In the years before reggae and rocksteady and ska put Jamaica on the world musical map, mento and folk ruled the roost and the top folk exponents of the day were the Frats Quintet.
None of the Frats Quintet members were formally trained in voice dynamics. They sang for the love and appreciation of the art and a fondness for the songs, the majority of which originated from the plantations and from the hearts of the slaves, who would sing as they worked. Since worktime conversation was not allowed, music not only entertained and made work more tolerable, but messages were conveyed in song. Even post-Emancipation songs were composed and sung in the same manner to make heavy work light, while some songs reflected the social order of the day.
Before the Frats Quintet, there was the Young Men Fraternal. Their home base was the East Queen Street Baptist Church under the baton of J.J. Williams. Back in the day, it was the largest men’s choral group in Jamaica, and the sound they produced could make your hair stand on end or bring you to tears.A Sunday night evensong service at the church was a treat not to be missed.
As a child I can clearly remember visiting the Baptist Church a few times to hear the Young Men’s Fraternal sing to a packed house on a Sunday night. They would always be elegantly dressed in their vicuna cream jackets, white Oxford shirts, black bowties and black trousers. The overflow audience would take their places anywhere that offered a good vantage point; some were content to just listen.
It was from this group that the Frats Quintet was formed in 1951. The five young men, Sydney Clarke, Henry Richards, Granville Lindo, Winston White and my father Wilfred Warner, travelled the length and breadth of the island on a busy schedule, in addition to working their full time jobs.
“Over the period of one year we must have performed in every parish and major town in the island, as well as overseas,” muses my dad, the sole survivor of the group. “We rehearsed in the evenings after work, because our weekends were solidly booked at the hotels, and on Sunday the services.” He never hesitates to add confidentially: “I met your mother at a performance in Sav-la-mar you know.”
The group became a household name in Jamaica in the 50s, doing ads on the radio (who could forget Ajax, the foaming cleanser?), and travelling the world representing Jamaica on the international music scene. Some well-known songs from their repertoire included Linstead Market, the lament of the vendor as her provisions return unsold from the market, Shine-Eye Gal (she want, and she want, and she want everything!), Sammy Dead-Oh, and Nobody’s Business, which Peter Tosh retooled to the popular reggae beat.
I can remember once attending a night function at my elementary school where the Quintet was to perform, and the police had to be called to restore order as a stampede occurred outside the school grounds. The concert was sold out, and spectators were positioned in trees just to hear Jamaican folk music. It was a night to remember.
There was always music in the home; I would be doing homework to the sound of folk music or Negro Spirituals from the rehearsals, and when those rehearsals were over, my father would exercise the double bass of his vocal chords loudly enough to wake the dead. Perhaps with this immersion there was absolutely no way I could avoid becoming a member of The Jamaica Folk Singers later on, but that was a different era.
The Frats Quintet also became the musical ensemble on and offstage for the National Dance Theatre Company dancers with Prof. Rex Nettleford, and their crisp trademark acapella interspersed the scenes in a few of our pantomimes.
The Quintet also ushered in Jamaica’s Independence celebrations, and sang their way into a few televisions around the island to welcome JBC TV. One of the group’s most memorable recordings, according to my dad, was providing the backup for late Soprano Joyce Laylor when they recorded the timeless Jamaican classic Evening Time, a celebration of the end of the workday, the setting sun and the cool evening breeze.
“You could feel the energy in the studio,” he beams, “and we were so in sync together, even the first take was exceptional.” My father is fond of reminding me that in those days there was no fooling around in the recording studio, as all artistes had to perform together on a single track. “It had to be perfect the first time,” he reflects.
The most disappointing moment for the group? Although the exact date is not clear in his mind – he remembers the late 60’s– my father still has an angry glint in his eyes when he recalls jazz diva Nina Simone being booed onstage by an unappreciative audience at the Ward Theatre. Apparently the Quintet had warmed the stage for her, and when she appeared, the audience expected her to open with one of her more popular numbers. When she didn’t, they did not hesitate to voice their disappointment. Father still bristles, he says, with the shame.
The Frats Quintet took Jamaican folk songs on the international stage, performing at U.N functions in New York, Expo ’67 in the Jamaican Pavilion and before world dignitaries in Montreal, the popular Eistedfod Music Festival in Wales (1958) where they copped a second place award, and while in Britain gave a command performance for HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH Prince Phillip.
Later, there was another performance on tap for Princess Alice, the then Chancellor for the University of the West Indies, and the group also performed on many occasions in Cuba, much to the delight of fidel Castro. As Jamaica’s musical ambassadors they performed for visiting dignitaries at state functions and dinners, in many other countries around the world.
For my father, the ire of the Nina Simone episode is only eclipsed by the much-publicized disappearance of audio and video material from the JBC Archives. “So much of our rich cultural history – gone just like that”, he snaps, full of emotion, and suddenly the fire is gone from his eyes. At least in his head he still has the folk songs he can remember.