Jablonski, Marek (Michael)



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(iii) Work-songs.


This tradition in Jamaica is one of the oldest, and although cooperative labour continues, with increasing industrialization and mechanization, work-songs are becoming obsolete. Slaves were not allowed to talk during work (almost all their waking hours) but they exchanged news, messages and even ridiculed their masters in song, without attracting unfavourable attention. The songs took on the rhythm of the tasks and helped to lighten the labour. A conch (lambi) or a cow horn is still used to summon workers to a ‘digging match’ (cooperative work session). A farmer who wanted to clear his land for planting needed many hands to complete the task quickly and well; friends gathered at his farm with the tools, and he furnished food, drink, water and a ‘singer man’. This singer man's function was to maintain rhythmic unity in the work being done; unity was enhanced by the call and response singing of the singer man and workers. The singer man also clowned to entertain the workers and had to be able to improvise topical lyrics. Most work-songs were associated with agricultural labour, but there were songs for almost every task: planting, reaping, fishing, weaving nets, hauling houses, washing clothes and housework. Most of the men’s songs were in robust leader and chorus style, but women often sang alone or in an integrated group. Generally work-songs have short, catchy tunes and are in two sections: the verse is sung by the bomma (the caller, who does not participate in the work) and the chorus by the bobbin. Rhythmic accompaniment is provided by pickaxes, mallets, cutlasses or other tools used in the work at hand.


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