Mon | Apr 22, 2019

For the Reckord | Garvey’s influence on Jamaican music examined

Published:Friday | February 23, 2018 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Elaine Wint was an ebullient master of ceremonies
Pam Hall was one of the performers at Grounation 2018.
Among the Jamaica Music Museum Big Band musicians was 'Time' (foreground) on the repeater drum.
Herbie Miller, Curator, the Jamaica Music Museum, gave a thought-provoking presentation at Grounation 2018.

The powerful and enduring influence that National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey has had on Jamaican music - our composers, instrumentalists, and singers - was examined in an hour-long presentation by Jamaica Music Museum director-curator Herbie Miller on Friday. He was speaking in the third of a four-part Grounation 2018 series of lectures, conversations, and performances at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ).

After welcoming the large audience in the IOJ auditorium, Master of Ceremonies Elaine Wint explained that Miller's topic, "Freedom Sounds: Marcus Garvey and Inspiration & Muse in the Music of Don Drummond and the Skatalites," was being put in the context of the broader 2018 theme, "Garvey's Ghost: Muse, Cultural Arts, Aesthetics, Freedom Sounds."

She said that the IOJ mounted the 2018 event in collaboration with Liberty Hall and that it was dedicated to the memory of the latter's recently deceased curator, Donna McFarlane. She then introduced Miller as a former manager of Peter Tosh, the composer of some 20 songs two of which have been used in movies (one The Manchurian Candidate) an authority on jazz, ska, and other popular music forms, and the author of many locally and internationally published articles on music.

Miller said that though Garvey was now arguably the most celebrated of Jamaica's national heroes, his early efforts to empower the black race were met with hostility by many blacks and whites. American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Miller said, called Garvey "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race," while many - white and black, in America and Jamaica - who looked at Garvey from a Euro-centric perspective saw him as being disruptive to the status quo.

Miller said that a similar treatment was given to ska music, which was initially derided by some but is extremely popular today. There are about 300 ska bands around the world, Miller noted, though, ironically, there are none in Jamaica, the land of its birth.

Emphasising the importance of the audience at music sessions, since "without the audience the art is no art at all," Miller said that Garvey had great influence on Jamaica's overwhelmingly peasant population, who formed the great majority of the audiences at the dances of the 1950s.

They embraced instrumental music, he said, adding: "Garvey is used in the music of Don Drummond, and, by extension, the Skatalites and musicians in their orbit ... Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), his philosophy and desire for black people to embrace an African identity, informed the lifestyle of those musicians (the instrumentalists), their compositions, and how they expressed themselves socially and musically in the context of Garvey's cultural influence."

While Miller opined that Garvey's ideas are being kept alive by musicians who advocate "black pride and political consciousness," singer Pam Hall said that 80 per cent of the music played on Jamaican radio is foreign.

In a talk illustrated by the playing of Drummond's recorded music, Miller said that Drummond was "always the story teller."

He continued: "He tells such beautiful stories, even if it's one of lament. You can still feel the lyricism of what he's saying, like someone speaking to you. He employs a set of notes, timbre and texture that paint a picture that is intricate, though plaintive, and full of rhythmic pulse and melodic composition that is also lucid and lyrical almost as lyrical as Burning Speak asking if you remember Marcus Garvey." (Here, Miller pointed out the irony of Drummond being lucid and coherent in his music though he was schizophrenic.)

Miller's lecture was followed by the audience's questions and comments and then by music from the Jamaica Music Museum Big Band, a 14-piece ensemble. After introducing the leader, Ozou'ne Sundalyah, and the members, Wint said that, time permitting, they would play16 items, including Sundalyah's composition Marcus Garvey Still Speaks, with vocals by Hall.

Grounation 2018 is the seventh in the annual IOJ Black History Month celebratory series. The final presentation, on Sunday from 2:00 p.m., will feature a conversation between Prof. Honor Ford-Smith and Tanya Batson-Savage about Garvey's legacy to the performing arts and an excerpt from Michael Holgate's Garvey The Musical.