Laura Tanna, Contributor
What I miss most is his rasping voice. And the knowledge that he is just a phone call away. I met him one afternoon in August Town in 1973 when he walked up to me and said he'd like to "sing a song for Africa." He was enchanting, a dear friend of my mentor, Aden Henry, the storyteller whom Frederic Cassidy called "a treasure".
I was interviewing her about Jamaican old-time stories, African retentions. Brother Martin's a cappella song resonated with me and after innumerable thwarted attempts to sit down with him, I discovered he was the most dynamic of storytellers I would encounter in the enclaves of old-time Jamaica where these stories survived.
We altered the a cappella bit when I gave him J$10 to get a drum made. Yes, J$10 was worth something then. Over the years, our relationship continued into easy familiarity. His being an orphan from Trelawny, his life in Back o' Wall, his life in August Town and as a farmer all altered with age. His family's ups and downs, the recognition he received for his part in Jamaican Folk Tales and Oral Histories book, video and audio cassettes, now DVD and CDs, all became part of a shared history that bound us together.
Job at Hope Gardens
For a while, he had a job at Hope Gardens and I'd pick him up from there to go for lunch and catch up on our news. Our lunch places evolved from under the mango trees at Devon House, to restaurants that no longer exist and finally to Kentucky Fried Chicken where he always felt comfortable and could carry home something for later. When a car knocked him down in '99 he ended up in hospital, and though they paid for his medical bills, when I went to give blood, I realised how much he meant to me as a friend. He was always straight, sensible, punctual. No pretence, always intelligent, with an honest assessment of every situation and a roguish twinkle in his eyes.
When Government decided he was too old and really had to retire from his job at Hope Gardens, I'd look for storytelling jobs for him. With his mullet-coloured tam, raspy voice, vibrant gestures and dynamic movements, he was always a crowd pleaser. Whether it was with children in the gardens of Devon House, at a book launch or speaking with visitors, he was up to the occasion. A foreign documentary film-maker asked me to set up a meeting and I drove Brother Martin to the locale and made sure he was properly paid for his performance of Anancy stories. On the way home, he turned to me and proposed that he should give me 10 per cent of his earnings, as his agent. "No man," I replied. "That's yours to keep," but I was touched by his offer. How many people in his circumstances would have been so generous or so shrewdly aware of business dealings? Luther, as his neighbours called him, was bright. "What are you going to do with your earnings?" I asked. "Build a better toilet," was his practical reply.
Another time I compensated him to entertain the children at Best Care Lodge. My niece, a social worker from the United Kingdom, had come to live and work there for a month. A neighbour was a sponsor of the home, so I thought I would help out Brother Martin and the children by hiring him to give them a morning of storytelling. On the way over, he was telling me of his latest woes, a relative having to leave home to avoid getting involved in the gang warfare wracking what had once been a peaceful community, but the visit to the shelter stunned us both, seeing the crippling ailments afflicting so many children physically, intermingled with those mentally challenged, the periodic vocal screeches echoing with the sight of twisted limbs. On the way home, one of us ventured that we felt like the man who had no shoes meeting the man who had no feet. That's the only time I ever saw him nonplussed.
Like a house afire
Not all our encounters were so sobering. One of my doctoral advisers, the renowned Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy, came to visit. Not only did Fred give me the name in Latin of every plant we passed as we walked around the Mona Reservoir, but he also gave me the colloquial Jamaican Creole name as well. And when I took him to meet Brother Martin, whose stories he had read in my dissertation - Miss Aden had passed on by this time - Fred and Luther got on like a house afire, standing under the big old cotton wood tree at the foot of Luther's hilltop home near the entrance to Goldsmith Villa.
Over the years, Brother Martin and I visited Bedford's grave together, and I remember his sadness when an old friend was shot dead on the road near his home. I know curious eyes must have wondered what I was doing driving towards Goldsmith Villa and when the sporadic violence made it unwise, I eventually started meeting him at Mona Post Office where the ladies got to know him.
Miss Lou and I sent something every month to assist as his granddaughter Shanika "Tita" Stevens faithfully cared for him as he aged. His last public appearance was as part of the 2012 Anancy Festival when Kellie Magnus of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica got permission for his performance of Bredda Nansi, de King and Dryhead to be streamed live on BIAJ and JLS websites.
By then, he had died of cancer on May 29, 2012, just before his 87th birthday. He was a much-loved friend and his memory and contribution to Jamaican culture will be treasured.