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Pieces of the Past

FULL TITLE: Pieces of the Past: A Stroll Down Jamaica’s Memory Lane

PRICE: Hardback US$45.00, Papaerback US$29.99

There is an old Jamaican saying ‘every mickle mek a muckle’. It means every experience – no matter how small – counts, because together they form a greater whole. There is another old Jamaican saying: ‘one one cocoa full basket’ which means that parts of things slowly combined make a whole. Pieces of the Past: A Stroll Down Jamaica’s Memory Lane is as much a combination of both meanings as it is an exploration of a deep-rooted interest in Jamaica’s rich history and culture.

As the title suggests, the stories included in this volume are but pieces of Jamaica’s very rich past. Since all the defining moments of Jamaican History and culture could not be covered, the book brings together interesting people and events from the nation’s past to the general public. Stories range from the strictly historical, such as the founding of the nation’s two political parties, to reminiscence of service in World War II, to the exploration of place names and proverbs.

The book is divided into eight sections namely: Places; People; Cultural Heritage; A Nation Emerges; Trials: Natural and Manmade; Jamaicans Who Served; Famous Visitors; and Things Jamaican. Pieces of the Past is written in a clear and accessible style and is a must for lovers of Jamaican History, and anyone interested in the culture and heritage of the island.

Rebecca Tortello holds a PhD in comparative education and sociology from Teachers College, Columbia University. A Former classroom teacher, Rebecca is also the author of a children’s picture book called Nancy and Grandy Nanny (2001). She is Special Advisor in the Ministry of Education, Jamaica.

Excerpt from Pieces of the Past: A Stroll Down Jamaica’s Memory Lane

What a Bam Bam: Jamaica Festival is Born

It would be an annual report on the creativity of the nation — a national stage where Jamaicans from all walks of life would have the opportunity to create their own brand of artistic expression, reflecting their life history and their lifestyles.

Unlike other countries where the sheer achievement of independence was itself an occasion, marked by a specific day and the cause of joyous celebration, Jamaica’s independence was achieved gradually and a date chosen based largely on historic facts. There was need for ‘something to mobilize the spirit of the people’. That something became Jamaica Festival — a visible and tangible expression of the vitality and range of Jamaican culture.

Jamaica Festival, a major training opportunity for thousands of Jamaicans, was also intended to focus attention on Jamaican creativity and cultural awareness across socioeconomic levels. The emphasis was on ‘Things Jamaican’ and this was spelled out in Seaga’s five year development plan for Jamaica (1963-68). A keen student of Jamaican history, Seaga’s deep interest in Jamaican folklore, religion, dance and music led him to recognize the need for these traditional art forms to be preserved and exposed, and in some cases, further developed. Festival was seen as integral to national development because it was one way to give Jamaicans a sense of identity, history and culture.

The Roots of Festival

Jamaica has a long track record of creative arts competitions. One of the first known was staged by the Institute of Jamaica in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne. Annual competitions were also held in vocal and instrumental music, handicraft, poetry, architecture, essay writing, and natural history research until 1907 when the earthquake intervened. In the early part of the 20th century, all-island elocution contests and music festivals coupled with the tradition of eisteddfod (i.e., local gatherings of music competitions) organized by MICO Teachers College, the Jesuits at St. George’s College, the Music Society of Jamaica and the Poetry League became popular. The year 1910 is worth special note as it marked the introduction of a young Jamaican named Marcus Garvey who represented his parish of St. Ann in elocution, placing third overall. In general these contests were judged by English judges and contained a decidedly English aesthetic.

In the 1930s, a decade of significant social upheaval and change on the island, Jamaica Welfare Ltd. was established and village competitions that included art, craft, plays, preserves and traditional dance, began. In addition, MICO graduates, exposed to music and art forms, took that influence with them as they began their teaching assignments around the island, thus contributing to the growth of national art forms. Yet, in spite of claims to be representative of the entire island, these contests remained largely Kingston-based until the 1946 Portland Festival. This week-long event, a spontaneous effort organized by local citizens that included bringing school and adults together to allow for eliminations at the inter-school and inter-village levels, marked the beginning of a movement. St. Catherine followed suit in 1949, St. Ann in 1951 and Manchester in 1954.

In 1955, the movement evolved to include celebrations that were not only island-wide but year long. For the first time parish-level competitions led up to national competitions with national finals held in Kingston. The popular three-hour long Jamaican Bandwagon with its float parade organized by Eric Coverly was introduced. Coordinated by arts stalwart Robert Verity and presented in all parish capitals, the Bandwagon took popular entertainment to the people on street corners and in the villages. By the early 1960s, however, no central organizational structure to ensure the repetition, growth and increasing Jamaicanisation of such events was yet in place.

