My Big Fat Jamaican Wedding

Counting down to the big day

The Heritage Singers: Being Part Of A Jamaican Legacy

on May 26, 2012

As a JamCan (a Canadian of Jamaican background) who loves culture, the arts, and diversity, I have been concerned about losing touch with Jamaican traditions.  One of these traditions is the Jamaican folk song.  As a child, my father sung songs to my sister and I that he learned as a boy in Jamaica.

My sister Nyisha (left) and I chilling in Jane and Finch, an inner city neighbourhood of Toronto where you spent some years of our childhood. No fair, she got to wear the cuter outfit.

Because it was a British colony in the 1950s, Jamaican schoolchildren would have been taught a very English curriculum taught.  So my father shared traditional British songs like “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and “Kookaburra”, the latter which was actually Australian because that is where the kookaburra bird lived, and even the Jamaican national anthem.  Up until that point, my exposure to Jamaican folk songs had been very limited.  This all changed one day when I was about eleven years old and I went to the library with my sister Nyisha.  In the music section, I discovered a book called Mango Spice.

Mango Spice… my first exposure to Jamaican folk songs. This is the original cover of the book. The boy in the middle and the girl on the right could be me and my fiance as children. Ha ha ha.

Me around the time when I discovered Mango Spice. I was really proud of this outfit which I wore with a long red skirt and my Jheri Curled hair (a bit overprocessed I see but these were the eighties, so I had some permission).

My sister and I took the book and eagerly tried to learn the tunes as I plunked them on the piano.  Being that I started piano lessons at the age of five, I could fumble through a brand new piece but my tries at these tunes were far from perfect.  Because many of the tunes had were of mento genre which is quite syncopated, I found it difficult to play both left and right hand simultaneously and so I focused on the right hand where the melodies were found.  As I sightread these new scores, plunking on the keys, traditional folk melodies like Tingalayo, about a Trinidadian anthropomorphic donkey, gave way to tunes that were new to us like Sly Mongoose, ‘Dis Long Time Gyal, and Jamaican Alphabet.  As we struggled to sing these songs, both of my parents sometimes chimed in, recognizing these tunes and filling in the gaps for us so we could figure out what it was supposed to really sound like.  Then eventually at the library, we discovered the Mango Spice cassette tape to accompany many songs in the book.  Because the tape was recorded in England the audio recording, as the publication of the book, British school children sang the songs.  The callers in the call and response songs like Coconut WomanHill and Gully Ridah, and Sammy Dead Oh had a distinct and unmistakable English accent.  I was intrigued by the discovery of these songs but a little disappointed.  Unlike our own Canadian accent, I wanted the Jamaican folk songs to be sung with authenticity and real Jamaican accents.

About fifteen years later when I was studying to become a music teacher while I was at a conference for music teachers, I saw Mango Spice with its original cover in a bin at a publisher’s display.  I was so happy to have found this book that I purchased it immediately and excitedly took it home.  Since then, I have learned the lyrics to most of the songs which I would eventually share with my students and also relatives at a family reunion.  My love of Jamaican folksongs reemerged anew.  I was so excited and began to share some of these songs with my students when I began to taught.  The children loved these songs especially the use of Jamaican patois.

Then a few years ago, while browsing through the summer cultural series at the Harbourfrontcentre, I noticed that a group called the Heritage Singers was scheduled to perform traditional Jamaican folksongs.  I thought it was so exciting that this group was coming from Jamaica to perform and I loved folksongs, so of course I told my dad about it and we went to see them. (My sister Nyisha had since moved to New York City.)  They performed beautiful and old favourites while outside on a stage in Ann Tindal Park as we sat on green grass. I thought, wow!  I was finally seeing the Heritage Singers all the way from Jamaica.  They were singing real Jamaican folk songs with not only Jamaican accents but Jamaican patois, too.

Sometime in fall 2011, news got around that the Heritage Singers were coming to perform one afternoon in the library of my school where I teach for the older students. I was so excited and stayed to watch them perform.

The Heritage Singers entertaining children and staff at my school

They sang a few songs that I knew and others that I did not know at all.  During their performance, I noticed a number of teachers and I in the room singing and swaying along, big smiles emerged with the use of patois lyrics and playfulness of the pieces.  The host of the performance was a special guest to the group who explained to us the different eras and styles of music from Jamaica.  Near the end of the performance, the school principal requested that the choir sing Coconut Woman.  When the choir asked her to sing the tune and they did not catch on, I chimed in.  The result was an invitation to sing Coconut Woman with the choir in front of all the students.  I was so in my element and this marked my very first performance (albeit unofficial with the Heritage Singers).  Earlier that year, I had surgery to remove my entire thyroid after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.  The result was a changed voice.

