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Politics and music - Grounation lecture series take a look at the parallels

Published:Wednesday | February 22, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Yard Beat Band plays ska at Sunday's Grounation, held at the Institute of Jamaica, East Street, Kingston. - Photo by Mel Cooke

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

As Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence, on Sunday afternoon the role of calypso and ska performers in recording the crucial years when Jamaica rejected Federation and pursued Independence was explored at the Institute of Jamaica.

David Brown, senior research fellow at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank, delivered 'Songs of Federation and Jamaican Independence' in the East Street Institute's lecture hall to an approximately one-third capacity audience.

There were some technical gymnastics which, at points, got awkward with calypsonians Lord Laro and Lord Creator participating via telephone, but their live interviews added significantly to the analysis, impromptu song included.

Ska great Derrick Morgan, live and in the front row, supplied crucial, first-hand information at points (including clarifying the first studio ska band was Drumbago and the All Stars), as well as opinion in his frank style.

At the end of the lecture, Brown placed heavy emphasis on the musician's role as a source of historical data, stating that in the independence process "social development has accompanied political development".

However, while the politicians have operated "within the confines of a Westminster model", with the African retentions inherent to indigenous music made in the Caribbean, "our musicians did not have to borrow a form. They brought it with them".

"It is this form that makes Jamaica and the Caribbean unique to this day!" Brown said, closing by thanking the musicians who have played the historical role.

At the start of the lecture, Brown set the framework for the importance of the musicians immediately. "Many of us look to the political history and neglect the social history," he said. The songs, he said, serve to give the other side of the story and musicians are historians and documenters of our history. He gave the political history of the West Indies Federation, established in 1958 and comprising 10 territories, giving a brief rundown of their activities.

Brown described the Federation as "almost inevitable", given a common history of chattel slavery, but noted that "with any political union and group of diverse people, there would be differences. These eventually led to the collapse of the federation in 1962.

"The songs made by the musicians of the time, especially by the calypsonians, sought to record for posterity how people felt about Federation," Brown said.

The back story to those songs was songs about the West Indies Cricket team. Throughout his presentation, Brown had the relevant songs played and read the lyrics where it was felt that accents may have made close listening difficult.

The Mighty Sparrow's William the Conquerer and No Doctor No were proffered as examples of calypso's political bent, those directed at the People's National Movement and Eric Williams in Trinidad.

And, Brown said, "Calypso was used to generate interest in the Federation itself ... . It was one of the tools that the politicians used to sell it."

He spoke about a series of political meetings and festive events across the Caribbean and, in 1956, calypsonian Small Island Pride recorded Federation. Brown described the song as a "critical moment".

He said the song showed that people had their own notion of Federation, different from the politicians' views. Small Island Pride's song records interaction with various nationalities that make up the West Indies, including "Saturday I was in the hospital van/trying hard to deliver federation". Miss Lou had her say on the matter as well, in Big Wud.

Brown noted Jamaicans' concerns with Federation, including being required to do most of the funding and not being proportionately represented in the Parliament. He referred extensively to a July 2011 article by Michael Burke in The Observer, which detailed the political machinations around Federation, leading up to a by-election in which the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) could not afford to compete. JLP leader Alexander Bustamante gave instructions to say the party was against Federation as the reason for not participating.

Subsequently, the JLP started an islandwide campaign against Federation, leading to the September referendum where 54 per cent of persons voted against the union. Here, Lord Laro, a "string federationst", made his input by telephone, noting that he wrote his song after attending political meetings. Laro sang that there were those saying "no Federation no/but when I listen Manley he was not saying so", the audience applauding at the end. Brown played Sparrow's Federation, in which he blasted Jamaica for the letdown.

The regional resolution against Federation was passed in January 1962.

With Federation dead, it was on to Independence, a clip of the Lancaster House meetings of 1962 showing Norman Manley speaking there. Brown pointed to the "cruel irony" of Trinidad-born Lord Creator, living in Jamaica, doing Independent Jamaica, very popular at Independence.

Creator said that while he did not know much about politics, based on what the man on the street was saying, "I had to make that song about Independent Jamaica". He referred to a story in The Gleaner in writing the song.

Brown emphasised how fortuitous that, as Jamaica came into being as an independent nation, it produced its own music, ska, Derrick Morgan standing and doffing his hat as he took a bow. Brown played a clip of Morgan performing live, the song celebrating Jamaica's independence.

In the question-and-answer session following Brown's presentation, Morgan was asked about the line "don't be sad and blue/the Lord is with you". He replied that it was addressed to those who supported Federation, that they should take heart.

The Yard Beat Band was in good nick, playing Freedom Sounds, Feeling Fine and Eastern Standard Time at the start and Jamaica Independence and Forward March as audience members danced at the end. Minister of Education Reverend Ronald Thwaites raised the possibility of a music school in downtown Kingston and Howard Dawkins introduced Brown. Donna McFarlane, director/curator of Liberty Hall, did the acknowledgements, Herbie Miller of the Jamaica Music Museum hosting the Grounation.

Miller also accepted saxophonist Sammy Ismay's instrument from his son Thomas as a donation to the Jamaica Music Museum, along with a painting of Sammy and other items for the museum's collection.