Jamaica’s Heritage in Dance and Music Cont’d

Dinki Mini/Gerreh

Dinki Mini originates from the Congolese word ‘ndingi’ which means lamentation or funeral song.  Dinkies are celebratory occasions. Although associated with death, the music is lively, joyous, and exciting, intending to cheer the family and friends of the dear person. Dinki Mini was practised openly throughout slavery but is now done mainly during our annual Festival celebration.

However, it is still performed in the parishes of St. Mary, St Ann, St Andrew and Portland, while Gerreh is found in the parishes of Hanover, Westmoreland and St. James. Its popularity came about from the death of Tacky, a hero of the Maroons, as it was performed during his funeral celebrations.

Popular at set-ups or nine-nights, the first few nights consist of singing and dancing to Mento music.  The sixth to the eighth night is dominated by ring games, role playing, riddles and Anancy stories. On the ninth night, a ritual to send off the ‘mature’ spirit to begin its journey ‘home’ is performed. The family of the deceased will ‘turn out’ the spirit by turning over mattresses and rearranging rooms.

The aim of the ritual is to properly send the spirit on its journey. Hymns such as “Rock of Ages” are sung.

Included in the activities, is the feeding of the dancers and singers who will not hesitate to remind the householders of this duty. This is done in song.

While refreshment is provided at the set-up, a mini feast is prepared for the Ninth Night.  This consists of fried fish, coffee, or chocolate tea, crackers and bread.  In some parishes curried goat and rice with mannish water (i.e. goat had soup) is served.

Instruments associated with Dinki Mini are shakas, katta sticks, condensed milk tins, grater, the tamboo (cylindrical shaped drum) and the benta.  The benta is an accident stringed instrument – a fret board made of bamboo and a gourd resonator.

The Dinki Mini dance focuses in the pelvic region, as it is performed in defiance of the death that has occurred.  The dancers, male and female together, make suggestive rotations with the pelvis in an attempt to prove that they are stronger than death, as they have the means to reproduce.

The lyrics of the songs associated with Gerreh are also suggestive.  Gerreh however had another dimension – the bamboo dance – that is dancing on elevated bamboo poles and between four bamboo poles brought together and pulled back by four crouching players.

Kumina (also spelt Cumina) is a religious group, which originated in Congo, West Africa, and was brought to Jamaica by the free Africans, who came here between the 1840s and 1860s.  It is strongly believed that Kumina expresses the strongest African retention of Jamaican folk culture, and provides us with powerful clues about the religions and social practices of out African ancestors.

Kumina practitioners believe in the existence of three spirits – Sky Spirits (All Powerful God Nzomi Ampangu), Earth Spirits and Ancestral Spirits.  The Sky Spirits carry the highest rank, followed by the Earth Spirit, which may appear by entering the body of a practitioner.

However, the Ancestral Spirits are the ones most commonly used as it is believed that the Sky and Earth Spirits have a much wider hemisphere in which to work and are least in touch with individuals.

Kumina is performed to celebrate achievements and at special achievements and at social events such as engagements and weddings. Thus, it is referred to by many as ‘rejoicing’ music. It may also be performed at set ups and nine-nights.

However, Kumina can also be used for evil purposes, for example, to make someone physically ill, because the ritual focuses on the ancestral spirits who share our desire for revenge and justice.  According to Orlanado Patterson, in his book entitled The Sociology of Slavery (1967), homage is paid to the ancestral spirits, because Africans are more afraid of their ancestors than their gods.

The three most important elements of a Kumina session are dancing, singing and drumming. The drums are believed to be the most important, because of the control they have over the spirits. Two types of drums are used – the Kbandu or Bandu and the Playing Cass or Playing Cast.

The Kbandu is used for the basic rhythm. It is large and hollow with goat skin at one end. The Playing Cass is smaller and is used for more complicated rhythms.  The drummers straddle the drums to play. Other instruments used are scrapers, shakers which are made from gourdes (calabash), condensed milk tins and katta sticks beaten on the body of the Kbandu behind the drummer.

