|Sonia Valle teaches art at Leopold
2017 Africa Fest at Central Park
The Rhythms of Africa
Yuh always chat we out.
Yuh chat an chat till govament
Come income tax yuh mout!
And it takes me back in time to Jamaica when growing up on the eastern shore of Jamaica listening to Bennett on the radio in their modest
home not far from the ocean. The village was economically challenged, but it was rich in culture.
And Valle would go to the shore and ding and shout and perhaps unknowingly, facing and sending rhythms to Mother Africa as she repeated
the songs she had learned in her village, songs influenced by the rhythms of Africa brought to Jamaica and the rest of the African Diaspora
several centuries before.
Music was an intricate part of Jamaican culture and everyday life.
“When people died, they would have Nine Nights and we were allowed to go,” Valle recalled. “People would come from different districts to
play at the Nine Nights. And they would bring these instruments. They would bring a bamboo instrument that sounded like a drum. It also
sounded like a guitar. They would play and sing. I got interested in it by just watching as a bystander. It was nine nights after someone died
when they would have a celebration. They said something about the spirit rising.”
Valle never took formal lessons, but picked up the art of drumming and singing from the teeming culture around her. And one night, it just
sprang from her.
“I remember when I took a hubcap from a car,” Valle recalled. “It was moonshine night when the moon is full. I took a stick and we were kids
in the yard. I took the hubcap and the stick and started to sing. My father stopped and looked at me and he couldn’t believe the sound that I was
making with it. That gave me encouragement. It sounded like a steel pan, but it also sounded like a drum. Sometimes we sang Moonshine
Tonight. ‘Come make me dance and sing moonshine tonight. Come make me dance and sing. I rock so there. You rock so there under the
While many people associate Jamaica with reggae, what Valle learned was the underlying cultural traditions from which reggae evolved. The
cultural traditions were not static, but dynamic as different waves of immigrants came to Jamaica’s shores and added to the cultural stew.
“We have Indians from India and Chinese,” Valle said. “I think there is an integration of Irish and Jewish people. Some of our songs sound
very Irish or Scottish. We have one song called Old Roger Was Dead and it talks about this man. When we sing it, it is like a ballad. It has
British influences as well. ‘Old Roger was dead and they buried him there. Buried him there.’ It’s like a call and response. ‘Old Roger was dead
and they buried him there. Who buried him there? They planted an apple tree over his head.’ It’s a great song. And when we sing it, it just
reminds me of somewhere else.”
Jamaica had national cultural competitions based in the local community schools.
“I think that is what kept our culture intact, our songs,” Valle said. “In the schools, they would have competitions all over the island. People
who got to the finals would meet in Kingston to do the festival songs. They would have formal concerts. Schools from different parishes or
different communities would compete. And the one who did the best song would go to the finals to sing. And then they would come back with a
trophy or they would be featured on TV or the radio. My school didn’t do very well.”
Valle began her teaching career after high school in the village she grew up in. In some ways, it was a transformative experience for Valle and
“We had a principal in the school who was young and energetic,” Valle said. “And he brought a lot of culture back into our village. That’s when
I got really involved in it. We had to be able to teach the kids some of our culture, teach them about their culture and the songs. We had to do
that. It reenergized the competition in our school. I remember that we went to the national festival. We had community concerts.”
Valle came to the United States in 1984 right after she graduated from college and settled in Tallahassee, Florida.
“I opened up a concert with another lady for The Dixie Chicks before they became well-known,” Valle said. “I was on stage and my son said,
‘That’s my mommy!’ And everyone clapped. That was so nice. It was at a school called Grassroots in Tallahassee. We did a lot of music. And
that’s how I was able to share my songs and I got involved again. It allowed me to share my culture and I shared the music with my art.”
By Jonathan Gramling
It was as much a concert as it was an interview when I sat with Sonia Valle, one of the performers
at Africa Fest on August 19th in Central Park. Valle brought out a book called Jamaican Labrish,
filled with poems and essays about Jamaican culture. And Valle sang one of the songs written in
Labrish, a Jamaican dialect, about a woman who does nothing but talks.
by Louise Bennett
Dem call yuh mout-a-massi
Dem call yuh tongue-go-free
Dem call yuh livalipsy
Distric-bell an gangalee
Yuh mumma gi yuh clothes fe wash
She gi yuh pork fe jerk
Yuh linga lazy bout de place,
Ongle yuh mouta-work!
An wen we try fe warn you Lize,