The Social Clubs and the Westindian Style 1920-1930

A rare gramophone or Victor Victrola from 1921
similar to one I was given for me to fix and keep.
The crank mechanism was fine but I only had one record
to play on it- “Small Island Go Back Where You Come From.”

The first and, perhaps, the most visible signs of first generation
Westindian Panamanians showing some strength in uniting their resources were the Social Clubs.

These organizations were primarily for promoting the main social activity amongst the Black youth, mostly of the lower economic sectors of the city’s barrios, which was dancing at those parties. Such activities invited the attention of the Black youth of the Canal Zone the local English speaking radio stations and the social news columns for the Black Community of newspapers with bilingual (Spanish/English) sections.

The year of 1935 would, however, find social clubs like the Sheffield Social Club, usually composed of not more than six or seven young Westindians, most of them marking their 20th birthday, engaged in activities which would popularize the art of fund-raising coupled with dancing for the younger set still not old enough to be employed on the American Canal Zone. Most of these young men had been employed since the age of 15 on the Canal Zone, but by the time I had any knowledge of them they had been gainfully employed for approximately five years in some menial position that did not require much reading and writing skills.

The older youngsters who founded the social clubs emerged on the scene with an idea that had come from the older generation of immigrants who started organizing Lodges that mimicked the white and colored Americans from the USA. However, the scarcity of a medium of entertainment for Black Westindian Youth would, for most youth of the times, give the clubs a more festive orientation and they became so popular that their dances were “the” place to be on weekends and holidays. The early record players, known then as Gramophones, played the latest in Black American popular music from “the States” for dancing and listening entertainment and, of course, the early Calypsonians who would be evolving great music on the “pans,” the inimitable steel drums, from the island of Trinidad.

The hosts of the Sheffield Club were an attraction onto themselves as they usually appeared all dressed in hand tailored suits, shirts and slacks ordered from young local tailors who were skilled in the art of design as well as confection. Dressing in flashy, tasteful outfits that would be the envy of any Panameño would become a tradition amongst the younger Panamanian Westindians admired by all the younger age groups of girls and boys who could not wait for their turn to display Westindian fashion from the tip of their heads to their toes.

The fashion “statement” also included haircuts which could range from the raspao (shave almost all the hair off) with just a “caminito de hormigos”- an ant trail- to accent the cut, to the “bowl cut in which the barber would use what appeared to be calabash that was cut in half, placed it over the client’s head and clipped or shaved up to the rim, leaving a minimal amount of hair on the “copa” or crest, which was then accented with a line. Mr. Walter Grant’s (my step father, Bobby Grant’s, father) barber shop on 24th Street and Central Avenue in Calidonia would often be the liveliest place on weekends filled with young boys and men awaiting their turn in the barber chair.

The dances, however, were unforgettable and from the very early years of the 1920’s would mark a trend amongst the Spanish speaking youth of the neighborhoods. Such traditions would last even into the 1950’s and 1980’s, during which times the up and coming culture of the Spanish speaking youths of Panama would base their styles and taste on the Westindian model especially during their own popular February Fiestas of “Carnaval.

This story continues.

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