“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” ~Thomas Merton.
My father loved music. He also loved to sing. And he sang in a beautiful tenor voice, although he could provide a little bass if necessary. Many people share at least two out of those three qualities! He grew up in a Welsh, chapel attending home in Liverpool, England, so I am sure that after the nursery rhymes came hymns. But his love of music was wide-ranging. It was not limited to religious music.
When the family relocated to Jamaica in the 60’s, along with all the bags, pans, trunks and carouches came my parents’ treasure trove of albums, those ‘long-playing’ discs in their beautiful sleeves, ready to be placed on the ‘record changer’. For those born after the arrival of the CD, feel free to google these items! In the evening, since we didn’t own a television (not even a black and white one!) he would choose the line-up. There could be Welsh male-voice choirs; musicals from Broadway (Porgy and Bess, or Oklahoma); jazz or the blues (Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstein); or a Ride of the Valkyries or other classical music. I would often fall asleep to one genre of music or another, often with my father singing, whistling, or humming along. At times he would sit in his chair conducting the orchestra!
In addition to his love of singing and of music, my father could also ad lib on a piano or organ, composing long free-flowing tunes that soothed your soul at the end of a long day. They meandered here and there, never sounding exactly the same two days in a row.
In church he was both Parson and Choirmaster, taking the choir through their paces. Whether it was learning the harmony of a new hymn, or practicing an anthem for a special service, we would have to sit there patiently while each of the sections learned their part, before we were ready to come together and blend our voices. My mother (in the early years) was the accompanist. But my father could also play the keyboard, although he could not read music. Well, he did not read the music that you and I are familiar with: the bass and treble with notes lilting across bars on the page. He read a version known as ‘Tonic Solfa’, a form where the notes are written as ‘doh, reh, mi’ in blocks to indicate the chords. It looks very complicated, but apparently it is perfect for those who play by ear (as my father did), because they can pitch the song wherever it is comfortable, and they will adjust the key to match. I learned from a friend of mine that her husband from Ghana learned to read music the same way.
On Sundays he would conduct the choir for our special productions, but if he felt that the congregation was not pulling their weight, he would pull them along too! His arms held on high, he would have everyone singing their hearts out. So it was quite strange to me when I realized that although he loved music and singing, he wasn’t much into dancing. In fact, when my mother did get him to dance here and there, he wasn’t quite on beat! I couldn’t quite understand that!
Along with the beauty of a melody and a well written lyric, I grew up loving the beat, the rhythm of music. Of course, having the music of Jamaica as the backdrop to my life helped in my development. Whether it was hearing the drum of the Pocomania church (those African traditions that blended with the Christian ones to create a strange and passionate brew of language, worship and dance) down on the Lower Chapelton road; or the powerful thump of the bass from the sound systems that made your blood boil; my heart responded to the sound, and my limbs soon followed. I loved to dance. I had started with the ‘twist’ in England, but soon progressed to the ska in Jamaica, evolving along with the music through rock steady, to the immortal reggae. Calypso (Soca was not yet a term we knew) was rarely played at parties when I was a teen. I had to learn those moves later in life!
In Zumba class the other day, I marveled at the moves of the instructor and tried my best to mimic her. At times the moves seemed counter-intuitive, arms and legs going in four different directions! My body was supposed to wave and snap; head, spine, hips rolling; arms reaching up, out, down, shoulders rocking; what a work out! But my eye was distracted by the one participant who did her thing, did not even try to follow the leader. And the biggest tragedy was to see the one person that had no sense of rhythm, was never even close to moving to the beat. What an amazing thing the human body is, that for the most part we can command our muscles and limbs to move and shake and get our heartbeat going, moving to the rhythm of a ‘reggaeton’ or a ‘compas’ or a ‘samba’ sound.
Regardless of your origin or traditions, music provides a language that we all speak. Watch any video of young babies, they respond to music, they start jigging and waving. And whatever genre you prefer, music transcends cultural and ideological differences; it unites our spirits. The other day I heard that a song composed by a Kenyan, a song he created for the opposition which was so catchy that people from both parties responded to it. Perhaps music is the language of peace, the medium through which we can bring warring people together. The story of the men on opposing fronts in World War I, who during the Christmas ceasefire came together to sing Christmas Carols and play soccer demonstrates the power of music.
So this Friday morning, I hope that you can wake up with a song in your heart, that you can feel the beat of rhythm and get your body moving, that you can feel the joy of the human spirit bubble up through a powerful melody. And if you have the occasion to join in hymn singing, you will hear my father exhorting you to ‘Sing so the angels in heaven can hear you!’ as once he exhorted Clarendon College students to sing for the patients in Chapelton hospital. Have a great weekend, Family!