The colours worn by participants in a Kumina ceremony are of utmost importance.  These colours give an indication of the occasion, for example, black and white for a mourning dance, green and white for thanksgiving.

The dance in a Kumina ritual is led by either a King or Queen. Kings or Queens are usually knowledgeable of the customs, practices, rhythms of the drums and traditional songs through which spirits are called.

It is strongly believed that during a ceremony the spirits travel through white rum, sugar, cream soda, candles, water (which is usually carried on the head to catch the spirit) and coconut (believed to contain the power to prevent harm). Goat or fowl blood is also mixed with white rum and sprayed to the spirit.

Brukins

Brukins belongs to the creolised group of traditional dances, which came into existence to celebrate the emancipation of slavery in August 1834. Brukins takes the form of a pageant, with a processional parade of Kings, Queens, Courtiers (known as grandsons and granddaughters), soldiers and pages.

The music is an amalgam of European and African element, the drum being the main instrument that is used to accompany the singing. Two double-headed drums are used; the bass drum is played with a padded stick, and the rattler with two slender sticks.

The participants in the dance wear elaborate clothes which depict the extravagance at the Royal Court. The main movement of the dance is a dip/kotch of the body, as arms are moved across the chest in an upward movement while wheeling and turning body. The movements in Brukins are derived from the Pavanne dance which originated in Italy and was taken to the rest of Europe by the dancing masters of the time.

A Brukins Pageant usually begins in the late afternoon with the dancers forming two groups. They would then go from house to house parading their costumes and proudly displaying their dancing skills. The colours used in the parades are red and blue. The groups which comprise Kings, Queens and Courtiers are considered to be characters of the Royal Family, while the military are their followers.

A highly competitive spirit is always visible among the participating groups. Costumes are made in secret and hidden from the group until the day of the celebration.  The Queens and the Kings wear crowns while the soldiers carry swords.

The Queen of each group usually appears first, each dancing and trying to outdo the other to see who could ‘bruck’ better. These are the movements in the lower region of the body which give the appearance that the body is being broken at the waist.  After the Queens’ performance the competition continues with the Kings and Courtiers challenging each other.

Brukins is a part of our treasured heritage.  However, its popularity has declined significantly over the years. It is now performed only in the parish of Portland in the village of Kensington, primarily for the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) Annual Festival of Arts Competition.

Jonkonnu

Jonkonnu (called John Canoe by the British) is a band of masqueraders which usually perform in towns and villages at Christmas time.  The Jonkonnu customs go as far back as the days of slavery, but at that time the bands were very large and elaborate.

Characters in the Johnkonnu Masquerade were quite frightening to onlookers. Masqueraders were dressed in costumes such as King and Queen, Cow Head, Horse Head, Devil, Pitchy Patchy, Red Indians and ‘Belly Woman’.

Occasionally a mock policeman (masquerader) would be added to keep onlookers in order. This practice dates back to when parades, including Jonkonnu, were outlawed. The policeman, in trying to enforce the law, was often overtaken by the drum rhythm, forgot his duties and joined in the merriment.

The Jonkonnu band was accompanied by musicians who would play tunes of well-known traditional songs on the fife accompanied by bass and rattling drums, shakas and graters.

The characters in the Jonkonnuu band were usually played by men. Their faces would be fully covered and when they spoke it would be in coarse whispers as it was a part of the tradition that no one should be able to identify them.

It is also believed that Jonkonnu became associated with Christmas because this was the only major holiday of the slaves. However, Jonkonnu also appeared at Easter, called ‘pickney Christmas” by the slaves.  Johnkonnu became even more popular when slave masters began to encourage the festivities in their estates, thus showing their support. It was during this period that European and English elements were mixed with African tradition and gave Jonkonnu dance steps known as Jigs and Polkas, Open Cut Out, One Drop and Marching Tune among others.

The ancient art form declined rapidly in the mid 1800s when in 1841 the mayor of Kingston banned Jonkonnu Parades. This was a result of frequent clashes between revellers and the police and for a very long time Jonkonnu became almost non-existent, with the exception of the rural areas which were excluded from the ban.

