Home African Caribbean The Truth About the Jamaican Folk Songs We Know And Love

The Truth About the Jamaican Folk Songs We Know And Love

by Tony Kelly

In this article I want to bring to the reader’s attention a historical perspective for the Caribbean and African Diaspora people all over the world.  Every Caribbean island has its particular nuances, mores, history, cultural diversity and heritage and we are always proud to share those with each other.  Sometimes understandably we become territorial and without knowing the facts wrongfully challenge historical events.   Of course there are similarities as well as differences which we need to respect, value and embrace.

However one area which becomes a bone of contention when our daughter an opera singer includes in her repertoire at recitals a suite of Jamaican folk songs with a classical twist with kind permission from Peter Ashbourne one of Jamaica’s leading contemporary composers, arrangers and songwriters:  is why are they classed as Jamaican when most people know them as Caribbean folk songs?

In November 2021 at the Lindbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London in a free lunchtime recital to one of the biggest audiences as mentioned by the announcer at the beginning and also one of the most diverse assembled groups, Abigail sang a suite of Jamaican folk songs.  The discussion was raised for the umpteenth time as people were heard saying they are not only Jamaican folk songs. I now have the opportunity via this medium to set the record straight for others to take on board.

Let me explain so that their ownership, copyright and intellectual property along with facts are documented properly for current and future generations to understand.

In the seventies I used to sing whilst living in Jamaica with the Jamaican Folk Singers under its leader the late Dr. Olive Lewin a musicologist and social anthropologist who founded the group in 1967 with some of her friends.

A year earlier, 1966 the Government of Jamaica spearheaded a project to collect and research Jamaica’s folk music and Olive Lewin was appointed to do this work. Back then Edward Seaga the Minister of Culture with funding from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asked her along with Hazel Ramsay to undertake field trips in every parish in Jamaica with tape recorders to ask the elderly folk to sing the songs that they brought with them from Africa or were passed on to them from their fore parents.  At the time she was on the staff of the Jamaica School of Music now known as the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and a music lecturer from Australia, Pamela O’ Gorman, the then Principal frowned at the idea of them going in to rural communities to gather these folk songs and viewed it as a waste of time, energy and resources.

Olive Lewin persevered and on many occasions the elderly folk could not remember the words/lyrics of the songs so she would ask them to ‘hum the tune’ and later she would put words to them. More than 1,500 traditional songs which we know love and enjoy today were passed on by that method and had that not been done, they would have gone to the graves of our ancestors.

Later it became known as the Jamaica memory bank project and that is how one changes the narrative.  As an aside most young people would have never seen a tape recorder.

Olive Lewin during rehearsals of the Jamaican Folk singers twice a week at her Kingston home made sure to give us some insight in to how we are able to be singing the Jamaican folk songs that we all appreciate throughout the Diaspora even though on occasions people still take me to task saying they are not Jamaican but Caribbean folk songs.

There are folk singing groups and choirs in every Caribbean island singing these folk songs so let us all continue to appreciate them as had it not been the forward thinking of Edward Seaga, Olive Lewin and UNESCO that rich tapestry of our Caribbean heritage would have been lost forever.

Do visit social media websites such as You Tube where you can enjoy these Jamaican folk songs to your heart’s content and share them with the younger generation who are on the whole oblivious to their existence. Featured photo courtesy Millicent Mignon, wikipedia.org

Tony Kelly

Tony Kelly

London born Tony Kelly of Jamaican parents grew up in Jamaica and returned to live in Birmingham in 1979.
He is a graduate of Mico Teachers’ College and taught in Kingston high schools prior to working for 30+ years as a middle manager in central and local government with an emphasis on equity, equality, diversity and inclusion. He has a masters’ degree in socio-legal studies from the university of Birmingham.
For over a decade Tony has volunteered as a diabetes ambassador firstly for Diabetes UK and now for the National Health Service – Birmingham and Solihull Clinical Commissioning Group. A multi-award winner doing a yearly average of 150 health and well-being events, locally, nationally and internationally focusing on type 2 diabetes. He was diagnosed with this medical condition 18 years ago. However with a combination of physical activity and diet he has never taken medication thus proving with the right mindset and discipline it can be achieved.
As a diabetes advocate/activist Tony will continue delivering the message of healthy options to readers of CaribDirect.com .


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