Thu | Jan 17, 2019

Female musicians brought into focus

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
The I-Threes are Marcia Griffiths (left), Judy Mowatt (centre), and Rita Marley.-File
Sonia Pottinger
Millie Small
Heather Augustyn-Contributed
The cover of Heather Augustyn's book 'Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music'.

New book highlights achievement of fairer gender

Sadeke Brooks

Men have been at the forefront of Jamaican music for decades, but Chicago-based author Heather Augustyn has placed their female counterparts in the spotlight with her book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music.

Released last month, Augustyn says the book focuses on women who were involved in the music industry between the 1940s and 1980s. She explained that books have been written about men, but very little attention is given to the females who were very pivotal in the development of the music.

"I realised that there are over 500 books on Bob Marley and none on the women. And without the women, there would probably not be a Bob Marley," she told The Sunday Gleaner.

But the idea for this publication stemmed from a previous book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist.

"When I was writing the book on Don Drummond, I realised it was just as much about Marguerita as it was about Don Drummond. If she was so important and we didn't hear about her, it was probably the same of other women. She was critical as without her, there would probably be no reggae as you know it. She was able to bring the Rastafari drummers into the uptown clubs," Augustyn told The Sunday Gleaner.

Anita 'Marguerita' Mahfood, an exotic rhumba dancer and singer, was Don Drummond's girlfriend, who he was convicted of murdering in January 1965.


After doing a presentation at the International Reggae Conference last year about Marguerita, Patsy Todd (of Derrick and Patsy and Stranger and Patsy) and Sonia Pottinger, Augustyn said the idea for the book was born.

Having already written about these female musicians for her presentation, Augustyn continued her research, which saw her interviewing the likes of Millie Small; Enid Cumberland of Keith and Enid; Janet Enright - the country's first female guitarist who performed jazz in the 1950s; Marcia Griffiths of the I-Threes; members of the first all-girl ska band - the Carnations (featuring the parents of Tessanne Chin and Tami Chynn); Doreen Shaffer of the Skatalites; Althea and Donna; among others.

In cases where the musicians passed away, she said she spoke with their family members. "I also used The Gleaner archives, which is amazing," she added.

Unfortunately, she said very little was written about the music in the 1950s and 1960s as it was often seen as 'downtown music'. Back then, she said the musicians of the time were given little recognition and it was even worse for the women, who she believes were neglected.


"Women, especially, because this was not a woman's place in these days and even if women did sing, they were told what to sing and when to sing. Some women were even taken advantage of sexually," she said.

But towards the 1980s, Augustyn said there were improvements.

"The climate was different. There were more women because they saw it could be done. When customs and traditions changed, so did the attitudes towards women in music," she said.

Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music is Augustyn's fourth book on that era, which covers jazz, ska, and rocksteady. Previously, she had books like Ska: An Oral History and Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation.

When compared to her previous books, she says this recent release is twice the size because "... there was a lot of women, a lot of things to say".

As someone who started researching Jamaican music and culture after seeing The Skatalites perform live in Chicago in the mid-90s, Augustyn says she merely wants to preserve the history of the music.

"I want to make sure that 20 or 50 years from now, people can know who Enid Cumberland is or who Janet Enright is. Part of my job is to preserve history. I think that is my number one goal. I hope I can do the history some justice," Augustyn also told The Sunday Gleaner that she was thankful to Herbie Miller, Institute of Jamaica's musical director and curator for the Jamaica Music Museum, for his assistance.

However, in terms of profitability, she says her expectations are low as she "lost money" when she shipped a previous book to Jamaica for distribution and sale purposes. Now, persons are encouraged to order copies of the book on for US$22.

"In America, it is not a good seller, but that's okay because my goal is preservation," she said.

As part of her preservation efforts, she says she will bring copies of the book to Jamaica to be placed in libraries and universities when she returns for the International Reggae Conference in February.