Music is a teacher

Garry Steckles questions why Caribbean music is not used as an educational tool in Caribbean schools

Photograph courtesy Macmillan Caribbean

I was re-reading Anthony C. Winkler’s wonderful book Going Home To Teach the other day, for the umpteenth time. It’s a sometimes poignant, often hilarious and frequently accusatory account of the acclaimed Jamaican author’s experiences in the mid-seventies, when he decided to leave the United States, where he’d been living and working for 13 years, to return to Jamaica to teach at a rural college for would-be teachers.

As well as being a superb writer of fiction, Winkler’s an educator, and his CV includes authorship of several school textbooks. In other words, when it comes to education, he’s paid his dues.

In Going Home To Teach, Winkler frequently voices his frustrations with the traditional, learn-by-rote-rather-than-reason method of teaching that was one of the many unfortunate things Jamaica inherited when it became independent in 1962 after more than 300 years of British colonial rule.

This mechanical assimilation of information, learned parrot-style and repeated the same way at exam time, was exactly the way he’d been taught, too, Winkler recalled. And, though I hate to think about it, so had I. Not in Jamaica, but in the north-east of England, where I grew up being force-fed key dates in what I was led to believe was my country’s glorious past and never given a hint that it just might be wrong to colonise a sizeable chunk of our planet and enslave millions of its people. It was, in the words of Bob Marley, a classic example of “brainwash education to make us the fool”.

Toward the end of Going Home To Teach, Winkler suggests that Jamaica could teach children much more effectively by using island folklore—and particularly the stories of Anansi, the cunning spider who lives by his wits and has been a beloved figure to generations of Jamaican children—to animate lessons. To grab the kids’ attention, and help them absorb, understand and appreciate what they’re learning—not just endlessly repeating cold, meaningless, facts and figures.

I was intrigued, not only by the concept but also because I’d been planning to devote this column to something very much along the same lines: using Caribbean music, in all its diverse forms, as a teaching tool. It was encouraging, to say the least, to know that a Caribbean figure of Winkler’s stature, and with his enormous teaching experience, is philosophically on the same page.

Music is probably a more significant part of the collective spirit of this region than anything else. From Trinidad to Puerto Rico, from Cuba to St Kitts, from Jamaica to Martinique, a smorgasbord of people from every conceivable background frequently have only one thing in common: a passion for music. Whether we’re living in a dictatorship or a democracy, whether we speak Spanish, French, Dutch or English, whether our roots are in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Middle East, music is our common language, our common love. And in the English-speaking Caribbean in particular, music has traditionally been a vehicle for commentary on everything from the state of the universe to touchy social issues, from historic injustices and political skulduggery to the latest local or international scandal.

Caribbean music has long been recognised as a hugely important communications tool, with many of its exponents regarded as the modern-day incarnations of the African griot. But it’s never been used, to the best of my knowledge, as a teaching tool.

Wouldn’t it grab students’ attention, I figured, if their history teacher came into the classroom armed with a boombox and a bunch of CDs, and the lesson started with the roots reggae classic “Christopher Columbus”, by the great Jamaican group Culture?

They never want Christopher Columbus inna Italy (Spain, Genoa)
They never want Christopher Columbus in a Rome
So how come him down in a West Indies land—A bother we
So how come him down in a West Indies land—A bother we
How come in a West Indies man a ravish my home
How come the boy come down to claim my home

What better way to start a lesson on post-Columbus Caribbean history? On the opening up of the so-called New World by Columbus in 1492, and the history-shaping consequences of Columbus’s four voyages. Many people—Culture’s lead singer, the late, great Joseph Hill among them—feel Columbus was at least partly to blame for much of the genocide, slavery, colonisation and warfare that followed. Others feel very differently. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular issue, one thing’s for certain: it’s had a huge impact on the lives of everyone in the Caribbean today, and it’s a story—both sides of it—that the children of the region should be learning.

A significant part of that story is the slavery that followed when Europeans came to the Caribbean and started to plant hugely profitable sugar plantations. To make their plantations function as lucratively as possible, they needed an endless pool of cheap (or, preferably, unpaid) labour. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought to the Caribbean as slaves, part of the biggest forced migration in human history. What better way to introduce a lesson on the horrors of slavery than the words of Bob Marley:

Old pirates yes they rob I,
Sold I to the merchant ship,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit

That’s taken, of course, from Bob’s “Redemption Song”, which also includes the lines many Marley fans regard as the greatest the King of Reggae ever wrote:

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds

That’s a philosophy that could be the launching pad for a full term of sociology classes anywhere in the world, not only the Caribbean.

What about warning our children of the perils of dabbling with cocaine, and its infinitely more evil cousin, crack? How many teachers could start a lecture on this topic with words as gripping as those of the late Ras Shorty I, the Trinidadian calypsonian widely credited with creating the soca rhythm?

Watch out my children! Watch out my children!
It have a fella called Lucifer with a bag of white powder.
And he don’t want to powder yuh face
But to bring shame and disgrace to the human race

Some songs don’t even need words to convey a powerful message. Play anything by the Cuban pianist Rubén González, and you’ve got the intro to a lesson about life itself. González was one of Cuba’s leading pianists in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, but his career seemed to have ended in the eighties. He was living in poverty in Havana, without even a piano to play.

Then, in the late nineties, the American guitarist Ry Cooder decided to make a documentary film on Cuban music based loosely on a long-closed Havana gathering place, the Buena Vista Social Club. He recruited Gonález and many of his contemporaries to make the music for the film and, at the same time, tell their stories. The soundtrack won a Grammy, and Rubén González found himself touring the world, playing at venues like the Sydney Opera House and London’s Barbican Hall, and making big-selling CDs on major labels. For the last few years of his life, he was an international celebrity, adored by millions and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

Rubén González was 78 when his biggest break came, and he seized it with both hands. His is a Caribbean musician’s story that transcends music, and it’s one our children—all our children—could learn from.

A final thought on the advantages of using Caribbean music as a learning tool. Along the way, the kids would be getting lessons on their own culture and learning about the wonderful musicians, some of them virtually forgotten, who helped create it.