By Dave Rodney
An English Handbell Choir from the Bronx, New York City is heading to Westmoreland, Jamaica for a most unusual concert. The 15-plus members of the ensemble are all English handbell ringers. They are, of course, non-political, and they are presently in rigorous rehearsals, preparing for a musically mesmerizing December evening of handbells alongside organ and vocal performances. The event is being billed as an Evening of Awesome Music.
English handbell choirs are by no means limited to England although the art form was first developed and perfected there in the late 1600s. The term ‘English handbell’ is a reference to the type of bell used and the particular technique employed in the creation of the music. Each member of the handbell choir plays a single note on the chromatic scale and the bells are heard in tuned sets. The collective sound produced by English handbells expertly played can only be described as sonic celestial magnificence.
This visiting choir comes to Jamaica from the Church of the Good Shepherd in New York, a popular Anglican/ Episcopalian ministry that dutifully serves mostly the African-American and the Caribbean American communities in the northern Bronx.
The one-time-only performance will take place at the historic and beautifully adorned St. George’s Parish Church in Savanna-la-Mar on Saturday December 10 at 6:30 PM. Although the performance is taking place in the December holiday season, the concert is not strictly a Christmas celebration but rather a praise and worship feast of music that will embrace several genres including American Negro spirituals, classical, patriotic, Jamaican folk and Christmas music. Among the signature jaw-dropping treats for Savanna-la-Mar are Adagio in G minor arranged by Albert Zabel for organ and handbells, Rondeau Fanfare by Mouret, Jamaican Folk Tune adapted by Doreen Potter and arranged for handbells by Micheal Helman, and Handel’s Hallelujah. Master of Ceremony for the evening extravaganza will be Jamaica’s own radio personality and broadcaster Mr. Gerry McDaniel.
At the helm of the Church of the Good Shepherd Handbell Choir is an eminently accomplished Jamaican-born organist and choir director, Grace Brown Barton who studied music at Juilliard School of Music and at New York University. Grace says that while her mom was still pregnant with her, her mother Lucille would go to Kingston Parish Church to hear the organ being played on Sunday evenings. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to discover after Grace was born that she was able to hum tunes before she could speak. She studied under various tutors in Jamaica including Barry Davies, and before she migrated she was playing at St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingston under the late Rev. R.O.C. King and as a substitute organist at St. James Cathedral in Spanish Town. Grace is now a member of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers and she will perform on the recently refurbished 1906 Walker & Sons pipe organ in Savanna-la-Mar for Adagio.
Another formidable attraction on the lineup is a powerful African American soloist, Cecilia Tucker-Myers who will also perform on the bill. Tucker is an opera singer who has performed extensively throughout the United States and Europe. She has made stops at the Winter Garden, performing for former United States president Bill Clinton. She has also riveted Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Apollo Theatre among other sought-after venues. Tucker can also be heard on the Revelations CD for Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre. She is a member of the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM). She plans to electrify the centuries-old walls of St. George’s as she unleashes her considerable vocal endowments.
The choir’s upcoming visit to Jamaica came about because of a long-standing partnership between St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Petersfield, Westmoreland and the Church of the Good Shepherd in New York. Trip coordinator Ms. Donna Hylton, a member of the New York church who also visits St. Peter’s periodically saw a need to generate funds for St. Peter’s. She raised the idea of doing a concert with both Rev. Canon Hartley D Perrin of Westmoreland and with her own church and choir members in New York led by Rev. Canon Calvin C McIntyre. “The response was immediate and enthusiastic”, Hylton beamed. “We were all prepared to make the sacrifice, and we also believe in the power of our musical ministry to inspire lives so it was an easy sell”, she recalled fondly.
Rev. Canon Hartley Perrin who is also rural dean for the parish of Westmoreland is elated that this premium concert is happening in his region. “It is a signal honour and pleasure to have this distinguished and talented group appear and perform in our parish”, he told the Sunday Gleaner. “The custos of Westmoreland Mr. Owen Sinclair under whose patronage the event is being hosted joins with the mayor His Worship Bertel Moore in embracing our visitors from New York”, he added.
The choir will only be in Jamaica for three days. While here, they will be housed by host families in Westmoreland and they will have a hectic schedule apart from the performance. They hope to shop, put in some fun time and the group will also be hosted by Breezes Grand Lido Negril for a luncheon and a swim.
Part of the proceeds from the concert will go to St. Peter’s Anglican Church as well as to the Clifton Boys’ Home, a facility owned and operated by the Diocese of Jamaica. Tickets are available at the Fontana Pharmacy, at the Royal Pharmacy and at the Procession Book Store, all in Westmoreland.