Sun | May 20, 2018

Jamaican roots in classical music

Published:Thursday | October 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Members of the Diocesan Festival Choir perform during a gala presentation under the theme 'Feet of Jesus', held at Emancipation Park, New Kingston, in 2008. - Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

Diocesan Festival Choir concert reveals interesting facts

Not surprisingly, many of the events celebrating Jamaica's 50th year of Independence have highlighted the island's international cultural importance. In the specific fields of sport, dance, drama, cuisine, religion and fashion, Brand Jamaica is not only respected but, unfortunately, too often unlawfully copied.

There's also, of course, our music. But very few of the millions who, thinking music, would immediately associate Jamaica with popular music forms mento, ska and reggae would also associate this country with the first oratorio to be composed in the New World - not when an oratorio is an extended musical drama with a text based on a religious subject; and certainly not when it originated in 17th century Europe.

But, unlikely as it seems, the composer of that oratorio, Jonah, based on the well-known Bible story, was an 18th century Jamaican organist. His name was Samuel Felsted, and as the Rt Rev Dr Robert Thompson, Suffragan Bishop of Jamaica, proudly reported on Sunday evening, Felsted was at one time an organist at St Andrew Parish Church.

Much variety

Dr Thompson was welcoming the audience attending the Diocesan Festival Choir's concert 'From Felsted to Marley - Jamaica 50' at The Church of St Margaret, Liguanea. The main accompanists of the 30-strong choir were Audley Davidson (organ) and Ann Trouth (piano).

Other musicians played conga drums and tambourines. The choir was energetically conducted by its director, Michael Sutherland.

Variety was an important factor in the pleasure the audience received from the concert. True, the selections were 100 per cent Jamaican, but in addition to the oratorio, a classical form of music which came under the programme heading 'The European Influence,' there were other items classified as 'Worship,' 'Patriotic,' and 'The Rastafarian Influence.'

There was also an untitled section comprising two items by the sign language ministry from St Luke's Church, Cross Roads. Dr Thompson referred to the small group of girls who performed the items as The Movements Ministry. One could see why, for the girls were practically dancing as they signed to the recorded music of the hymn We Will Glorify The King and Marley's Three Little Birds.

Jonah, the main item, which took up the entire first section of the concert, got uneven treatment by the choir. There were outstanding segments, namely the overture by Davidson on the organ, a solo, Billows Foam Around My Head, sung by baritone Peter Dawes, beautiful counter-tenor singing by Davidson of My God and King while he was playing, and a full-throated final item, Tune Your Hearts, by the entire choir.

But several section of the oratorio were omitted, and that fact was not revealed to the audience — nor, of course, was any explanation given.

Faulty singing

Those who tried to follow the choir's singing in the programme would have been mystified. Additionally, the singing by the choir's women generally left a lot to be desired. It was thin and often flat.

Notably, when, for the final item, Holy Mount Zion arranged by Olive Lewin, four women from the Jamaican Folk Singers augmented the female section, it really sounded good. The song was a special tribute to Lewin, founder of the Jamaican Folk Singers, who recently celebrated a birthday.

Some highlights of the Worship items were Carl Anthony Hines' Magnificat, Noel Dexter's The Lord is My Shepherd, and Beryl Donaldson's Caribbean Hallelujah.

Donaldson and Dexter also contributed to the stirring patriotic songs Oh, Island of Jamaica and Our Freedom Song. All the Rastafarian-influenced songs — the aforementioned Lewin arrangement and Marley's Redemption Song (arranged by Dexter) and Peter Tosh's Jah is My Keeper (arranged by Winston Ewart) - got strong applause.

At Dr Thompson's request, to close off the generally enjoyable evening, the congregation sang Marley's One Love as thanks to the choir.