by Larry Smith
Last week I took a trip on the underground railroad of Bahamian music. Man, I was walking in Jerusalem just like John. I saw a number of signs, and all the guides remembered quite well. And sometimes, they even had fire and brimstone coming out of their mouth.
We embarked at the Doongalik station on Village Road. Jackson Burnside and Charles Carter were the conductors on a fascinating journey to excavate the memory of two great Bahamian musicians - the idiosyncratic guitarist Joseph Spence (who would have been 100 this year) and the obeah man Tony McKay (whose first album appeared 40 years ago, when Tough Call was a yoot-man).
One of the guides on this trip was 79-year-old Geneva Pinder. She described her Uncle Youngie as "the sweetest man...sitting with his pipe and singing with my parents. My grandmother was a Sunday school teacher on Andros and we had to sing from when we were little. My mom wasn't that learned, but she could rhyme."
Geneva's mother, Edith, was the sister of Joseph Spence, who died in 1984. And it was her rhyming - a musical form sometimes described as an ancestor of rap - that attracted the American folk artist Jody Stecher to Nassau in 1965, where he recorded Spence and the Pinder family in their Culmersville yard.
A familiar Bahamian anthem traditionally sung at the end of a wake, I Bid You Goodnight, derives from the 19th century English funeral hymn, Sleep On Beloved. A 1960s group called the Incredible String Band picked up the song from Stecher's Bahamian recording, and it went on to become a folk standard - most notably performed by the Grateful Dead.
One of the finest local performances of this rhyming anthem was in the 2002 production of Music of The Bahamas, by Nicolette Bethel and Philip Burrows, adapted from Music in The Bahamas; its Roots, Rhythm and Personality by Nicolette's late father, Clement Bethel. The performance is easily found on YouTube.
Joseph Spence featured in a couple of earlier historic recordings. In 1958 the American blues historian Sam Charters taped three hours of Spence's guitar work that was later issued on the Folkways' collection, Music of the Bahamas. And in 1935, he was recorded by that pioneering American folklorist, Alan Lomax, for a Smithsonian collection called Deep River of Song.
"Nobody in the world could play guitar like Uncle Youngie," Mary Hall, Spence's grand niece (and Geneva's daughter), told the Doongalik crowd. "I remember those days with the family singing in the yard so well. The dog and the rooster carrying on, the music...so many good memories."
Mary's own daughter, Leisa Hall, is a top accountant who spent several years working for private banks in Switzerland and Sweden. She acknowledged that Bahamian music was "one of the things that helped me define myself while living abroad. I found Joseph Spence albums in Stockholm. Hopefully, respect for him in the Bahamas will develop over time."
As Charles Carter pointed out, " We Bahamians don't appreciate ourselves. Spence illuminated the world by discovering himself through his guitar. Over the years there were four different sets of recordings, but no Bahamian has ever benefitted from them. Foreign companies own everything. We only enjoy the echo of his legacy."
Spence was born on Andros in 1910 and taught himself to play guitar. From the age of 16 he was a sponge fisherman. During the Second World War he and his wife, Louise, worked as migrant farmers on "the contract", where he was influenced by a variety of American folk traditions.
Back in Nassau he worked in construction by day and performed at hotels and on yachts at night. After The Real Bahamas was released, his unique style gained recognition among international folk artists, and he gave several US performances in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Charters noted: "I had never heard anything like Spence. His playing was stunning."
Following a heart attack in the mid-1970s Spence settled into a sedate life as a school night watchman, although he made a few more recordings for the roots-oriented Arhoolie label. His gruff voice acted as an accompaniment to his spectacular guitar picking, and he was sometimes joined by his wife Louise.
I saw Joseph Spence perform only once, towards the end of his life - on Clement Bethel's ZNS TV show. He died in relative obscurity in Nassau on March 18, 1984.
Exuma the Obeah Man had a similar trajectory. Macfarlane Gregory Anthony Mackey was his given name - given on Cat island when his mother felt the pain - but he compressed this to Tony McKay.
When he was born, the midwife screamed and shout. He had the voice of many in his throat, but when Exuma, the Obeah Man sailed with Charon in 1997, he actually did lay down and take his rest; dying in his sleep on a cool January evening at the age of 55.
Impresario Ray Munnings, whose own monster hit Funky Nassau swept the world in 1971, recalled that McKay gave his first Nassau performance at the famous Cat & Fiddle nightclub owned by Ray's father, Freddie Munnings Sr. "He came with a band of white gypsies as I called them, but they played Junkanoo so well. My dad was a great influence on Tony, and my cousin John Munnings helped him create his act and was his manager in New York."
Greenwich Village was a vibrant incubator of avant garde culture when McKay moved to New York in the 1960s to study architecture. He began performing in small bars and clubs with a band called the Islanders and later formed a seven-person group that toured and recorded albums, starting with Exuma: The Obeah Man in 1970 and ending with Rude Boy in 1986.
Ray's own success with his band The Beginning of the End meant he was often in New York, where he hooked up with McKay and other expatriate Bahamians like Cordell Thompson, then an editor at Jet Magazine (and now retired in Rolleville, Exuma following a long career in tourism). McKay's apartment at 14th Street and 5th Avenue was the scene for many of these bohemian get-togethers.
"The first time I went there for a drink he served me cerasee (a bush tea) and fried cockeye (sergeant-major fish) with peas and rice," Ray recalled. "Well, I had to go get some liquor and I don't eat cockeye."
After releasing his initial albums on Mercury Records, he signed with the Kama Sutra label, releasing the albums Do Wah Nanny (1971), Snake (1972), Reincarnation (1972), and Life (1973). He released four more albums in the early 1980s, but none gained much traction.
"Tony always had problems with the record companies because he wanted to keep his music Bahamian and he wanted to own his catalogue," Ray said. "I tried to help him avoid getting manipulated too much by those American lawyers. He was a soft and easy going guy with plenty of love - except towards the record companies."
After moving to New Orleans, McKay performed regularly at the Jazz and Heritage festival there. According to Ray, "Tony had to play small gigs to survive while working to fuse several genres of music together - Cuban, Reggae, Junkanoo and more. He had a lot of unfinished music business to take care of."
I saw him perform at one of these gigs - a small bar at the Paradise Island Hotel, not long after the release of Cat Island Man.
Former tourism official Athama Bowe recalls visiting McKay in hospital after his first heart attack in New Orleans. "His skin was coated with olive oil and candles were burning all over the room for the sperrits - he was mixing modern medicine with obeah.
"Tony was fantastic - he wanted to develop authentic Bahamian music and did so much to sensitise us to what is ours. There should be a scholarship in his name, and a memorial bust."
Health problems led McKay to cut back on his performances and devote more time to painting, his other great love. In the last years of his life, he divided his time between Miami and Nassau, living in a little house his mother had left him on Canaan Lane. And it was there that his body was discovered 13 years ago by friends and neighbours.
"Nothing defines us as Bahamians," Charles Carter complained at Doongalik. "We don't teach Joseph Spence and Tony McKay. We don't teach anything about ourselves, yet I believe most of our problems can be solved culturally. This world-class exhibition about two icons of Bahamian culture has succeeded in creating a dialogue about the Bahamian story."
As Patrice Francis put it in verse, "Where else y'all ga learn da underground railroad of Bahamian music?"