JAMAICAN COMPOSERS RESEARCH: PROJECT BACKGROUND
The Reasons for the Urgency of Documenting Jamaican Composers
by Rosina Christina Moder,
Co-Founder and Executive Director
"Every time we come across a new name of a composer, we all fall into great jubilation! "
" Engaging in this research project manifests our aim that students here should no longer be deprived from all the excitement and success stories of Jamaican composers. "
When I arrived on this beautiful island in 1985, I immediately encountered some of Jamaica’s most outstanding personalities in music outside of the Popular music genres. Therefore, I was never under the common misconception that Jamaican Music started with Mento, developing into Ska, Rock-steady, and via Reggae to Dance hall. However, it took a very long period of searching and asking questions with tireless enthusiasm to bring us here to this point; every time we discover a new composer, the excitement and jubilation is indescribable!
The first Jamaican composer I ever met, and perhaps the most outstanding one presently living on the island, is Peter Ashbourne. He was actually introduced as the violinist assigned to perform with me for my first recorder concert here, accompanied by Paul Bicknell on the organ, at the St Andrew Parish Church. It was only when he handed me his solo recorder composition ‘Elena and her Variations’ (inspired by my intense practice on one of those challenging Variations by Dutch composer Van Eyck) that I realized that he was also a prolific composer of Classical Music, or Art Music as it was often referred to in our day. Most of the Jamaican people would recognize the sound of Peter’s work, for he has written hundreds of very popular melodies for Advertising Music over the decades, not to mention his writing for the LTM National Pantomimes, such as ‘Johnny Reggae’. Since the name ‘classical composer’ was mostly thought of as a Western European or possibly American profession, no one then would have imagined that Peter Ashbourne wrote the first ever Reggae Opera ‘Mikey’, together with Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris as librettist and Alvin Campbell as lyricist, which was completed in 2008 right here in Jamaica.
And it was the same organist Paul Bicknell, to whom I was introduced in my first week here, who in 1996 made me aware of the existence and works of Jamaica’s first documented composer, Samuel Felsted (1743 – 1802). As a former student of the great Austrian musician and teacher of Baroque, Pre-classical and Classical musical interpretation, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, I was thrilled to know that Jamaica’s first composer belongs to the period to which I have dedicated my time for many years of my professional life as a musician in Austria. I immediately began my inquiries into the life of Samuel Felsted, and to my surprise there were only a handful of passionate individuals here who knew details about Felsted’s life and works. It was the compassionate Valerie Facey, Paul Bicknell, the Reverend (now Bishop) Robert Thompson, and Vivian Crawford (who was also very instrumental in the success of my first concert here) who gave me what limited information I was able to glean.
After an intense search for articles written on Felsted, I became aware that Felsted’s oratorio ‘Jonah’ was the very first oratorio written in the Americas! What an achievement! So how is it that almost no students have been informed of this sensational historic fact? Why this isn’t taught in music classes in high schools throughout this region, and in music history lessons all over the Western Hemisphere?
Well, I found out that aside from the National Library of Jamaica, only those aforementioned ‘Felsted- fans’ are in possession of the written documentation of the amazingly lucky discovery of Felsted’s works, with copies of the music, as well as the articles written about his life and works. How wonderful it would be to share the excitement American Sister Mary Dominic Ray expressed in 1969, when she learned of the existence of this talented composer, and subsequently found that two of his compositions had been slumbering for 200 years at the British Library in London! They are, in fact, the only two known surviving works of Samuel Felsted.
Yes, if it was not for the inquisitive mind of Dominican Sister Mary, Founder of the American Music Research Centre in Colorado, we might still be in the dark about this pioneering composer. She enlisted Musicologist Dr. Thurston Dox to take on the task of Felsted research, which he did over a period of 10 years, during which he visited Jamaica multiple times. In 1989, the late Pamela O’Gorman documented Dr. Dox’s triumph in an article published in the Jamaica Journal, when after 10 years he at last had confirmation that Felsted was really born in Jamaica! Subsequently in 1990, the oratorio ‘Jonah’ was again performed in its entirety in Jamaica, over 200 years after being composed while Samuel Felsted was organist at the St. Andrew Parish Church. He composed his Six Organ Voluntaries afterwards during his tenure as organist at the Kingston Parish Church. It is worth mentioning that approximately ten years ago, Bryan Jones, an Jamaican/American young musician, started a ‘Felsted Project’ in the United States featuring the oratorio ‘Jonah’ at all historical locations where it had been performed in the eighteenth century. However, our Foundation “Music Unites”, with the help of the German Embassy, had exposed Jamaican audiences island-wide to this hidden musical gem in the year 2000.
