Dr. Fraser- Point of View
February 19, 2010

‘Rex by Name and Rex by Nature’- A celebration

LAST WEEK I did my piece on Rex Nettleford, not only because I considered it my duty, given the fact that he was my first boss at UWI and an important figure at the University, but because he left a profound impression on me. This week I am back, looking again at Rex. I was compelled to do so after attending his funeral on Tuesday, so moved was I by what transpired. These days we see funerals as a celebration of the life of the departed. We say it more often than we feel it. But what made Tuesday so special was that it was really a celebration of Rex’s life.{{more}} Although most of the persons who attended the funeral were deeply sad, they left knowing that they had really witnessed a celebration. It was inspirational, as if it was really a production put on by that cultural icon. Marlon Simms, Dance Captain of the National Dance Theatre Company, made the point that the occasion was not an end, only an intermission. His life, he went on to say, was ‘many energizing careers’. Professor Barry Chevannes, who was the Coordinator of the funeral ceremony, had indicated that there were no restrictions on people wanting to attend the funeral. I am not sure how many hundreds of people could be and were accommodated at the University Chapel, but University personnel, the family of Nettleford, government officials, representatives from the Caribbean community, trade unions, other dignitaries from the Jamaican society and persons who worked with and were close to Rex were part of those seated in the historic Chapel that was taken stone by stone from one of the old sugar estates and reassembled at Mona. Tents were mounted on the chapel compound to accommodate about a thousand people, but as the Jamaica Gleaner stated, when the funeral procession recessed from the Chapel there were close to 2,000 persons outside. Screens were set up on different areas on the Mona Campus, others looked at it on Television and via the Internet.

The official ceremony was slated for a 10am start, but from 9:30 there was a Musical Tribute by the Choir made up of the University Singers, the University Chorale and the National Dance Theatre Company Singers. And what a performance! In fact they were central to the proceedings. Laura Redpath, a reporter of the Gleaner, captured a bit of it: “The notes of hymns echoed from the Chapel walls, and many stood outside, silent and listening.” The Choir was at its best, after all Rex had worked closely with them and had inspired them. The day was special for them and they gave him a moving send off. The Recessional Hymn, “Lord of the Dance,” which they rendered with gusto was quite appropriate: “ I danced in the morning when the world was begun; And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun; And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth; At Bethlehem I had my birth;” The Refrain- “Dance then, wherever you may be I am the Lord of the Dance.”

For me the most moving part came at the beginning when a niece of Nettleford entered carrying the ‘Urn” with a Bearer Party of the Jamaica Constabulary Force acting as Escort. This was difficult to deal with. A man I had known, so full of life, in dance, in speech, in everything he did, was reduced to an Urn with the ash of his remains. The tributes helped to put things in perspective and to recreate the image of a man who meant so much to so many people. Lloyd Doodleigh, President of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, recalled a man who was “overflowing with life and ideas.” The National Dance Theatre Captain said that it was a treat to share a creative space with Nettleford and to be exposed to his intellect and creative energy. Portia Simpson, who preferred to see him as a ‘collage of animated snapshots’, reflected on his many sides. Her tribute was deep and moving. Prime Minister Golding touched on his intellectual integrity and saw him as both a reference to the past and a guide to the future. The Choirs tribute as was to be expected was in song. “O’er Our Blue Mountains” they sang.

Professor Emeritus Edward Baugh is always a treat to listen to, and he did not disappoint as he assembled the many parts of Rex in his Eulogy. He said that his wife’s comment that “ ‘every puss, dog and fowl’ had something to say about Rex” had a deep meaning to him because Rex related to “every puss, dog and fowl”. Constable Vernal Young who stood in uniform outside the Chapel waiting for the recession remarked about the inspiration he got from Rex. The Gleaner picked up on Doris Davies who worked with Nettleford at the Trade Union Education Institute for over 25 years. She was dressed in a colourful outfit made from fabric he had given to her. She told Laura Redpath: “That is why I wear it today…I couldn’t miss this for anything.’’ This took on more meaning when after the funeral service I sat for a brief moment at the Trade Union Education Institute listening to over 20 trade unionists reflect on how much he had touched their lives. Baugh made mention of the fact that he rose above partisan political life, something which had even more meaning when the Jamaican Legislature suspended its Standing Orders to pay special tribute to Rex. It was then that P.J Patterson who sat next to Edward Seaga noted that it was the first time in their long political careers that they had sat on the same side of the House.

Edward Baugh recognised that Rex, the name by which he was most commonly known, reflected not just his regal bearing, but his sense of self confidence and his inner nobility. He was according to Baugh, ‘Rex by name and Rex by nature.’ Speaking about Rex’s impact on the people of Jamaica and the Caribbean the Jamaican Prime Minister said: “Too many of us looked in the mirror and didn’t like what we saw and tried every conceivable means of changing it. Rex Nettleford helped to clean that mirror.” Of course, he had first to clean the mirror for himself. His sense of self confidence and comfort with himself, was perhaps his hall mark. It was good to see Baldwin Spence in attendance. With his Trade Union background Rex must have been special to him. The CARICOM Secretary General was there. There were other representatives from the region, some of whom I didn’t know. The National Dance Theatre brought the ‘day’ to a fitting climax later that evening with what I am told was a performance beyond any, bringing back fond memories of their Founding Father and Artistic Director.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.