Olive Lewin: Anthropologist who rescued Jamaican folklore from Eurocentrism


Olive Lewin was a Jamaican anthropologist and cultural historian who, over the last 60 years, pulled Jamaican folklore out of the shadow of Eurocentric prejudice.

A striking, diminutive woman, Lewin fought against the manner in which “polite” Jamaican middle-class society, with its complex prejudices, denied its background, refusing to admit the existence of patois, the everyday language of most islanders.

“It was as though there had never been any African, Caribbean or even Jamaican cultural heritage or creativity,” she wrote in Rock It Come Over, her definitive 2001 study of Jamaican folk music. “It was absolutely taboo to use Jamaican vernacular. Scottish and Yorkshire speech styles in which ‘gin a body meet a body’ and ‘on Ilkla moor baht ‘at’ were permitted, but not ‘Dis long time gal me never see you, come mek me hol’ you hand’. This alone effectively separated those aspiring to ‘higher things’ or a ‘good education’ from most of Jamaica’s own music.”

Lewin was influenced by Carl Jung. She saw the links between European thinking and African and Afro-Caribbean thought – a notion which had been considered risible by many white academics. “The philosophical concord of ideas between advanced Western thinkers and the lowly slave is remarkable and even touching,” she wrote. “There is a startling parallel between Schweitzer’s ‘spring which can never dry up’ and Miss Becky Blackwood’s lullaby ‘Milky water never dry, you get it dung a fountain’.”

She was born in Vere in Clarendon, to teachers – her father had a reputation as one of the finest historians in Jamaica. She enjoyed an intellectual upbringing, with the family sitting and reading together every night; they were “encouraged to read classics or books within our capabilities, like biographies of saints, Wuthering Heights, Black Beauty, or to read at random and look at the pictures and captions in Cassell’s Book of Knowledge.”

Earning scholarships – ironically, she remarked, from a fund established by slave-owners – she and her sister were dispatched to Hampton, a country boarding school in which educational rigour was all. With its arts and musical bias – there were 13 pianos for use by its 90 pupils – Lewin flourished, and in 1943 won the West Indies scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music as the only black student. “It was there that the neglect of our indigenous music struck me with full force. I realised that composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven were human beings and products of their time and environment.” She became determined, she said, “to work towards the understanding, study and appreciation of Jamaica’s music.”

After teaching in Jamaica, she returned to England to study as a concert pianist; she gave recitals at the Royal Festival Hall and on BBC and ITV. Back in Jamaica she taught at Mico College, a teacher-training school, insistent on making music a joyful experience.

In 1966 she was appointed Jamaica’s Folk Music Research Officer under the auspices of Edward Seaga, Minister of Development and Welfare, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and an ethno-musicologist. Emulating Seaga, Lewin went into the field. In 1967 she founded the Jamaican Folk Singers, dedicated to traditional songs: they were asked by Rastafarian leaders to perform at the funeral of Count Ozzie, “their revered pioneer in music”.

She coupled her ethno-musical work with improving the quality of life in isolated, often rundown communities, such as that of Moore Town in the eastern mountains, capital of the Maroons, runaway slaves who had been granted a measure of autonomy. She became the only non-Maroon initiated into the Moore Town Maroon community. One of her specialist subjects was Kumina, the Congolese-derived voodoo-like religion practised in Jamaica’s eastern parish of St Thomas, brought to the island by indentured labour following slavery’s abolition.

When Seaga became Prime Minister in 1980 he placed Lewin in charge of the Memory Bank Project, an archive of Jamaica’s musical heritage; she also initiated Jamaica’s National Youth Orchestra. She became a visiting scholar in 2000 at Yale. In 2001, the beautifully illustrated Rock It Come Over was published, the most celebrated of her eight books. Ill-health obliged her to stop work in 2007. When she died, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller described her as “an invaluable cultural icon”.

Dr Olive Lewin, musicologist, anthropologist, teacher and author: born Vere, Jamaica 1927; married (one daughter); died Kingston, Jamaica 10 April 2013.

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