenced their lives. One of the field station’s researchers told me about an incident when she was helping in the kitchen, where a few local women were employed to do the cooking
“I see you are left-handed,” said the Andros cook to the researcher. “That means you owe something to the devil.”
“Owe what?” replied the researcher.
“You’ll know when you get there.”
Andros Island is noted among herpetologists for the endangered Andros rock iguana, which can reach three feet or more in length, and has a large orange head. In spite of the iguana’s endangered status, the animals were being killed on sight during the time of our visits, and then eaten. I was told they weren’t being killed primarily for food, but because they were reptiles, kin to serpents. To the Androsians, extinction would be a blessed achievement.
Most of the island’s people seemed to be getting by on a subsistence economy rooted in home gardens, and in what could be gathered from the ample sea. The pace of life was slow and idyllic, at least for the men. During the day, women seemed mostly to stay home and tend the gardens while the men gathered in groups at a small and remote convenience store, or along the main road at places where a vehicle had just died. Repair and replacement parts were apparently unaffordable, and the gatherings were essentially wakes. Every now and then, a government bulldozer would push the car-casses (sorry) off the roadside and into the adjacent woods. We eventually realized there were scores if not hundreds of shrub-enshrouded dead automobiles in the woods along both sides of the road.
Meanwhile, back at the remote convenience store, sales were slow in spite of the crowd, but that was just our perspective. A field station researcher told us that one day she brought a van filled with about ten students to the small store for sodas. The proprietor shooed them out and closed the door, telling them they were too many people to deal with.
This economic pace also governed the island’s few restaurants. Before heading to one for dinner, it was necessary to call first. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be open. Or if it was open because someone else had called, you still couldn’t eat. There was only enough food for those who had called ahead and placed their order for the inevitable two choices: chicken and conch. The field station may have had the most reliable kitchen on the island.
After dinner that first night a group of us headed north in the station’s pickup to hear the music in Nicholls Town. About half way we encountered a man hitch-hiking, a popular form of transportation on the island. Our hitch-hiker was none other than James “Killer” Smith, lead singer and shaker (of maracas) for the Potcakes, Andros Island’s only rake and scrape band. He acquired his nickname while working as a policeman in Nassau. I know of no other place where it would be comfortable to ride in the back of a pickup with a hitch-hiker nicknamed Killer. He was enthusiastic about our interest in the music, and when we got to the club where his group would play, he introduced me to Kelly, the group’s guitarist. Kelly appeared to be at least a generation older than the other musicians. Most of what I learned about rake and scrape was told to me by him.
Rake and scrape music has two roots, goombay and junkanoo. Goombay is Bahamian calypso, and gets its name from the conga-like goombay drum. Junkanoo is a festival surviving from the days of slavery, and is related to the John Canoe festivals of Jamaica, Haiti, Belize, Bermuda, and – of all places – where I live, eastern North Carolina, where recently revived after not having been celebrated since the 1800s. The junkanoo festival takes place on the mornings of Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day. It features fancy costumes, a procession, and percussive music of cowbells, horns, whistles, and goatskin drums – the goombay drum, open at one end. Periodically, procession participants stop and light fires to heat and tighten the drums.
Rake and scrape is basically calypso music with a junkanoo rhythm section. The most important percussion instrument is not the goombay drum but the carpenter’s saw, which today is raked and scraped with a table knife or screwdriver. The original scrapers, dating back to the 19th century, were spoons on washboards or sticks on animal jawbones. According to a historical account, these were replaced in the 1920s by the “bottle and nail,” featuring the corrugated bottle of Gilby’s Gin during the smuggling heyday of U.S. Prohibition; and by the carpenter’s saw with nail, knife, or screwdriver, arising from the Nassau tourism construction boom occurring at the same time.
According to Kelly, rake and scrape music was a dying art form in The Bahamas in 1993, too primitive for Nassau tastes. He thought there were no more than five bands left. Kelly said Cat and Long islands were the heart of rake and scrape, where it was strictly acoustic and played around a bonfire at night.
The Potcakes did not immediately strike the ear as a polished band. Kelly’s electric guitar was out of tune by at least a quarter-tone for the entire performance. I now think this may have been intentional, an exaggeration of the slightly flat tuning of the guitar by Joseph Spence, a well-known “rhyming singer.” Spence was from Small Hope, a town about 15 miles south of the Forfar Field Station. At the time of our visit he was living on South Andros Island. In his guitar, the off-tuning produced a blues-like undertone. The blues in Kelly’s version was not in the guitar, but in the pain to unaccustomed ears.
Killer sang too loudly when leading, and he was the electrified lead singer. Most songs featured a volume imbalance among individual musicians – and for the discerning listener, an unusual use of pitch and cadence. At times, each musician seemed to be playing to a different drummer. Nonetheless, the music was very lively, often compelling, and in a few instances – particularly in a song titled “Cat Island” – transcendent. I don’t know what happened for “Cat Island,” but suddenly they were very polished musicians, in balance and in time during a lovely song. Even Kelly’s guitar seemed momentarily in tune. I think the well-played songs were the ones they had played most often, and they just needed more practice (possibly a lot more practice) on the rest. The difference was so great that if I had only heard and not seen them, I would have sworn the songs were played by two different bands. My guess is they were not able to practice at all, and could only perform. The other musicians were the sawyer, a bass guitar player, and the goombay drummer. The sawyer cradled the saw between his hand and shoulder, and bent it to produce different tones.
While we were there, the Commissioner of North Andros came in and sat down with us. He reminded me of one of those suave tropical characters from a 1940s Bogart or Mitchum film, but with a better tan. After a while, he sat in with the band for a few numbers, playing a second saw. Quite possibly, we were listening to the world’s only band with a saw section. Unlike the band’s regular (or first) sawyer, he placed the end of his saw on the floor to bend it and produce the different tones while scraping. The commissioner told us he knew Joseph Spence (who died in 1994, the year after our visit), and that his music was a combination of Bahamian calypso (goombay) and gospel. He said Spence played the guitar as if each string were a different instrument, the effect being that the guitar seemed to produce more music than its innate capability would suggest.
We had no idea that we’d be hobnobbing with the island’s chief government official, let alone that he would be a player of and expert in the indigenous music. I wanted to repay his kindness, but as usual I impulsively tested the waters.
“Would it be graft and corruption if I bought you a drink?”
He paused, gave me a hard look, then smiled and said, “You can buy me a drink.”