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Cultural icon - Olive Lewin true to her roots
published: Sunday | October 14, 2007

File photos
LEFT: The Jamaican Folk Singers under the leadership of Olive Lewin are seen here doing one of their pieces, a variety of songs reflecting subjects from the Jamaica grass roots, in this 1970 file photo.
RIGHT: Dr. Olive Lewin after attending a function recently.

André Jebbinson, Staff Reporter

A wooden plaque on Dr. Olive Lewin's wall, made for her by a group of prison inmates, sums up who she is. On the plaque is an image of strong black woman and the words 'Mother Of Music' are engraved on it.

Beneath the petite frame of Dr. Lewin is a courageous woman whose named is etched in Jamaica's history as a teacher, musicologist, social anthropologist and author.

But those words will never come from her mouth when she describes herself. In her words, she is just Olive, born in the small town of Hayes, Clarendon, 80 years ago.

"She is someone who has always really been involved in music and people and especially people who are close to Jamaican roots," is how Dr. Lewin describes herself.

It was never about the accolades but about being true to herself and her country. Ever since Dr. Lewin was a little girl, music flowed from her as naturally as breathing. That was made much easier with the enormous support she got from her parents, both educators, and her grandmother.

Always singing

"You should ask my mother (about my childhood) and she would look up to heaven and say singing, praying, clapping, making some kind of music. But, no matter what I was doing, if my mother called and said 'come here a minute', I would be there in 'two twos'. I loved the ground my mother walked on," Dr. Lewin said. "My mother was always asking me to sing or play the piano and sometimes to dramatise it."

Soon Dr. Lewin's musical abilities made her renowned in the community and others wanted to her sing. Another form of encouragement came from men on their way to work who would stop by her gate and ask her to sing.

Whatever the request was, she would sing it.

High school years came and her parents decided they would send her to Hampton High in St. Elizabeth. At that time, Dr. Lewin recalled the institution as one that many thought was reserved for the 'hoity-toity.' Not many black people attended the institution, but her father liked the curriculum and wanted his daughter to have what he considered the best education.

"He thought education should be rounded and not just the academic side of it," Dr. Lewin said.

Dr. Lewin's tenacity was evident since she was an infant, and that drive brought her through her high school years, at the end of which she received a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Perfect lady

"I was prepared by my parents. My mother was a perfect lady. I don't know that I was really able to be like her, but at least I know what a perfect lady should be like," Dr. Lewin said.

Again, she was faced with peers that looked nothing like her. She stood out as the only black student at the academy.

"I did a lot of work. I thought when you get a scholarship and you are the only person from Jamaica you need to do your best and I did ... I did everything to make the most of what I got."

She added: "They put me with this man who thought everything I did was great and excellent. You know what I did? I went to the office and asked them to put me with somebody else. If he thought everything I did was so excellent I wouldn't have learned anything."

While at the academy Dr. Lewin completed a degree and other programmes in music. She specialised in performing and teaching piano and the violin. She practised at making herself better. After the academy Dr. Lewin had concert stints performances around London and with the BBC.

However, London was not where she wanted to call home.

"I couldn't do anything else. Whatever I was doing was to prepare me for life in Jamaica. It was just impossible for me to think of going anywhere in the world to study and not come back to Jamaica. I had to come back and see what happened. I knew if the worse came to worst and nobody else wanted to hear me, my mother and father would," she said jokingly.

Around 1948 she returned to Jamaica to find a job. She did not know what she would be doing, but knew she wanted to teach. She held a passion for children and wanted to help them with their talent. Dr. Lewin ended up at her alma mater, Hampton High, and taught there for two years. After a few other jobs, Dr. Lewin returned to the United Kingdom to pursue further education at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland.

When she returned to Jamaica again, she was Olive Lewin, Ph.D. Though her years as a teacher were fulfilling, her greatest work began when then Minister of Culture Edward Seaga thought not enough research was being done on Jamaican culture and music. He hand-picked Dr. Lewin to spearhead the research efforts. Along with Hazel Ramsey (now Ramsey-McClune), now with the Institute of Jamaica, they roved the island collecting songs and informal history lessons from the people they met. The help they got was overwhelming and in their possession was a wealth of Jamaican folk songs.

Deeply immersed

"It couldn't escape me that music came from people who were deeply immersed in their culture," Dr. Lewin said.

She remembers taking a trip to Austria, where she marvelled at the Mozart Hall. She also cried when she saw Beethoven's birthplace. To her, he was a musician rising from the most humble surroundings to greatness.

So when Mr. Seaga again came up with the idea that Dr. Lewin should form a group to perform these songs, she was up to the task. In 1967, and with Dr. Lewin's arrangements, the Jamaican Folk Singers came into existence with eight members.

"It was so satisfying to sing them and, when we sang them, people liked them. Eventually, they found themselves into the repertoire and they were very popular when we took them on stage," Dr. Lewin said.

That was followed by international trips. The Jamaican Folk Singers travelled to Africa, Europe, the USA and the Caribbean. One of the most memorable moments was performing at Westminster Abbey.

Surprisingly, one of her favourite Jamaican Folk Singers moment came less than a month ago while the group celebrated its 40th anniversary season. A few of the scenes featured some group members' children. Dr. Lewin said tears came to her eyes when she saw how enthused the children were when they danced and sang along with the cast.

Dr. Lewin now plays a less active role in the group, but continues to be the bedrock of folk music and a fountain of information on Jamaican culture.

Many who have come under her stewardship will deem her as strict, and that is something Dr. Lewin will not deny. Instead, she explains that it is as a result of her jealousy for Jamaican music. She often reminds her groups that Jamaican music is one of the most beautiful in the world.

As part of her commitment to children, Dr. Lewin formed the Jamaica Orchestra for Youth in 1983. As for children of her own, Dr. Lewin has one daughter and two grandchildren. She has been married twice, to a Grenadian and a Trinidadian, and was at one time engaged to a man from Sierra Leone.

Below the surface

"Apparently, the Jamaican men didn't like me. I wasn't going to push myself on them," she said with a mischievous smile. "When you get friendly with a Grenadian you have to learn what he is like. You go a little below the surface."

Dr. Lewin held positions as Director of Arts and Culture at the Office of the Prime Minister and Director of the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture. She also wrote cultural pieces for The Gleaner. Over the years many organisations have honoured Dr. Lewin. She has been bestowed with the Order of Jamaica, the Gold Musgrave Medal and has been given an award by the Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (London). Dr. Lewin also has a few publications, including Rock It Come Over, Forty Folks Songs of Jamaica and Messengers.

She now spends her days documenting much of the information she has been privy to. She knows how she wants to be remembered. It is as simple as "someone who was true to her roots".

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