Afternoon with Miss Julia

It was a long awaited rain that greeted my mother and me that hot afternoon as we drove up to West Bay to meet the renowned percussionist Miss Julia Hydes, who was 100 years old.

My search for Miss Julia began that morning when I opened the phone book to search for her number, only to be greeted by, what seemed like, a hundred numbers under the name ‘Hydes’. From cousin, to son to brother to daughter-in-law, I finally found her and was happy to know that I could visit her that afternoon.

Not remembering the house number Miss Julia lived in, my mother and I observed each home on the picturesque seaside road and tried to guess which one was hers. On one side of the road lay the extravagant beachside properties, decorated in stone and Mercedes Benz; while the houses on the opposite side were more modest, decorated with gingerbread fret-work and sand gardens full of conch shells. Old-time Caymanians rarely built on the beach because of storms, but now the view is obstructed by modern architecture and seven story high beach condos. We kept our search to the side that harkened back to the past and, after running in the rain from door to door, we finally found her.

We were greeted at the front door by Miss Julia’s housekeeper who welcomed us in and announced our presence to Miss Julia. The living room was adorned with photos of her countless family members, from children to grandchildren, to great-grandchildren; no one was left out. It was a house full of love and that was obvious in Miss Julia’s warm hospitality and friendliness. We all sat down on her colourful sofas and began to talk. She was easy to talk with and she had a lot to say about her music.

She told us how she would go from district to district and house to house with the fiddler, Mr. Radley Gourzong. She described the dances and the atmosphere, putting us all on the edge of our seats with her vivid descriptions and her infectious enthusiasm. She explained the lyrics of her songs and how she came about writing the song “Munzie’s Boat” and others. And then she started to sing one of my favourites ‘Cardile gone to Cuba”. As she sang for us she clapped rhythms in between the phrases as if she had an invisible drum in her hands.

She was enchanting.

When she finished she laughed and said, ‘You hear about a Waltz? That is one. That’s a Waltz! It’s a pretty song. I made it you know. I made plenty songs!”

After cheering her on to sing it again she began, ‘Cardile gone to Cuba. He gone about two weeks. Leave his darlin’ Julia with tears rolling down her cheeks. Starry night for your ramble down in Hogsit Lane. I sure to see my Cardile if it does not rain…’

We all clapped and laughed with joy as she sang it again and when she finished she said, “You not hear a song with more rhyme than that! That went all over the Island then. All over the Island that song went.”

We then asked her if she knew any songs that were popular for dancing back in her day. After a few seconds of thought, Miss Julia asked for her drum and placed it on a stool in front of her. It was hand-made and I observed the unique markings on the membrane, the hooks and cords wrapped around the old oil pan and the metal bar on the side of the drum. She placed the sticks in her hands and began drumming and singing, “I don’t want no chip-up potato, chip-up potato, chip-up potato…” It was a light-hearted song that got us all clapping, singing along and bursting into laughter at the finale. The different sounds that were produced when she hit the membrane, the metal bar and the sticks together mingled wonderfully with her rhyming lyrics and upbeat melodies. Her voice was raw and beautiful, unaffected and authentic. Her voice was the voice of our past and unique heritage. Her voice was pleading with me not to forget and, as I sat there and listened, I felt an immediate desire to capture each melody, each note as it floated away from us.

After the music and laughter subsided, Miss Julia said, ” Oh, good music them day, you know. Oh boy, no fights or nothing like that. All day dance, all night dance – don’t hear a thing! But now?”

“The world change, Julie. The world change,” stated Miss Julia’s housekeeper compassionately.

‘Yes boy…,’ sighed Miss Julia.

‘People now…they don’t want to get together.’ I added, lost in the pensive state we found ourselves in.

“That’s the truth, ‘ continued Miss Julia, her voice filled with sadness. ‘You can’t get no little bit of good music here now. One thing, all fighting and killing. One thing, see what Cayman come to?” Then Miss Julia looked wistfully off in the distance. “Boy those days were good music and good fun man,” she stated fondly. Then, with a soft sigh she simply uttered, ” But now…Oh boy.”

I couldn’t help but share the sadness and nostalgia that Miss Julia was feeling for she had just taken me by the hand and led me back to the days of a Cayman I only heard of in stories and, upon returning, I too felt like I was missing something precious.

After an inspiring afternoon spent with Miss Julia, my mother and I said goodbye. Miss Julia hugged us and invited us to come again whenever we liked. I left her knowing that I had just been part of something special and wishing I had experienced it earlier. I felt extremely lucky to have been able to spend time with Miss Julia and witness this unique Caymanian music. As a young musician, I hope I can help in some way to carry on this tradition before it fades away.

Later, as I reflected on my afternoon with Miss Julia, I mused about the things she had said. I thought about the great changes she has witnessed over the past 100 years, from the days of smoke pots and kitchen dances to the present age of commercial banking and tourism; and I can’t help but wonder: Have we have lost our identity in the process? They used to say that Cayman was the island that time forgot. Now it seems that time is what we have too little of. There is little time to preserve our national treasures and our God-given paradise. There is little time to make the next generation, who are the only hope for the future, the centre of our concern and care. There is little time to capture the good things of the past, the spirit of community and pass them unto our families, neighbourhoods and districts. The days of kitchen dances and weekend gatherings at a neighbour’s should not be lost in the pages of our history books. The music of our Islands should be passed unto our children and not forgotten or drowned in the Top 40 playlist. I can only hope that we, as Caymanians, don’t let our traditions fade away with time. After all, we need to know where we’re from to know where we’re going. I hope that the young will learn from the old, because they have a lot to teach us. And I hope that we can not only come together and treasure our Islands, our heritage, and our music, but keep it alive…because there is little time.

Editor’s note: Natasha Kozaily is a young Caymanian musician, singer-songwriter and painter. She is pursuing a BA in Music from Cardiff University in Wales and is working on her final year ethnomusicology project in Caymanian Music. For more info visit www.natashakozaily.com

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