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The Jamaican Folk Singers - Life lessons woven in music

Published:Sunday | September 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM
The Jamaican Folk Singers in performance - Contributed.
The Jamaican Folk Singers, a non-profit singing group founded in 1967 by Dr Olive Lewin. - Contributed

Amitabh Sharma, Contributor

"Folk songs are all about the life of Jamaican folks and valuable life lessons," says Christine MacDonald Nevers. "And through folk music, we are passing these lessons to the people."

MacDonald Nevers, the musical director of the Jamaican Folk Singers, believes this art form is a mirror reflecting the Jamaican society, its culture and people, and is constantly evolving.

"Change happens, and we should evolve with change, and through folk music, we are passing this message of change, (and) at the same time, emphasising the need to preserve our heritage," she informed.

From deep-rooted traditions to the modern paradigms, folk music and musicians are striving to weave a storyboard that intricately interlaces the two in a mix of music. This is reflective of the Jamaican Folk Singers, which is a non-profit singing group founded in 1967 by Dr Olive Lewin, whose members come from diverse professions, bound by their love for Jamaica and Jamaican-ness.

"My association (with Jamaican Folk Singers) goes back to day one," said MacDonald Nevers, who might have heard folk songs before the first lullaby would have been sung to her. "My mother gave birth to me on a Friday and on Saturday, the ladies came and taught her what was practised that morning."

Her mother, Marilyn Brice MacDonald, is still an active member of the group, of which she has been a member for the last 44 years.

One of the key traits of the Jamaican Folk Singers, in keeping the art form vibrant and relevant, MacDonald Nevers informs, has been to marry the contemporary with the traditional. "We maintain the look of the times which transcends the decades of Jamaican history."


The inspiration, she says, is drawn out of the observations made during the numerous street performances that the group does across the island.

The idea is to showcase realistic scenarios marrying tradition with modernity.

"We enacted a market scene where we had vendors in jeans and T-shirts alongside the traditional head ties, big skirts and aprons."

In 2009, the group embarked on an islandwide 'Uplift Jamaica' tour, performing in markets, on street corners and at churches. The Jamaican Folk Singers, informed MacDonald Nevers, uses its repertoire of more than 200 songs - all of which are arranged by Dr Lewin - for its performances.

These songs exude positive values. "Too many of us look down on the country. Our objective always has been to show the beauty and worth of Jamaica," the singer said.

She added that at times folk music is taken as loosely packed amalgamation, which is not the case. "If you look at classical music of Beethoven, it traces its roots to folk music.

"We take songs in their raw forms and add various elements to it to convey the spirit of the music. That's the key."

MacDonald Nevers, who grew up learning music from Dr Lewin at the Grace Children's Club, says there is a definite need to expose the children to their legacy through folk music. "I recall, as a child, experiencing that music is something that is alive."

She informed that the Jamaican Folk Singers is planning to conduct music-in-education workshops next year. It has already done a performance in which music was used to teach various subjects.

MacDonald Nevers is upbeat and excited on the prospects of folk music being relevant, alive and reaching out.

"JCDC (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) has done wonders in reviving folk singing and folk form, and I am seeing a lot more youngsters wanting to learn," she said. "We are a very musical set of people, and we have the ability to keep this rich tradition relevant, contemporary and sustainable."

The Jamaican Folk Singers can be contacted at jamaicanfolksingers67@gmail.com