Cayman Islands cultural icon Julia Almeria Hydes passed away Monday morning. The legendary folk musician, known to many as “Aunt Julia,” was 106 and Cayman’s oldest citizen.
The drum player and songwriter would have turned 107 in January.
Cayman National Cultural Foundation Artistic Director Henry Muttoo said that while Aunt Julia’s physical presence will be missed, Cayman can “rest assured that she is very much alive for us at CNCF.” He said the foundation will keep her memory alive through the work of the Cayman Islands Folk Singers, Swanky Kitchen Band, Quincy Brown, Burman Scott and others.
“Aunt Julia is, even in transition, more than a Caymanian cultural icon,” Mr. Muttoo said. “She is the very soul of Caymanian folk music and the rhythms of her drum is our heartbeat.”
Mrs. Hydes’s son Edmund said his mother passed away peacefully, and that with some of her last words she expressed concern that her yard needed cleaning up. “It’s like she was preparing for her departure,” he said.
Her son recalled that her favorite words were always: “Hard work don’t kill no one.”
Born Julia Ebanks in Boatswain’s Bay in West Bay on Jan. 25, 1909, she was the youngest of 12 children. She attended Ada Cato’s and Miss Redley’s all-age schools in West Bay until the age of 15, when she left school and assisted her family in making thatch baskets and rope. It was around this time that she discovered the talent that would make her a household name: playing the drum. At a time when most of the musicians in the country were male, and no drummers were female, Mrs. Hydes pursued her passion for “beating the drum” as she called it, asking her cousin, the late Leighton “Duxie” Ebanks, to teach her how to play.
Mr. Ebanks’s son Varion Ebanks, now 87, recalled that his father had left Aunt Julia his drum when he passed away in 1990 – the homemade drum she was usually seen playing in recent decades.
“My father played for various kitchen dances in West Bay and I would strum the guitar for him,” said Varion Ebanks. “She would go to my father’s house and beat the drums.”
Her love of music and dance were evident from a young age. In an interview with the Cayman Compass in 2013, she described how she and her sisters “went dancing every night and we had to walk everywhere. Sometimes we would get home and our legs would be aching, but we didn’t care. The dances would be held at people’s houses and we would go and dance and dance and dance.”
Mrs. Hydes never took formal drum lessons and was primarily self-taught. From the first time she picked up a pair of drumsticks made out of guava wood, she was an intuitive player and developed her own style while helping to popularize local folk music.
She played with some of Cayman’s best-known musicians, including “Duxie” Ebanks, Radley Gourzong and Boyd Hydes. In her later years, she played solo, well into the last few years of her life.
Mrs. Hydes also composed many celebrated and beloved songs, which were compiled into a book and preserved in audio recordings. Her songs comprise much of the Cayman Island Folk Singers’ repertoire.
Mrs. Hydes received numerous awards, including the Certificate and Badge of Honour, for her contributions to the music and culture of the Cayman Islands.
Premier Alden McLaughlin said the country has lost a national treasure, and that Cabinet had ordered the Cayman Islands flag to be flown at half-staff Monday and Tuesday in Mrs. Hydes’s honor.
“Aunt Julia touched many, many lives over her years in Cayman,” the premier said in a statement. “Personally, I am proud to have known her.”
Mr. McLaughlin said that he would always remember Mrs. Hydes’s drum playing and singing praises to God, and recalled with fondness her 106th birthday party at the Harquail Theatre in January when friends, family members and well-wishers gathered to help her celebrate.
“I was so hoping to help her celebrate her 107th birthday in a few weeks,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
Aunt Julia is survived by her five children, sons Edmund, Raybe, Lewie and Edroy, and daughter Francine, and many more relatives and friends.
Mrs. Hydes’s niece Jackie Ebanks said that although her aunt had grown tired over the past few months, Mrs. Hydes was a “fighter” throughout her life. Mrs. Ebanks said she enjoyed taking her late father, Captain Marvin Ebanks, to reminisce with his cousin Mrs. Hydes and listen to them talk about the “good old days” together.
Mrs. Ebanks said she admired Mrs. Hydes both for the way she was able to write and play music, and for the way she raised her children on her own.
“I totally admire this woman,” Mrs. Ebanks said. “She’s a great loss and I have great memories of her and my dad together.”
Reina Jefferson, president of the Cayman Islands Early Childhood Association, said she had spent hundreds of hours with Mrs. Hydes, sharing stories, fears, joys, memories and music. The two enjoyed singing together while Mrs. Hydes played her drum.
“She always knew my voice during her last days, and I expressed to her that she was the most amazing woman, other than my mother, that I had ever known,” Mrs. Jefferson said. “Her creative musical talent, storytelling and sweet laughter will always linger in my memory. I am so thankful to have spent precious and valuable time with her.”