Presenting Jamaican folk songs on the art music stage: Social history and artistic decisions

Byron Gordon Johnson

Abstract

Jamaican folk songs have become a definitive characteristic of Jamaican culture. They are exemplars of a culture whose music reflects the lifestyle of most of its citizens. In modern times, their beauty has been show cased in local and foreign performances which exposes an element of the country to the world. Additionally, the arrangements of these songs by Jamaican composers like Noel Dexter and Peter Ashbourne have aided in their renaissance in modern times. This also attests to their high entertaining quality which most audiences have come to appreciate. To this end, this research analyzed the arrangements by Noel Dexter and Peter Ashbourne. However, in colonial times, the songs' function and purpose were two-fold. First, they were used as a mode of communication between slaves and their masters, as well as among the slaves themselves. Secondly, they were used to enhance religious aspects of worship and praise. Additionally, the colonial system created a stratified society in which the white masters were superior to the enslaved Africans. This permeated every aspect of the colonial society and was especially noticeable in the disparity in social conditions between the whites and the slaves. Colonialism also enabled the imposition of European culture on society. Overtime, the slaves perceived that the European culture was better than theirs, and they fashioned their social habits after their masters'. The resultant was their viewing their African ancestry with shame and overtime abandoning its traditions. This research explored the transition of Jamaican folk songs from the slave fields to the art music stage. In so doing, it investigated colonialism and slavery as factors that influenced these songs' usage in communication, entertainment, and worship. It also explored independence as a catalyst in the creation of a new identity for Jamaicans and, in so doing, investigated the cultural policies of successive Jamaican governments coupled with the concerted efforts of the artisan class, especially musicians in producing Jamaican artifacts that are representative of the people. To this end, the research provided detailed analyses on the music of Noel Dexter and Peter Ashbourne as well as biographical profiles.