The late 1960s through to the early 1980s –– or the first decade and a half of Independence –– was a truly exciting and vibrant period in the development of modern Barbados. After assuming sovereignty over our affairs following three centuries of British colonial rule, Barbadians approached the task of nation-building with strong confidence in the future.
Under the inspiring leadership of Founding Father Errol Barrow, Barbadians believed that we had it within ourselves to be “firm craftsmen of our fate”, to quote the words of our National Anthem, in building the just society to which we aspired, especially to correct social, economic and other imbalances left over from the colonial period.
Cultural expression has always played a pivotal role in nation-building, especially when a country is emerging from stifling colonial domination. The various artistic forms –– painting, music, dance, drama, short-storytelling, and so on –– serve as vehicles for effectively capturing and portraying a people’s history, hopes and aspirations. These expressions contribute to nurturing and defining a national identity and consciousness.
There was evidence of this happening in Barbados from the mid-1960s through to the early 1980s. A spontaneous outpouring of cultural expression occurred, especially in music.
Spouge, the indigenous beat of Barbados that has been callously allowed to fall by the wayside, emerged during this period and was enthusiastically embraced by Barbadians back then. There were so many musical bands back then –– at least one in every parish.
This cultural explosion occurred naturally –– without any Government inducement –– because it flowed from the soul of our people. Any time cultural development is the outcome of Government inducement, as is happening today, it ceases to be authentic and what we are left with is a manufactured product based on the American Hollywood model.
The late gospel music icon Joseph Niles made his debut during the culturally vibrant first decade of Independence when so many other Barbadian music personalities emerged. Since his passing last weekend, at the age of 75, Barbadians from all walks of life have paid glowing tribute to his outstanding contribution. However, the true significance of the
man and his music, from a national development perspective, has not been sufficiently explained.
Joseph Niles did so much more than simply perform sweet music with a distinctly Barbadian flavour that captured the hearts of countless fans here at home, around the region and the wider world! To fully understand and appreciate the contribution of this lowly bus conductor who switched to singing gospel full-time as a Christian ministry, Joseph Niles has to be analysed in the context of the time and the major influences back then that would have impacted his work.
Joseph Niles came on the scene as a newly Independent Barbados was attempting to shed some aspects of its “Englishness” and carve a national identity reflecting the collective experience of our people. His enduring significance lies in the fact that he was really the first local who interpreted and then powerfully expressed the important spiritual dimension on the Barbadian cultural experience.
In the process, he remade and revolutionized the rendition of gospel music in the Barbadian image and likeness.
Joseph Niles was an instant hit with Barbadians from the beginning because, for the first time, they were hearing gospel being sung the way they would sing it. He received similar response across the English-speaking Caribbean where several countries were making the same transition and grappling with the same challenges as Barbados.
Up to then, the singing of gospel was defined by foreign artistes like Mahalia Jackson, Jim Reeves, The Chuck Wagon Gang, the Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge, and the other great English choirs that used to dominate the local airwaves. Joseph Niles singlehandedly dethroned them.
On the popular “request” shows back then on local radio –– namely Rediffusion and Radio Barbados, as CBC was known, listeners in their numbers would request the playing of This Train, Royal Telephone, Old Time Religion and other signature Joseph Niles hits. Along with other local acts like Jackie Opel, the Draytons Two, and the Escorts who were into secular music, Joseph Niles was a frequent chart-topper on the popular hit parade which used to be broadcast on Radio Barbados every Sunday around 4 p.m.
That period truly stands out in my mind as the golden age of Barbadian entertainment.
Sunday afternoon concerts at different venues around the island by Joseph Niles and his backing band The Consolers, used to be sell-out events. Every major church group, it seemed, wanted him to perform in their community. To avoid disappointment, one had to purchase admission tickets early. I remember paying the price, as a teenager, for not doing so when Joseph Niles gave a memorable performance one Sunday afternoon at the then St Martin’s Boys’ School in St Martin’s, St Philip.
As a young journalist travelling around the Caribbean in the 1980s on various assignments for the Caribbean News Agency (CANA), what always stood out in the different islands was hearing Joseph Niles’ music repeatedly being played as I passed through various communities –– from Speyside in Tobago, Morne Panache in St Lucia, Mahaut in Dominica, Questelles in St Vincent to Sandy Point in St Kitts. Like that of the Draytons Two, Joseph Niles’ was a popular Barbadian music brand across the region.
The last Joseph Niles performance I attended was in early December, 2001. It was a free open-air concert put on by the St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) as the penultimate event in the wrap-up of its winning general election campaign of that year. Thousands turned up –– young and old; black, white and in-between; rich and poor. Demonstrating the same passion of his early years, Niles had the place rocking for just over two hours.
What particularly stood out for me on that occasion was the enduring appeal of his gospel brand. Despite the passage of time, his music remained fresh and relevant because it obviously responded to a need. When I saw young people in their teens and early 20s clapping and swaying to the music, it brought back memories of when I was their age and Niles was belting out the same songs.
Joseph Niles has left us in the physical; sense but he leaves behind a rich legacy, including some 300 recordings –– an outstanding feat by any measure –– that will constitute a rich part of Barbados’ musical heritage. The pioneering spirit of Joseph Niles, therefore, will live on. He is the inspiring example of an ordinary man who became extraordinary through the sheer magnitude of his accomplishments.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.