That development came in 1963 when the Jamaica Festival Commission, (which eventually became the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) was formed. Its mandate: to develop and promote the creative talents and cultural expressions of the Jamaican people. It also functions to preserve and sustain the nation’s culture for the benefit of future generations. It organizes the annual Independence celebrations and other events of national significance. The Commission fulfills its mandate primarily through its annual Festival of the Arts, with parish and national competitions in the performing arts, literary arts, fine arts and culinary arts.
In the years since its inception, thousands of Jamaicans have benefited from its programmes in dance, traditional folk forms, speech and drama, music, culinary arts, fine arts, photography and literary arts. The Commission has exposed and nurtured the talents of renowned artists such as Bob Marley, Professor Mervyn Morris, Kapo, Barrington Watson, Lennie Little-White, Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore, Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Fae Ellington, Steven Woodham and Susan Alexander.


Jamaican folk forms, the essence of our nation’s culture, are rooted in the ceremonies and traditions of our forebears. The JCDC plays a critical role in the preservation of these folk forms which, without support, would simply die. These folk forms are sustained through the Commission’s annual Festival of the Performing Arts and through the National and
Regional Mento Yards, which showcase the variety of these forms and accord them dignity and their rightful place in the consciousness of the Jamaican society.


The Mento is the original folk music created by Jamaicans. Instruments used range from saxophones, flutes, bamboo fifes, PVC pipes, banjos, violins, bamboo fiddles, guitars, rhumba boxes, double basses, rhythm sticks, shakkas and drums played with both sticks and hands.


The Maypole dance was originally celebrated on May first at the May Day fertility celebration in England. In Jamaican Maypole, groups are comprised of 12 to 16 dancers — sometimes all female or mixed couples. The plaiting of the pole with coloured ribbons has basic traditional patterns, starting with the grand chain, basket weave wrapping the ribbons around the pole from the top. The plaiting then continues away from the pole ending with the
‘cobweb’ plait before the full unplaiting takes place. Mento music is usually the musical accompaniment, but it is now not unusual to have groups perform this dance to popular reggae tunes.


This is a ballroom set dance which originated in the courts of Europe and was brought to Jamaica by the gentry during slavery. There are two styles, – the Ballroom and the Camp Style — the former European, the latter the creolized version. Mento Bands accompany these dances in a variety of traditional European tunes, except for the fifth figure which employs the Mento, the first music created by Jamaicans.


Kumina is the most African of Jamaican religious cults. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes and entombments, but can also be performed at births, anniversaries and thanksgivings. During a Kumina ceremony the exponents call upon their ancestral spirits. The dance and music are two of the Kumina’s strong features — the drum playing an integral part in this dance ritual.
Other instruments used include shakas and graters. The dancers move in a circular pattern counterclockwise around the drummers in the centre inching their feet along the ground with the back held in an almost erect posture. The hips, rib cage, shoulders and arms become involved as spins, dips and breaks in the body movements occur throughout the dance. Kumina is to be found primarily in the parish of St Thomas and to a lesser extent in St. Mary and St. Catherine.


Jonkunnu (John Canoe) a Jamaican traditional dance of African origin is performed traditionally at Christmas time. A strong feature of the dance is the all-male cast whose movements match its roles. Some of these characters are Pitchy Patchy, Devil, Horsehead, Cowhead, Actor Boy, Belly Woman, Warrior, and Wild Indian. The rhythm of Jonkunnu Music is quite distinct from other ritual folk music with its fife and ‘rattling drum’- carried on the shoulders and played with sticks.


Both dances are of African origin and are usually performed at the death of a person for nine nights to cheer the bereaved. Gerreh is found in the western end of the island – the first two nights after death, persons gather to ‘jump gerreh’ – an activity replete with ring games, special songs and dances including one on two pieces of bamboo. Dinki-Mini, found mainly in St Mary is another bereavement ritual full of dancing and ring games meant to cheer those who have lost a loved one. The dance (also called the dinki mini) involves a male dancer bending one leg at the knee and making high leaps on the other foot as well as the male name and female dancers making suggestive pelvic movements.


This traditional dance was performed in the past mainly to celebrate the anniversary of Emancipation from slavery on August 1, 1838. Bruckin’ Party has a retinue of dancers costumed in blue and red headed by kings and queens, sergeant-majors, captains, granddaughters, etc., who perform as a sort of contest, especially between the kings and queens of each set. The main movement of the dance is the dip/kotch of the body using the feet as the arms move across the chest in an upward movement and a wheel and turn of the body. Musical accompaniment is also the drums and vocalization. Bruckin’ Party is found only in the parish of Portland and is now performed mainly for the JCDC’s Annual Festival of Arts Competitions.


