Annette Nicholson-Alfred Celebrates Tobago Folk Songs in New Book
At 75, Annette Nicholson-Alfred still remembers the first folk song she sang as a student at Methodist Elementary School in Charlotteville, Tobago.
The former independent senator was around eight years old and the song was called Coverlet.
“A teacher from Belle Garden Anglican, Dayla Frederick, taught us the song for some kind of school gathering,” Nicholson-Alfred recalled in a WMN interview.
She said the folk song told the story of a bedspread that had been hung up to dry but mysteriously disappeared.
“When the teacher couldn’t find it, being from Belle Garden, she asked people to look for the bedspread in Pembroke and Roxborough, which are neighboring communities.”
Now Coverlet can be found in Nicholson-Alfred’s first publication, Come Sing with Ti Netty, which launched October 3 at Scarborough Library.
Asked about the title of the book, she explained, “The ‘Ti’ in the title is short for Tanty. A long time ago, there was always an aunt or a matriarch who was a powerful person in the courts of many houses. In the book, I see myself as Ti and many of my friends affectionately call me Netty (short for Annette). So I just added the ‘Ti’.
Cultural activist and former independent senator Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie was due to deliver the keynote at the virtual launch, with a review of the post by Tobago Festivals Commission Ltd CEO John Arnold.
Nicholson-Alfred’s grandchildren, the Itsy Bitsy Players and a few friends from his native Charlotteville, were to perform selected folk songs from the book.
A compilation of 25 folk songs, Come Sing with Ti Netty celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the Caribbean.
But the veteran cultural activist said the songs, many of which are indigenous to Tobago, also explore familiar and universal themes of love, hope, loss, fear, disappointment, among others.
“For example, many people would have gone to Venezuela years ago to work and left one or two children here. They would have promised to come back and the kids are still waiting for them to come back so you will hear people moaning.
Some of the songs also reflect events that have become synonymous with certain villages over the years, while others offer warnings to naïve and unsuspecting Tobagonians.
“In one of the songs there is a reference to Sandy River in Mason Hall ‘because if you go there the fairy will take you.'”
In another track, a grandmother also warns her granddaughter “not to follow Louisa because she’s too bad and hot as a chili.” A song also warns bathers against jumbies and douens (folk characters) on the Coteaux beaches.
“So the songs deal with different aspects of our culture.”
Nicholson-Alfred, who received the Public Service Merit Medal (gold) in 2005, said she was inspired to do the book because she was tired of bands performing the same folk songs at shows cultural and other events in Tobago.
“As a teacher and later a cultural agent, I was deeply involved in teaching, but what I discovered after a while, everywhere I went – because I went to all the cultural shows – you would only hear three or four folk songs as if that was all we had and there were other folk songs that could be sung.
“At one point, I wasn’t happy and I thought instead of complaining and arguing, why not collect some of the folk songs you know and make a book.”
The mother-of-four said several of her friends encouraged her to embrace the project and she started compiling the book just over a year ago.
“I bravely decided to go for it but didn’t know it was such an expensive thing. But once in I decided not to go back and now the book is a reality.
One of Tobago’s cultural luminaries, Nicholson-Alfred recalled that as far back as she can remember she has always been exposed to folk songs.
She attributed her love for the performing arts to her late mother, Margaret Nicholson, who often sang while raising her eight children in their humble home.
As a child, Nicholson-Alfred sang and performed in many Methodist church activities and by the time she left her alma mater Bishop’s High School she was already an integral part of many Tobago cultural events.
But it was in the 1960s, during his years at the now defunct Mausica Teachers’ College in Trinidad, that his love for singing and performing really took off.
In fact, under the tutelage of Daphne “DG” Cuffie and Fitz-James Williams, Nicholson-Alfred, an alto singer, played a key role in the choir’s success at music festivals and other national competitions.
“I did a lot of harmonizing and dramatizing for them.”
At the teachers’ college, the choir was also exposed to folk songs from the Caribbean islands they had visited.
In the early 1970s, a newly married Nicholson-Alfred coordinated Plymouth’s entries in the Prime Minister’s Best Village competition for five years. She then received a government scholarship in 1977 to New York University where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in educational theater.
Upon her return to Tobago, she established the Tobago Academy of the Performing Arts (TAPA) in 1983, which became the island’s center for ballet, modern and folk dance.
After teaching for several years, Nicholson-Alfred was assigned to the Department of Culture from 1997 to 2006. And a year later, after TAPA drew its curtain, she founded Itsy Bitsy Playhouse and Folk Theater at her home in Mt Pleasant. The group exposed young people from the community and surrounding villages to song, dance, drama and stilt walking.
In its heyday, Itsy Bitsy offered locals and tourists an authentic taste of Tobago culture in a folkloric atmosphere. In addition to experiencing the tambrino, talking orchestra, storytelling, and folk songs and dances, guests were also treated to what is known as a heritage dinner, featuring several dishes indigenous to the region. ‘Isle.
Today, the decrease in tourist arrivals coupled with the economic impact of covid19, has forced the Itsy Bitsy Folk Theater to temporarily close its doors. But Nicholson-Alfred assured the group would regain its status as one of Tobago’s premier cultural venues when the economy fully reopens.
Nicholson-Alfred is also heavily involved in the island’s flagship cultural event, the Tobago Heritage Festival, and since 2002 has led the Charlotteville Heritage Folk Performers. The band’s re-enactment of village life in days gone by remains one of the most anticipated presentations of the annual festival.
In compiling Come Sing with Ti Netty, Nicholson-Alfred was inspired by her experiences with several notorious Tobago cultural figures.
These include the late anthropologist JD Elder, Adolphus “Boyo” James, Rollins Bacchus, James Murray, Lifroy Moses, Vernon Dennis, Margaret Bobb and Kelvin “Django” George. Gilbert O’Connor, Caryll Warner and Afesha “Fefe” Lincoln also collaborated on the project.
Saying the book is a tangible manifestation of a lifelong dream, Nicholson-Alfred thinks young people will appreciate the effort.
“There is interest among young Tobagonians because they always say, ‘Ms. Alfred, I want a folk song’, whenever there is an event. I also work with thirty-somethings on various projects and they are very interested.
Asked what she thinks is the result of the compilation, Nicholson-Alfred replied, “The preservation and transmission of our cultural heritage. We have always sung folk songs as part of our tradition, but for folk songs all the time, but documenting them now has given me the opportunity to pass on and preserve for future generations.
Nicholson-Alfred said that judging by the interest of her own grandchildren, folksinging appears to be in good hands.
“My grandchildren are always behind me singing. When I start a song, they’re behind me to finish it because they’re learning something different.
She lamented that folk singing rarely takes place in schools.
“Even before covid19, we weren’t doing these things in schools anymore. So the book is an opportunity to reintroduce singing into our schools.
In the meantime, Nicholson-Alfred said the THA’s Education, Innovation and Energy Division has also embraced the project.
“They have already ordered books for schools and I am trying the same with the Ministry of Education. I sent a letter to the ministry asking them to get involved because Come Sing with Ti Netty could be used as texts. There is music and lyrics. We have our scores and I have a glossary so that anything in dialect can be translated.
Nicholson-Alfred said a CD of the song melodies will be available starting this week. She said she had already compiled another 40 folk songs to be packaged into a volume two publication in the not too distant future.
Copies of Come Sing with Ti Netty are available from Itsy Bitsy Folk Theatre, Robert Trace, Mt Pleasant, The Little Mines Bookstore, Port Mall, Scarborough and The Blue Edition Bookstore, 32 St Vincent Street, Tunapuna.
It can also be purchased from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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