Prof Ralston Milton Nettleford (1933-2010) was a man of the age, a representative of the spirit of renascent enquiry, perennial interest in science and the arts, of learning, enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence. His knowledge and expression were profound, he was deep in the arts, had creativity and athleticism – an all-round universal personality. It is easy to associate him with the classical ideal of culture in mind and body.
The term fits him like his language; and his language was one of his most unique and striking elements. Listening superficially, his speech was Oxbridge without the slightest thought of affectation, because of the manner in which he branded it his own. It was expressive of a distinguished style and stature, quite matching his physical posture, which was itself commensurate with his disciplined artistic sharpness – a trained dancer’s poise. In this language he exhibited command, confidence with no anxieties about imitation or colonialism, but with self-knowledge and a sure sense of identity.
Nettleford’s approach to language bore some similarity to that of Derek Walcott who has been loud in his appreciation of the positive value of the English language. He disunited with those who saw it as a colonial imposition and rather than labelling it the language of the master, became the master of it. Indeed, Nettleford appropriated English instead of being colonised by it. Similarly, it was George Lamming, an unrepentant post-colonialist, who declared that “English is a West Indian language.”
And that leads into the second remarkable factor of language as it relates to Rex Nettleford. He, too, was a confirmed post-colonialist, and his classical idiolect of speech was extraordinarily compatible with this post-colonialism. That is because his speech was simultaneously distinctly Jamaican, very Caribbean. He characteristically practised code-switching within his easy command of the continuum between his style of standard English and Creole expression.
This was a feature of his farewell speech during a function held in his honour at the UWI St Augustine Campus when he retired as Vice-Chancellor of UWI in 2005. He offered a post-colonial warning to the Caribbean community about being vigilant of its own destiny and not allowing outsiders with their own interests to take over in neo-colonial fashion. Because, he said, “if you allow them, them will run you.” He had switched from standard English to Jamaican Creole syntax to press a point about displacement and loss of identity. By “them will run you,” he meant not only “take over your administration,” but “chase you out” of your own domain.
This language was, additionally, in tandem with his renaissance characteristics of all-round excellence and capacity to surprise with his mixing of disciplines and/or ability to switch. Foremost in that context was his existence in two disparate worlds. He was a university Vice-Chancellor with a life-long career as a university administrator, yet he was a dancer, a stage performer with an equally successful career in the theatre. Were the comparison not beneath Nettleford, one would recall Henry VIII, dancer, king and Defender of the Faith.
Similarly, Rex’s name was a household word in the field of Cultural Studies. But it is not very widely known that his area of study at UCWI was History, followed by a Masters in Political Science at Oxford. Equally surprising for those not so close to the Mona Campus (and many on it), his substantive post for more than 20 years was Director of Trade Union Education. He was well known for almost everything else but that. He became an international guru acclaimed for the arts and culture while from his trade union office; he conducted tutorials in Government before accumulating other responsibilities. He took charge of Extra Mural Studies and later Pro Vice-Chancellor for Continuing Education.
Nettleford’s overarching idiom, however, was a universal language: the dance. In that, too, he was an authority in a range of dialects from the classical techniques to folk forms. This high level of fluency was characteristic and expressive of the other factors of his career. He was able to switch codes along a continuum; he appropriated value from it in order to shape what he considered most important in terms of form, and he utilised it to express cultural identity. One of his preoccupations in dance was cultural roots and Creole traditions. As he grew to be the Caribbean’s greatest choreographer, he created some of the most memorable dances in immortal classics such as Kumina, Pocomania, Mayal,Court of Jah and Tribute to Cliff.
Kumina is acclaimed as perhaps the all-time great choreography in the region. Among its notable qualities is the thoroughness of its research and the power in its performance. Nettleford developed it from field work in Jamaica’s kumina country in Portland and St Thomas where an African religious practice of the Kongo nation survives. It is a tradition involving spirit possession in a dance retinue with king, queen, devotees and court. The choreographer reproduces the routines accompanied by the distinctive sound of the hypnotic drums of the religion and the traditional chorus sung by the devotees. Nettleford was lead dancer in several revisions of the dance in the repertoire of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NDTC).