Our tireless engagement with this research project is done so that Jamaican students will no longer be deprived of the historical importance of Jamaica’s first documented composer. Furthermore, we wish to inspire the music lecturers here to shine a spotlight also on all the other Jamaican composers and to integrate them into the music curriculum, instead of limiting their student’s knowledge only to the international musical giants, which for young minds are so often unfamiliar and alien composers from yesteryear!
Another tragedy is the fact that nobody in Jamaica speaks about one of the most influential English composers of the second half of the 1800s, Sir Frederic Hyman Cowen, who was born on Duke Street right here in Kingston, in 1852! Sir Cowen wrote his first composition “Minna Waltz” at age six, and countless other works during his long and musically productive life. We are very happy to know that after 73 of absence from Jamaica, he came back home in 1929 when he was celebrated by the Institute of Jamaica, and some of his works were performed with orchestra and soloists at the grand Ward Theatre in Downtown Kingston.
In looking back I am grateful that was not intimidated soon after my arrival in Jamaica by the comment of a passionate proponent of Reggae music: “please go back where you came from, don’t bring this ‘oppressor music’ to the island!” I cannot fault his logic; how could he know that Jamaica is also rich in music history outside of Popular music if it is not taught at schools, and Classical Music is only heard on the radio on Sundays and at Christmas? Live concerts very seldom integrated Jamaican compositions in the programmes, a trend which drastically has begun to change recently. He and most of his country(wo)men have never heard about the life and works of the amazing Jamaican composer and pianist Dr. Don Shirley (1927 – 2013). This remarkable musical talent had three PHDs, spoke eight languages, wrote many original works, and performed at the world premiere of Duke Ellington’s Piano concerto in 1955 at Carnegie Hall in New York, where he also lived for many decades. There are many other composers who have flown under the radar of the academic mind! It was the historian Joy Lumsden who actually led the way, and we owe her much gratitude for establishing the first website featuring Jamaican musicians several years back. If it was not for her, I still would be convinced that Dr. Don Shirley was a great American musician!
It is also rather unfortunate that Jamaican pianist and composer Oswald Russell (1933 – 2012) never performed again in the land of his birth after the 1960s, when he was piano lecturer at the Jamaica School of Music (now School of Music / Edna Manley College). Russel lived in Geneva, Switzerland where he lectured in piano for many decades. I only heard about him because of the performances of his ‘Three Jamaican Dances’ by pianists in Jamaica. Dr. Kaestner Robertson, another Jamaican pianist, organist and composer has decided to come back home and presently heads the Music Department at the Northern Caribbean University.
I also wish to highlight the point that Jamaica has not only outstanding musical sons, but also daughters! Yes, Jamaica has many more female composers than I have encountered in other nations! The great success of Eleanor Alberga, who’s composition ‘Arise Athena’ opened the Proms in London in 2015, and the amazing story of Shirley Thompson, who In 2004, with her work ‘New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony’, became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the past 40 years, shall not be overlooked. We also have Paulette Bellamy right here in Kingston, who composes, performs as violinist, and is also a very compassionate music educator.
