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Jamaica Folk Singers Fizzle with 2013 Concert Season

Jamaica Folk Singers present worksongs

The Jamaican Folk Singers is almost as old as the nation whose folk repertoire it safeguards. The Singers have an impressive cache of folk songs and one can almost be certain that although you are likely to hear some favourites, each season won’t be a repeat of the last. So the problem with their 2013 Concert Season, wasn’t the absence of diversity, but instead was the scarcity of originality and ingenuity, traits that are hallmarks of the music they presented.

The result, was that although the Jamaican Folk Singers presented a decent suite of performance, it was only that: decent. The concert, staged at the Little Theatre, Kingston, 13 - 15 September, was occasionally delightful. There were some dramatic and engaging moments, as the group attempted to inject some drama into their performance. So the night was reasonably enjoyable, but not satisfying because at no time did the performance soar.

Jamaica Folk Singsers 2013 served up diversity but insufficient originalityIt’s challenge was the choice of arrangement of the pieces, as well as the inclusion of too many slow songs cluttered together. The result was that the performance tended to sag under their weight which diluted any energy created in the previous segments.

The night’s performance was arranged into six segments, each featuring a different type of song. The suite opened with work songs such as ‘Alligator’, ‘Mumma Mi Wah Wuk’, ‘Auntie Maama’ and ‘Checkaman’. Yet the usual high energy of work songs ebbed as the selection was simply not stimulating.

It was then time to pull for the cute factor, as the Singers turned to a suite of play songs featuring some young tykes. And while the children were indeed a nice touch as they either watched or participated in the songs such as ‘Jane and Louisa’, ‘Bredda Rat/ May Pen Bull’ and ‘Tread Oh’, it still wasn’t enough.

The performance then reached one of its high pointA playful take on worksongs with the Jamaica Folk Singerss with the presentation of songs of confrontation and contest, which was framed within the context of court cases. This lively and engaging segment included ‘Tell A Lie’, ‘Ooman Tory’, ‘Cannot Wrong An Get Right’, ‘Peep In a Mi Pot’ and closed with ‘Missa Potta/ Cum Out a Mi Yard’.

Sadly, the segment in tribute to Jamaica Folk Singers’ founder, Dr. the Hon. Olive Lewin was the most disappointing of the night. The group chose to go with largely sad, somber pieces such as ‘She Gahn’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘The Lost Chord’ and ‘Slave Lament’. Unfortunately, their delivery was unable to reflect a cathartic sense of loss and truly capture weight of the woman to whom they were paying tribute. It was only at the end, with ‘Holy Mount Zion’ in which the energy of Nyabinghi rhythms were infused, that the tribute proved at all engaging.

Indeed, the entire second half of the performance, which opened with the tribute to Dr. Lewin, suffered from an absence of lustiness. It was the segment tuned to positive emotions opening with the tribute then presenting songs of love and finally celebration. Alas, with the exception of the satiric piece ‘Before Mi Married (And Go Hug Up Mango Tree)’, and the cautionary tale of ‘Lizzie Jane’ it was a presentation of love that flickered and fizzled rather than burned. Songs of confrontation and contest were the strongest for Jamaica Folk Singers 2013

The celebratory segment closed the night on a reasonably high note. In one of the few moments of originality, the group created a Mento Quadrille which although it was lack-lustre, was at least a commendable attempt. However, the infusion of Kumina rhythms, led by drumming from Phillip Supersad and Calvin Mitchell allowed the programme to end with a good serving of energy.

The 2013 performance of the Jamaican Folk Singers is a cautionary tale reminding us that it is not enough to have a handle on pieces of our culture. To keep them relevant, and to keep current generations interested, they need to be infused with the same energy and innovation that with which they were created. Otherwise, we are left with performances that are decent but ultimately forgettable, tempting us to forget ourselves ... and then we are truly lost.