He also appeared in similar roles as the mayal man in Myal and in Pocomania. These are all works based on African religious traditions. Myal is drawn from the practice of Obeah, which was also researched by Nettleford for this choreogtaphy. Obeah was a power that was of great value to the enslaved and the maroons in warfare, cures and healing, but it also had the capacity to be malignantly misused. Myal was its antidote, its twin and its alter-ego, and could be employed to undo what had been done by obeah. There are historical records of obeah dances, and the image of the ‘shadow catcher’ would have been of inspiration to the choreographer. Pocomania is a hybrid spiritualist religion which mixes Christianity with African traditions. It also has its peculiar drum rhythms, singing choruses and possession dances. Unlike in the case of obeah, these dances are still practised by devotees just as kumina is.
It is a part of Nettleford’s great contributions to the art that he has created Caribbean dance out of these traditions and other indigenous or local sources. In similar fashion he created the Court of Jah from the Rastafari, whose trademark drums, spiritual moods and stately, imperial images are ready inspiration for modern dance. Tribute to Cliff is very much as its name suggests, Nettleford’s recognition of the work of one of Jamaica’s greatest and most important reggae singers, Jimmy Cliff. It is choreographed to one of his legendary hits, Many Rivers to Cross. Apart from reggae, Nettleford also studied other Caribbean musical forms in dance. Bujumania is in recognition of dancehall and the work of Buju Banton, while in High Mas he goes to Trinidad for the soca influence, taking inspiration from one of the timeless great compositions in that form by David Rudder.
As important as Rex’s contribution to Caribbean dance made through those innovative, powerful and influential choreographies, is his contribution to dance theatre through his founding of the group for whom those dances were created. The NDTC was formed just after Jamaica became independent and it has grown up with the nation ever since to become the premier dance institution in the anglophone Caribbean and a company of international acclaim. Rex collaborated with Ivy Baxter and Neville Black in the early years of the establishment of the NDTC for which he was Artistic Director and principal choreographer. Out of this emerged the NDTC Singers, a full company of folk singers in their own right.
What makes this contribution even more significant is the fact that the NDTC was also a catalyst for the escalation of dance training and dance education in Jamaica. The Jamaica School of Dance soon emerged run at first by members of the company. Along with training, it also brought professionalism, leading the way for several other recognised professional groups to come to the fore. The only other name associated with this kind of innovation and influence in the region is the late Beryl McBurnie of Trinidad, who started the Little Carib Theatre.
While those contributions would have been enough to transform the name of R M Nettleford into legend, still, there was more. Another very influential legacy is the work he did in ‘staging’ other forms of theatre and the performing arts. Choral performance in Jamaica is not the same as it was 30 years ago.
The more interesting choirs are ‘staged,’ and no longer stand sedately to sing. Performances are highly theatrical with choreographed and dramatic movement. Furthermore, this influence has long since found its way across the Eastern Caribbean and Trinidad. This might have started with Nettleford’s work in creating organised movement for The University Singers at UWI, Mona.
In the same vein, and even before that, Nettleford had been called in to ‘stage’ the singing performances of the choruses in the annual Jamaica Pantomime. This started in the early 1970s at the Ward Theatre and has intensified at the Little Theatre where it is performed today. Significantly, the Pantomime has become very much influenced by recent trends in the popular theatre with a greater emphasis on slapstick and farce. Up to 2007 it was very noticeable that a remarkable feature of Pantomime was the preponderance of low farce alongside very effective and disciplined choreographic performance by choruses on stage. These performances up to 2006 were choreographed and staged by Nettleford, and in the more recent years, in his absence, by others who worked with him and perpetuated his brand of staging.
