For the Reckord | Songs reflect relationship stages
The Jamaican Folk Singers usually tries to link its annual concert season's songs together to create unity. For the all-too-brief 2016 season at The Little Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, that unity came through the judicious selection and juxtaposition of songs from the group's enormous repertoire.
A semblance of a story emerged about the long-term relationship between a young man and woman, Matthew and Mel respectively, in a rural Jamaican community. That story connected the concert's 50-odd songs and 13 sections.
The names of some of the sections - Courting, Wedding Preparation, Wedding Day, Birth, Problems, Court and Reconciliation - give a good idea of the relationship's course, a typical one full of ups and downs. Because there is a story and many other components of a theatrical production - music, characters, dialogue, song, dance, costumes and lighting - watching the concert was almost like watching a regular musical.
Most of the songs marking the problems and joys of Matthew and Mel's relationship as well as the other aspects of the community's life, are well known. More importantly, all are quite beautiful and all were well sung. That is not surprising for the group, which was founded 49 years ago by Olive Lewin and is now led by Christine MacDonald Nevers, is one of the best folk singing choirs in the world.
Delight to watch
They were a delight to watch as well, thanks to gorgeous costumes (which were constantly changed) and excellent use of the stage. The movement and moments of stillness were aesthetically pleasing.
The settings were many and varied. They shifted from the opening scene in the market (where we heard Eva, a gossip song about a girl who loved to walk about, and Ribba Ben Come Dung, about a man narrowly escaping drowning in a flooding river), to the community square (where the lyrical Coconut Tree set the scene for the Matthew-Mel romance). It goes on to the wedding (where we heard greeting songs like Good Evelin' and How De Do and saw two quadrilles)
Later the scene shifted from Matthew and Mel's home (where the new baby was serenaded with Bya, Blackbud and Rock de Baby), to the community (where Matthew started flirting with other women and the songs Fan Me Sojah Man, Shahl and Stumblin' Block were sung).
In the Problems and Court sections we heard songs like Sen Har Back (to Har Mumma), Not Guilty, Woman a Hebby Load, Ooman Tory Long and others.
In the scene following the death of the couple's baby we heard, among other songs, Bawl Ooman Bawl, Bigga Bredda and Bethlehem School Room. In the couple's reconciliation scene the Singers gave us appropriate songs like Banyan Tree, Fi Me Love (Have Lion Heart) and Berry Low.
The more than 12 sopranos, contraltos, tenors and bases making up the choir were superbly supported by a band comprising Richard Williams and Robert Lawson (guitars), Albert Shaun Hird (flute), and Calvin Mitchell and Philip Supersad (drums).
The band, which occasionally played alone on stage (to enthusiastic applause) while the Singers were backstage changing, would sometimes move among the Singers from one part of the stage to another. This was to make them part of the village, Franklyn "Chappy" St. Juste, the designer of the show's atmospheric lighting, told me.
"Every village had a band," he said.