First Lady of Folk, Dr. the Hon. Olive Lewin, OJ, CD., passes at 85 Image

by Biko Kennedy

A pioneer in spreading folk music globally, Dr. Olive Lewin is most memorable dressed in bandana-laced outfits while performing with the Jamaica Folk Singers; which she founded in 1967, close to five decades ago.

Lewin gained international respect as an author, musicologist and social anthropologist over an impeccable career. She was involved in researching, arranging and directing Jamaican traditional music for schools, church and theatre performances by the Jamaican Folk Singers and other groups.

Survived by her daughter, Joanna, Dr. Olive Lewin is lauded as a person who "[was] an amazing woman [who] dedicated her life to this country (Jamaica). Her work was so pivotal in how we should establish ourselves as a people... but I almost feel that her work was in vain."

Confessing to the Jamaica Observer after news of Dr. Lewin's death broke late Wednesday (April 10) evening, Joanna continued saying her mother was admitted to the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) on March 23 for respiratory and other problems. As a lover of music she invited musician Peter Ashbourne to come to the hospital and play the violin – her mother's favourite instrument – for her.

"I wanted to see if she would respond," Joanna said. "I also asked the Folk Singers to come and sing for her, and they hit a bad note and she responded. Everyone started laughing."

In a 2007 interview with The Gleaner, Dr. Lewin described herself as "... someone who has always really been involved in music and people, and especially people who are close to Jamaican roots".

Former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, with whom Lewin worked closely for decades in preserving Jamaica's folk history, said that her passing was a "great loss" to the country.

"I consider her the icon of Jamaican folk music," Seaga told the Observer. "She was the person I entrusted with the collection of Jamaican folk songs in the 1960s."

Opposition spokeswoman on Culture Olivia 'Babsy' Grange notes that "She worked hard to preserve our folk culture and was instrumental [at] securing a massive amount of our oral experiences."

In her official statement, Grange continued saying "I am shocked and saddened and emotionally shaken, because when you think of Dr Lewin, you think of her as perpetual, because of the aura she carried as a dedicated, patriotic Jamaican — dedicated to culture and the arts. Words can't... explain the high esteem with which I regard her and the contribution she has made to my personal development, and the development of numerous others."

"She gave of herself fully, and Jamaica owes her a lot for how much she did in preserving and promoting Jamaican culture."

Culture Minister, Lisa Hanna, also extended condolences to the family and friends of the musicologist saying the country owes a huge debt of gratitude to Dr Lewin for her life of dedication to the researching, documentation, preservation and promotion of the country's rich folk culture, music and cultural identity.

Hanna said Dr Lewin will also be remembered for her pioneering role in the public service as head of the Memory Bank project, Director of Arts and Culture and Director of the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture among other professional assignments and voluntary service.

Prime Minister, the Most Hon. Portia Simpson Miller has expressed profound sadness at the passing of cultural visionary saying the passing of Olive Lewin, a pioneer musicologist, leaves a great void in the pursuit and preservation of Jamaica's traditional music and cultural art form. Jamaica has lost an invaluable cultural icon.

The Prime Minister described Dr. Lewin as a fine Jamaican lady in every sense of the word who exhibited consummate humility and gentility with a great heart for service. It was those very qualities which saw her bringing into our schools, correctional and mental institutions the power of music and Jamaica's rich cultural tradition in soothing the soul and lifting the spirits of our people.

Dr. Olive Lewin speaking about the main rhythm in Mento

Quick Facts on Dr. Lewin (based on The Gleaner)

Birthplace: Vere, Clarendon, to Richard and Sylvia Lewin, both educators.

Musical instruments: Piano, violin (tutor).

Involvement: Music therapy at Bellevue Hospital for the mentally disturbed and music in correctional institutions. An honorary Maroon.

Books published: Messengers - Timeless truths from humblest hearts, Rock It Come Over - The Folk Music of Jamaica, Come Mek Me Hol Yu Han - The Impact of Tourism on Traditional Music (collection of papers presented), Dandy Shandy, Beeny Bud, Alle, alle, alle, Forty Folk Songs of Jamaica, Some Jamaican Folk Songs.

Early work: In 1947, she played the role of May in the play, Dragnet, on the London stage. She was the wife of an African-American man from the south who gets blinded during a scuffle with a white policeman in a 'whites only' bar.

Schools attended: Hayes Elementary School, Hampton School, Royal Academy of Music (London), Queens University, Belfast, Ireland.

Letters behind her name: OJ - Order of Jamaica, CD - Commander of the Order of Distinction, LRSM - Licentiate of the Royal School of Music, LRAM - Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, LTCL - Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music, FTCL - Fellow Trinity College of Music, ARCM - Associate of the Royal College of Music.

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