Remembering Dr The Honourable Olive LewinWednesday, September 29, 2021
Had she lived, Dr The Honourable Olive Lewin, founder of The Jamaican Folk Singers and one of this nation's greatest citizens ever, would have marked her 94th birthday yesterday.
Her passing in April 2013 at the age of 85 after a long illness was indeed a great loss to Jamaica as there was no doubt that Dr Lewin, as her daughter Joanna told us at the time, “dedicated her life to this country”.
For the benefit our younger readers, Dr Lewin gained international respect as an author, musicologist, social anthropologist, and was the driving force behind the recording of Jamaican folk culture.
She was invested with the Order of Jamaica — our fourth-highest national honour — for her contribution to Jamaican culture; was a Fellow of Trinity College, London; an associate of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal School of Music; director of arts and culture in the Office of the Prime Minister; director of the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture; and founder of the Jamaica Youth Orchestra.
Additionally, Dr Lewin was honoured by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Government of France for her outstanding contribution to the arts.
We recall quite well the passion and dedication with which Dr Lewin embarked on the Jamaica Memory Bank project, collecting audio recordings of more than 1,500 traditional songs and documenting the ceremonies, celebrations, and activities of several folk groups on film and still photographs.
To achieve that, Dr Lewin spent months travelling across the island, taking oral recordings of our history from countless Jamaicans who had, stored in their brains, rich experiences of our heritage and culture.
Had that not been done, that vast, unwritten knowledge of our past would have been lost with the passing of those Jamaicans.
That was indeed a most commendable project, which strengthened the commendation she received after her passing that she “pulled Jamaican folklore out of the shadow of Eurocentric prejudice”.
People who took the time to read Dr Lewin's Rock It Come Over, described as the most extensive study of Jamaican folk music published so far, will recall her description of the reality that obviously influenced her steady focus on preserving Jamaican culture.
“It was as though there had never been any African, Caribbean or even Jamaican cultural heritage or creativity,” she wrote. “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.”
In fact, she told us that the neglect of indigenous music struck her with “full force” when, in 1943, she won the West Indies scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music as the only black student.
“I realised that composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven were human beings and products of their time and environment,” Dr Lewin said, adding that that strengthened her resolve “to work towards the understanding, study and appreciation of Jamaica's music”.
There's no challenging that this Hampton alumna, who was born in Vere, Clarendon, made a huge impact on the world.
We are forever grateful that Dr Olive Lewin was Jamaican and that she did so much to preserve and promote our culture. Long may her name and legacy live.