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The Kings of Festival Pt 2 - It's a song, not artiste competition

Published:Thursday | August 2, 2018 | 12:00 AMKimberley Small
‘Toots’ Hibbert
Grub Cooper (left) speaks about writing lyrics as Aston Cooke listens.
Eric Donaldson

Eric Donaldson could be called the king of the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation (JCDC) Festival Song Competition. More than 50 years after the competition's inception, he retains the record of most wins at seven. "I was singing before the competition come up. Then when it come in, I decide I can make a big break now," Donaldson told The Sunday Gleaner.

And that he did. Many Jamaicans can easily join in the chorus of his songs Cherry Oh Baby, Land of My Birth, or Sweet Jamaica. The reigning 'Festival King' recalls feeling good about his first win. "But the fact remains, I was already thinking I was going to win the competition. I was thinking, 'I can't lose'. When I go to the rehearsal and realise me can't lose is when the band members tell me they like the song. them all start call me Cherry," he shared.

Despite holding the record, the singer is still going. "I put in a song, but they never pick it," Donaldson revealed. Hence, some would argue that it is not Donaldson himself who grabbed the ears and captured the hearts of the nation all those years ago, but the songs themselves.


It's a Song Competition, Not Artiste Competition


"For the past eight or 10 years, you can't tell me three of the songs that win. That's how poorly this competition has gone," Grub Cooper told The Sunday Gleaner.

Cooper has been a player in the development of the festival song competition for a number of years. He currently carries the workload of lead vocalist and drummer of the standard-bearing Fab Five Band. His past contribution to the museum of past festival songs finds his name credited in a number of productions that have either won the competition or at least been selected as a top 10 contender.

"I'm just a part of the process. I've done a lot of arrangements. I've done arrangements for songs that have made it to the top 10. I've had some winners. It's cool," he said. Though he has been thoroughly entrenched in the 'process' over the years, he has never written a winner.

Still, among his winning arrangements are Donaldson's third and fourth winning entries (Land of My Birth and Sweet Jamaica, written by Winston Wallace). "Those two, in particular people would be familiar with," he revealed of his contribution.

Proud as he may be about his involvement, the master drummer argues that the competition has lost its zest over the years. "I don't have a chip on my shoulder. I've been successful in the competition. I've made suggestions where the gospel competition is concerned. But when it comes on to the song competition - there are a lot of questions to be asked," he said.

Cooper referred to Courick Clarke aka Koriq, an entrant who was asked to withdraw from this year's top 10 because he was unable to attend the final performance.

"I think it's stupid because one person can't perform because he was unavailable - that he can't compete. I congratulate the winner, but we're not looking for a successful person. It's a song competition, not a singer's competition," Cooper opined.

"If Nazzleman had a car accident, would they have thrown it out, or would they have a substitute? It's not an artiste competition. That's why songwriters get some of the prize money."


Festival Song Competition Hiatus


In 2016, the competition went on a hiatus. "The feeling was that when it came back, it would become different. And it is neither new nor different," Cooper lamented. Cooper argues that the dwindling interest in the competition is because the event is poorly handled.

"Last year, they got some entries, and the crap argument presented was that the standard of writing was not good. But that's not it. They're always saying that they don't have any money. If they were to take the competition, with a proper marketing, public relations, and administration situation, it will run like a private sector business, and they can have a lot of money. It's impossible for them to run the way they should with the package produced by the government. This year, because they promoted, they got 220 entries," the veteran musician claimed.

But as we celebrate our Independence tomorrow, new and old songs will be popular on the airwaves. One of those men whose songs may be in the mix is Toots Hibbert, who has won the competion three times. Toots first copped the titile in 1966 with Bam Bam, then again in 1969 with Sweet and Dandy, and finally in 1972 with Pomps and Pride.