The historic work of the late Dr. Olive Lewin (1927 – 2013) in the area of Folk Music research is very well known due to her countless publications, and her decades of performance with the Jamaica Folk Singers, which she founded in 1967. However, little so far is known about her compositions in the genre of Church and Patriotic Music. I also need to mention in the same breath an unsung heroine in folk music research, as well as a versatile composer, Marjorie Whylie! Together with the Hon. Rex Nettleford, she founded the NDTC Singers in 1962, the year of Jamaica’s Independence. She served as their musical director, composer and arranger for over 50 years. There are many more ladies who have composed on this island, such as Lisa Narcisse, Noel Foster Davis, Gloria Lannaman and Barbara Ferland. However, the excitement of discovering and meeting Sharon Calcraft just a couple of months ago is indescribable! Sharon left Jamaica in 1969 for Australia and became very famous as an international composer of film music in her twenties. She now lives in Sydney and dedicates her life to composing what she calls ‘New Music’. Only last year, during the launch of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Jamaica, we learned of Ted Runcie, conductor and composer living in Taiwan, of who was born on this isle in the Hills of Manchester! How many more Jamaican Sharons and Teds are out there to be discovered?
The search continues, especially since the director of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, recently mentioned a new name, Hermann Wilson! The telling of all these musical journeys will motivate all living Jamaican composers, especially the younger ones, who are too many to be listed here individually.
Last but not least, in the area of Patriotic and Church music we have many more great individuals, from Mapletopft Poulle and Astley Clerk, to the very well known music educator and composer Lloyd Hall, as well as Douglas Forrest , who are sadly no longer with us. There are sometimes very frustrating moments in research, like when we unfortunately learned that the records of Lloyd Hall’s music have been lost. Luckily, a member of his choir, Jean Ewart, kept much memorabilia from his very long and productive life. I remember very fondly the moment when the Hon. Robert Lightbourne sat at our piano and accompanied himself singing a very intriguing hymn. When he finished I applauded him and asked which type of song this was, and he replied with this smile full of wisdom: “ah, that is my own funeral hymn”!
What would Jamaica’s musical calendar over the decades have been without the staging of the annual Pantomime? According to one of the stalwarts, Barbara Gloudon, this year marks the seventy-fifth uninterrupted season of offering a new musical theatre production to the audiences here. Father Richard Ho Lung also offers a spiritual musical written and composed by him every year; and the annual summer concert season and Christmas concert of the University Singers is also a remarkable achievement. This internationally acclaimed choir has actually always integrated Jamaican compositions due to the fact that they were founded and directed by choir master, music educator and composer Noel Dexter, whose many songs are published in Hymn books throughout the Caribbean alongside those of the late Barry Chevannes. Thanks to Donald Lindo and David Reid, we received insight into the creation of our National Anthem, but little did we know that Major Joe Williams wrote the very first wind symphonic band arrangement for it when it was submitted to the selecting committee.
Did I forget any major musical figure? Yes, I did: the late Clyde Hoyte, born in 1915! It is very hard to describe this versatile individual who held five valid passports, and was actually a journalist and historian his whole life; but amongst other things, Clyde was a passionate song writer who was very instrumental in the first recordings of Jamaica. He is mainly known for some of his beautiful songs, like ‘O’er Our Blue Mountain’ and ‘Jamaica Calling,’, and as a close friend of the late Norman Washington Manley also lobbied for the Independence of this island. It was quite heartbreaking for me to find him in the late 90s, living in conditions not worthy of his achievements. But with lobbying, fundraising and featuring his music in concerts organized by our NGO ‘RCM Music Foundation’ (now ‘Music Unites’), he was able to live a creative life until his peaceful transition in 2003.
I must also mention the close collaboration with Dr. Christine Gangelhoff, Assistant Professor of Music at The College of The Bahamas, who has done extensive research on the composers of the Caribbean. Dr Gangelhoff and her colleague Cathleen Le Grand published the Bibliography ‘Art Music by Caribbean Composers’ in The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, Vol. 17, N1 (2011).
We wholeheartedly thank the wisdom of the General Manager of Jamaica National, Mr. Earl Jarrett, and the Jamaica National Foundation, led by Saffrey Brown and her team, who believed in our aim to tell the rich, exciting stories of the Jamaican composers here on this website, and in a soon to be published hand book. All these heroes of Jamaican music will no longer remain unsung; their melodies will inspire and sooth the generations to come in the spirit of Clyde Hoyte’s mantra: “Remember All Are One”!