This is a snapshot of my desk in my cubicle at the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR) International Programme Office (IPO) in Beijing, China. Yep, I’ve relocated to China and am now the Junior Science Officer at this 10-year long global disaster risk reduction research programme. I’m finally putting my disaster management background into practice once again.
This is the reason for my long absence from Jamaican Echoes. I’ve been prepping to leave Jamaica and since getting here in February I’ve been settling in. Now that I think I’m settled – after a bout with a bad flu (NOT H7N9!), another viral infection, battling the polluted Beijing air, lack of moisture in the air, which can really do a number on your throat (oh, the things we take for granted living in the tropics!) and just not so keen on how cold it can get here during winter (and even in spring, which we’re in now)! – it’s back to Jamaican Echoes.
(Thankfully, the temperatures are going up to comfortable double digits like 22°C -23°C. Whew!)
So why am I showing you my desk in my Beijing office? Because something is missing: a vital equipment to boost my work productivity level is missing from this desk. What, you ask?
My computer does not have speakers. Back home in Jamaica I liked to listen to a couple of radio stations via their websites to provide the necessary white noise in the background of the office while I worked. This didn’t distract me at all but actually helped me be more productive. Without the music emanating from the computer’s speakers, I sometimes became easily distracted by the silence, which felt like a weight on my ears, or whatever noise might be coming from neighbouring offices, my meandering thoughts, or even just becoming very aware of my heart beating in my chest.
But then again it all depends. Generally, however, I like to listen to music while I work. So while I knew I wouldn’t be listening to Chinese radio stations anytime soon, I thought I would have easy access to Jamaican radio stations, via the internet, while at work.
This isn’t meant to be so I usually end up listening to my MP3 player during those times when I need to boost my productivity levels. And it does work. The New York Times agrees with me. On August 11, 2012, the New York Times’ online paper published this article “The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle” that reviewed how music can improve productivity at the workplace. According to the writer, Amisha Padnani: “Some workers like to listen to music when they find themselves losing focus. They may also plug in their earbuds to escape an environment that’s too noisy — or too quiet — or to make a repetitive job feel more lively.” The writer further quotes a Dr Amit Sood, a physician of integrative medicine with the Mayo Clinic, that “melodious sounds help encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, as would eating a delicacy, looking at something appealing or smelling a pleasant aroma.”
The History of Work Music in Jamaica
So what does all of this have to do with Jamaica’s history? NUFF!!!
Our past abounds with moments in which music was used to lighten hard labour. Music is an indelible part of who we are as Jamaicans so it’s no mystery that music played such an important role in our work/labour history. Dr Olive Lewin, one of Jamaica’s foremost experts on Jamaica’s folk history and heritage, who sadly passed away on Wednesday, April 10, 2013, researched and wrote quite a bit on Jamaica’s traditional folk music.
In fact, Dr Lewin, who founded the Jamaican Folk Singers in 1967 and became the first government-appointed Folk Music Research Officer, suggested the following broad categories of Jamaica’s traditional music: religious, work and ceremonial.
Under “Work” Dr Lewin lists the following as examples of the types of activities associated with these songs: digging; sugar boiling; picking cotton, pimento, corn; planting corn, peas; timber cutting; rice beating; reaping cane; house cleaning; women’s work; fishing; and boat loading such as loading bananas (Lewin 1972, pg. 68). As you can see many of these activities reflected the times in which they occurred: during slavery and in the post-emancipation periods with the growth of the peasantry.
Many of Jamaica’s folk songs in fact originate from people doing day work or communal field labour, a system of informal labour exchange once widely practised across the island. Day work was also called different names in different parts of the country such as digging march, work sport, morning work and day-for-day.
This was how day work played out: In days gone by, persons in a community would come together to work on a specific job for a specific community member, be it preparing a field for planting, building or moving a house, reaping crops, etc. In exchange the host would agree to provide the labourers with food and drink for the duration of the day work. To lighten the labour people would sing songs, which eventually became known as Jamma songs or digging songs (Senior 2003, pg 148, 253). The name “Jamma” must have come from the action of jamming field tools like forks, hoes and axes into the ground to till the soil.
The root of Jamaica’s work songs is, however, slavery. According to Dr Lewin (1970, pg. 69):
Jamaican work songs sprang from the slaves’ need to communicate and lighten their distressingly hard labour. Talking was prohibited, but the workers discovered that they could chant what they wished to say without incurring the wrath of their masters. The chants took on the rhythm of the work which they accompanied, so they are as various as the tasks the slaves were required to do. Styles also developed accordingly. In digging songs, for instance, one man would be required to lead or ‘call’ the tune, while the work gang sang in chorus. The leader, apart from being a confident, powerful singer, would improvise lyrics of topical interest, and mime them in order to keep the work gang happy.
The lead singer does not take part in the labour. He was called the ‘bomma’ or ‘singerman’ (Senior 2003, p. 518).
The Lasting Legacy of our Work Songs
I can’t recall ever hearing people working together as a group singing songs to lighten their labour. I do remember though as a child loving to listen to my grand-uncle whistle as he went about his job as a carpenter, such as working on making a cabinet or a door. Do you have any such memories you can share with Jamaican Echoes? Charles Hyatt recounted such an experience he had as a young boy in 1930s Kingston in his book When me was a Boy (Kingston, 1989), watching “twelve man with pick-axe … raised in unison an come down on a beat with the accompanying ‘Hhhhm’…” (Senior 2003, p. 518).
However, while work songs have faded with time, efforts have been made to preserve them as integral aspects of Jamaica’s history and heritage. The work of Dr Lewin easily comes to mind. The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) and their promotion of Jamaica’s cultural heritage in all its forms through the Jamaica Festival season is also another avenue. For years the efforts of drama teachers, choir masters and their students across Jamaica have been awarded for their best portrayals of digging songs. I wonder what the 2013 festival season will present in traditional folk forms?
Edna Manley’s (1900-1987) work, The Diggers (1936), although created in response to the turbulent labour riot years of the 1930s, seems to memorialise the unity of music with labour as well.
Remember, if you have any memories of hearing work songs, please do share with Jamaican Echoes.
Until next time…
Daily Gleaner (2013). Folk Icon Lost. Thursday, April 11, 2013.
Lewin, Dr Olive (1970). Folk Music of Jamaica: an outline for classification. Jamaica Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 68-72.
Padnani, Amisha (2012). The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle. The New York Times. The New York Times, August 11, 2012.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. (1909). Sugar cane plantation; [Jamaica.] Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-94a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Michael L. Dorn, The Diggers (1936-7), via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mdorn/2181944).