On Bahamian Music

Well, Independence is over, and it was a musical celebration. From the performances of Bo Hog and the Rooters to the Bahamas Baptist Mass Choir, the celebration was sung, danced, and played.

This is unusual, and not. It was unusual because despite our belief that we celebrate everything with performance, it’s not strictly true; for quite a while now Junkanoo has been at the centre of our performing tradition, and other art forms have been peripheral. And it wasn’t unusual because music is so deeply embedded into the Bahamian psyche that we don’t even notice it.

Not long ago, Rex Nettleford, Caribbean cultural guru, confirmed this. What he said was this: the Bahamas has the best singers in the Caribbean.

This was something I never knew, or didn’t believe, or had forgotten. You see, presumably like many Bahamians, I take singing so very much for granted that I simply assumed that what we do here is normal — if not in the world, at least in our region. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had an idea that music comes naturally to human beings. It comes naturally to everyone I know.

And then I thought.

When I lived abroad, I discovered that people elsewhere don’t take music for granted. People who could sing or play an instrument seemed to be regarded as semi-geniuses; being musical wasn’t something that everyone could be, and singing was certainly not something that everyone could do.

I didn’t think much of this. I just thought the people I had met were underexposed, listened to too much canned music, hadn’t learned how easy it was to make music of their own.

After listening to Nettleford, though, I began to think that maybe what we consider normal here in the Bahamas — being musical, singing, making music — is not.

After all, he was simply echoing what I had been hearing from non-Bahamians over and over again — from British people, Americans, Canadians: that Bahamians are unusually musical people. When Nettleford, a West Indian, said that too, I took notice.

I took notice because we really don’t care. We take the ability to make music so very much for granted that we don’t believe that we can do anything much about it. Instead of celebrating the fact that being musical is a Bahamian thing, and celebrating all forms of music, we do our best to box our music in.

We actively seek to label it. Is it Junkanoo? Goombay? Rake-n-scrape? It can’t be all of them, can it? We don’t know, but we want to find out so we can put it in its box. And so we can exclude those forms that aren’t “Bahamian”. Reggae isn’t. Hip-hop isn’t. Classical isn’t. Jazz isn’t. Folk isn’t. Country and western — not even close.

We dumb down our complexities. Our Junkanoo rhythms have become more and more unidimensional, our melodies variations on the same basic tune, our most popular harmonies the simplest chords imaginable. We make our music on computers, limiting ourselves to other people’s styles, cut up and doled out for us to use.

We pigeonhole our performers and our sound, so that many of the most musical are considered “not Bahamian”. Such was the case during the ZNS coverage of the National Youth Orchestra that the Orchestra was introduced as playing something unfamiliar, something foreign.

And we know next to nothing about the richness and glory of the Bahamian musical history.

How many of us know, for instance, that one of the most influential men in American folk music was a Bahamian guitarist by the name of Joseph Spence? That what made Spence famous was the fact that he tuned his guitar differently from the global standard? That the unique Bahamian guitar style is based on a system of chords that may be indigenous to Andros? That Andros is the birthplace of yet another unique form of Bahamian music, rhyming, which is our own particular take on the chant-like storytelling-to-music that manifests itself in rap, hip-hop and dub?

That Goombay is a name taken from the specific Bahamian drum made from stretched skin over a barrel, whose use appears to be dying out in Nassau, being replaced by tom-toms made in Japanese and American factories? That the name was given to Bahamian music by a white Bahamian, Charles Lofthouse, some of whose arrangements we still sing today?

That country and western singers sing the same songs that we sing, generally at funerals? That we share some spirituals with Black America, but that we sing them completely differently?

That some of the best musicians of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were brass players, members of the big bands who appeared in the Bahamian nightclubs, and that the National Youth Orchestra is the continuation of a tradition that is not only Bahamian, but specifically Nassauvian?

I could go on, but I’d run out of space. Let me just say this. For a musical nation, we know far too little about our own musicality. I think it’s time for us to celebrate it. For me, any music produced by a Bahamian, no matter what its sound, is Bahamian.

It must be. Being Bahamian is music enough.

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