Caribbean Traditional Music || FOLK SONG PERFORMANCE IN THE CARIBBEANA

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  • FOLK SONG PERFORMANCE IN THE CARIBBEANAAuthor(s): NOEL DEXTERSource: Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, Caribbean Traditional Music (MARCH, 1983), pp.66-69Published by: University of the West Indies and Caribbean QuarterlyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40653590 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 18:54

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  • 66

    FOLK SONG PERFORMANCE IN THE CARIBBEAN

    by

    NOEL DEXTER

    Choirs and choral ensembles performing Caribbean folk songs have increased significantly over the years in the Caribbean region. The Frats Quintet, the Jamaican Folk Singers, National Dance Theatre Company Singers, the University of the West Indies Singers from Jamaica, the Mausica Teachers' College Choral Society from Trinidad, the Hewanorra Voices from St Lucia, the Emerald Community Singers from Montserrat, the Kingstown Chorale from St Vincent, the Police Male Voice Choir and the Emmel Singers from Guyana, if not known throughout the region, have made their mark in their country of origin.

    Folk song performances are no longer backyard affairs. Instead, they have been elevated to the stages of elite theatres and concert halls all over the Caribbean. What used to be enjoyed by the peasant population has gained 'respectability' and has won the applause of those at the top of the social ladder, as folk music performances have taken on all the trimmings that go along with Art Music. These performances have also been given the blessing of the Church as Folk Masses. Songs from our religious folk heritage or religious songs composed in folk idiom are now included on the programmes of most church Sunday afternoon concerts. In Jamaica, the number of classes for folk music in the syllabus for the Music Festival is being viewed with alarm and deep concern by some music teachers. With the increasing popularity of folk music presentations has come a change in the background of the performers themselves. These are no longer exclusively folk musicians, for each choir has one or two musicians who can boast their Royal Schools of Music certificates and diplomas.

    Not everyone is able to hear live performances of these many groups scattered over the Caribbean, but thanks to the recording industry and the foresight of some of these groups, recordings have been made. These, while fulfilling the requirements of sound, are still inadequate for measuring the groups' total impact in xerms of performance, for all over the Caribbean a great deal of attention is now given to the visual aspects of perform- ance. Folk songs are now 'staged'. Performers are now appropriately costumed, and a whole new dimension has been added, as they no longer merely stand in formal choral pattern swaying from left to right, but present their music with appropriate 'movements'. This seems quite a logical performance technique when one is dealing with work-songs or songs which are derived from, or are a part of, a particular folk-dance form. But this treat- ment is now successfully used for lullabys, topical gossip-songs and others, with the aim of highlighting and complementing music and words, and not being, in itself, a separate input. Some groups, as one might expect, have gone overboard to create movement sequences which stand out apart from the songs themselves. In spite of this, one sees the addition of movement as a very necessary and relevant ingredient of folk song perform- ance in the Caribbean where, in the folk tradition, the two elements are so naturally inte- grated that it is difficult to say where movement begins and song ends.

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  • 67

    The arrangement of the folk song is another aspect of performance that has been given serious attention in recent years. This is probably because we have become increasingly aware of the fact that the success of a performance, to a large extent, depends upon the style and choral technique involved in creating arrangements. It is true that some of our folk songs naturally resist any elaborate choral arrangement, or even accompaniment which is so often indiscriminately used. Some folk melodies are able to stand on their own without any vocal or instrumental dressing. They seem so perfect in themselves that in decorating them we detract from their inherent beauty. In fact, such an act borders on the sacrilegious, for there is that 'sacred' element in folk music which demands careful treatment by even the most skilled choral arranger. If he fails to recognise this, and does not approach folk music with the awe and respect it deserves, it is very often because he fails to see that the music he is working with has already been 'arranged' by those who, through an oral tradition, have created and preserved it.

    As the songs have moved from village to village, sometimes through a number of generations, phrases and words have been added, others have been dropped, the melodies have been altered here and there, so that what we now have is a beautifully 'distilled', artistic creation with structure and form (as one finds in Art Music), and an emotional content which is pure and unpretentious. The music has become the perfect vehicle for carrying the words and vice versa. As the melody crystallizes, normal speech rhythms can be identified, while, at the same time, we get a glimpse of the lives of the people who have created the songs. Let us look, for example, at the song 'Sammy Dead.'

    SAMMY DEAD OH!

    Sam-my plant piece -a corn dung a gul-ly (M m) an

    bear till i' kill poor Sam-my (M m) Sam-my

    dead, Sam-my dead Sam-my dead Oh (M m) Sam-my

    dead Sam-my dead Sam-my dead Oh (M m) This song is a classic example of a well-constructed melody. It might not be as compli- cated as one of the best melodies of Art Music, but its simplicity is what gives it charm and immediate appeal. The words flow just as pur folk would say them, and the shape of the melody not only patterns speech inflections but also helps to heighten the emotional

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  • 68

    impact. The musical accents are natural, and careful analysis will reveal the employment of Sophisticated' musical techniques. Devices such as phrases and answering phrases, repetition, sequences, have been used to create a musical gem with sufficient balance and contrast which, for many of us, is exclusive to Art Music.

    One cannot over-emphasise that some folk songs, as trivial as they may seem, come very close to ideal, if not perfect, creations. What we fail to see has been long recognized by our revered composers of European Art Music, who have had to turn to folk songs time and again for inspiration and direction. There is always the danger that some musi- cians, failing to appreciate the nature and simple beauty of the folk song, tend toward the ornate and produce arrangements which are very pretentious and hollow, and often lose the essence of the material that gave them birth.

    In the Caribbean, we are happy to note that our arrangers have not very often gone overboard in this direction. On the other hand, some beautiful arrangements utilizing the various techniques of choral writing have emerged. One instructive example of this is Olive Lewin's arrangement of the Jamaican work-song "Missa Potta" (Recording - Jamaican Folk Singers Vol. 2/71). This piece rightly employs a polyphonic texture which preserves, and even highlights, the energy which this melody contains, and which would be lost in a purely homophonic setting. Patrick Prescod in the Vincentian folk song "No wuk today" gives us an arrangement which is appropriately less rhythmic, but which captures the harmonic texture one would get from workmen 'in the field' (Recording - We Kinda Music - The Kingstown Chorale). Taking the popular Jamaican folk tune "Dis long time gal" which is more often sung and played in its mento form, Marjorie Whylie has created a beautiful arrangement in waltz-time. (Recording - NDTC Singers (Dynamic Sounds, NDTC 001/72) The use of these varied techniques by our own musi- cians demonstrates the high level of folk song choral arrangement which is coming out of the Caribbean today.

    It is also interesting to note that a number of our musicians have been able to successfully capture the style of their folk music tradition to create folk songs which have been absorbed into the repertoire of some performing groups. While some of Irving Burgie's commercialized compositions have been successful, Barbara Ferland's "Evening Time"