Traditional Ring Games were played by children and adults as they portrayed happenings in a community with touches of humour; they may deal with situations otherwise taboo in everyday speech. Today it is mostly a children’s game of ‘song and dance’, performed in the JCDC’s Annual Festival of Arts competitions.


Revival is a religious ritual that comes from the mixing of African and European cultures — Afro-European syncretism. It has two main branches: Zionism and Pocomania. Zionism is more Euro- Christian and deals with holy angels and heavenly spirits. Pocomania deals with earth bound spirits and has stronger African elements. Revival groups are comprised of Bands with a strict hierarchy of leadership. The central figure is a Mother, when it is a female, and a Shepherd when male. Mission grounds where meetings are held are decorated with holy pictures and biblical symbols, inscribed or drawn on the ground and the walls. Drums and tambourines accompany the singing with words some from hymns or others with words that have very little meaning, but are used to carry the tune. The dance movement is a forward dip with a stamp of the foot, knees slightly bent, progressing around in a circle.


Tambu groups are predominantly found in Trelawny. Tambu today is performed mainly for entertainment – in the past it was used to contact ancestral spirits. It is named for the drum – its complex rhythms are similar to that found in traditional Congo drumming. One drummer applies pressure at the head of the drum with his heel while another beats out the rhythm on the back of the drum with a catta stick. Tambu dance movements are similar to those of the ‘Bele’ of Martinique and Guadeloupe.


An African retention kept alive by a small group of people in the parish of Hanover claiming Yoruba (Nigerian) ancestry, the Etu play is usually performed at weddings, feasts, and ‘nine night’. ‘Shawling’, a feature of the dance, is a ritual of appreciation for the dancer’s skill and movements; it is an integral part of each performance. The Queen throws a scarf around the neck of the dancer, who is then ceremoniously dipped back from the waist for strength, then the shawler raises the dancer’s arm in salutation and congratulation. Songs accompanied with drumming on a kerosene pan, beaten with bare hands, form the musical accompaniment.


More than 2,000 individuals and groups, ranging from the amateur to the professional, enter the JCDC’s Speech and Drama Competitions each year. The JCDC’s elocution programme teaches personal development. The competition is one of the most popular in the arts. Entries are accepted in Standard English or Jamaican dialect in the following categories:-
Standard English poems/prose
Jamaican Dialect Prose (solo)
Dub Poetry (solo)
Speaking Ensemble
Public Speaking (solo)
Story Telling
Caribbean Dialect Poems
Sonnets, Psalms and
Shakespeare (solo or group)


The competition encourages excellence in theatre arts and the use of this art form as a tool for self-actualization and community development. All aspects of theatre including directing, set design, scriptwriting and acting are recognized and cultivated through the programme. Categories of entry include:
Tea Meeting Farce
Experimental Drama
One Man/Woman
Community Drama/
Popular Theatre
Straight Drama
This programme incorporates creative, folk and contemporary dance; providing choreographers and performers with an arena for their creative works, expression and interpretations.
The preservation and survival of many of Jamaica’s traditional dances has been accredited to the JCDC’s efforts over the past three decades.


The JCDC’s annual Festival of Music and its training programme unearths and develops all genres of Jamaican musical talent. The Commission sets goals of excellence in each of its categories.
The best dance, speech, drama and music of the Festival of the Performing Arts are showcased in the JCDC’s annual Mello Go Roun’. The Commission also presents an annual exposition of traditional music, dance, games, foods, art and craft, dubbed National Mento Yard. The exposition has evolved into a major exposition of Jamaican culture, showcasing the best of the best of our nation’s talent and culture.
The National Popular Song Competition affords Jamaican singers, songwriters and producers the opportunity to develop and showcase their talents. This has been the most popular aspect of the Festival since its inception.
The National Gospel Song Competition encourages creativity in Jamaican gospel music, while motivating the Christian community to challenge Jamaicans, through song, to spiritual development. It is an eagerly anticipated event in the gospel community among songwriters, producers, performers and fans of the genre. The National Gospel Song is in its sixteenth year of the Competition.


The Miss Jamaica Festival Queen Competition encourages the development of cultural awareness, talent and creativity in some of Jamaica’s most beautiful women. The pageant is one of the highlights of the Commission’s Independence Celebrations. The JCDC seeks to inspire the entrants with the awareness of the contribution they can make to national development and nation building. The competition also stimulates the creativity of Jamaican designers, seamstresses and tailors who showcase their talents by designing gowns for the contestants.