For children of the Caribbean sun, who have lived and dreamt amidst the rich hues of our beautiful home, it is a true phenomenon to witness a soul brilliant enough to stand out against this stunning backdrop.
Dr. Alwin Bully, an undeniable national and regional treasure, was such a rarity. Dr. Bully, who battled with Parkinson’s disease in his latter years, passed away on Friday, March 10, 2023, at the age of 75. As is befitting a man of this caliber we look now at a life that represents the full palette of culture and contribution–playwright and director, graphic artist, set designer, poet and short story writer, carnival designer and composer, and distinguished son of the soil.
We are conceived of the reddish-brown earth – taking root
Alwin Anthony Bully was born to Charles and Edna Bully on November 23, 1948, in Roseau, Dominica. As a child, Dr. Bully, who lived on King George V St, was greatly impacted by the yearly passing parade of traditional revelers and costumes of Dominica’s carnival. He credited the folk stories of soucouyan and La Diablesse which he was exposed to at an impressionable age with shaping his love of writing and storytelling.
Early on in his childhood, he had full permission to explore and collate various aspects of the culture. This was owed, in no small part, to a fertile environment that included parents who were themselves, enthusiasts of tradition, Mabel “Cissie” Cauderion–a giant in the world of cultural preservation–was an extended family member.
In 1977, he married Anita Bully (nee Astaphan), and they had three children, Peron (deceased), Brent, and Sade Bully. Sade, despite formal training as a medical doctor, famously went on to become a principal dancer in the Garth Fagan Dance Company, gaining some acclaim and proving that the apple does not fall far from the proverbial tree.
Dr. Bully was an alumnus of UWI, gaining first his Bachelor of Arts, and then an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the Cave Hill campus. During his educational tenure, he became Founding Member of the Barbados National Theatre Workshop, a dancer/choreographer in the Barbados National Dance Theatre Company, and served as president of the Guild of Undergraduates (1969-1970).
Verdant green is the womb of our origin – producing
Coming of age during the ’80s and ’90s in Dominica, meant that Alwin Bully was most likely a household name to you. He was at the forefront of the cultural wave, seemingly heading countless productions and projects. To take in his vast body of work (which is truly too extensive to list here), is to put into perspective the consistency, excellence, and sheer enormity which he brought to his calling.
Such a long-lived career sets precedence but since it traverses generations, things may be lost along the way. For instance, many readers may not be aware that Dr. Bully began as a founding dancer and choreographer of the Dominica Dance Company, and Founding Member of the Secondary Schools Drama Society in 1964 (a good portion of us may not yet have even been born).
Just two years later, he became chairman of the Dominica Arts Council and founded the Division of Culture in 1978, becoming its first Chief Cultural Officer. This was the year that he achieved what is perhaps the feat that is most indelibly woven into our national fabric–he designed our country’s unique and instantly recognizable flag. His acknowledgment that the circle and ten stars are the most significant aspects of the flag for him because they represent the equality of the parishes and people, is a small indication of the ideology of Dr. Bully.
Additionally, he went on to chair the Carnival Organising Committee as well as National Cultural Council in 1980 and 1981, respectively. He remained a proponent of the arts and curator of tradition, concurrently holding many chairships, and pioneering organized theatre on-island until his departure in 1987.
Another aspect of culture that Dr. Bully took up with fascination was ‘Neg Mawon’ or maroon communities of Dominica, attributing their 300-year existence in Dominica’s forests as being pivotal to the preservation of our African heritage. Though he wore many hats, they were all within the framework of cultural tradition and creativity.
The calm blue sea does not divide, but rather connects us – expansion
In 1987 opportunity came knocking, calling Dr. Bully away from his homeland. As UNESCO’s Culture Advisor, he took up residence in Jamaica where for 20 years, he set about contributing and creating in his style. His regional presence had in fact begun early in his career, with him serving in the capacity of advisor and/or executive chair of several arts and writing bodies from the late 60’s onward, and with works such as ‘Good Morning Miss Millie’, published by Penguin Books and Macmillan Caribbean.
Though Dr. Bully’s contributions and awards–local, regional, and international–are truly too numerous to mention, he notably was honored by The International Theatre Institute (Jamaica Center) for his work, as well as receiving a Lifetime Achievement Cacique Award from the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago in 2007.
Upon his return to Dominica, he served as Advisor to the Minister for Culture from 2008-2010 while continuing his creative endeavors. The year 2017 saw the publication of his adaptation of GCH Thomas’s ‘The Ruler in Hiroona’, and in 2018 the release of ‘Oseyi and the Masqueraders’, his film based in Colihaut, Dominica about the profundity of embracing all aspects of our culture. In 2021 he published a book of short stories–his first–’‘The Cocoa Dancer and Other Stories.’ Dr. Bully’s return made it clear that the tide may ebb and flow, but it never abandons its shores.
Shining Legacy: gold as the midday sun – taking flight
Raymond Lawrence, who succeeded Dr. Bully as Chief Cultural Officer in 1993, describes Dr. Bully as a “great mentor and friend”, acknowledging his work as legendary and affirming that his memory will remain a lasting legacy of his life’s contributions.
To that end, we ask: how do we make it so?
What Dr. Bully possessed was a direct connection to the untapped creative potential of the land, the sea and the sun. He harnessed the fertility that is our birthright, faithfully planting seeds along the way.
Ensuring that these seeds grow as they must means keeping his name and work alive in private and public spheres.
In his last years, he expressed concern about the trajectory of creative endeavours in Dominica. He wanted to see targeted investment in the traditional ways of expression and had specific ideas of how the Culture Act could work in accordance with the National Cultural Council and cultural policy.
Friend and close colleague of Dr. Bully of more than fifty years, Severin Mackenzie, recalls the “privilege” of being taught the subject of English by Dr. Bully at the Dominica Grammar School and joining the speech and drama clubs, as well as a small stint in the art club. Later, Mackenzie was welcomed into the People’s Action Theatre by Bully, and went on to be cast in ‘Ruler in Hiroona’, ‘Nitebox’, ‘Folk Nativity’ and ‘Pio Pio’, to name a few.
He described Dr. Bully as “an inspiration to thousands, if not millions, of people all over the Caribbean”, remarking at the generosity of his immediate family members–Anita, Brent, Sade, Collin, and Barbara–for sharing him with the world.
Out of a sincere hope that Dr. Bully’s passing will reignite an appreciation for the preservation of Dominica’s cultural heritage and the development of the arts in the country, he proposes several distinctions:
- Alwin Bully be bestowed the accolade of National Hero by the government of Dominica
- King George V St. be renamed after Alwin Bully
- Dr. Bully’s family home be converted into the Alwin Bully Museum where all of his works of art may be displayed
- The government of Dominica considers Alwin’s proposal for the development of the Botanical Gardens
Perhaps Alwin Bully’s stalwart efforts are best honoured by allowing our children to paint with all of the cultural colours available to them. An approach that, considering his work, he would surely approve of, and for which Mackenzie states “he gave his entire life”.
Below is Raymond Lawrence’s full statement: