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IOJ focuses ion Nettleford, Chevannes

Published:Friday | November 21, 2014 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord

The lives and groundbreaking, internationally influential work of two of Jamaica's cultural icons, the late University of the West Indies (UWI) professors Barry Chevannes and Rex Nettleford, were the subject of a recent two-day symposium.

Organised by the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) under the theme 'Two of a Mind', it was held in the IOJ's auditorium on October 31 and November 1. The symposium featured live and audiovisual presentations by more than 30 of the men's colleagues, friends and students.

Two posters in the lobby outside the auditorium briefly introduced them. Chevannes was described as a social anthropologist and inspirational songwriter, singer and guitarist "whose music is grounded in the Jamaican rural folk culture". Further, it was stated that Nettleford's "50-year relationship with the UWI began in 1953 when he pursued a bachelor's degree in history at Mona."

The summaries hardly scratched the surface of their accomplishments, as anyone who attended the symposium would realise. I was in awe long before it ended, despite missing many of the presentations.

One person who was there from start to finish was Chevannes' daughter, Amba. I asked her what she thought of the event, particularly whether her father's personality was adequately captured by any of the speakers.

Before she choked up, on the verge of tears, Amba told me that she had been moved by some of the presentations. The speakers clearly knew her father well, she said, and were aware of the many different sides "all linked to his own humanity."

She spoke of connections among all the areas of his work - violence prevention, reparation, decriminalisation of ganja, the fatherhood project, work in Rastafarianism, and his Afro-Caribbean world views. "In his healing he was also healed," Amba added, "and I think the practice also heals us. That 's the lesson I got from him, and I see bits and pieces of it in the presentations. What was nice was learning about different parts of him that I didn't really know."

She continued: "Just as we knew him at home, so people knew him. I feel honoured to have been not just a part of him (as his daughter), but to be his friend. I miss that. I miss him as a father, but I also miss ... ."

That was where voice-breaking Amba stopped and waved my tape recorder aside.


Dr Hilary Robertson-Hickling told the audience that both men were healers. Fellow UWI lecturer Dr Clinton Hutton picked up the point when he quoted from Chevannes on Rastafarianism's influence on Revival (Jamaica Journal, Vol. 33) and said that the use of plants for healing was common to both movements.

Marlon Simms, assistant artistic director of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) and deputy director of the School of Dance, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, spoke of the dance company's birth and growth. The NDTC was founded by Nettleford and the late Eddy Thomas in 1962, with six dancers and three creative technicians. The company has grown to 60-plus members.

"We're particularly excited about the development since professor (Nettleford) died (in 2010)," said Simms. He cited some areas of development as the growth of the NDTC Trainee programme, with 20-odd young people, workshops for children, an annual young choreographers showcase, the NDTC journal (produced twice a year), and the entry of the company into the social-media arena.

Ewan Simpson, the NDTC's third musical director (after Joyce Lalor and Marjorie Whylie), said that next month will mark his second year in the post. He said the NDTC's music has to be "about us as a people" at home and in the diaspora. The challenge was to discover who we are, he continued, as we are several cultures mixed together.

He said: "The primary purpose of the music of the NDTC is to support the movement of the company (and) I insist that any presentation of the NDTC must have music of the highest standard."

Dr Monika Lawrence, whose talk was 'The Creative Process: An Analysis of Rex Nettleford the Choreographer as Cultural Philosopher', spoke about dances he choreographed as resounding "with the ethos and structures of many traditional African rituals." Nevertheless, he had the ability to "insert nationalism", making the dances both Jamaican and African.

Lawrence stressed the point that it was because Nettleford was a university professor, a Rhodes Scholar and an articulate speaker of the Queen's English, that he was able to elevate both dance and education. "Nettleford's visionary stance established a model for dancers of colour around the world," Lawrence said. "But the journey is nowhere finished."

power of dance

Dr Maria Smith began her talk, 'Silencing: Talking Back through the Dance', by stating, "I had the good fortune to be taught by both professors. I'm grateful for the interaction I had with them and the lessons learnt from both men."

Nettleford believed, she said, that dance had the power "to provide the wings of liberation (for the nation)" and he "used prevailing sounds, issues and movement to inform the repertoire of the NDTC. His choreography provides a reference point for the heritage and cultural memories of Afro-Jamaican people and the wider Caribbean."

She said that Nettleford made a conscious effort to restage his own and Jamaica's history in the creation and performance of major roles he himself danced - the Myal man, the revival shepherd, the Kumina king, and the king in African Scenario. The roles were, she added, an affirmation of selfhood - his own and Jamaica's.

"In re-enacting the African experience in Jamaica and the Caribbean," Smith concluded, "he presents the artistic community, the politician and fellow Jamaicans with a reference point and the traditional wisdom of ordinary folk to assist in nation building."