Meaty, my thyroidectomy scar, one week after surgery

My surgeon had told me that scarification had affected my voice and this was a common side effect of thyroidectomies.  I had difficulty in the beginning with a lower vocal range, variable tones, and a fear that my singing voice would never return.  Eventually, I got some voice therapy, used voice amplification from time to time while I taught then I noticed some changes.  The pain when I projected my voice began to disappear and my singing and speaking voice became stronger.  So being in front of the students and my colleagues singing with the Heritage Singers was sort of a big deal.

At the end of the song, next thing I knew was Grace Lyons, who I learned later was the founder of the Heritage Singers, was inviting me to become a member.

Grace Lyons, Heritage Singers founder
 “What? I thought, you were based in Jamaica!”  It turned out that the Heritage Singers are not based in Jamaica but in Toronto and they have been going for almost 35 years strong. This means that I could sing with this group in the city I live.  But what about my crazy, busy life?  What about my recovery, work, planning of a wedding, creative writing classes, working out at the gym, and my other commitments?  How could I fit in the Heritage Singers? How could I not fit in Heritage Singers?  After my first choir practice, the answer became quite clear.  This was where I was supposed to be.

I began to sing in January, about a year after my surgery, as we prepared for their musical showcased called Hallelujah Pepperpot.

This program showcases the cultural influences of religious songs and choruses including Caribbean, African, revival, folk, spirituals, and “old tyme” Jamaican favourites. Over the past number of months, I attended several practices as I learned a repertoire of over 30 songs.  After each rehearsal, the songs played in my head with their lilting mento rhythms and enchanting harmonies.  I sang alto.  I learned by sightreading the music notations, others I learned by rote, and others I improvised.  I grew to love the freedom of moving, swaying, and doing choreographed steps while I sang.  Remarkably, my voice never hurt as I sang these songs.  My new voice fit in the Heritage Singers.  Whatever I lacked in range, I made up for in passion.  I also learned the choreography for the songs.  Moving while singing makes a huge difference for the audience.

It seemed even more fitting that I joined the group this year.  The Heritage Singers turn 35 years old as I also turn 35 years old.  I loved singing with everyone. Some members have been singing in this group from the very beginning.  Most of the members come from Canada’s Jamaican expat community which is some 231, 000 strong.  I loved singing with everyone.  The members sing with such energy and gusto.  There are several strong vocalists in this group as well.  The group members were very welcoming and gave me some pointers, assisted with lyrics, and reminded me of particular routines.

This is the Nine Nite Scene. Nine Nite is a traditional nine day long wake observed by many in Jamaica especially in the rural areas. During Nine Nite, community members visit the home of the deceased person’s family for nine days. Food and drinks are shared, so too are encouraging words, prayers, games of dominoes, laughter and tears. During one rehearsal of this scene, I became overcome with tears, real tears. While the actress who played the widow sang “Old One Dead and Gone”, I pictured my Uncle C’s smiling face. I got news of his passing just the day before.

In the opening scene, we sing the Hallelujah medley which features Handel’s Hallelujah chorus with a Caribbean twist. Here we are pictured wearing beautiful yellow tops and tiered skirts. This was my favourite costume to wear. Extremely dramatic and glamourous. I am in the second row, second from the right.

Here is a photo of the musicians which accompanied us during the performances.

Since I began planning my wedding, it was not possible to attend every single practice, but I came to everyone I could.  On May 6 and 12, I performed in half of the scenes of the Hallelujah Pepperpot at churches in Toronto and Pickering.  These were my first Heritage Singers public performances.  I had an amazing time.  After each performance, I felt inspired and energized, inspired, and like everything was possible.

I also got to wear amazing costumes too.

Say Jamaican tin cheese!

The songs in this scene included several Jamaican traditional religious choruses like “Let Us Break Bread Together”. The English influences in these pieces are quite strong.

My costume in the Spirituals scene.

My Nine Nite costume

The songs in this scene were quite varied. They ranged from mournful hymns to lively handclapping choruses. I cried, I wept, I danced, I laughed, I was comforted, and put my arm around others. Sounds like a Nine Nite to me. Grace told me that Miss Lou said, ‘Nine Nite is the Black man’s therapy’.

It was all worth it.  The late night practices, the time, and the effort made for a wonderful performance that fed my soul.

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