Ethnic Exchange

Della Manley: Ashes on the Window Sill

Billboard, March 21, 1998

Della Manley

Riverside's Manley Finds Fans For Jamaican Folk

By Elena Oumano

KINGSTON, Jamaica-Until a few months ago, Jamaican folk singer/songwriter Della Manley played out only once or twice a year, performing for small groups of Kingstonians seated on folding chairs a few feet from her. That tiny musical world of art gallery basements and Jamaica Poetry Society gatherings parallels but never meets the island's reggae universe-a much larger and aggressively rhythmic entity led by prophets, messengers, and other charismatic mike saviors.

The notion of creating such a heroic myth for herself would be alien, even absurd, to Manley, whose modesty is edged by a well- developed sense of irony. Then again, this 30-something mother of two has no need for myths. From the January night when musicologist/radio personality Dermott Hussey aired her debut album on his "Musically Speaking" radio program, Manley's collection of inner and outer landscapes has been winning over Reggae Central, heart by heart. That album, "Ashes On The Window Sill," contains 10 exquisitely rendered tracks in which the movingly personal constantly mutates into the socially relevant. It was released on Riverside Music Ltd. in Jamaica that month but is not yet licensed anywhere else.

"We haven't had a launch," Manley says with a little laugh. "Dermott played some tracks, then opened up the phone lines and said, 'Let's hear what the public has to say." People began calling in-old people from the country, young people driving in the city. I never thought the album would appeal to a cross section of society; I thought it would have limited appeal. It was very touching. All of a sudden, people are asking me to do shows, like Red Bone Cafe and Liberty Mutual Jazz in Kingston."

Thanks to Hussey, Nuff Tings (the album's Jamaican-based distributor), other innovative radio hosts like IRIE-FM's Elise Kelly, and a groundswell of listeners, "culture" music playlists in Jamaica now intermingle Manley's quietly radiant songs with the latest missives from top reggae warriors like Sizzla and Luciano.

There's no trace of reggae in "Ashes," but Manley's songs pack as much political insight as those of any roots reggae artist, and she cites Bob Marley and Peter Tosh as early influences. If "Ashes" is rooted anywhere, it's in the borderless turf occupied by the international-minded. Other key influences include Joan Armatrading; Carly Simon; Cat Stevens; James Taylor; Carole King; Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and "Janis Ian particularly," says Manley, "because of the richness of her lyrics."

Like them, Manley's brilliance is subdued, glowing rather than blazing. She finds universal truths not in sweeping proclamations but by sifting for meanings within her own experiences.

A dentist's daughter born in Montego Bay, Manley first heard Ian at age 15. That year, she and her family moved to farm country in Canada's snow belt, two hours from Toronto. "I took a Bob Marley album to a friend's house and said, 'You've got to listen to this,'" Manley says. "And she was saying to me, 'You've got to listen to [Ian]."'

Manley had studied piano, guitar, and singing, and she sang hymns in her Catholic church in Jamaica. However, she says, "I didn't do much for about two years [in Canada] until I started York University and took part in Latin American and Caribbean cultural activities."

At 19, she married Joseph Manley, son of the late Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. The young couple went to live in Cuba for four years, where Della began writing and performing.

After the couple's return to Jamaica in 1983, Manley appeared infrequently in public. "They'd ask me to sing a Whitney Houston song, something the people knew, instead of my own stuff," Manley recalls. "I'd sing Janis, Carole, and Carly songs, but I was never inclined to sing soul. And I wondered, 'How will anyone ever hear my own songs unless I sing them?'"

Michael Manley sent Della's song "Ashes On The Window Sill," which she wrote after the U.S. invaded Grenada, to Harry Belafonte and other influential people in the U.S. music industry. "But they weren't interested," says Della, "and I don't think my voice was ready. The recording was rushed."

In 1988, Manley's cousins Brian and Wayne Jobson, who had founded the reggae group Native, had a deal with music executive Lou Adler. "He was interested in songs I'd written," says Manley. "He wanted to work with me, but I started working on their [Native's] album. They wanted me to cover 'Wonderful World,' but I ended up just doing background vocals and becoming pregnant with Rhea [her daughter, now 8 years old]."

Manley began recording the album "Ashes" more than a year ago, prior to Michael Manley's death. She worked closely with musician/producer Ray Hitchens. He, with partner Mark Golding, heads the Riverside Music label and co-executive-produced "Ashes" with Joseph Manley. "Te Amare," the album's only cover, was written by famed Cuban musician Silvio Rodrigues.

That song and the title track were recorded at Nyumbani, Michael Manley's home in the hills; Della Manley says the name means "welcome to my home" in Swahili. The hillside home also inspired the lead track, "City Lights," which appears in two versions on the album and illustrates the Manley family talent for vivifying harsh political truths: "Looking down from the hillside/Looking up from the shore/A thousand fireflies/How do 1 close my eyes/To the truth that is a lie?/The skyline's a front line/The skyline's a lie/Another night, in Paradise/Sleeping on a sidewalk/He calls home."

The album track "Little Children" was inspired by a poem by Joseph Manley. "He was showing me his poetry after we married," says Della, then laughs and adds, "I used the poem for the first verse; his name should have gone on the CD." A favorite track is "Bittersweet""about my relationship with Joseph and the tremendous support I've received from him all these years," says Manley. "Angel" captures the desolation of Jamaica after Hurricane Gilbert, a late-'80s storm with devastating force. "The Dream" re-creates the shadow moment when morning light tugs at a nighttime dreamer.

Neither the art of the production nor any single element on the album-not even Manley's beautifully nuanced performances-calls attention to itself. Everything is tightly joined: lyrics, melodies, arrangements, and Manley's darkly rich vocals. The producers called on several of Jamaica's finest for the project, including violinist Peter Ashbourne, bassist Michael Fletcher, and pianists Jimmy Peart and Monty Alexander.

"You can't apply reggae production techniques to this type of music," says Hitchens, whose Riverside Music shared production costs with Joseph Manley. "You need to handcraft each track, and that costs much more."

At the moment, Jamaican radio is focusing on "City Lights." Della adds, "I've been hearing more requests for 'Bittersweet,' especially from women. It's most likely to be the first single release. Paul [Banks of Nuff Tings] is pushing for a 45 [vinyl piece] to supply places in the countryside-country shops and so on."

Interest from abroad is building. "Dermott has been sending it out to his contacts," says Manley. "I don't have any. They're asking, 'Do you have a video?' Everyone here does a video, at the beach or in front of someone's house, with 'nuff teeth and shinyclothes."

As more and more Jamaicans accustom themselves to Manley's style- which definitely does not include " 'nuff teeth and shiny clothes"-she finds herself writing more than ever before. "I haven't felt this good for years," she says. "I must be affirmed by the reaction to the CD."

Caribbean Beat's Review