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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jamboree for the Living


Dr. Lester CN Simon

It was with bitter sadness and curdled regret that many of us endured the passing of the Antigua and Barbuda Jazz Festival; a festival that we had worked so hard to build but could not sustain against all sorts of odds. I am not jealous of the success of the other regional jazz festivals but I have never had the urge to attend. I am still looking for a music festival that not only adds to the national coffers but one that leaves me and other local musicians and all of us so enriched musically that we want to sing and dance beside ourselves. I think I have found one.

Classical music is often regarded as European music to be played by Europeans only; or at least music that is played best by them. Indeed, many Europeans have championed this stereotype and often look askance at outsiders who venture to break down the sacred halls of their cultural birthright. Moreover, some of our own West Indians classical musicians have performed this protector function better than some Europeans. The colonized surpasses the colonizer.

It is for reasons like these, as well as simple unfamiliarity, that many West Indians will tell you that classical music is dead music by dead composers. They regard it as funeral and funereal music that must be shut out from their ears and barred from their minds. Strange. These are the same folks who will tell you about a wonderful, classic movie they thoroughly enjoyed. And yet they seemingly ignored the fact that the wonderful, classic movie they extol was made wonderful and classic largely because of the same classical music they despise.

Classical music and Jazz (not the 5 minutes popular, smooth jazz version; but the more extended format) came to me the same way reading a book without pictures came to me as a child. It was difficult at first; but then I discovered I could paint my own pictures, even if my pictures were slightly different from the ones painted by others, including the writer or composer.

I have to confess that I took a lucky shortcut into classical music. I decided to listen to classical music centered around instruments I like to hear; like the cello, violin, viola, clarinet, flute, French horn or English horn. I also have to confess that the first time I heard Dvorak cello concerto, I was moved to dance along to a particular passage as easily (well almost as easily) as I had danced the first time I heard Bob Marley, Shadow, Super Blue or John Coltrane.

The idea that music is the universal language and that all emotions can be experienced in all forms of music is a universally acknowledged truth. So here is another confession: I once thought country and western music was the pits. I started to change my mind when a friend (Dorbrene O’Mard) remarked that the stories were similar to those of calypso. I was finally convinced when I read that Charlie Parker would often listen to country and western music in night clubs, to the dismay of fans and other jazz musicians. When asked what he found in such simple music, he responded, “The stories, man. Listen to the stories.” And jazz and all other types of music, including classical music, are all about stories, stories in sound, with vacant canvases waiting for you to paint the pictures of your life. Also, Charles Mingus, in response to a snide remark about the simplicity of folk music, reminded that all music is folk music because horses do not sing. It’s all folk.

So why not have a classical music festival? Jazz festivals, including its many and varied formats, have been taken to the point of exhaustion, repetition and redundancy. Calypso and soca abound. Pop, Creole and world music are also taken. What will happen to our Romantic Rhythms? If it follows the path of our jazz festival, what’s left?

With or without Romantic Rhythms, we can start a classical music festival by bringing together overseas and local musicians, including, and here is the kick: steel pan players. Such a festival would be the culmination of one or two weeks of music workshops. Television programs and documentaries will be showcasing the twin islands whilst recording the development of the festival through the personal journeys of the musicians and the progress of the musical items. You might recall that in its early years, the St. Lucia Jazz Festival included workshops, to which regional musicians were invited. Sadly, this was smoothed over by the smooth jazz and pop.

Before and after the celebrated success of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, many classical music aficionados said that the future of classical music was in Venezuela. They also pointed to China. Antigua and Barbuda has strong ties with these countries. In the April, 2009 edition of Classic FM magazine, a 16 year old violinist of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Angelica Leon, said that music taught her so much, from being on time to working as part of a group. Youth in this orchestra have been taken from the chores of rustic, rural farms to playing music in palatial concert halls all over the world.

Centering a classical music festival around visiting and local musicians with the aim of improving and extracting musical talent, in addition to attracting regional and more distant visitors, will give our local musicians, including pan players, something else to aim for. It will help to force the older, lazy musicians to adapt or be relegated to the back rooms of some of the hotels, playing Yellow Bird and Jamaica Farewell.

What do we do when some of our nationally conscious music lovers start to complain that all this concentration on classical music is making us neglect our indigenous music? We will show them that the skills acquired from playing classical music and the responsibility of being in an orchestra can carry over to calypso, soca, jazz or whichever type of music they request. Indeed, if you listen carefully, you might just hear local musicians whispering or singing a vaguely familiar tune to each other, in uppity tones: Bach to Bach, Bob to Marley, give me any band, we learned music already. Sing the chorus. Bach to ….

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