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Wednesday 13 December 2017
The Arts

Reaching out to the bereaved through music, song

Curtis John, choirmaster, music teacher and organiser of a “wake group” in Bon Accord/Canaan pose for a photo at his music room in Canaan.

When a loved one dies, grief and sadness that accompanies this loss can be stressful and depressing for the living. Providing solace and comfort for the bereaved in their time of need are a group of singers from Canaan and Bon Accord, who have formed themselves into the “wake group.”

Curtis John, better known as “Half day”, choirmaster, music teacher and organiser of the “wake group” explains the raison d’etre for the group in an interview at his music room in Canaan.

“In Tobago, it is quite normal when someone dies in the community, for persons to visit the home of the bereaved family and offer their condolences. But where I grew up in the village of Canaan, the culture of the people was not just to visit the home of the bereaved to offer your condolences, but there was an organised, caring group of trained choir members, led by a choirmaster whose responsibility it was to visit the home

of the bereaved and in addition to offering their condolences, also bring encouragement, hope, comfort and relaxation to the family through the singing of religious songs.

“This special “wake night”, as it is called, took place the night before the burial,” said John, adding that he and group members were intent on preserving this tradition. He feared that this rich, dynamic culture of the “wake night” in Tobago could become a relic of the past as he noted that persons were turning to other media for comfort while others have totally abolished the practice.

As the years went by, John added musical accompaniment – the bass and electric guitar, and a microphone, to the singing by the “wake group” which comprises John, chairman Davidson Phillip (“BB”) - who conducts the wake - and choir members.

Said John: “Hosting a wake involves more than just eating and drinking. It is a holy function with the sole purpose of preparing the bereaved family emotionally and psychologically to face what is ahead on the day of the final rites.

“As one enters the home of the bereaved on the night of the wake, you will observe that there is a special way in which the furniture is arranged. Firstly, there is a table with chairs set up at a specific location in the home, inside of the house or below a tent in the yard - where the organiser, the chairman and the choir members would sit. Chairs are then placed behind the

choir members to accommodate non-choir members who are free to sit and join in with the singing of the songs.”

Patrons attending the “wake” are expected to treat the bereaved and the house of mourning with respect.

Eating or drinking is not allowed when the “wake” is in session, this can only be done when the table is blessed after the service has ended. The only drink that is allowed to be taken is water before is water.

John said a certain degree of discipline and order must be established at a “wake” to prevent unruliness by mourners.

John who has been singing in choirs since he was 10 years old, and has been a choirmaster for the past 36 years, said he has trained members of several church choirs across Tobago. Some of these choirs have performed at functions in the Caribbean region.

Still actively involved in training choirs as well as teaching music, he revealed that he never attended music school or had anyone teach him how to play a musical instrument but he can play several instruments including the bass guitar, guitar, cuatro, keyboard and the drum set.

“Ever since I was a child, I always found myself being involved in music. Nobody taught me how to play any musical instrument. This gift came directly from God. I believe that my gift was given to me so that I can use it to touch the lives of persons,” he said.

He said the sessions by the “wake group” at the homes of the bereaved have proven to be just what the doctor ordered as persons have testified of to the positive effects of the music.

“As the group visit and ministers to the different families throughout the various villages of Tobago, persons who I do not even know, would meet me and say to me how their lives and that of their family members have been encouraged by having the group perform at their homes.

“Many have confessed that their lives after the death of their loved ones felt hopeless and sad, but by listening to the songs and the music, and words of encouragement that were given to them by the “wake group”, they were able to face life with a new perspective,” said John.

“This encourages me and let me know that I am bringing healing to hurting lives, which is really my intention and therefore it gives me a feeling of total fulfillment,” he added.

For Haley Crooks of Bon Accord, who has experienced the loss of several loved ones in her family, the visit by the “wake group” “was very inspiring and comforting to us.”

“Not only did the group expressed their condolences verbally, but they encouraged the family by singing religious songs, the playing of music, as well as by reading scriptures from the bible. “This did not totally eradicate the grief that we were experiencing, but it did help us to relax as well as alleviate some of the pain that we were feeling by allowing us to focus our

minds on something that is different, pleasant and comforting,” she said.

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