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Where has our National Anthem gone?

Lance Neita

Sunday, April 23, 2017    

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I haven’t been to the movies for a long time and I wonder if the National Anthem is still being played before the main event. Now, when I refer to ‘a long time ago’ please don’t believe it’s the ‘God save the Queen’, or worse yet, “The King” that I’m talking about.

The playing of the British anthem, which was in reality our Jamaican anthem at the time, was always a grand moment when people stood in hushed silence and gentlemen removed their hats. Let’s face it, that anthem is one of the most imposing anthems that summon you by the grandeur of its music to dignity and solemnity. Like all other great national anthems, it never fails to rouse the patriotism of its subjects, and even today, moves many a hard-backed Briton to tears during its rendition.

Now, where has our Jamaican anthem gone? First of all, if it is still being played in the theatres, then I will arrive late. Last time I checked, the few people who stood were outstanding if only because they were in the minority. Most people sat, chatted, laughed, yelled at each other across the aisles, erupted into raucous laughter, and enjoyed this part of the show while remaining firmly rooted to their seats.

Then you have the widely different renditions we are inflicted with at the start of boxing and football matches, athletics meets, or the opening of some grand event. “Will the audience please rise as such-and-such will now lead us in the Jamaica National Anthem.” So intones the voice behind the microphone as the celebrity performer steps up on stage, seizes the moment, and unleashes a variation of the anthem that hasn’t the slightest resemblance to the original.


The last one I heard was at a boxing match where the crowd was treated to sheer entertainment. We followed the singer breathlessly while she soca-ed and reggaed her way through the verses until finally reaching the highest notes where she stretched her vocal cords to the limit with “Jah-maaay-ka land we love,” earning a standing ovation, which the anthem didn’t. Some called for an encore. Others called for mercy.

At the end of it all, the two boxers were cowering in their corners and the referee covering his ears. “This gal will go far,” said my neighbour, and I couldn’t help but add, “and soon, I hope.”

With the continual slide in respect and recognition for our National Anthem, I wonder if we know, or understand, why we have a National Anthem.

National anthems are generally a patriotic musical composition designed to evoke patriotism and national pride. In some instances it’s written to reflect a particular proud or epochal moment in the nation’s history.

Our anthem is a beautifully written prayer to Almighty God to “bless our land”, guard us with His mighty hand, “keep us free from evil powers”, and generally to keep us on a straight path. It’s certainly not meant to be sung in the dancehall or in the shake, rattle and roll version that we are sometimes exposed to at entertainment and sporting events.

Neither was it meant to be sung as a funeral hymn, as often happens at the end of a long meeting when hunger has set in and stomachs are on the roll.

Interestingly, while most national anthems are written in the language of the country, there are notable exceptions. Sometimes countries with more than one national language may offer several versions. For example, the Irish National Anthem was written in English but is sung in the Irish translation. Such a paradox reminds me of the fabled phonetics Professor Henry Higgins’ dilemma when he asks, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak, this verbal class distinction by now should be antique”, bemoaning the fact that in speaking the English language the Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears. “Actually”, he claims, “there even are places where English completely disappears”, pointing out that “in America they haven’t used it for years.”

But back to other countries’ national anthems. Canada has official lyrics in both English and French, and theirs is frequently sung with a mixture of both stanzas in both languages.

To add to the confusion, the current National Anthem of South Africa is unique in that five of the country’s official languages are used in the same anthem. (The first stanza is divided between two languages with each of the remaining three stanzas in a different language.) Don’t ask me how it got like that, ask

Wikipedia.

But it doesn’t stop there, for here comes an opportunity for Professor Carolyn Cooper to give us a patois rendition of our National Anthem. Eternal Puppa…if you please. Perhaps the students of the Literary and Cultural Studies faculty could have a go at this. They should be able to provide us with a captivating version, enough to make the Rev Hugh Sherlock turn in his grave.

Why Rev Sherlock? The answer is to be found in that fascinating story of events prior to Independence Day in 1962, when the race was on to select a Jamaican National Anthem to replace the British Anthem in time for Independence. The selection of a National Flag had already been completed on June 20 when, on an invitation from Donald Sangster to the House to approve the proposals regarding the flag, the members, on the suggestion of Florizel Glasspole, stood in unprecedented fashion and shouted their approval.

But that still left two months to countdown for an anthem. Numerous entries in response to the Government’s invitation to submit an anthem had been received at the Independence Secretariat. They had been sent to 12 anonymous persons who did not know each other, and from that selection, four entries had received the most votes from the 12 judges.

Now it was June 21, and on that day Donald Sangster, who was the chairman of the Independence Planning Committee, was urging the House to accept and decide on the most popular entry as time was running out.

Most favoured was an anthem with words composed by Rev Sherlock, a prominent Methodist minister of religion, and music by Robert Lightbourne. But both had written independently of each other, and the music and words had proved incompatible.

And the House was not satisfied. The tape recording which reached the House that night was of poor quality and there was no musical back-up. Keble Munn complained it didn’t even sound like a sankey. One by one BB Coke, Herbert Eldemire, Matthew Henry, CLA Stuart and others objected.

Bustamante suggested impishly that Vernon Arnett should sing it: “After all, he has a nice tenor and the public would go crazy over it.” Arnett, ever suspicious of Busta’s motives and sense of humour, declined.

It was at that point that Busta invited all the members to come to his house. They adjourned at 8:30 and went off to Tucker Avenue where Busta’s liquor cabinet and famous hospitality, and his private secretary Gladys Longbridge’s piano playing informalised the issue. But after a pleasant evening and copious amounts of whiskey and champagne, the issue remained undecided.

What transpired next was a true accident of history. An informal House meeting convened by Speaker Tacius Golding met on June 27 in the absence of Bustamante and Sangster, who were off the island, and selected an anthem written by Bandmaster Ted Wade of the West Indies Regiment.

It was officially promulgated as our new National Anthem and declared and published as such.

So Jamaica almost ended up with a different one from Eternal Father, which read: “Jamaicans proud we stand today, our homeland fair and free: Against the foe we will defend our liberty. Our island home, through years to come, our faith in thee is sure, Jamaicans free, we are proud to be, today and evermore.”

The Gleaner headlined it our “New National Anthem”.

But that one didn’t last long. Popular sentiment was against the idea of an Englishman, Wade, writing our anthem. Norman Manley also complained that the procedure had taken the matter out of the House in formal sessions.

Busta and Sangster returned to the island, chastised Golding in no uncertain manner, and a brilliant musician, Mapletoft Poulle, was asked to marry the words and music of the originally favoured Sherlock and Lightbourne entry. Poulle rewrote Lightbourne’s music to match the words, selecting only four bars of the 32 given to him, and recomposed a 21-bar anthem.

Simultaneously, Poulle’s wife Alison reconstructed the words with minor modifications to fit the new music, and in addition, added the triumphant coda which we today try to mash up so often, “Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica land we love.”

On July 19 Sangster re-introduced the motion, but before he did so members of both chambers went to the nearby St George’s Church where they heard the Wade composition and the joint Sherlock/Lightbourne/Poulle composition suitably arranged by Corporal Joe Williams of the Jamaica Military Band. Hartley Neita records in Donald Sangster’s biography that “there was no doubt that the prayer as contained in the Sherlock/Lightbourne/Poulle anthem was the choice. There was relief in Sangster’s voice as he moved for the acceptance and closed the debate”.

August 6 was only 17 days away. We got a National Anthem. And just in time.

— Lance Neita is a historian and public relations consultant. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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