|Sun-Sentinel, Tuesday, April 21, 1998
star rises in Jamaica
By David Beard, Staff Writer
Think of the haunting sound of k.d. lang's Ingenue album,
or the politically charged lyrics on Tracy Chapman's debut record. These
are elements of Della Manley's sophisticated first album, Ashes on the
Window Sill. What you won't find here is the reggae or DJ-fueled rap normally
associated with her native Jamaica.
At age 38, after years as a teacher and a mother and a
basement musician, the daughter-in-law of former Jamaican Prime Minister
Michael Manley has emerged in recent weeks as an unexpected folk-rock star
in a nation where that kind of music is virtually unknown.
"When we first put on her record, people of all classes
call up the station and say, 'Is she really from Jamaica?'" says Dermott
Hussey, a longtime host on Radio Jamaica in Kingston, the Caribbean nation's
"Jamaicans have long wanted to hear this kind of music
coming from their own ranks. The thing about Jamaica and all the countries
of the Caribbean is that all the world's cultures have passed through here.
So it's not surprising that she would approach music from such a high plane."
To maintain her breezy sound and exquisite arrangements,
the soft-spoken Manley had to put her foot down in the studio. "When I
was doing the album, there was constantly this comment: 'There should be
a reggae song,"' Manley says from her home outside Kingston. "But I said,
'Just because I am Jamaican, why must I have to do this?'"
The album has sold out its first pressing on local Riverside
Music records and is destined to be picked up by a major label, says Timothy
White, editor in chief of Billboard magazine, which featured Manley in
a recent issue.
"This record has everything and nothing to do with the
Caribbean. It has nothing to do with current musical trends in the Caribbean
but everything to do with creating musical history in the Caribbean," says
White, author of the Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire.
Manley, who spent years studying in Canada and at the
University of Havana in Cuba, manages several styles of music on her new
album, from the folk reminiscent of idols Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell to
the nueva trova Spanish-language sound of Chile's Violeta Parra or Argentina's
Mercedes Sosa. Te Amare the album's only cover,. is written by Cuban artist
Manley, a former Catholic choirgirl and glee club member
from Montego Bay, alludes to personal .and political events of the past
decade and a half in her lyrics.
The songs move from an impassioned critique of
the U.S. invasion of Grenada (Ashes) and misery at the destruction caused
when Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1988 (Angel) to current life as wife,
teacher and the mother and chauffeur of 8- and 6-year-old girls (Bittersweet
and Little Children).
"I know I'm not as radical now," Manley says of her 1980s
songs. "The world was very different then. I had just come back from Cuba,
and I was very angry about the United States invading Grenada."But she
adds that her political fire "is not something I regret."
The first song on the album, City Lights, was inspired
by a late-evening conversation she had with her father-in-law at his mountainside
home. When she asked him why he did not build his house near a ridge, where
he could see the lights of Kingston, the elder Manley replied that it would
be deceptive to see only those homes with lights and ignore the suffering
of the people living in homes without illumination.
Even as a girl, she could not stand inequality. "We went
to Haiti once on a cruise ship, and when Della saw the people begging on
the pier, she got all the food she could carry from the ship to feed them,"
her mother, Jean Magnus, says from her Montego Bay home.
Manley's record offers hope that Jamaica's rich musical
heritage can transcend a tradition that expects only reggae or its variants,
says White. He recalls the days when Bob Marley had trouble getting on
Jamaican airwaves because his music was different. Others recall when producers
urged other reggae singers to wear their hair in dreadlocks, even if they
did not share Marley's Rastafarian faith, because that was expected.
White says Della Manley's best weapons are her voice,
her understated arrangements and the fine support she receives from top
Jamaican musicians Monty Alexander, Jimmy Peart, Peter Ashbourne, Michael
Flecher and Ray Hitchens.
"Ten seconds into a great record and you know it's great,"
White says. "I put this record on in the office and everybody was coming