Margarita 'our Helen of Troy'

Margarita 'our Helen of Troy'

Herbie Miller

Monday, March 30, 2020

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RASTAFARI livity — including Nyabinghi drumming, chanting and dance — is today not only a ritualised expression at Rastafari camps and Grounations, but it is also a defining element in Jamaica's popular culture. Yet, until the second half of the last century, experiencing Rastafari culture openly was not widespread. Rastafarian rituals were confined to the hills in rural parishes and restricted within the sect's compounds in Kingston.

That reality prevailed until one woman, the progressive rhumba dancer Anita “Margarita” Mahfood, defied one of Jamaica's most powerful impresarios, daring him to disregard Rastafari artistry and face the consequence.

Black Power activist and feminist Angela Davis informs that: “Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”

As we celebrate National Women's Day and International Women's Month, we also lament the vicious acts of domestic violence against our women.

Mahfood was one such victim. She was an olive-skinned Jamaican of Syrian/Lebanese lineage. This is important considering the racial and class preoccupations, perceptions and realities of mid-20th century Jamaica.

Because of her complexion and name association, Mahfood is generally associated with Jamaica's elite class. However, Margarita's social and cultural activities place her among radical Jamaican women who used their status as progressive artistes to advocate for social emancipation and collective liberation.

As a dancer, Margarita was the star attraction of her time. Rated Jamaica's leading rhumba dancer, a vogue during pre-independent Jamaica more commonly called “belly dancing” and a profession not considered desirable among the upper class, she defied the refined persona ascribed her presumed ilk. Besides, she connected with a motley crew of musicians, artistes, poets, scholars, charlatans, derelicts and Rastafarians in Rockfort's Wareika Hill, east Kingston's cultural mecca. She was attracted to east Kingston's dynamic creative scene and its enduring “roots” community. She was also captivated by the Rastafari way of life she found there and was particularly drawn to their chanting and drumming.

Upon acceptance into the commune, Margarita combined elements of Rastafarian dance moves and participated in Grounation rituals. In addition to its mores, she danced to the drumbeat of Nyahbinghi rhythms and jazz-affected horns performed by Count Ossie and the African drums, augmented by outstanding musicians that included Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Wilton and Bobby Gaynair, Dizzy Johnny Moore, Rico Rodriques, and her romantic interest, Don Drummond.

As revealed by regular Wareika Hill campers Dougie Mac, Bro Sam Clayton and Herman “Woodie” King, although Margarita could have easily settled among Kingston's high-bred society, she rejected the notion. She was comfortable among the proletariat and considered herself a catalyst or a bridge connecting Jamaicans who, because of class divisions, were separated from indigenous roots aesthetic in preference for colonial cultural indoctrination.

In addition to using dance as a bridge to integrating social classes, perhaps Margarita's signature moment as a dancer and a social and cultural activist was to insist that Rastsfari creative artistry be presented in public places.

Booked to perform during the Christmas holidays in the late 1950s, Margarita convinced impresario Vere Johns to allow Rastafarian Count Ossie and his African Drummers to provide her musical accompaniment or else, she threatened, she would not perform.

Scholar Helen Lee quotes the veteran Count Ossie drummer, Bro Royo, in her book, The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. Royo recounted the confrontation between Margarita and Vere Johns.

“When we get there Vere Johns says: 'No, it won't work'. He said: 'Oh! You are going on with a whole heap a Rastaman? No, no, no Maggie, you can't do it!…You are prepared to disgrace us, because, I mean, a lot of Rasta men'. She says: 'Mr Johns if these people are not going to play, I am not going to dance'. And he says: 'All right then, all right'. And she says to us 'come, come', and we turn back'. Him said: 'Alright, alright, come Maggie, come and tell them fe come'.” Johns, however, placed the drummers in the darkest spot on the stage, with instructions that the lighting staff shun them. Bro Royo continues to reminisce: “When we played, … it was like the revival of all the people's souls. It was like the whole place crashed! People got crazy about the new sound …Explosion! When the drum started to play, everybody in the crowd: “Wha? Who dat? We want to see the musicians! Maggie caused quite a stir because man — she could dance. Not many women [were] like her, I tell you…From then on Rastas can go on stage and perform, even wear them beards. Margarita cleared the way…It was Margarita who opened the door for us, Great girl! Our own Helen of Troy.”

In many ways, Margarita was the antithesis of the typical brown or perceived white woman elevated by Jamaican unequal society through family name, uptown address, choice schooling, job placements and social acceptance. Her social associations and her professional choice were nothing short of an affirmation of an identity that rejected the restricted and controlled ideas of femininity and class divides. At the same time, by insisting to perform vernacular dance accompanied by Count Ossie's Rastafari drumming, Margarita contributed to the exposure of Rasta culture to the public. She also provided an inner vision to the black aesthetics of roots culture, which initiated the gradual acceptance of Rastafari livity by Jamaica's middle and upper class — mostly men and women who considered themselves culturally enlightened. The “elites” were able to rationalise their acceptance because Margarita was not black and the dance, as such, was considered honourable and did not include not the outrageous, lascivious looseness or pagan emotional abandon they associated with black culture.

Margarita's actions reflect what Vivi Clark describes in her book, Performing the Memory of Difference in Afro-Caribbean Dance: Kathrene Dunham's Choreography, as “social oppositions existing simultaneously and paradoxically in a society governed at a distance…and further controlled economically and socially in those days by former plantation families… or their elite mulatto co-conspirators. In such an environment, the dance of the majority black population demonstrates the contradictions of New World acculturations”.

As we celebrate International Women's Month and lament the vicious domestic violence against our women, we must also contemplate the mental state of mind that is the residual psychological consequence of slavery which plagues our people. Noted psychiatrist Professor Freddie Hickling has postulated that a high percentage of Jamaicans suffer from some kind of mental illness. He connected this malady to the high rate of rage and brutality the island experiences.

Both these factors — violence and madness — were at play when Margarita tragically died on New Year's morning 1965 at the youthful age of 25 after being stabbed by her partner, the ingenious but clinically insane trombonist Don Drummond. While Drummond, who died under questionable circumstances in the Bellevue Hospital four years later on May 6, 1969 is canonised as the “King of Ska” music and Margarita the “Queen of Show Dancing” during her time, her progressive artistry and her advocacy for social emancipation, unlike that of Drummond, Count Ossie and the Rastafarians, are under-recognised. However, Anita “Margarita” Mahfood's role in establishing intercultural synergy and socialisation through the arts, her creative consciousness, and her contribution to breaking class barriers, are as profound as her short life was impactful.

Herbie Miller is director of Jamaica Music Museum and a cultural historian.

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