Jamaican Tales

What an incredible adventure I have just experienced. I was so fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to travel to beautiful Jamaica with my good friend and tenor, Paul Williamson. We were invited by the St. Andrew Parish Foundation to take part in their 350 year anniversary celebration and fundraiser. I am astounded by the generosity of this Foundation and all of its committee members. I witnessed their work firsthand when we visited St. Andrew Settlement in Majesty Gardens, one of Kingston’s most destitute communities. This facility includes a school, senior care facility, soup kitchen, medical and dental facilities, and a chapel. We had the opportunity to meet many of the children, and words cannot describe the surge of emotion I felt when four beautiful little girls encircled me and smothered me with hugs and kisses. It struck me how these beautiful children had not yet been robbed of their innocence and I felt sad and ashamed that many enjoy such prosperity in Canada, while others are unjustly rendered the victims of poverty and marginalization. Paul and I came out of this experience forever changed and compelled to do our part to impact the lives of these children, knowing the joy, optimism, and opportunity music may bring to their lives. It is our hope that we will make a return visit to work with the children in music workshops or other projects… stay tuned…

I was astounded by the hospitality, generosity, and kindness bestowed upon me by the Jamaican people. From Paul’s family, to every member of the St. Andrew Foundation committee, to the staff of the Edna Manley Music College, to Valerie Facey, to complete strangers, everyone made me feel, not only comfortable, but as though I had been adopted as a fellow Jamaican. The organization of the committee was astounding and the events were easily the most beautiful, creative, and well executed events at which I have ever performed. To the people of Jamaica: thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Now, to outline our busy ten days in Jamaica… there is no possible way I can summarise each and every event without writing a saga, but suffice it to say that I sampled and loved every Jamaican food with which I was presented, made wonderful new friends, sight-saw in both Kingston and along the north coast, and I was fortunate enough to experience “real Jamaica”, from the destitute to the lavish, rather than from the “privileged perch” of a resort. After being greeted by the wonderful Dr. Newman and Mr. Briggs, part of our time was spent with the warm and welcoming Williamson family on the outskirts of Kingston, then we were ushered to the beautiful Pegasus Hotel in downtown Kingston, and finally we were escorted to Valerie Facey’s stunning estate in the country near Ocho Rios.

Our first appearance was on TVJ’s “Smile Jamaica” for an interview. This is without doubt the easiest, most relaxed, and most enjoyable interview I have ever given. As I soon found out, EVERYONE in Jamaica watches this morning show; for the remaining 10 days, both Paul and I felt like celebrities as we were recognized by people from the south to north coast. We enjoyed a series of four hour rehearsals with the talented pianist, Roger Williams, who is also director of Edna Manley College. I became fast friends with him and fellow singer/voice teacher, Lori. The rehearsals flew by as they were filled with fun and interrupted by bouts of laughter. We were then invited to an elegant affair at the Lord Bishop of Jamaica’s Lodge. It included cocktails, dinner, and speeches by notable members of the Anglican diocese of Jamaica and the West Indies, as well as government officials and dignitaries, members of the St. Andrew Foundation, and special guests. We were honoured to be in attendance. We also had the opportunity to sing arias from Samuel Felsted’s Jonah at St. Andrew Parish’s 350th Anniversary Service. What an honour to be in attendance with the Archbishop of the West Indies, as well as dignitaries and government officials from well over ten countries in the Caribbean and Central America. We were shocked and honoured to be acknowledged as special guests at this celebration; we truly did not expect this. Now, I can not proceed without mentioning the special significance of Samuel Felsted. He was Jamaica’s very first classical composer, dating back to the 18th century, and Jonah was first performed in St. Andrew’s in 1775. This should further exemplify Jamaica’s rich artistic history. Paul and I also gave a masterclass at Kingston’s Edna Manley College. Not only was I impressed by the talent of the students who sang, but most of all by their enthusiasm and genuine passion for music. Here lies a group of kids who live and breathe what they do, and who do not take for granted the amazing opportunity to give the gift of music – fellow Canadians, there is a lot we can learn from these people! We also gave a Q&A and, finally, performed one of our scenes from L’elisir d’amore. They were thrilled and delighted, and we received thunderous applause and a standing ovation!

But, the entire week led up to our concert in the Pegasus Hotel’s stunning ballroom. I am in awe of what the committee created – from the stunning tickets, programmes, and posters, to the press, photogoprahers, videographers, and television appearances, to our faces on the jumbotron in downtown Kingston (seeing a very big you on a huge screen is a very surreal experience, especially for an introverted Canadian such as myself!), to the incredible sound, tech, and lighting crew, to the beautiful, acoustic-enhancing stage that was built in a matter of hours… I could go on forever! The performance was preceded by cocktails and then Paul, Roger, and I made our way to the stage. We centred our performance around scenes and duets from Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Die Fledermaus, Westside Story, and ended with local folksong arrangements by Jamaica’s own Peter Ashbourne. And, yes, I sang two songs in Patois. Thank goodness for Paul and Roger, who patiently coached me in Patois diction (or is it Patawa??). The audience seemed to love my rendition – I’m not sure if they found a pasty white Canadian girl of Dutch heritage singing in patois amusing or cute, or if they found my willingness to embrace their local culture endearing… perhaps a bit of both.

Following a busy week in Kingston, we made our way up to the Facey estate. What an incredible piece of Heaven this was. Some of the buildings dated back to the 17th century, the only things in sight were lush, green rolling hills and the azure of the Caribbean Sea, the only sounds to be heard were the chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs, and the only company to be had was the gracious and hospitable Valerie, her family, the farm employees, and Marjan, the Dutch lady with whom I bonded over all things Dutch. Friendships were made, stimulating conversation was engaged in, sumptuous meals were consumed, and we were pampered through and through. We were treated to massages at Valerie’s spa as well as a day at an exclusive resort in Ocho Rios.

Jamaica, you amaze me, and you will forever remain in my heart. “Walk good” and “Inna di likkle bit”!

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