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Caribbean Catholic music forms a Caribbean Catholic identity

Jill-Ann Walters-Morris is the head music teacher at St Benedict’s College, La Romaine. She was born into the musical family who started the popular Walters School of Music in San Fernando over 70 years ago.

Her most recent venture involved pursuing a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Cultural Studies, her thesis is titled ‘Meaning and the Music: The Performance of Catholic Liturgical Music and Caribbean Identity’.

Catholic News (CN) was piqued by her practise-based thesis which discusses the state of liturgical music, her thoughts on what the Vatican II said about sacred music, and what can be done to progress the music heard in parishes around the Caribbean. RENÉE SMITH sat down with Walters-Morris (WM).

CN: What relevance is your study of liturgical music to the Caribbean Church today?
This question cannot be answered without quoting from Br Paschal Jordan OSB [Benedictine monk and local liturgical composer], who told me, “This [music] is who we are and is representative of who we are”. These words relate to the performance of Caribbean liturgical music and how it holds profound meaning in the context of the Roman Catholic Mass in the form of a lived experience.

It suggests the possibility that the meaning of our music does more than the mere enhancement of worship which I have attempted to explore.

CN: Since the age of nine you have been actively involved in liturgical music. Did you think about its effect then and what would you like to see improved?
I used to compose music all the time inside and outside of my faith but it was not to share with anyone! My music was always of a modern style based on what I heard during my younger years. However, my compositions were never Caribbean popular music.

After speaking to Br Paschal and learning how Caribbean-centric he was, he related the importance of our music towards strengthening the Caribbean Church. I reflected on my early thoughts of music, wondering why I was never naturally Caribbean-centric though I was always involved in music and this essentially inspired the topic for my MPhil.

To me, society seems to prefer international music over local compositions. I hope we continue to work on our self-love as Caribbean people where we do not hold what is foreign in such a high esteem, believing it is better than what we do.

CN: How did you go about discovering how lay faithful ascribed meaning to music liturgy?
Observations and field visits to parishes was part of my participatory research. It involved my putting together a ‘research Mass’ at Christ the King, Les Efforts and sang specific songs with a combined choir. I was able to observe the type of reactions it evoked from laity.

Some points that struck me were Charismatic prayer meetings satisfied something in worship that could not be satisfied in a regular Mass. In parishes that conducted praise and worship sessions before Mass, laity said it helped them to be better prepared for Mass while others preferred solemn meditation or silence.

Coming out of all the research I composed a suite of music for each stage of the Mass. This music included ‘jab jab’ rhythms and Calypso beats for songs like ‘Lord have Mercy’ and ‘Lamb of God’. Leaving “space” for improvisation makes my compositions unique so that anyone participating in the Mass can fill the musical bar with their own lyrics.

CN: What were some of these formal and informal meanings?
There are the official meanings of the music in the Church, as it has always been, accompanying the action of what is happening during Mass and maintaining history. However, there are other meanings derived in response to these things such as the struggle of maintaining the dominance of Caribbean expression against popular American, protestant songs.

Nothing is wrong with those songs we have adopted in liturgy but we must place ‘we ting’ on the pedestal. The meaning of music is also looked at from each person’s experience and what they perceive to be powerful. Unfortunately, it has been very difficult to measure this with the parameters I had to work with.

CN: In what way has the Church maintained the Caribbean identity?
At every Mass you can witness some form of folk interpretation of traditional liturgical music. It is history being written and maintained by what we do.

Again, the Charismatic movement is a good example because though it has not originated in the Caribbean, the practice of it has done a great job of integrating our culture so that it stands out.

CN: There has been a tremendous amount of confusion about what the Second Vatican Council said about liturgy and liturgical music. How revolutionary, really, was Sacrosanctum Concilium regarding liturgical music?

WM: The entire constitution promotes “active participation” of the laity in 12 different passages. What is interesting about it is that even though it welcomes people where they are, there are limitations to one’s cultural expression. Therefore, a lot of music has to be “sanitised as the Church sees fit” which is conflicting.

I agree “liturgical correctness” is important based on the tenants of our faith but we must also maintain that it must balance with who we are as Caribbean people and something not to be suppressed. Sometimes we operate like the scribes and pharisees who were liturgically correct but who also seemed to use that to resist Christ’s teachings of clarifying rather than changing.

Recently a ‘Lord have mercy’ refrain was frowned upon because a Calypso beat was used and the critic said it meant one was demanding mercy from God while another said a ‘Lord of Mercy’ cannot be sung in minor key. Where are these rules? People like this believe they are informed but I think we can sing in any beat and have a serious message.

Sacrosanctum Concilium does not give allowance to secular music but rather invites the use of vernacular forms of music that is from an indigenous place:“In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason, due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius it comes with the authorization.”

It reminds us it comes with very limited use of vernacular and subtle statements are made in the document encouraging European-styled music. For example, it states organs should be held in “high esteem” because it is “the traditional instrument” which adds a “wonderful splendor” and “lifts minds up to God and higher things” (120, Sacrosanctum Concilium).

There have not been official allowances for Calypso/Soca for example, but I think it should be accepted as the melodies and dialect is not always associated with secularism of Carnival.

Ultimately, while observations led me to believe persons were smothered by the European Catholic tradition of celebrating, the actual responses I received contradicted as a majority felt free to express themselves.

Jill-Ann Walters-Morris: “Nothing is wrong with those songs we have adopted in liturgy but we must place ‘we ting’ on the pedestal.”