Thu | Apr 26, 2018

Feasting on folk music

Published:Friday | October 4, 2013 | 12:00 AM
The Cari-Folk Singers perform the opening item, 'From Under the Tree to Music Room', during their 40th anniversay concert season at The Little Theatre.
An emotional moment during the 2013 Jamaican Folk Singers season.-File

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

It's a commonplace idea that music touches the very soul of man, hence its tremendous power. Until relatively recently in human history, most people lived outside of cities and their suburbs, so folk music - the primary music of the majority - has probably, historically, meant more to humanity than any other type.

Even atheists who would reject the idea of the music/soul link (since man, they'll claim, has no soul), will admit to music's power. But on what basis? I have been pondering that question.

Perhaps it's because folk music usually tells stories - and everyone loves stories. Perhaps folk music is the first music most children hear, which makes it important to children, while for adults, it wields the power of nostalgia. Or perhaps its power comes from its simplicity - which makes it accessible, meaning easy to sing or hum, and, therefore, popular.

Other attractions to folk songs are that they frequently record historical, sociological and medicinal information. And the icing on the cake is that they often make us laugh.

My musings on folk music arose because of the delightful concerts I attended on consecutive weekends last month at The Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue, St Andrew. The first concert was staged by the 46-year-old Jamaican Folk Singers and the second by the 40-year-old Cari-Folk Singers, both professional sounding, yet quasi-professional groups, which have won numerous national and international awards.

After speculating on the power of folk music, I thought I'd ask an expert, Christine MacDonald-Nevers. A musician with many letters after her name to prove her classical training, possessing even more years in the business than letters and the daughter of a prominent singer, MacDonald-Nevers is also the musical director of the Jamaican Folk Singers.

importance of folk music

I emailed this question: "What's the importance of folk music to you and the group?" Here's her very thoughtful answer:

"There are many life lessons present in Jamaica's folk music. Lessons about love, sharing, commitment, the importance of community, about choices and consequences, and most important, about respect for self and respect for others."

"These lessons remain relevant to and applicable in all areas of our lives, and the importance of these lessons remain important to the Jamaican Folk Singers as we focus on 'Education through Entertainment'."

"My love for, and appreciation of, the Jamaican Folk Singers continues to grow, and encouragement is found in the positive influence that Jamaican folk music has had on people in Jamaica and internationally - the evidence of the healing power of the music, and the gaps that the music has [bridged] and continues to bridge. Important, too, is the expressed pride of Jamaicans as, through the work of the Jamaican Folk Singers, they recognise and accept the beauty of what is Jamaica and Jamaican."

Next, I turned to the message by Patricia Newland, leader of the Cari-Folk Singers, published in the group's concert programme. In it I found some other reasons why folk music is important.

The message tells us that the group is internationally acclaimed, has a repertoire of more than 350 songs, has existed for so long because of "the love of ... members for performing folk forms" and possesses a "dedication to rehearsals and honing of ... musical instruments".

Newland continues: "For our 40th anniversary season of concerts, we have a tapestry of music that salutes the diversity of our heritage and the superb talent of those who have contributed to our music and choreography."

It's not surprising that the tone of both statements is similar and that the themes of love, community, heritage, sharing and, implicitly, the beauty of music, are common. After all, the roots of both groups are planted in the same Jamaican soil.

That's probably why the tone of both concerts was also similar. This is despite the fact that the songs were different - that being a testimony to the abundance and diversity of Jamaican folk songs. According to Major (Retired) Johanna Lewin, daughter of Jamaican Folk Singers founder Dr Olive Lewin, the latter arranged more than 200 Jamaican folk songs that she unearthed during her decades of research.

Similarities between the two concerts included their excellence in singing, costuming and movement. The singing, from solo to four-part, was simply sublime. The costumes, which were changed frequently throughout the shows, were generally colourful and consistently supportive of the mood of the song.

Both choreographers - Paula Shaw for the Jamaican Folk Singers and Kevin Moore for the Cari-Folk Singers - kept the singers moving constantly, so that the aural excellence was enhanced by the visual. A difference in approach I detected, though, was that while Shaw's choreography grew organically from the subject matter of the song, Moore's was more geometrically designed.

Though both concerts ran for just over two hours, intermission included, the Jamaican Folk Singers sang about 10 more songs (more than 50 in all) than the Cari-Folk Singers, but those songs tended to be shorter.

In a couple of segments, the Cari-Folk Singers moved away from strictly folk songs and treated the audience to oldies and sacred items. The Jamaican Folk Singers stuck more closely to folk pieces.

Another difference was that the Jamaican Folk Singers' concert was more unified in time and geography, with their segments focusing on themes - work, games, court, tribute, love, and celebration. On the other hand, the Cari-Folk Singers, in a nod to their 40th anniversary, started with segments harking back to the group's early days, later had an 'oldies' section devoted to popular songs of the 1960s, and an 'Island Songs' section featuring material from Barbados, Belize, and Guyana.

To differentiate between the groups is in no way to disparage either. Both approaches worked. Both concerts were soul-satisfying.