However, Jonkonnu was revived around 1951 when the Daily Gleaner sponsored a Jonkonnu competition and the level of participation showed that the customs of Jonkonnu were still alive.

Unfortunately, with the birth of other popular dances, Jonkonnu gradually lost its popularity and the Jonkonnu of today is but a shadow of the original.

Rastafarian Music

Rastafarian music originated from the Rastafarian Movement, which began during the 1930s in Jamaica.  A Rastafarian by the name of Count Ossie Williams was very instrumental in the development of the music. His interest in music development of the music, led him to take ideas from an easier type of Jamaican music called Burru. Count Ossie adapted the Burru drums and combined this with the Kumina rhythms of his youth in St. Thomas and arrived at what is known as Rasta music.

Several instruments are played in Rasta music, for example, tambourines, shakers, scrapers, strikerbells, sometimes the saxophone and trombone and, most importantly, drums. Three kinds of drums are used. The largest is the bass drum, made from wooden staves held together with metal bands and tuning pegs with goat or cow skin heads.  This is played with a heavy padded stick, which produces a steady rhythm or ‘riddim’ according to Rastafarians.

Secondly, there is the Fundeh, also made from wood 30 cm across and goat or cow skin.  However, this drum is only covered at one end, while the other end is left open. The fundeh sets the pace of the music – the lifeline riddim.

Finally, there is the Repeater, the smallest of the three drums. This is also made in the same way as the other two drums. However, because of its size, it produces a higher sound. It is said that the characteristic ‘riddims’ and cuts are played on the Repeater by the master drummer, creating patterns that are often quick and potent.

The rhythms of Rastafarianism and its philosophies have contributed to the development of this popular music form of today.  Artistes such as the late Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and many of the present generation have been powerful forces in its acceptance by the wider society and beyond the shores of Jamaica.

Ska

Ska, regarded as the forerunner of reggae music, was popularised by the late Don Drummond and The Skatalites during the early 1960s. It could be described as Jamaicanised version of the North American Rhythm and Blues (R&B).

During the Ska Era, sound systems, which started out as a Saturday night hobby for the owners, made a significant contribution to the development of the music form. The sound system consisted of amplifiers and loud speakers turned up to high volumes.

As the popularity of the music grew, so did the sound system ‘session’ on Saturday nights.  Owners now tried to outdo each other as the competition increased. Frequent trips were made abroad to procure the latest and best recorded American music and it was not unusual to find two or more sound system in competition in a Saturday night. When the American sources began to dry up, the local producers began to produce their own sounds, using local talent.

Soon the ‘blue beat’ emerged. Blue beat is actually an English term for ska, developed when the music was marketed to Britain. The lyrics of ska were often about the prevailing socio-economic commentaries of the less privileged in the society. Popular songs of the ska era included Count Ossie’s ‘Oh Carolina’ and Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’.

The Ska dance consisted primarily of very fast paced movements such as shuttle and split. “Shuttle and split” consisted of moving the hands upwards, downwards, side to side, backwards and forward while lifting the legs bent at the knees alternately.

“Wash Wash” was another movement in Ska and was believed to stimulate the movements of washing clothes.  Another movement in Ska is the “press along”.  Here the dancer thumbs the rhythm with his arms at shoulder length.  Another variation involved one spiralling down to floor level and back up, occasionally moving the hips and pumping the arms alternately in opposing directions.

Ska gained national popularity through efforts of the Skatalites, regarded as the greatest Ska band.  It was included on the list of Jamaican attractions issued by the Jamaica Tourist Board, and went even further to win international acclaim.

Ska was replaced by Rock Steady in the mid-1960s. Its decline had been attributed to the death of Don Drummond and the disbanding of its mass ambassador, the Skatalites.

Rock Steady

The Ska and Rock Steady were similar in movements. The main difference was the beat of the music. 

In essence, Rock Steady, was a slower, somewhat erotic version of Ska, with elements of American Rhythm and Blues and the Mento.  With the slower beat, musicians were free to experiment with more complicated melodies. With the wider use of electronic instruments, horns were replaced by guitars – rhythms and solo – and the bass line became more complex and more melodic.

