Della Manley: A Thousand Fireflies

Annie Paul on Della Manley, the Jamaican singer whose startling first album Ashes on the Windowsill is no longer a secret


The colour of her voice is Blue Mountain coffee with a good dash of evap. Della Manley’s music is a vapour released by the cauldron which brewed darkly romantic socialist dreams in a troubled Caribbean. Cuba, where her songs were incubated, is all that is left today of those dreams. Ashes On The Windowsill, the first song she wrote and the title song on this album, was a numb cry of anguish at the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. “The eagle’s landed and I heard a scream/ And it wasn’t a dream . . .”

Della had just moved back to Jamaica from Cuba, where her husband, Joseph, and she had gone to university. Grenada sent shock waves through the entire world, but for those from the English-speaking Caribbean it was like being at the epicentre of a quake. There is a tendency today to be embarrassed by those events — those memories are sooner shelved and forgotten. But the sense of violation felt by so many at the time is captured eloquently by Manley: “I dreamed the sea swept all the fish to the shores/ The moon began to moan/ The sky bled and every bird was in flight/ Mother Nature on her knees.”

Listening to Della sing is like letting a fresh breeze blow through unpacked memories. Most of her music is what she calls political — social commentary of one sort or another — though rendered in the mood of love songs and ballads. Della started singing and playing the guitar at folk masses in Montego Bay, where she grew up. Her family moved to Canada, and at York University, Toronto, where she studied Spanish, she found herself friends with Chileans who had fled their country in the aftermath of Salvador Allende’s overthrow. “My whole consciousness was formed then,” she says.

What is remarkable about Della Manley’s debut album is the impact it has made both locally and internationally. In Jamaica, a country whose name is almost synonymous with reggae and now dancehall, it is virtually impossible for any other kind of music to take root or be heard. Della’s smoky voice was reserved for the exclusive coteries that went out of their way looking for alternatives to the heavy bass rhythms pounding the skies of Kingston.

Until Michael Manley died, that is. For at the funeral of her father-in-law Della bewitched the nation with her song City Lights, broadcast live from the Cathedral on North Street. Inspired by something Michael Manley had once said looking down on the city of Kingston from his hillside home, the song continued to resonate in the hearts of those who heard it.

“City lights, diamond like/Cradled in a valley of dismay. . .” and the haunting refrain: “How do I close my eyes to the truth that is a lie? The skyline is a frontline . . .”

Within the year Della Manley had brought out her first album with the help of musician/producer Ray Hitchins. Originally meant to be just an acoustic album, he whole direction changed after Monty Alexander, Peter Ashbourne and other well-known musicians got involved. Billboard magazine in New York took note. Neither the art of the production nor any single element on the album — not even Manley’s beautifully nuanced performances — calls attention to itself. Everything is tightly joined: lyrics, melodies, arrangements, and Manley’s darkly rich vocals. Covering her debut in a feature article in March 1998, Billboard’s Elena Oumano said, “If Ashes is rooted anywhere, it’s in the borderless turf occupied by the international-minded . . . [Della Manley] finds universal truths not in sweeping proclamations but by sifting for meanings within her own experiences.”

Back in Jamaica, Della was surprised and pleased at the excitement generated by her album. When she appeared on a local radio station to launch it, people — old and young — kept calling to thank her and pay tribute to the quality of her music. “I had expected my mother and some of my old aunties to call,” says Della, who is nothing if not self-deprecating.

“The best thing to have come out of it all is a great feeling of satisfaction to finally have it behind me, because it was always there, pending for years,” she says, going on to note with surprise that now that it’s out of the way, “I feel like I want to do another one when all along I thought I just wanted to do this one and then I’d be happy; but I’ve been writing more — I mean I used to think that these were all the songs I had to sing but since I’ve got them out of my system, more are coming.”

Della’s dream, and that of her manager, is that her music will get heard all over the Caribbean. The album already gets airplay in the Cayman Islands. What about Cuba? Oh well, she has no idea if people there have heard it, but she did send an album to Silvio Rodriguez whose song Te Amaré she did a cover of, and “of course I had to send one to El Comandante.”

Ashes On The Window Sill is one of those treasures the Caribbean yields from time to time. In the age of mass production and replication, it has the charm of something small and precious, hand-made, with no built-in obsolescence. Della Manley’s lyrics convey the fragility of the Caribbean and its precarious magic. Her music glows with the light of a thousand fireflies. ν

Sorry can’t save the human

race —

Catch me if you can 

Ring-a-ring of roses — we all fall down

As Kingdoms come undone

Trapped inside the looking glass

Stifled questions need answers

So much has come to pass

You can’t bounce a crystal ball

Picking up shards is no fun at all.