Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Mark Ricketts | Excellence in chapel and on bandstand

Published:Sunday | December 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Lieutenant Commander (retired) John McFarlane.
Franklin Halliburton conducting the University Singers during a carol service on Wednesday, December 20.

A Sunday column before Christmas has to be given free rein to capture the essence of Christmas: compassion, caring, carols, charity, and there is also family, togetherness, and excellence.

You had to be there at the University Chapel, where a huge white tent was added to accommodate an overflow crowd. You had to be there as people came from all walks of life, some as early as 2:20 p.m. for a 6 p.m. performance to assure themselves of undisturbed viewing and listening and to ratify in their minds the significance of excellence.

They came and watched the blue-and-red-gown-clad University singers walk up the aisle, in the dark, with just their lit candles leading the way, accompanied by their mellifluous voices, in falsetto, reminiscent of the Vienna Boys choir. It was Wednesday night, and it was the annual carol service sponsored by Bank of Jamaica.

The combined sensations, the mood, the blood-curdling warmth, the instant elevation must have been the way the audience responded to those first notes of Once in Royal David's City, wafting through the air with such clarity and warmth in the second half of the programme.

The purity, the piety, the spiritual solace, and the setting added credence to the claim 'there is nowhere better than yard'. Any doubt was immediately dispelled when soprano Althea McKenzie, in stoic excellence, is unencumbered to reach unfathomable limits in her rendition of O Holy Night. Listeners were mesmerised, dumbfounded, and, in debate with themselves, must have questioned if what they heard truly originated in Jamaica!




Jamaica's excellence on the global stage is reaffirmed when singer-conductor Franklin Halliburton, in combination with pianist-songwriter Noel Dexter and the University Singers make Jamaican Christmas carols such as Sing De Carol a thing of beauty. The rhythm is so distinctly vibrant and down home as to create unintended gyrations of the body, unrehearsed foot movements, and an instinctive need for sustained applause even in God's house of worship.

What had much appeal for the audience in the chapel was to listen to hand bells beautifully arranged and coordinated by members of the Church of Ascension during the singing of Carol of the Bells.

Excellence in Jamaica, while spotty, does have its roots in quite a few places.

One of those is the bandstand at Hope Gardens, where a large audience seated on blankets and chairs and grass enjoy an amphitheatre-like atmosphere with the gentle elevation of an enclosed mound. It is in this setting that excellence never disappoints on the third Sunday of every month when the Jamaica Military Band, under the direction of bandmaster Paul Johnson, performs. The audience, with rapt attention and sustained applause, ratifies that music is solace, comfort, therapy, memory, and emotion.

The band, with its saxophone, trombone, trumpet, and guitar/keyboard/bass sections, has a quintessential flavour and movement, and with arrangements by band members such as G. Nicholson, the sound is distinctly Jamaican, with insinuations of the Caribbean.

A key thought of Aristotle, which would be great if it could be adopted by the wider society, as this might propel us into making Vision 2030 a reality, is, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit." This, obviously must be the guiding principle of both the military band and the larger JDF massed bands, which includes the military band as even with their stature, they rehearse untiringly.

Mixing traditional Christmas carols with those with more local flavour for a 'Christmas in the park' performance, conductor Warrant Officer Class One Albert Hird, tall, military, statuesque, precise, had his massed band seemingly immersed in the audience. And he elicited such uninhibited participation from those in attendance, especially when he struck the first notes of that popular Jamaican song, All for Jesus, written by Ernie Smith.




There is so much about Jamaica to be proud of that the negatives we contend with seem out of context to the charm of the landscape. The crime, the lawlessness, the incivility seem out of character when contrasted with the innocence on display watching baby brothers and baby sisters holding hands and protecting each other as they walk to school.

An anonymous writer said that excellence is never an accident. It is the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skilful execution, and the vision to see obstacles as opportunities. The description fits perfectly Jamaica's acknowledged tenor soloist, Lieutenant Commander John McFarlane, who is a singer for the ages. This was confirmed from the lofty heights of St Luke's Church last Tuesday with his perfect rendition of 'no more night, no more pain'.

One is simply amazed at his capacity to endure over so many decades, and as he does yet another heart-warming, soul-touching performance at another gift of thanksgiving ceremony, I am convinced that all Jamaica has already heard him at a wedding, a funeral, a military function, or at a classical concert.

Adding to this chorus of success was Paulette Bellamy, who was born to the keyboard and the violin - such composure, sure fluidity, such mastery, such intensity. As she played the Holy City on her violin, she could be forgiven if her audience was lulled into assuming that Jamaica must have a competitive edge in a world of globalisation.

When you hear the quartet of the church choir, that is mother and daughter Marilyn Brice-McDonald and Christine McDonald-Nevers, as well as Michael Sutherland and Eric Saddler, sing I Must Have the Saviour with Me', and you watch listeners be consumed and transported by the purity, harmony and control of the singers, it is understandable if listeners get carried away and proclaim we are clearly First World.

This gift of thanksgiving at the church was for the life of Glen Victoria Yvonne Lee. She epitomised excellence as a banker and a human resource information administrator at the Ministry of Education, where the former education minister, Ronnie Thwaites, paid tribute with his presence, and the current minister of education, Ruel Reid, lauded her outstanding accomplishments.

She lived and gave of her life every minute of every day, and she gave and never counted the costs. She was our Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa rolled into one. Excellence for her was a habit. Oh, if her life could be replicated thousands of times across our fair land!

"I saw my friends in the morning.

They called from an equal gate.

'Build now: whilst time is burning.

Forward before it's late."

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer. Email feedback to and