Musicians began to show less dependence on Rhythm and Blues and instead composed lyrics which reflected their daily lives and experiences.  The transition period between Ska and Rock Steady was known as the ‘rudie’ period.  The songs of this period dealt with the criminal elements of the ghetto. Songs of the period included ‘007’, ‘Rude Boy’ and ‘Rudie in Court’, among others. Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley and the Wailers and Hopeton Lewis, were a few of the many artistes of this period.

In Rock Steady, the dancer would try to keep his/her feet as steady as possible.  He would then shift his weight from one foot to the other very slowly.  At the same time he/she would shake his/her shoulder to the beat of the music while rocking the rest of his/her body. 

Reggae

Rock Steady had a fairly short life span.  By the end of the 1960s the music had become more up-tempo and the popular Reggae is born.  It is slower version of rock steady music and is characterised by its heavy, often repeated bass.  Like its forerunners Ska and rock steady, reggae songs often contain a message – political, religious or social.  There is also a strong element of Rastafarianism in the music.

Over the years, the popularity of reggae music has increased both locally and internationally. In 1983 the group Black Uhuru won the first Grammy Award with ‘Anthem’. The late Robert “Bob” Marley who died in 1981 still remains the most widely acclaimed reggae artiste.

He was awarded the Order of Merit for his contribution to the development of reggae music. Other popular artistes include Toots and the Maytals, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, U-Roy, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown.

In 1993, there emerged a new dimension to reggae music. 

This was known as conscious reggae. The lyrics of these songs addressed social and spiritual issues. (The artiste thought to have paved the way for this type of music was Tony Rebel.)  Others which have followed in his footsteps include Luciano and the late Garnet Silk.

Dancehall

What began sometime in the 70s and blossomed in the 80s as a mere exhortation to the crowd to dance at a “session” led to the birth of deejaying.  Deejays were a new set of champions of the music who spoke to the masses. Patrons at dances began to compare the ability of each deejay to motivate or “rock the crowd” and eventually this caught on, with artistes trying to “ride the rhythm” (chanting in tune with the beat), while at the same time creating with witty lyrics.

Thus, deejay music became inextricably intertwined with dancehall.  Dancehall became not just the place where a dance was held, but the music itself.  Deejay/dancehall music is sometimes considered vulgar and disrespectful to women as the language is at times sexually explicit and graphic. However, because of strict rules for airplay set out by the Broadcasting Commission, the production of this type of dancehall music has lessened.

Deejays of the early days include Big Youth and Scotty.  In the 80s and 90s there were Yellow Man and Michigan and Smiley and Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, to name a few.  Popular dances of the reggae/dancehall include the “Prang and the Bruck Out”.

Calypso

Calypso is a phenomenon if the Eastern Caribbean. With a forward moving rhythm, its early forms bear a close relationship to Mento.

However, the African heritage of calypso can be clearly seen in this genre. West Africans, ancestors of the new World black men, often sang songs of praise and songs of ridicule and mockery. Their professional street singers and community choirs performed these songs which relied on choral rhyme, the dancing chorus, the “call-and-response” order that are similar to native songs of the old Guinea coast.  Even the name “calypso” or (“kaiso”) can be traced to a West African source.

The Mento songs of Lord Fly and Lord Flea almost crossed the barrier into calypso, but the first true Jamaican calypsoes were those of the famous Jazz pianist, band leader and vocalist, Baba Motta, who sang “She Pon Top” recorded in the later 1950s. 

Pure calypso has since given way to a more modern form.

Soca is a calypso-derived music of the pre-Easter Trinidad Carnival. Originally, calypso was not generally popular in Jamaica, as it was seen as irrelevant to the people’s struggles.

In 1990 however, the popularity of calypso and its spin-off soca, increased in Jamaica with calypso band leader, Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires, to the extent that a Jamaicanised version of the Trinidad Carnival is held here annually at Easter For some soca “die-hards”, reggae has taken second place. 

The popularisation of calypso in Jamaica is also due to the free inter-island movement of bands.  Several Jamaican bands have performed in the Eastern Caribbean Groups such as Fab Five, Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires an the Bare Essentials have added soca/calypso to their repertoire.