The brand and quality of the language of R M Nettleford transcended the stage without being entirely divorced from it. Similar types of linguistic discourse found in the sources, concepts and images of his dance are not alien to the dialogue of his intellectualism. The output of his academic research contains a powerful sociolinguistic sensitivity and is eloquently expressive of a sensibility grounded in the consciousness of identity. An excellent example of this is found in the mix of politics and sociolinguistic metaphor in his seminal work titled Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica (1969).
Interestingly, the title is taken from the traditional fairy tale in which a wicked stepmother obsessed by a narcissistic vanity is in the habit of asking her magic mirror, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” This is used to raise questions of race, colour conflicts and identity in Jamaica influenced by power and class struggles based on ethnic differences. There was prejudice and racism arising from notions of a superior race based on colour and deceptive, subjective belief in appearance. There is irony in the fact that a mirror reflects the truth, but can also show the viewer what she wants to see. At the same time, the images of the ethnic groups are mirror reflections of each other; differences are superficial and deceptive. It is significant that Nettleford borrows from oral literature and artistic metaphor in his socio-cultural political analysis of the society.
However, Nettleford gets still deeper into language when he makes further, more direct contributions to literature. He does this through his analysis of creole poetry, through the introduction and editing of a book of verse that played an important role in the acceptance of Jamaican ‘patois’ as a viable language for poetry worthy of literary study. In 1963 Mervyn Morris produced a ground-breaking essay which won the Gold Medal in the Jamaica festival. This was On Reading Louise Bennett Seriously, arguing the case for poems previously valued merely for their humour, to be accepted in mainstream literature. In 1966 Nettleford introduced and analysed Bennett’s poetry in the first major collection of them to be published, Jamaica Labrish. He proceeds to take the poems seriously and to highlight their importance as social commentary. It could well be advanced that works of this nature were the beginnings of cultural studies which developed into a major academic discipline by 1997.
This interest of his was quite consistent with another publication in which he examines folk material in Walter Jekyll’s 1907 collection of folk tales and songs in Jamaica Song and Story (Reprint 1966). Yet this sensibility which takes an academic interest in cultural factors outside of the elite, was earlier demonstrated in another innovative work. The Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica (1960) co-authored with M G Smith and Roy Augier, was the first serious study of the Rasta phenomenon, and the first public sympathetic representation outside of fiction, of a movement viewed with suspicion, contempt and ridicule at the time. The only previous favourable reflection was in a novel by Roger Mais, Brother Man (1953). The courage exhibited here by a young Nettleford in support of a controversial group that at the time was on the receiving end of fierce public hostility was an early signal of the tendency to roots consciousness of a first class scholar.
Lawrence Carrington, who succeeded Nettleford as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Continuing Studies at UWI, says of him, “Rex Nettleford was intellectually generous. He could not abide mean-spiritedness. He was never elitist, yet always championed excellence.” The truth of that lies in much of the foregoing, and is consistent with his very strong arguments in favour of the award of a national honour to Jimmy Cliff. He had to argue against a panel that the reggae singer who had produced the music, was more deserving of the award than an academic researcher who had collected volumes of it.
His lifelong association with the journal Caribbean Quarterly, which he edited for more than thirty years from 1970, was exceeded only by his lifelong association with UWI. It was remarked that except for the short period he spent at Oxford, his entire working life was spent at UWI. I recall having to telephone him not long after he retired as UWI Vice-Chancellor to ask him to be the guest speaker at an academic conference. He remarked that “People seem to feel that because I am no longer Vice-Chancellor that I have nothing to do.” On the contrary, he was also quoted as saying he was not retiring, but only “re-tyring.” True enough, his schedule seemed as busy as usual and, in fact, he died in the service of the university.
The dramatic significance of the language of Rex Nettleford remains true even in his name. In the language of the classics, rex means king, and in Aristotelian analogism he was a monarch in nature and regal bearing. But nothing confirms his nobility more than his preoccupation with his roots in the traditional culture and his post-colonial recognition of the sovereignty of the indigenous identity.