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Music on the funeral road

Published:Sunday | September 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Gramps Morgan
Peter Tosh

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Whether we like them or not, there are some songs that have become associated with funerals. One of them is How Great Thou Art, a hymn which says very little about the final journey, but is somehow a funeral standard.

So what is a funeral service without the voices swelling into the chorus of, "then sings my soul, my saviour God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art"?

George Nooks, whose style is so easy to sing along to, has done a reggae version of the track. And it is also interwoven into Professor Edward Baugh's poem, It Was the Singing.

Then there is Sweet Hour of Prayer, famed as a weekday midday song on a particular radio station, but which also has a funereal tinge to it. Once again, Jamaica has its own version of the track, done by Buju Banton and Gramps Morgan, though with a variation in the medley.

From the majestic When the Roll is Called Up Yonder through to the near merry chant, "suppose we don't meet", which is a must for any duppy band even somewhat worthy of its name, there are some songs associated with the dead which are very much alive as memories of the dearly departed.

However, with Jamaican popular music embracing death in various ways - including the sound clash and the violent demise of various noted figures - there are quite a few funeral songs which are accepted as another track to rock to.

Among these are Peter Tosh's slow Burial and more uptempo Peace Treaty. The former is almost a must-play in a sound clash, when one sound system feels that it has triumphed over its rival definitively and it is time for them to pack up and go. It is unlikely, though, that Tosh was thinking about turntable rivalry when he was singing:

"Dem want I

Dem want I

Fi come a dem funeral

Dem claim say

Dem claim say

Dem a de general"

Then in Peace Treaty, he sings about the fate of those who signed a street level truce between battling political factions during the latter stages of the turbulent 1970s. Tosh predicted grimly - and correctly - that "all who sign that peace treaty now rest in peace in the cemetery".

Many dancehall aficionados may not know the name Scion Sashay Success, but they certainly are familiar with his song Done Dead Already, pulled for by many a sound man in the heat of battle. Success tracks the last stages of the corpse in a line, singing "you done dead already, from the morgue to the cemetery."

In matters of Jamaican music, one morgue-related service reigns supreme - Madden's. The references are replete, but the Twin of Twins' line from Which Dudus is especially memorable as they remark "dem mussi waa overload dung a Madden" - this ahead of the 2010 Tivoli Incursion.

And then there is Ninja Man utilising a striking image of body removal in his famous Sting battles with Shabba Ranks and Supercat, the crowds roaring as he deejayed, "reverse the hearse make a put een de dead!"