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The Unsung Heroes Of Jamaican Popular Music – Chapter 1

June 26, 2015
Entertainment , History , News
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There is a persistent myth that seeks to suggest that the influence of Caribbean music on the rest of the world is a recent phenomenon, and that prior to the appearance of Bob Marley and Reggae music the Caribbean had no significant presence in the wider world. Not only that, but there is no general awareness of the musical life of Marley during the period when he was just a Wailer along with Peter
Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, and made very successful recordings of R & B ballads
Gospel and Ska.

The other myth is that Rhythm belongs to Africa and melody to Europe, and that any person of African heritage who engages the so-called European musical aesthetic, or seeks to be technically equipped to play a musical instrument is mentally enslaved in Euro-centrism. Together these two persistent myths have been the lynchpins of a social engineering strategy, employed to create perhaps unwittingly, a generation of Jamaicans (since this is not the case in the other English-speaking parts of the region) disconnected from melody as music, incapable of actually hearing and identifying discordant sounds, and has produced a new recording industry, peopled by producers who create a single rhythm track upon which several, or endless numbers of singers, and this word is used reservedly, perform without concern for differences in quality of voice or range, or even differences in the structure of the work to be recorded. But before there was ‘global cultural diffusion’ a term used by Orlando Patterson in his work ‘Global Culture and the Cosmos’ there was ‘world music’ and before that there was the usual globe-trotting activities of artistic prophets and musicians from the Caribbean such as Bertie King-Sax, Coleridge Goode-Bass, Joe Harriot-sax, Lord Kitchener-Calypsonian composer, and Lord Beginner, Jiver Hutchinson-trumpet, Dizzy Reece-trumpet, Little G. McNair-flute, Shake Keane, Snake-hips Johnson and Cyril Blake a vocalist-trumpeter and guitarist, whose band was recorded live at Jigs Club in Wardour Street, by Parlophone records in 1941 during the second world war. Earlier still, during the twenties, Sam Manning and Fred Hall and Carl Berrateau who were major recording stars on what was known as the ‘race records’ circuit. Even earlier still there were recordings by Trinidadian musicians, issued in the UK.

Says John Cowley in his paper on ethnic relations in the UK: ‘ it must be stated that although most of the recordings were of Trinidadian musicians, “mentor” as in the Cole Mentor Orchestra who accompanied Sam Manning in 1926, and used to describe Lionel Belasco’s unissued 1948 recording,
Jamaica Serenade, is almost certainly the Jamaican song/dance form usually spelt mento…..This and other clues such as the presence of Jamaicans inLondon jazz/dance bands in the 1930s indicates they were part of the West Indian musical spectrum at this time.’

Beginning in June 1912, with New York recordings by Lovey’s Trinidad String Band, made both for the Victor Talking Machine and Columbia Gramophone companies, British West Indian music has a long history on gramophone records.Victor and Columbia visited Trinidad in 1914 for on-the-spot recordings; the former issuing examples of Native Trinidad Kalenda by Jules Sims and Double Tone and Single Tone Calipso by J. Resigna (chantwelle, Julian Whiterose). Victor also discovered and started their many recordings of Trinidad pianist and bandleader Lionel Belasco. ( Who was probably the first black musician to be recorded) Perhaps because all speech is powerful and sacred, and words do not return to us void but wander about in the air until they fulfill themselves, we who are African descendants, and bearers of an oral civilization, tend to pay rather more attention to our verbal artists than to the instrument playing musician whose work, by its very nature, is evanescent; even when musical works are recorded, there is difficulty in retaining their pattern without words to lock them into the memory.

For this very reason, simple chants, and short repetitive phrases are favored. The DJ of Dance Hall is the modern-day Griot whose praise/curse occupation and preoccupation, enables him to memorize and speak long lines of speech in his oral presentation, accompanied only by a sustained rhythm which aids the process of recall. It is for the same reason that the Calypso and Mento troubadours were popular, both forms being storytelling forms whose real currency was words. Nevertheless, the instrument-playing musician had and continues to have a very important role to play, for no matter how short or how simple the phrase, it is the musician who must create it; every successful calypsonian is a musician, playing either the guitar or the banjo, and every Mento band is made up of musicians playing an instrument and singing, and every one of Jamaica’s popular music stars owes more than 50% of their successes to the musicians who created the music to which they sang, and who helped them in many cases to organize the grammatical content of their songs. There can be no dancing without music; no films, no plays; Why have we come to regard complex musical structures and their creators within a Caribbean space, with suspicion? There is no lack of evidence of musicianship in Africa; the many instruments of melody that are African in origin speaks to the myth that Africa only had rhythm. The vibraphone has an antecedent in the African xylophone; the many stringed instruments including the Banjo stands as evidence as well as the many wind instruments of African origin. The SANKO is a Zither type an instrument known to the Ashanti and the KOONTING, a 3-stringed plucked instrument, the KORRO an 18 stringed Harp and the Simbing a small 7-stringed harp all known to the Mandingoes as well as a 5-stringed Mandolin known to the Gabon are some of the many instruments of melody known in Africa.

Recently at a presentation ceremony to hand over to Dr. Olive Lewin CDs of her research collection, she remarked in her thank-you speech that she looked forward to the time when the traditional music forms collected and preserved would form the basis of large orchestral works, and I recalled being at a concert of the Jamaica Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mr. Sidthorpe Becket in 1978 and hearing
the Linstead Market Suite composed by Mapletoffe Poulle, who incidentally, had a hand in the creation of the melody of the Jamaica National Anthem. Perhaps because of Mr. Poulle’s middle class, his work was ignored. But then, what of the works of Ms. Marjorie Whylie for the National Dance Theatre Company, of Mr. Noel Dexter’s religious compositions for the Caribbean church using the Caribbean musical traditional forms? of Mr. Peter Ashbourne? and of Barry Chevannes?

… chapter 2 coming up soon.


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