Saying Kwaheri (Goodbye) to a community hero




Sammy plant piece a corn dung a gully

And it bear till it kill poor Sammy

Sammy dead Sammy dead Sammy dead Oh

Sammy dead Sammy dead Sammy dead Oh

Annuh teef Sammy teef mek dem kill him

Annuh lie Sammy lie mek dem kill him

But ah grudgeful mek, ah grudgeful mek dem kill him

Ah grudgeful mek, a grudgeful mek dem kill him

Who seh Sammy dead, E nah dead Oh!

This Jamaican folk song was one of several sung by Letna Allen at the wake held for Elder Dudley Zacharias Laws on Friday, April 1, at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) Centre.

“Miss Letna” as she was introduced by Kwabena Yafeu, a member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), entered the hall dancing and singing in the Kumina tradition. Dressed in white with madras fabric tied around her waist and a glass of white rum balanced on her head with which she eventually blessed the gathering, Miss Letna’s enthusiasm soon encouraged a group of willing participants to accompany her in singing traditional “wake” songs.

Accompanied by drummers playing African drums, after a change of skirt with the colours of the Jamaican flag, Miss Letna set up a table with bread, white rum, lime and salt for a feel of an authentic Kumina ceremony. Many of us joined her in a dance around the table to the infectious rhythms of the drumming and singing. There is documented research that the Kumina ceremony has strong links to the Congo. Interestingly enough the style of dancing around the table is popularly known as dancing in a “conga line”.

The songs were sung in the Jamaican language (e.g., Sammy Dead, Bam Bam, Mi Pupa dead and gone, Go dung a Manuel Road, Me no want no Milo) and are called “baila” songs, not considered as sacred as the “country” songs.

An explanation of Kumina songs written by Dr. Olive Lewin in Rock it Come Over: the Folk Music of Jamaica: With Special Reference to Kumina and the Work of Mrs. Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy, published in 2000, states: “Two types of songs are used at Kumina ceremonies: country songs and baila songs. Country songs are used for the more sacred sections of the rituals where communication with the spirits is sought and achieved and are primarily for attracting, entertaining and appeasing the spirits. They are linked to the ancestral homeland through their language texts. Scholars of Kongo have verified that the African language used in Kumina is Kongo/Kikongo based.”

The history of the indentured labourers to Jamaica from the Congo and their contribution to the Jamaican culture is documented in several books including “Alas, Alas, Kongo: A Social History of Indentured African Immigration into Jamaica, 1841-1865 written by Monica Schuler, published in 1980 and Jamaica and Voluntary Laborers from Africa, 1840-1865, written by Mary Elizabeth Thomas, published in 1974.

An article published in the Jamaica Journal Volume 10, Number 1, in 1976 states: “Kumina is the most African of the [cultural expressions] to be found in Jamaica, with negligible European or Christian influence. Linguistics evidence cites the Kongo as a specific ethnic source for the ‘language’ and possibly the music of kumina. [Kumina] is to be found primarily in St. Thomas and Portland and to a lesser extent in St. Mary, St. Catherine and Kingston. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, entombments or memorial services but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences (births, thanksgiving, invocations for good [or] evil).”

The Kumina style of bidding farewell to members of the community who have transitioned is similar to ceremonies in the African Diaspora and on the continent. The songs Miss Letna sang were very similar to songs sung at wakes in Guyana. The joyous send off seen in the singing and dancing parades at funerals in some New Orleans African-American communities is similar to the wake Miss Letna conducted at the JCA Centre.

In Rock it Come Over, Dr. Lewin explains: The difference of status in people gathered for a Kumina meeting is quite clear. Participants gathered at Kumina events are, in order of importance: Queen/Leader, drummers and percussionists, singers and dancers, members of other Kumina bands, guests and the general public.

Miss Letna was definitely the Queen/Leader because on Friday night when she commanded “rest” we rested. The command to “rest” is similar to “bateau” in a Guyanese wake night singing.

An African-Jamaican style wake for Elder Brother Dudley Laws, a Pan-African freedom fighter, was a testament to the life he lived.

On Saturday, April 2, the community honoured our hero and bid him kwaheri (goodbye) with spectacular drumming, singing, dancing and tributes befitting a leader, a warrior and a man of honour.

Dudley Laws was a man whose name will live forever, like his hero the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The annual Dudley Laws Day for 2011 is planned for May 1.

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