Nevis & St. Kitts

    -- 2002, Rounder Records, 40-page booklet.

Forty years ago, Alan Lomax was on some of the more obscure islands in the Caribbean Sea, recording the musical traditions of the many small islands. Roger Abrahams, a famous author and folklorist, bumped into Alan and his wife and they spent a whirlwind week collecting songs on these two small islands near Barbados (Nevis measures five by eight miles). Never commercially available until now, the resultant songs were released on CD this year as part of the series “Caribbean Voyage: the 1962 Field Recordings.”

Abrahams, who is now Professor Emeritus of Folklore and Folklife at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the fourteen pages of notes about working with Lomax and the recording expedition, which he characterizes as “a rare, intense, and sometimes excruciating experience for us.” He also deals with changes on the islands in the last 4 decades.

The excellent notes make for a fascinating read even without listening to the songs. Most of the 31 tracks are connected with “Christmas Sports” or “Tea Meetings.” Considering Christmas, an amazing variety of songs and dramas and dances were performed during the holiday season, from carols to musical slapstick to quadrilles. The Tea Meeting developed in the nineteenth century as a way for the churches to raise money, and is described as “a cross between a variety show, a religious service, and a Midsummer’s anointing of a Queen and King.” Children’s song games are also included.

Both “Christmas Sports” and “Tea Meetings” were filled with “performances of archaic British countryside amusements” and also had considerable Christian imagery, while being fairly raucous in general. Abrahams offers insightful commentary on the interaction between performers and audience, which he describes as “an undeclared war between forces of decorum and those of rudeness and noise… the Tea Meeting is held not for the performances per se but for the confrontation between the crowd and the performers.”

The other twenty-six pages of the booklet are loaded with lyrics and notes for each song, wonderful old photos, and a bibliography on related writings by Abrahams. It ends with an introduction to the “Caribbean Voyage” series which delves especially into the creolization of music with elements from Africa, Europe, East India and the Caribbean. The informative booklet makes the best possible use of all 40 pages.

The love of life fills these recordings by grandiloquent speech-makers, chanty-singing fishermen, fife-and-drum groups, school children, comic dialogues, and others. The remastered digital sound quality is quite good, and you will find yourself tapping toes, being moved, and laughing along with these holiday sporting traditions connected (in a raucous way) with Christmas and a church-related function on the small islands.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.3 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony