Wed | Aug 15, 2018

Grounation ends on high note

Published:Friday | February 27, 2015 | 12:00 AM
The Akwaaba Drummers
The djembe drum (talking drum) a war drum from Ghana.
Dr Kenneth Bilby
Kihembe Ngoma drums originating in eastrn Africa on display at the Institute of Jamaica, East Street, Kingston, during the Grounation 2015 series.
Larry McDonald
Dr Christopher Johnson

Jamaica's present and past were powerfully linked by words, music and song in the Institute of Jamaica's (IOJ) lecture hall last Sunday. The last of four Black History Month Grounation presentations made a poignant connection, stretching back to the slave-trading era.

A recorded song making that link was in an African tongue, incomprehensible to most - if not all - in the audience. There was general laughter when the singer stated firmly at the end of his song, "a sumpn mi a seh, yuh know".

He then translated the words for the person who made the recording, Dr Kenneth Bilby, research associate at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Bilby, who did the lecture segment of the event, said a line in the song, Guinea Bud O, stated, "Me come from Guinea."

The recording was made in Maroon Town in the 1970s and, possibly, the song was understood by a group of colourfully dressed Maroons in the audience.

One of them, Gloria Simms (popularly known as Mama G and Gaama G), publicly expressed her appreciation for Dr Bilby's presentation and later told me she was 16th in a line from the original Trelawny Town Maroons.

Born in Wakefield, Trelawny, Simms spent her childhood between that community and Maroon Town, St James. Currently, in a Women's Bureau project, she conducts workshops in hand-sewing for groups throughout the island.

"Jamaican people are a gold mine of creativity, and the heritage we have been left [by our ancestors] is like sand on the seashore. But there are people with artistic potential, who need funding from Government, the private sector and internationally to develop their skills," Simms said.

After a welcome by director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, lead organiser of the Grounation series, Bilby gave a two-hour talk titled 'The Fullness of Drums and Drummers to the Development of Jamaican Music'. It was illustrated with slides of photographs he has taken during nearly 40 years of research on Jamaican music.

Bilby said he is writing a book based on some 120 interviews done about Jamaican music which, he reminded the audience, is now "a global music".

He pointed out, he was referring to both reggae and Rastafarian music.

"I tried to find a country where there was no Jamaican music and I couldn't," Bilby said, proceeding to play recordings in Rastafarian, reggae or mento forms (and sometimes a mix of two or three) from France, Mali, Brazil, Chile, Slovakia, Suriname and Japan, among other countries.




His comprehensive overview delved not only into the island's distant musical past - of which Guniea Bud O is an example - but also into the years leading up to the mid-20th century, when our modern music started to flourish.

Thus, in addition to the older burru and kumina music, Bilby played samples of revival, mento, and the Rastafarian nyabinghi music. He took us up to the pre-reggae music of Count Ossie (whom he called "a creator of the new-yet-old style of Jamaican music") and one of the superstars of our modern music, Prince Buster.

"Part of the reason I'm doing this project is because so many of the contributors to Jamaican music have not been sufficiently acknowledged," Bilby said.

He was followed on the

lecture-hall stage by a musical aggregation which included the Akwaaba Drummers and members of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. The band was led by internationally known Jamaican drummer Larry McDonald. After a cordial welcome by Miller and the audience's enthusiastic applause, McDonald said he was happy to be still remembered, as he had migrated in 1973.

Across the lobby from the lecture hall, there was an added attraction - an exhibition in two rooms of several types of drums.

On February 8, I went to the second Grounation presentation. American musicologist Dr Christopher Johnson's topic was 'Drums Rising: Symbol and Myth in African American Culture'. He was followed by the Akwaaba Drummers.

Johnson said that for his doctoral thesis he considered the popular notion that during slavery Africans drums were banned in the Americas for fear they would be used in slave revolts. After two years of research, Johnson said, he found "140 personal accounts and 563 records of the use of the African drums, and I knew I was on to something".

His talk, which he said was based on an upcoming book, has four main sources. They are writings by Americans and Europeans, writings by Black Americans, the instruments themselves (mainly drums) and images and drawings of drums from magazines and newspapers, showing the use of music-making instruments in the African diaspora.

Opining that bans of African drums was largely ineffective, Johnson said that when drumming was banned,African slaves made music in other ways. These included clapping their hands or slapping parts of their bodies, playing on the fiddle, tambourine and even bones.

"My research has shown that there were many non-violent uses of the drums," Johnson said.

They were played at weddings, parties, Christmas gatherings, dances and to signal an arrival.

In the 1843 autobiography of former slave Moses Grant, Johnson said the author relates how after a rebellion religious meetings were suppressed. Still, prayer meetings were held in the woods and in rooms.

"In order to muffle the singing of hymns, a washtub full of water was put in the middle of the room," Johnson said.

After Emancipation, the lecturer said, African-Americans took out many of the musical instruments they had been secretly using, and groups, including marching bands, were formed.

Then, "in the 20th century, black players experimented with musical instruments, arranging them so many persons could play them - and the drum set was born".