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A History of The Performing Arts in The Bahamas

In the performing arts, Bahamian music developed a distinctive identity called Goombay music.  The derivation of the word is West African from an African drum a called “goom-ba.”   This early style of music was typical of both song and dance.  This type of music was predominant before electronic or pop music.  Two exponents of this type of music were Blake Alfonzo Higgs (1915) or “Blind” Blake and George Symonette.  

During this particular era of Goombay, “Blind” Blake’s music on the six -stringed guitar told of significant events in Bahamian history.  His more than 30 years at the Royal Victoria Hotel gave him a reputation of being a Bahamian troubadour.

Another contemporary his was pianist George Symonette who was the father of Calypso.   He worked at the Imperial Hotel and his fame increased at he did promotional tours for the Ministry of Tourism.  Well known folk guitarist Jospeh Spence was alive at this time. His music was seventy-five percent religious and his ballads dealt with the topics of his day. He was known in North America and Europe as one of the greatest folk guitarist in the world.

Highlighting the performing arts in the Bahamas was the cultural icon and political activist Freddie Munnings Sr.  (1921).   In 1950’s  he established his Cat and Fiddle which attracted tourists and celebrities like Nat King Cole, Paul Ankan, Dinah Washington,  Harry Belafonte, Count Basie and Roy Hamilton.  He had a highly trained and polished orchestra which could read music readily. Also joining him was the popular dance choreographer Shirley Hall-Bass.

Another cultural icon that dominated the nightclub era was John Berkley “Peanuts” Taylor (1935).  His Drumbeat Club was perhaps was one of the longest lasting cultural shows in the Caribbean.  He travelled the world and hosted at the Drumbeat people like Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Pointier.  He also attracted the like of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

In the 1970’s the popular musicians that were Ronnie Butler, Eddie Minnis, King Eric and George Moxey.  Ronnie Butler became established with King Eric’s group before he launched out on his own to other venues as a performer and a recording artist.  Coming later was “Smokey 007” known as Leroy Cleveland McKenzie.  His music gained international recognition selling over 1 million records.

In 1982, Fred Ferguson joined High Voltage which later became Baha-men.  He became music director and composer for this group and produced soundtracks that went as far as Hollywood. Isaiah Taylor was also the a leader of this group.  Their hit song received a Grammy award for the best dance recording of “Who let the Dogs Out.”

Another very popular artist of this period is Kirkland Bodie know as “KB.”  He is a prolific composer, lyricist and singer whose songs are commentaries on the affairs of the day.   One such song that took the country by storm was “The Civil Servant.”

 

THE CLASSICS

One figure of immense importance in the performing arts was Meta Davis- Cumberbatch.  She was a concert pianist who graced the stage of Carnegie Hall in New York and travelled throughout Europe and the West Indies.  Mrs Cumberbatch also took up writing poetry and plays seriously.  As a teacher she taught E. Clement Bethel Hubert, Winston Saunders, Farrington and Mrs Gloria Barrett-Lockhart her daughter.  She was also instrumental in the formation of the Dundas Center for the performing Arts and its stage  

Clement Bethel, her student was later trained at London’s Royal Academy of Music as a concert pianist and composer of distinction. As a teacher, his pupils are even today quite notable.  They are Audrey Dean-Wright, Dr. Francis Fawkes, Lee Callendar, Kendrick Coleby and others.  These musicians are actively engaged as performers, composers, teachers, arrangers, accompanists or choral conductors.  

Clement was later to become the Director of Culture and was instrumental developing the National Arts Festival movement.  The Festival movement started out in the 1959 with Lady Arthur, wife of the then royal governor.  Two years later in 1961, the family islands were included.  At this particular time, Mrs. Meta Davis-Cumberbatch, a concert pianist of Trinidadian extraction, established the Arts and Craft Festival to compliment the Music Festival.  

In 1971, E Clement Bethel, the first Director of Culture, incorporated both the Music Festival and the Bahamas Arts and Crafts Exhibition into his programmes.  In 1972, the Drama Festival was added.  Today, this entity has expanded to include the visual and the performing arts with a re-addition of the National Arts and Crafts Exhibition at the Central Bank.  

There are a number of successful spin-off events as well.  There is the gospel concert, a final concert, the National Pride Day Performance and the grand Independence Day celebration.  Also included in this is a workshop for a select number of festival winners associated with the Washington Jazz Institute in Washington D.C.

E. Clement Bethel also shared the vision of an instrumental movement. At that time the schools and the community were predominantly choral.  With the coming of the Quincentennial celebrations in 1992, the Bahamas realized that culture would have to diversify.  In preparation there came into existence the Bahamas National Youth Orchestra; The Bahamas Concert Orchestra; The National Dance Company of the Bahamas; The National Youth Choir and the National Children’s Choir.  As the instrumental movement gathered momentum, there were more church, school and community bands, especially among the youth.

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