Jamaica cultural icon Nettleford dies

Jamaica
lost one of its most revered cultural figures Tuesday night when Professor Rex
Nettleford, vice-chancellor emeritus of the University of the West Indies and
founder of the National Dance Theatre Company, died, just hours before he would
have celebrated his 77th birthday.

Nettleford passed away at George
Washington Hospital in Washington, DC, one week after suffering a heart attack
at a hotel in the United States capital.

Tuesday night, Prime Minister Bruce
Golding said he was deeply saddened at the news of Nettleford’s death.

“Jamaica and the entire world
have lost an intellectual and creative genius, a man whose contribution to
shaping and projecting the cultural landscape of the entire Caribbean region is
unquestionable,” Golding said.

“Rex Nettleford was an
international icon, a quintessential Caribbean man, the professor, writer,
dancer, manager, orator, critic and mentor.
He has left a void in our world that will be a challenge to fill.”

Nettleford was admitted to
hospital, unconscious, on January 27.

Olivia Grange, minister of youth,
sports and culture, said in a release that
Nettleford, who had been in the intensive care unit at the hospital since last
Wednesday with catastrophic brain injury following a cardiac arrest, died at 8
p.m., four hours before his birthday.

“The nation, the wider
Caribbean and beyond mourn the loss of this great Caribbean icon,” Grange
said.

A
national loss

Portia Simpson Miller, president of
the People’s National Party and opposition leader,
expressed con-dolences to Nettleford’s family, friends and colleagues.

“I am very deeply saddened by
the news of Professor Nettleford’s passing. This is a national loss and one
that I feel personally. Words are inadequate to capture the extent of the grief
I feel,” Simpson Miller said.

Simpson Miller hailed Nettleford as
a son of rural Jamaica whose life’s trajectory testifies to the success that is
possible through grit, determination, resilience and ‘smadification’ – local
parlance for self-actualisation – within the Jamaican cultural environment, of
which he wrote so eloquently.

Jamaica’s ambassador to the United
States, Anthony Johnson, told The Gleaner last night that doctors said
Nettleford never regained consciousness.

He had gone to Washington, DC, to
attend a fund-raising gala for the UWI.

Many tributes have come in for the
Trelawny-born Nettleford, who excelled as an academic, cultural activist,
historian and remained an unapologetic regionalist.

Former Jamaican prime minister,
Edward Seaga, who first met Nettleford in the early 1960s, described him as the
“quintessential Caribbean man”.

“There was a strong
willingness on his part to absorb Jamaican culture, which I believe is his greatest
contribution. It’s on that basis that the NDTC became such a force,” Seaga
told The Gleaner.

For many years, Nettleford juggled
duties with the NDTC and the UWI where he was vice-chancellor from 1997 to
2004. He was the NDTC’s choreographer and artistic director, and continued to
lecture at the UWI’s Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication and Trade
Union Education Institution.

In a 2007 interview with The
Gleaner, Nettleford said Seaga assisted the NDTC in its early years by taking
them to kumina and revival meetings. The group incorporated those informal
‘lessons’ into some of their dance routines, including the popular Kumina.

“The underlying thing was
using dance to explain to ourselves and the world who we are, and to celebrate
the African presence in the shaping of a Jamaican/Caribbean ethos,” Nettleford
said in the interview three years ago.

Bridgett Spaulding (formerly
Casserly) was an original member of the NDTC, who first met Nettleford when he
and fellow dancer Eddy Thomas were forming the group in 1962. She credits him
for the group’s longevity.

Unparalleled passion

“He had a passion for the
company that is unparalleled, but he also had a strong desire for people to
grow and develop,” Spaulding said.

Nettleford experienced remarkable
personal growth during the 1960s. A graduate of Cornwall College in St James,
he was a Rhodes Scholar who attended Oxford University and had cut his teeth as
a dancer in the Ivy Baxter Dance Group.

He and Thomas formed the NDTC in September
1962, one month after Jamaica gained Independence from Britain. It comprised
dancers from various groups, and emerged around the same time that ska music
and the Rastafarian culture were beginning to have an influence on Jamaican
youth.

During that decade, Nettleford
championed the work of folklorist Louise Bennett-Coverley and wrote the
provocative book, Mirror Mirror, which dealt with racial and social issues in
Jamaica.

Politically, Nettleford said he was
drawn to the ideals of Norman Manley, Jamaica’s first premier, who was also a
fierce proponent of Caribbean unity.

In the 1970s, Nettleford was a
cultural adviser to Manley’s son Michael, Jamaica’s socialist prime minister
from 1972 to 1980. At the time of his death, Nettleford was acting in a similar
capacity to Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

Nettleford received many awards for
his contribution to academia and the arts. He was a recipient of the Order of
Merit, Jamaica’s third-highest honour.

He is the latest Caribbean cultural
figure to die in recent months.

Playwright Trevor Rhone,
Trinidadian writer Wayne Brown and bandleader Sonny Bradshaw passed away late
last year.