Gospel

Locally, the tern gospel can cover any expression of religious music.  The words, rather than the music determine the classification of the song.  Most often the only uniquely Jamaican feature is the lyrics.  Early gospel music in Jamaica was inherited directly from the United States of America.  However, over the years, Jamaican gospel music has evolved.

Peter Manuel, musicologist, explains that although it is often associated with Pentacostal congregations, gospel music in Jamaica contains both black and white gospel styles from the United States. It is also close to reggae, but with the certain differentiating features, such as a busy tambourine, and loud clapping.  Traditionally, gospel singers worldwide have tried to combine popular musical styles and rhythms to accompany religious lyrical messages.

In Jamaica however, the blending of reggae or dancehall with gospel has been challenged by persons who are against change in gospel music. Since the Jamaican experience had its beginning in the Pentecostal churches, there has been controversy because reggae music is perceived as ungodly, Gospel mixed with rhythm and blues or country and western however, is readily accepted by those who object to reggae.

One of the more popular proponents of gospel is the Grace Thrillers. Father Holung and Friends have also contributed to the development of gospel, both in music and performance. Popular gospel groups include the Love Singers, David Keane and the Sunshine Singers.

Life Productions, a promotions agency, has tried to improve the quality of locally recorded gospel music through the singling out and promotion of local gospel acts such as a number of the groups mentioned above, in addition to Jenieve Hibbert and Robert Bailey (now a married duo). The quality of local gospel music ha improved since its start in the late 1960s or early 1970s. It has become ‘a message for the oppressed,’ a music of artful expression which demonstrates the virtues of Christianity including patience, love, freedom, faith and hope.

New artistes have emerged through the gospel festival competitions mounted by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission which has as its mandate the unearthing, training and showcasing of talent.

Jazz

Jazz, a form of music that represents, at its best, performances marked by spontaneous creativity and improvisation, is probably the most important cultural expression of black people in the New World.  It can be hot or cool, long or short, slow or soft.  Mercer Ellington, son of the famous Duke said, “Jazz is the blues, the suffering, the pain of black people over the years, our culture.”

Jazz has had four stages during the past 75 years: the first is pre-historic and immediately after World War I it was made popular by the American jazz artist, Buddy Bolden. It signifies the era where jazz musicians were thought to have only performed in place as widely divergent as cotton fields and brothels of the American South.  

The second, Swing or Mainstream, saw the emergence of Jazz music being played live on air or on film. Famous artistes such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington belong to this period.

Revolution, the third phase, began in the early 1940s and includes Hard Bop, Free jazz, Fusion, Latin jazz etc.  It was a musical and social event that was a reaction to the earlier artistic and economic situation. The social protests of the times were directly brought into the music.

No one knows with any certainty when jazz was brought to the shore Jamaica, but it is generally felt that it may have been by visiting British ships or Jamaican travellers.

Jazz has developed from its ‘cotton field and brothel origins’ to become “big city music” Jamaica’ proximity to new Orleans has been attributed to its long and productive tradition with the genre, along with other Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago.  Jamaica has given to the world a number of great Jazz musicians such as: Bertie King (saxophone); Jiver Hutchinson (trumpet); Joe Harriott (saxophone); Wynton Kelly (piano) Ernie Ranglin (guitar); Monty Alexander (piano); Dizzy Reece (trumpet).

While earlier shows were produced by Sonny Bradsahw, Fred Wilmot, Cedric Brooks, Pat Ramsay, is one of the primary development forces behind the current jazz movement in Jamaica, through her organisation of the Mutual Life Jazz Players.  Many artistes who are not actual members f the group, but have their own assemblies, play at Mutual Jazz sessions.  Among these are Jon Willimas, Desi Jones, Marjorie Whylie, Myrna Hague and Dean Frazer.

The now yearly Ocho Rios Jazz Festival organised by Sonny Bradsahw, has also fostered the development of local jazz music and musicians.  In Montego Bay, the Heridate and Jazz Festival, combines local and overseas acts with grassroots performers, while the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival is gaining recognition.

For more information, please see our publication: Wheel an Tun