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Gleaner Honour Award Nominee: Noel Dexter - a life filled with music

Published:Thursday | January 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Dexter takes to his first love, the piano, and plays a few notes from his most popular hymn, 'The Right Hand of God'.
Noel Dexter at his home recently.

Titles such as musician, musicologist, and composer are all nice, but if you simply call Noel Dexter a lover of music, that's fine with him.

Dexter, who grew up in Port Antonio, Portland, has lived a life that has had music at every turn. He recalls that the art form was all around him in the parish's capital.

"My mother had three of us, and all of us went to piano lessons," he said. "And music was such a part of the town that each of us went to a different teacher." But his interest was really piqued around age 10 when he came home one evening and saw a piano his father had bought.

"From there, I helped myself, teaching myself to play. I played by ear first," he recalled. "And then I taught myself to read the notes so that the first time I went to music lessons, I could read." From then, Dexter was heavily involved in all music programmes of the Port Antonio Methodist Church.

The vibrant music scene of the town manifested itself in a festival that preceded the national arts competition. They had a syllabus that was set each year by the then British Council representative in Jamaica. Dexter was involved in all forms of the arts - from playing the piano to drama. He even choreographed dance, though he readily admits he didn't dance. His talents attracted the attention of the late Professor Rex Nettleford, who adjudicated a piece he had performed. Dexter became the accompanist for a dance group Nettleford had before forming the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).


involved with little theatre


Along the way, he became involved with the Little Theatre Movement's National Pantomime. He played on stage in the production Banana Boy and even composed music that was used in the production and later, by the NDTC.

"I not only acted, but I wrote music for several pantomimes, and I think for two, I was the musical director," he said. "And people still sing songs from the ones I wrote."

Dexter's love affair with the arts continued, including winning a Best Supporting Actor award as part of the Repertory Players. But music was always his passion and he started the Youth Fellowship Singers.

"We did very well, especially at (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) Festival. In fact, nobody could beat us, and the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Committee retired us," he laughed. His musical journey continued when he took over the already excellent music programme at Ardenne High.

"They won so many medals at Festival. Sometimes we would come away with about 15 medals and most of them were gold," he said. After that, he became director of music at the University of the West Indies (UWI) from 1977 to 2002. He was responsible for the chapel music and taught a music course, but he is most known for his work with the University Singers.

"I carried that group from one or two concerts a year to where we were doing a concert season, with 20 concerts or more," he said. Dexter implemented a system in which some graduates were kept on with the choir in order to keep the repertoire going. The Singers have become world-renowned, touring extensively, including the entire English-speaking Caribbean, the United States, and England.

"I encouraged students to participate as composers, to create music, so that we not only sang other people's music, but also music exclusive to us," he said. "We were not like any other choir because we sang a whole range of music. We sang everything, every genre." But Dexter had a preference for Jamaican music, something he partly attributed to Nettleford's influence.

While working with the choir, Dexter got another job as coordinator of the Caribbean Church Music Programme of the Caribbean Conference of Churches.

"It was there that I did a lot of compositions for the Church, including hymns and anthems," he said. It was Dexter who wrote the music for the still popular hymn The Right Hand of God (composed for the launch of the Caribbean Conference of Churches). In fact, Dexter's fingerprints are all over some of the region's finest hymns and songs. These include Freedom Song, commissioned to commemorate Jamaica's renewed focus on Emancipation. He has composed pieces for various church groups, including Lord We Are Ready (for the World Convention of Disciples of Christ) and Make a Joyful Noise (for the bicentenary celebration of the Methodist Church in Jamaica). He has also produced the publication Sing A New Song, a book of songs to supplement existing Caribbean hymn books. And of course, he's done numerous pieces for the University Singers.


fitting honour


For a man who surrounded himself with music (his wife, the late Beverly Dexter was a noted soprano, and daughter Carol is also a singer), it's fitting that Dexter has been honoured for his efforts. In 2013, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies. He was also conferred with the Order of Distinction and received both a Gold Musgrave Medal and a Prime Minister's Medal. The Bronx Concert Singers celebrated his work in 2004 while his alma mater, Titchfield High, had a tribute concert in 2012. All the pieces performed were his creations.

Though illness may have slowed him down over the last six months, Dexter is still active and has no plans to stop. He has a book of Christmas carols that he plans to publish soon. He still works with 10 different choirs, teaches a few students at the Jamaica School of Music, and is musical director of the Temple of Light, which he attends. Additionally, he still teaches voice both at home and at the UWI. And it's clear what has kept him going.

"Music," he said simply, with a chuckle.