Sun | Jul 15, 2018

J'can artists drawn to Garvey

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 12:00 AM

This is the first of a two-part article by Herbie Miller, director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum. It concludes next Sunday.

Contemplating Marcus Garvey on the anniversary of his 129th birthday (August 17, 2016) focused my attention on freedom, which prompted me to play a musical set honouring his legacy. While listening, I also decided to read a few pages from The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a book compiled by his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey. Doing so reiterated why he is the most popular of our historical figures.

Few remain as relevant, current and as significant to the masses of Jamaica as this man, our first National Hero, the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. His scope of influences encompasses so many areas of life that it is simply daunting. Self-reliance, history, philosophy, education and value for the arts are but some of those subjects covered when one encounters Garveyism through his Philosophy and Opinions.

His capacity to captivate the imagination of Jamaican artists (musicians, singers, poets, painters and sculptors) is unsurpassed by any other individual, including Jesus Christ and HIM Haile Selassie I, the godhead of Rastafari, who arguably comes closest. Perhaps of all the lessons learnt from Garvey, the idea of mental and physical liberation resonates most profoundly among the masses, the Jamaican labour and the peasant class.

They understand freedom.

That said, in his time, and in some quarters, even today, Garvey is ridiculed, reduced to notions of buffoonery and accused of deceit. Among his detractors, at best, he is shrouded in a veil of mystique.

However, internationally, Garvey's influence and organisational reach far outdistance any other black organisation of its time and engendered a school of leaders whose psychological conviction, political ideas and dedication to the total freedom of black people across the world remains virtually unsurpassed.

Here in Jamaica, Marcus Garvey was originally ridiculed by a majority from the upper class, middle class, and the elites when he emerged on the scene during the first quarter of the 20th Century. However, to a consciously informed group, especially Rastafari, and consequently, including academics, Marcus Garvey and his philosophy have been magnified to make him not only a great inspirational figure in terms of black identity and survival, but also a genuine Jamaican National Hero. But nobody - like grassroots Jamaican people - celebrates Garvey so intensely in all their lyrics, instrumental invention, epic narratives, folk art and proverbs, thus making him part of their lives.

To this social and ethnic class, Garvey could be defined as a proud black man with a royal attitude, a coherent mind, and a sense of purpose one who was dedicated to the total liberation of Black people "those at home and those abroad". He was irresistible when building and warming the feeling of identity and worth among working class and peasant blacks especially.

Hence Garvey has become a favourite hero to many in Jamaica, a land rich with a history of noble leaders like Tacky, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Sir Alexander Bustamante, and the Right Honourable Norman Washington Manley. However, more so than our other National Heroes, Garvey has become muse to artists of every discipline and genre of artistic expression, effectively extending his status to that of pop icon, folk hero, political visionary and cultural iconoclast.


Similarly 'local artists', including instrumentalists at the beginning of the ska era, the early 1960s, in their innovations that extended mento to a modern a expression that would free Jamaican popular music from European airs to a local pop idiom, had to suffer the disdain of the so-called upper and middle-class Jamaican who described them and the music they invented variously as 'boogoo-yagga', 'buf buf', and little dutty Rasta bwoys playing and singing pure foolishness. Yet, to vast numbers of the grassroots population, both Garvey, his philosophy, and the musicians and their innovations resonate and resounded with the kind of freedom sound they the people also embody.

In many popular songs by some of Jamaica's most socially and politically informed artistes, by invoking Jamaican history and social dynamics, consciously or unconsciously, Marcus Garvey's spirit is captured in the use of his words, his philosophy, ideas and advocacy. Many of these performances are profoundly indebted to Garvey's teachings, because he is liberally quoted and invoked, many times unacknowledged. This is so in the vocalisations of Fredlocks' Black Starliner, The Mighty Diamonds' When the Right Time Comes, Culture's Two Sevens Clash; quoted in Bob Marley's Redemption Song, invoked by Peter Tosh in Moses the Prophet and throughout his career, maintained as primary subject by Burning Spear.

These are just a few, but many, many more reggae vocalists have highlighted Marcus Garvey in songs, thus magnifying his image and philosophy not only at home in Jamaica, but globally.

For this discussion, however, my focus is not on reggae vocalists but, instead, ska instrumentalists Don Drummond with The Skatalites. To locate Marcus Garvey as inspiration and muse in their music, I will focus on two Drummond compositions and performances, The Reburial of Marcus Garvey and Marcus Junior, which signify beauty, celebration and acknowledgement.

n Herbie Miller is a cultural historian with specialised interest in ethnomusicology, slave culture and jazz.