Multitalented Marjorie Whylie & the NDTC (pt 1)
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
You can't capture the totality of Marjorie Whylie in a phrase, not even if it refers to her as "a national treasure". That one was used in a recent Gleaner article by music scholar Herbie Miller.
You can't capture her in a sentence either, even one like: "She is a multitalented musicologist, pianist, percussionist, jazz singer and academician." That sentence was written by the equally multifaceted Rex Nettleford, late artistic director of the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC). Nettleford wrote it in his book Dance Jamaica: Renewal and Continuity, published the year he died, 2010.
Among the not-insignificant aspects of Whylie's life that Nettleford's list missed was her deep spirituality. It comes out continually in her musical compositions and particularly powerfully in her 2005 Grace Kennedy Lecture 'Our Musical Heritage: The Power of the Beat'.
A glimpse of it, and the breadth of her intellect as well, may be seen in this one paragraph from the essay:
"The whole universe is alive with sound, humming melody and harmony, alive with rhythm, with sound waves being sent and received - sounds of stars and mud pools, crickets and toads, the songs of birds and dolphins, the buzzing of bees and the roar of the lion. To this we may add water crashing against rocks, the howling of wind, rain showers and thunder. These sounds are omnipresent, often above and below the threshold of conscious hearing. So fundamental is the sound material that it must influence everything that we experience through feeling and thinking."
Even an article can't capture the whole Whylie and, in this one, I deliberately do not try to. It is largely restricted to Whylie's work with the NDTC, including the NDTC Singers.
For decades until last year, Whylie was the musical director of the former and leader of the latter. "Being musical director of NDTC," she said, "meant that I was bandleader of the NDTC Musicians/Drummers (orchestra)".
The NDTC was formed in 1962 and the first leader of the Singers was soprano Joyce Lalor. Whylie said that, with Lalor's passing many years later, she (Whylie) "grew into the position". She explained that she had been pianist for the Roots and Rhythms show, mounted by Nettleford and Eddy Thomas (later to be co-founders of the NDTC) to celebrate Jamaica's Independence. She had been playing for classes at the Eddy Thomas Dance Workshop.
Whylie stated: "When the core/corps of dancers from Roots and Rhythms was drawn together by Rex and Eddy to form the Company, I was absorbed into the mix. Joyce Lalor was a founding member of the Company, but in those years musicians were paid performers. I was a little more than that as I continued to play for classes and rehearsals of the fledgling group, but was paid for performances."
Modern Dance classes
Incidentally, Whylie also took modern dance classes at the intermediate level with the Thomas' Dance group. That followed nine years of ballet with Barbara Fonseca, which is why she was able to state "my background is in dance and music".
Her terpsichorean abilities surprise many. Lilieth Nelson, Whylie's friend and fellow musician of more than 45 years (from their time together as members of the University Singers), confirmed that a few days ago as, laughing, she related the following anecdote.
"Marjorie, as you know, is well endowed - some might say fat. One summer, she was teaching the music of some traditional Jamaican dances to a group of international students at the University of the West Indies and decided to show them the steps of the dances - kumina, gerreh, dinki mini," Nelson said.
Exclaiming "she could dance!", Nelson said the students sat watching Whylie demonstrate, their mouths open in amazement. She added that among Whylie's outstanding qualities are her "competence, wry humour and overall sense of fun".
When Whylie was invited to become a full member of the Company, she was the pianist and a drummer while Mapletoft Poulle was the leader of the orchestra. She became de facto musical director in 1966 and was officially named to the post the following year. The job entailed not only continuing to arrange for the orchestra and Singers, but being challenged to compose as well.
As Whylie recalled, "the Singers soon developed a life across the length and breadth of the island and overseas, presenting concerts in schools, churches and recognised performing centres".
The group produced two LPs of Jamaican and Caribbean songs and was honoured by the Organisation of American States. At the time, Whylie stated, "we were the only group to have a wide repertoire of songs, including the English, French and Spanish-speaking islands".
Whylie's tasks included being responsible for arrangements, production and writing the liner and booklet notes which put the songs into context. (Incidentally, Whylie then had more on her plate than just working with the NDTC, for she was also head of the Folk Music Research Department at the Edna Manley College's School of Music.)
Explaining her foray into the composition of religious music, Whylie said that many of the Singers were choristers in their churches, including Mrs Lalor who was choir master at the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Not surprisingly, the repertoire included substantial canticles and anthems from various periods.
This led the Singers into presentations for church festivals across denominations and, Whylie stated, "challenges to compose for such assignments ... . Hence, my Mass in A, several settings of the Lord's Prayer, a host of canticles and arrangements of revival choruses and traditional soul songs for use in worship".