Passing on the Bahamian musical legacy
Guardian Managing Editor
Published: Sep 14, 2013
True appreciation sometimes requires distance. Just ask any Bahamian who has studied or lived abroad. What was once dismissed and taken for granted often becomes cherished and treasured when off these shores.
This was certainly the case for Bahamian musician and educator Diana Hamilton, who discovered a love and passion for Bahamian folk music thousands of miles away from home, in Paris, France.
That love and passion prompted Hamilton to unexpectedly start her own career as a musician. It also sparked a strong desire to preserve Rake ‘n’ Scrape, a musical tradition that is sometimes more appreciated by outsiders than The Bahamas’ own.
Hamilton, who recently moved back home after living in Paris since the age of 19, organized a special music camp for children this summer in Cat Island – the home of Rake ‘n’ Scrape. The focus of the camp was the accordion — featured prominently in rake ‘n’ scrape bands.
“If we don’t do something now, we will lose it,” Hamilton told Guardian Arts&Culture. “There are very few accordionists left. You can count them on one hand, and they haven’t been able to transfer their knowledge to the younger generations.”
Hamilton has spent most of her life in Paris, where she worked as a language teacher for more than 30 years. She is also a professional singer and songwriter who has already worked on major projects to promote Bahamian traditional music in France and Europe.
Hamilton’s journey started back in the late 1990s when she met Danielle Langer, a radio producer who had a strong interest in Bahamian folk music.
Langer had heard traditional Bahamian music as a child in then Czechoslovakia. Back then it was a communist country and only folk music was played on the radio.
“She heard Joseph Spence, The Pinder Family, Bahamian rhyming spirituals, and she fell in love with it,” said Hamilton.
One of few Bahamians in Paris at the time, Hamilton and Langer met after they were introduced by a mutual friend.
“[Langer] invited me on her show, and it was there that I received a lesson in [Bahamian] music history, a lesson that I did not know,” recalled Hamilton. “I knew I had heard these songs, heard them on the radio, at wakes, during celebrations but I had no idea of what they were and the value they had.”
Hamilton said that ever since then she has become a devout defender of Bahamian music.
A couple of years later, around 2000, Hamilton and Langer visited Nassau, Andros, Cat Island and San Salvador (where Hamilton was raised) to learn more about traditional Bahamian music.
Hamilton said that it was while on Cat Island that she heard Rake ‘n’ Scrape for the first time.
While there, she also met Frank Williams, who Hamilton said was heartbroken over the fact that his accordion was too old and worn to be played.
“He said to me that the music was dying, that it wasn’t being transferred to the next generation and that something needed to be done. He told me he needed an accordion, and I promised him then that I would try to do something,” she said.
Years later, in 2012 when Hamilton moved back home to The Bahamas to be with her ailing mother, she was able to fulfill that promise — and more.
Last summer, Hamilton started a music and language camp for children on Cat Island.
The purpose of the camp was to develop and preserve the transmission and promotion of the accordion in traditional Rake n Scrape music before it becomes extinct.
Hamilton set out to achieve this in three ways.
She invited a master accordionist from France, where the instrument is a very important part of the traditional music culture. Hamilton said she wanted to expose the children of the Cat Island community to another culture, another language and a completely new way of perceiving the instrument.
And by giving young people in the community an opportunity to work with local traditional Rake n Scrape musicians, Hamilton felt it would facilitate the transmission of the oral cultural heritage they inherited from their ancestors.
“These people are the bearers of our oral tradition, and bringing them together through the camp, that’s what I wanted to achieve,” she said.
Hamilton said that she also wanted to emphasize the relationship between education and culture by engaging the support of the schools and the community.
The camp was aimed at children who are musically inclined from the Old Bight, Orange Creek and Arthurs Town settlements.
An important aspect of the eight-day camp was that it was taught in French by the accordionist Robert Santiago.
Hamilton, a part-time lecturer of French at The College of The Bahamas, is also working on a thesis that shows how foreign language is transmitted to youngsters who are taught to play a musical instrument in another language. How that works together.
“At the end of the eight days, the children were playing,” she said. “The language was not a problem for them. They were able to understand.”
Those who could not tackle the accordion migrated naturally to the drum or saw. They were all taught music theory.
Hamilton said that not only were the children able to play, but the community became involved. Campers got to practice with the Rake n Scrape band that was always on hand, and accordionist Santiago played regularly at a local restaurant.
Hamilton said she chose Cat Island for the camp because the tradition of Rake n Scrape already has a strong presence on the island.
“I wanted the children to be familiar with the tradition so they wouldn’t have to face a totally new instrument and a foreign language,” she explained.
Hamilton said that the next step is to expand the camp and in addition to bringing back Santiago, her plan is to bring on board a master accordionist from Colombia.
In the long-term, Hamilton hopes to one day create a school where people can be trained in the accordion so it can be preserved as an important part of our heritage.
She also hopes to develop a full scholarship for a Bahamian to be trained in the tuning and repair of accordions.
“Many people on the island whose instruments are broken, they have not played for years, like C.J. Rolle who simply stopped playing when his accordion stopped,” said Hamilton. “We can’t allow this music to stop.”