Keith Noel, Contribution
FIFTY YEARS ago, a group of young men and women received the approval of the then government to form a 'national' dance company.
Immediately, the 'cultured elite' of St Andrew found their ears assailed by the sound of African-style drumming and saw, onstage, presentations of 'plantation' revelry, stylisations of folk rituals, and African scenarios.
The young company of 'culture agents' placed themselves in the forefront of the search for and establishment of a true national identity. There were many who rejected the efforts of the National Dance Theatre Company, to search within our own roots and our own ways of expressing ourselves for the driving force behind their work. Through the vibrant energy of the dancers, musicians, and singers, through the compelling beauty of the dance forms they uncovered and presented, through the true inspiration of some of the choreography, the NDTC forced its detractors into a fitful silence.
The company's work has been the sole source through which most of us saw and understood many of the cultural forms of Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Myal, Kumina, 'Poco', Gerreh, and Cuban and Trinidadian forms were available for us to see and admire their power and beauty. The company's work also explored the world from a Jamaican perspective and had us look at street people, at Rastafari, and at great Jamaicans like Garvey and Edna Manley in new ways. They gave us their take on national concerns like slavery, crime and violence, and our relationship with the developed world. Often, this is done to Jamaican music.
Fifty years ago some of our most creative musicians would, gather in out-of-the-way places like the Wareika Hills near Kingston to blow their souls into their horns and caress their drums into pulsating, hypnotic rhythms. When, from this, 'ska' music emerged, it was immediately condemned by the same 'cultural elite'. It was pooh-poohed as boring and repetitive. However, this music continued to grow and develop, adapting its sound to the new electronic instruments as they came on the scene.
A major feature of this music was its insistent concern with the life of the ordinary Jamaican. The lyrics recorded street life and street concerns: its agonies, its joys, its struggles, its joie de vivre. Its first main proponents, the Skatellites, celebrated the Man in the Street, lamented the Reburial, and looked to Addis Ababa for their inspiration. In the 50 years which followed, this music grew. Its main purveyor, Robert Nesta Marley, became possibly the most popular personage of his time and composer of the 'song of the century'.
Fifty years ago, theatre was not a national pastime. There was the pantomime, there were theatre groups which presented some fine work, and there was the vibrant activity downtown of Bim, Bam, and Clover.
Then came the flowering. On one level, people like Ralph Holness expanded and 'modernised' the downtown genre into what he called 'Roots' theatre. On another, persons like Trevor Rhone and Yvonne Brewster emerged, formed groups like Theatre 77, and engaged the middle classes in more professional theatre, which increasingly began to look at our life as Caribbean people.
Then Ed Wallace, theatre impressario, made his mark by introducing to us the small theatre that produced slick plays. In doing so, he gave the opportunity to many of our writers, directors, and actors to hone their skills. Then Patrick Brown, Basil Dawkins, The JMTC, Oliver Samuels, and particularly Keith 'Ginger' Knight led the evolution of a theatre that was ours. This theatre style is still evolving and we note with interest the slow 'merging' of the theatre styles of Rhone and Denis Scott with the form that developed from 'roots' theatre and which has given us the characters of Shebada and Delcita.
Dance theatre, music and drama are three of the areas of cultural life in which we have seen a development into what is truly a Jamaican performing art scene. This expresses a confidence in self, a sureness of our place in the world, and a willingness to share our unique ways with each other. If we look at our plastic and visual arts, we would see the same thing.
There is no doubt: we have grown as a nation - into a self-confident nation.
Editor's note: Read about Jamaica's cultural development in the book, Jamaica: 50 Golden Moments 1962-2012.
Keith Noel is an educator. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.