In Search of the Big Bamboo

How Caribbean beach boys sell fun in the sun


| January/February 2000



The Big Bamboo, performed to the inevitable accompaniment of limbo dancing and fire-eaters, is a highlight in the boisterous floor shows that dominate resort hotels from the Cayman Islands to St. Lucia. The calypsonian performing the song usually grabs his crotch as he sings the refrain, eyeing his white audience suggestively. The tourists seem enthralled, if abashed: Males look away, embarrassed, while their female companions titter nervously. The black staff glance at one another knowingly.

Meanwhile, in contemporary dance-hall and reggae, lyrics boasting of sexual performance and "hood" size are more common than ever. The sexually explicit songs of popular DJs like Shabba Ranks ("Stamina Daddy"), Lady Saw ("Winning Skill"), and Little Lenny ("Nine Inches Long and Coming") propagate the myth of the big bamboo at home and abroad.

But the big bamboo has a life outside popular song. In the work of many "intuitive" Rastafarian artists, the dreadlocked male is portrayed nude, with a huge penis, often erect, dwarfing the rest of the body. West Indian fiction also celebrates the sexual power of the Caribbean male. The work of Earl Lovelace, Anthony Winkler, and Jacques Romain is filled with strong and virile male protagonists who lay down the bamboo all night, reducing their female partners to whimpering submission. The tradition of sexual exaggeration reaches a new extreme in Raphaël Confiant's Eau de Café: Confiant's protagonist is endowed with a two-meter penis that he keeps wrapped around his waist. When female characters appear in these stories, they are inevitably restless and hungry, like Sandra in Kwadwo Agymah Kamauís Flickering Shadows. Having spent most of the novel with a sexually inadequate white husband, Sandra ultimately finds deliverance in a virile black man who leaves her spent, weak-kneed, and satisfied.

It has been suggested that the relentless celebration of phallic imagery is, in part, a playful response to white stereotypes of primitive black male potency, that these works of culture, high and low, reflect the exoticist tropes of the racial imagination. But if this sexual exaggeration is ironic, it is nevertheless ubiquitous in the Caribbean. On many street corners throughout the islands, West Indian males strike a familiar pose: One hand rests authoritatively on the crotch. Sometimes this is simply a reassuring habit, a reminder that the bamboo is ready for action, but often the poser harasses female passersby: "Here gyall, yu wud lub some of dis!"

Female sex tourists first came to the Caribbean early in this century. They were older white women, come to winter in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The stuff of island legend, these well-heeled women arrived with steamer trunks, took up residence in large quarters, and tapped young black males to service them discreetly for the duration of their stay. The men were rewarded handsomely, so there was no shortage of potential gigolos. Everyone knew which young man went with which dowager; when the women arrived at the jetty, there was loud teasing: "Simon, your mudder com!" The entry of younger women into the sex tourism market dates to the early 1960s, when Scandinavian, British, and German women first began to travel to the southern coasts of Europe: Italy, Spain, and Greece. In Greece, the term Kamaki evolved to describe local men, many of them fishermen, who had sexual relations with tourist women in exchange for money and gifts. Since the emergence of package travel tours in the 1970s, European women have been able to safely travel farther afield. And so they're off to Gambia, Kenya, or Ghana, to Jamaica or Barbados, to Thailand, the Philippines, or Indonesia, India, or Brazil.

Since the early 1970s, Barbados has become a popular destination for female tourists seeking what the sociologist Graham Dann has called "close encounters of the Third World kind." Young males—"beach boys"—cruise the sands in search of unattached tourist women. Beach boys are easy to spot because of their distinctive wardrobe: They go in for T-shirts, baggy swimming trunks, Teva sandals, gold bracelets, and brand-name sunglasses, preferably Oakley or Ray-Ban. They are without exception physically fit. Some have bleached hair, and a few sport baby dreadlocks, called "nubbies."