Sun | Jul 22, 2018

Brian-Paul Welsh | Mad genius

Published:Monday | April 3, 2017 | 12:29 AM

One of the haunting stories of our popular culture, a tale that is told and retold in folklore at generational intervals, is the stellar rise and tragic fall of Jamaica's mad musical genius, the legendary Don Drummond.
The trombone was the primary instrument for Drummond's sonic musings, flourishing the notes of this tormented master who could seemingly only find relief for his troubled mind while creating the soundtrack to an imaginary world. His haunting songs droned and effervesced in minor tones, with melancholy melodies and thrilling crescendos painting vivid mindscapes in the universal language of human emotion.
Despite a proliferation of works, much of which provide the framework for the sounds we hear today, he had little material reward in his short and painful life, though his seminal contributions have endured to inspire generations of musicians from the so-called golden age of Jamaican music into the present.
His formative years in the late colonial era of Kingston were not unlike those of the many barefoot children still found astray in the capital's streets today. This restlessness would set him on a serendipitous path from waywardness and towards his soul's full creative expression through the development of his melodic gift under the guidance and protection of Sister Mary Ignatius at the Alpha Boys' School.
By all accounts, Don Drummond was a virtuoso that was possessed with seemingly cosmic talent for playing the wailing trombone, eventually becoming a major crowd-puller in the original dance halls of Kingston, at a time when patrons actually danced to orchestras inside those halls. This reverence for the enigmatic Don stood in sharp contrast with general ostracism due to his increasingly bizarre behaviour and well-known bouts with mental illness, making for a tragic paradox and an enduring mystery.
Even after Drummond walked into the Rockfort Police Station early in the morning of January 2, 1965, and informed them that his spouse, popular rumba dancer Margarita Mahfood, had fatally stabbed herself four times in the chest (following a night on the town doing her seductive dancing without his permission); even after failing to offer a plausible defence with which future Queen's Counsel and Prime Minister P.J. Patterson could attempt exoneration; even after dying as a criminal lunatic in the Bellevue Asylum, for fans of his music, Don Drummond remains an icon, an influential creative archetype in spite of his disgraceful demise.


Contemplating this apparent contradiction between the lionised artiste and the reviled antisocial revealed some of the many ways that fanaticism can cause us to suspend our conscience in favour of that to which we pledge our allegiance. There are many among us, probably not including the Mahfood family, for whom Don Drummond was just a sweet misunderstood savage, a simple little murderer possibly overwhelmed by balancing the weight of his exceptional musical gift with the demands of managing an empowered woman. Besides, his compositions are nowhere near as caustic as Vybz Kartel's or as insipid as Alkaline's!
Recently, while under sonic assault by a vuvuzela troupe at a contemporary dancehall event, I wondered if among them were more savants awaiting discovery, diamonds in the 'buguyaga' abyss.
After scampering to save life and limb from a stampeding herd of sycophants, I paused to consider whether Don Drummondís trombone blew the minds of those in the 1960s dance halls in the same way some of these performers do nowadays, and whether we would be as forgiving of our modern-day heroes if we were ever made aware of their despicable deeds.
Comedian Dave Chappelle shared his thoughts on the similar moral dilemma facing some members of the African-American community in light of the multitude of sexual assault allegations swirling around beloved cultural icon Bill Cosby, sharing:
"I've never met Bill Cosby, so I'm not defending him. Let's just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can't just throw away. I remember that he's the first black man to ever win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he's the first guy to make a cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionately."
Chappelle went on to cheekily opine:
ìHe gave tens of millions of dollars to African-American institutions of higher learning, and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college, not just the ones he raped. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for ñ the point is this: He rapes, but he saves. And he saves more than he rapes. But he probably does rape."
In this painful rhetorical puzzle, we see the difficulty in suspending our belief in order to maintain the falsehoods that bring us pleasure.
- Brian-Paul Welsh is a writer and public affairs commentator. Email feedback to and, or tweet @islandcynic.