Tue | Oct 16, 2018

Music Museum a place to really play

Published:Sunday | August 29, 2010 | 12:00 AM
The drum, brass and Rastafari, the unlikley confluence which centred around Count Ossie, are among the treasures housed at Jamaica Music Museum. - File photo
Herbie Miller, director of the Jamaica Music Museum, is usually on hand to share his knowledge of the evolution of Jamaican music. - File photo

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The mini-display of the Jamaica Music Museum is last on the Institute of Jamaica tour. Curator Herbie Miller is responsible for the 22 yards which trace the stages in Jamaican music's development.

For Amani and Asmahani-Aza, though, it is a place to really play. Or a place where they wish they could really play the instruments on display.

It is testament to the power of music and the presentation that they pay attention (mostly) through Miller's extensive, detailed explanations, going through the accompanying technological innovations and developments. Asmahani is the eager music beaver, volunteering that "to make a drum, they cut a hole in it so the sound can come through". Amani is especially interested in the calabash shaker.

Miller thumbs away at the kalimbe, and Asmahani grins as she says, "wow, that is technology."

The curator is into playing, too, saying: "What we want is a museum where guys like you can come in and play. Not the ones on display, but you will have others."

'Plantation Life' section

In the 'Plantation Life' section, issues of the transatlantic slave trade arise. Asmahani skips part of the programme and goes on to the abeng, and Miller asks if they know what it was used for. Amani promptly replies, "to signal," and Asmahani is the proud little sister. "She is very smart, y'know," she says.

Miller sings. "take up yu gun and fight fe war," and Amani says, "yuck!"

"You see how long them have gun songs? Is an old Maroon song," Miller explains. And he soon gets to the fusion of the European style and approach of music with the African sensibilities, leading to the emergence of jazz, blues, ragtime, and other music forms. "Reggae!" Asmahani says brightly. "Reggae nuh think bout yet!" Miller replies.

Miller explains 'Keyman' before they get to the pioneering Jamaican popular music form mento. Miller explains the roots of quadrille and Asmahani promptly starts a dance for him. Amani points to the rhumba box and demands, "play that!" Sugar Belly's bamboo saxophone arrests them (although Asmahani guesses "clarinet?"), and the performer's name gets further investigation. "One of a kind?" Amani asks Miller replies: "No, he had quite a few. You know who has one? Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga."

Miller introduces them to the Alpha School alumni, and they know Sonny Bradshaw. "I saw him on a DVD at the thing for Rex Nettleford," Asmahani says. Miller asks, "where them get you from?"

Margarita and Don Drummond, Millie Small and Vere Johns (Miller explains that the latter's Opportunity Hour came long before Digicel Rising Stars) go by and the tour is into rocksteady. King Stitt's eyes are explained, as are the stones set into Big Youth's teeth.

Reggae section

In the reggae section, Asmahani is caught up in a picture of Bob Marley performing, his locks at full extension in mid-air. They sing a part of Third World's Now That We've Found Love. And it is on to the final stage: dancehall.

"I don't listen to any of their music," Amani declares. Miller asks what about Damian Marley and Buju Banton. He gets a yes. They look at Yellowman and ask, "is he yellow?"

The comparison is made with the yellow in the strip around Bunny Wailer's neck in a picture under the reggae heading. Miller explains about discrimination and albinism, then the tour ends with an Akai drum machine. Miller reminds them about technology, moving from the drums at the beginning to the Akai, explaining the trap set and putting all those sounds into a machine.

"Anybody heard of Sly and Robbie?" he asks. They have, and Miller imitates the Taxi rhythm bass line.

"He (Sly) gave it to the museum, so we can tell the story of the technological developments," Miller concludes.

  • Natural history tour 'exciting'

There is a mini-display of the 'Birds of Jamaica' at the Institute of Jamaica, and Amani immediately asks with incredulity: "so they kill the birds?" She steps back in horror, hand over her heart, as the taxidermist's best efforts knock the stuffing out of her.

"It's disgusting!" she says.

Asmahani is more curious than concerned, querying, "is that a real turtle?"

A relief map of Jamaica grabs them and there is a quick limestone discussion. But soon it is back to the animals, and Amani is not impressed by a coney, which for her is just an oversized rat. 'That coney thing makes my skin crawl," she says. Asmahani wants to know where the eyes are on a Jamaican yellow snake coiled in liquid in a jar. And there is excitement when they see children from their old school, Jamaica House Basic, on a poster of the institute's Education Unit activities.

Rare tour

Amani and Asmahani-Aza get a very rare tour through the Zoological Department, courtesy of Elizabeth Morrison. Their differing personalities show through as they stand at the top of the steps leading down to the department. Asmahani says, "cool!" Amani opines, "disgusting!"

It turns out to be the part of the Institute of Jamaica tour which intrigues them most - and there is a lot to look through, as there are over 80,000 exhibits in zoology and more than 130,000 in botany. Of course, the tour does not include even a significant fraction of them all, but there is more than enough to get the questions flowing.

Amani is aghast that the butterflies are pinned. ("Why? They are not going to run off!"). Morrison explains: "we pin them this way so you can see certain features under a microscope." The cicadas are familiar. ("We have those at home. They are annoying."). the Giant Swallowtail butterfly is arresting.

There are birds and there is a swordfish, snakes (they talk about someone who came to their school - St Richard's Primary - with a snake around his neck), and lobsters and crayfish, and crabs (one with a sponge on its shell). Morrison explains the wiles of the trapdoor spider, which intrigues them both.

Amani's parting comment is: "no wonder you don't carry people down here!"

- M.C.