The Humanity of Music: It’s a Global Thing

October 14th, 2014

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”

So said the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. A little facetious perhaps, but how true! As we emerged from the Carib Cinema onto the bustling streets of Cross Roads on a busy Saturday afternoon, music was ringing in our ears. Although I was feeling very weak in the aftermath of “Chik V,” I did not want to miss the first in the series of the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s new season of live performances in HD, broadcast directly to cinemas in Jamaica and many other countries around the world. I lowered myself into my seat, propped up with cushions, forgot about my aches and pains, and reveled in every moment of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”

Yes, we are unabashed opera fans; and yes, I know that opera is not for everybody. In fact, it is a taste I myself have acquired rather late in life – and like many new converts, I cannot get enough of it. We, and an appreciative minority of other Jamaicans, are hugely thankful to the Met and to the Palace Amusement Company for bringing this sheer magic into our lives on Saturday afternoons, every few weeks.

OK, you might say this is all quite irrelevant to what is happening in Jamaica today. The glorious voices, the lavish costumes, the melodrama and the passion… It’s all escapism. Let’s get real. Moreover, what does the recreation of a seventeenth-century play by a nineteenth-century Italian composer have to do with Jamaica in the twenty-first century?

The stunning Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the sleep-walking scene as Lady Macbeth, at the Metropolitan Opera of New York.Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Anna Netrebko. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The stunning Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the sleep-walking scene as Lady Macbeth, at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times)

Well… Opera is music, in a form that is remarkable and unique; opera includes powerful elements of drama and story-telling, as well as beautiful voices and orchestration. But whether music in this particular package appeals to you or not, the actual value of music is so great that it is impossible to quantify. How do you measure the thrill of hearing a violinist sail off into a delicious melody; or a soprano just nailing that top note and holding it there? Or feeling in your bones a particularly powerful reggae bass riff come rolling in? Or what about when Coltrane puts his mind to it and produces a startling burst of lyrical brilliance on his saxophone? “Music is what feelings sound like.” So they say. It is what it is to be human.

Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites strums a hand-made guitar with students at a First Global "Perfect Pitch" event.

Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites strums a hand-made guitar with students at a First Global “Perfect Pitch” event.

I think I am lucky to have grown up on a pretty varied diet of music, presented to me by family and friends over the years. Some of my family members played instruments, although I did not. I did sing, though (hard to believe, as my singing voice now has the quality of a croaking lizard). I had my favorite music, and still do. But I was able to pick and choose from this spread, and it formed part of who I am. Which is why I believe the inclusion of music in our educational system is so very important – and why I think First Global Bank is on to a good thing with its “Perfect Pitch for a Sound Education” initiative in schools, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. To me, this is an absolute “no brainer” – learning and understanding music expands your mind in ways it is hard to describe unless you have experienced it. To hold a violin, a recorder or a drum in your hand gives you an extraordinary power. Suddenly, anything is possible. I know our son experienced this at the tender age of five, when he began learning the violin through the Suzuki Method in Kingston. After a year or two, he was eager to perform on stage, at family gatherings, anywhere. And there is no doubt in my mind that learning music helps a child to focus, instilling a kind of discipline, while at the same time liberating his/her imagination in infinite ways. And self-confidence comes along with it.

My personal musical tastes extend to rock music in almost all its forms (something I grew up on, it’s simply there in my system). I also love jazz, most classical music, folk music and roots reggae music; and I listen to a lot of world music from many countries, especially South America and Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Yet it hardly matters what kind of music one listens to. Just don’t restrict yourself, is what I would suggest. Listen to everything. If you’d like to try some opera for size, check out the schedule for the rest of the Met season on Palace Amusement’s website here:

Alpha Blondy, from the Cote d'Ivoire, is one of the world's most enduring and popular reggae singers.

Alpha Blondy, from the Cote d’Ivoire, is one of the world’s most enduring and popular reggae singers.

But please, please – let us not put music into geographical compartments. Yes, reggae and dancehall and all the other elements of mento, ska and rocksteady along the way – all these are clearly and obviously  Jamaican in origin. But in my view, music knows no boundaries. African reggae is what it is – a sweet, rootsy evocation of a musical form that has taken off in a different direction. There is Bulgarian reggae, Indonesian reggae, Australian aboriginal reggae… You name it! Yes, jazz originated in New Orleans, but manifests itself in a thousand different ways across the globe. The people of New Orleans may be particularly proud of it, as the “home” of jazz – but don’t claim it all as “Our Music.” It is out there, in the world. Did you know the Japanese have always had a passion for jazz – and write and perform it every day? It’s a far way from the likes of Louis Armstrong, but does that matter in the least?

So listen! Perform! Get involved in music. It is so much more than a “playlist” on the radio. It is a voyage of exploration, all round the world and back again.


Footnote: One lovely example of the universality of music is the Daniel Pearl World Music Days program, now in its thirteenth year. It is something positive and beautiful that arose from the sad kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, at the hands of extremists in Pakistan in 2002. Daniel always joined musical groups wherever he was, and the Foundation in his name decided this was a fitting way to honor his memory. October is the month every year when anyone across the world can perform and register their concert (however large or small) as a celebration of “Harmony for Humanity.” It’s not too late to register your event; read more at   Last year, First Global held its first annual ‘Music Day’ celebration on Friday, October 25 at the Seaward Primary and Junior High School.


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