An Island’s Story: told through the music of Julia Hydes

Part I:
The music of Julia Hydes

We continue our series with part two of Natasha Kozaily’s thesis for her BA in Music, focusing on the music of Julia Hydes.

Historical context
The written history of Cayman’s folk music is virtually non-existent. Because of this remote past, we can only speculate and theorise about the history of Caymanian music by examining oral history and the musical past of other English-speaking Caribbean Islands. The purpose of this chapter is to equip readers with a basic knowledge of Caymanian Folk Music and to provide a context from which the detailed work of this project stems. 

Music from the Sea
Although the Cayman Islands were discovered by Christopher Columbus on 10 May 1503, permanent settlement did not occur until the late 1600’s early 1700’s. From this time until the latter half of the twentieth century, the Cayman Islands ‘were among the most isolated, unknown, and unchanging countries in the British Empire.’ In their isolation, Caymanians relied very much on the bounty of the ocean for their survival and livelihood. This ‘bounty’ did not only provide food and salvage, but it carried people, news, culture and music from as far away as Europe and Africa to these ‘isolated and unknown’ Islands. 

Before the arrival of television and radio around the mid-seventies, Caymanians were obliged to entertain themselves. They drew largely on the repertoire of folk songs and traditional dances that had been inherited from parents and grandparents. Cayman’s traditional music has its roots above all, in the music brought from Europe and other surrounding islands such as quadrille and other formal dances. There are also echoes of African music, sailors’ chanties, popular song and Christian hymns. Caymanian folk music can best be described as a repository of different influences and genres which, through isolation and poverty, developed into its own music. 

It was not uncommon for folk songs to take on the role of a “news-report” or narrative. The song Munzie’s Boat in the Sound was said to have been written about a fishing trip in the 1930’s. In Julia Hydes’ performance of Sammy Beatin Susanna, the character Moses Hydes is Miss Julia’s uncle.
This narrative style of folk music can tell us a lot about how Caymanian people used music as an important form of communication.  These songs would have mostly spread through kitchen dances where fiddlers from other districts were present or at celebrations such as boat launchings, which were considered an important festivity where music was a necessity.

The most typical style of music is ‘Kitchen Band Music’, which mainly took place in someone’s kitchen where the whole town would squeeze into for music and dancing. Kitchen Band Music can be closely compared to the Jamaican Mento. While each is still very different and defined in their own way, strong links can still be made between these neighbouring islands regarding certain folk music elements. Like Mento bands, a traditional Cayman Kitchen Band has three types of instruments for melody, harmony and rhythm.

While mento bands often carry a larger variety of instruments a few of these can be found in both genres. These are the fiddle, guitar, a grater and nail and maracas. Up until the mid-twentieth century or later, the grater was a common household item that was used to grate coconut and other vegetables in the kitchen. When the musicians and neighbours crammed into the kitchen for a festive kitchen dance, the grater was transformed into another percussion instrument by brushing a nail or piece of cutlery up and down the body.

This improvised instrumentation which became one of the defining sounds of Kitchen Bands can also be found in mento bands from Jamaica.  In a 1996 video footage of a traditional music workshop, featuring folk musicians from Cayman and Jamaica, one can hear and see the similarities between the two styles of fiddling. Both fiddlers held their instruments in the same position with the fiddle resting above their left breast. 

Like recordings of Radley Gourzong, a legendary fiddler on the Island, the same untempered tuning reflected the self-taught freedom of these musicians. The Caymanian fiddle tradition is a topic of Caymanian folk music in great need of attention and preservation as the ancestry of Caymanian fiddlers is an old one that is disappearing.

Quadrille is a large facet of traditional music and dance in the Cayman Islands and many other Caribbean islands. By the late 1700’s a number of European dance and musical genres such as the waltz, polka, gigue, as well as African ones, had taken root in the region, with varying degrees and sorts of modifications. In the nineteenth century a set of contradance and quadrille variants flourished so extensively throughout the Caribbean Basin that they enjoyed a kind of predominance, as a common cultural medium through which melodies, rhythms, dance figures, and performers all circulated. This occurred both between islands and between social groups within a given island. 

The Caymanian Quadrille contains around 6 figures plus a Waltz and a Polka. These dances, as well as the gigue, were standard repertoire for kitchen dances around the island. Each district developed their own practices and contained features that set them apart from each other. For example, in some districts kitchen dances were considered inappropriate for children and only adults were allowed to attend while in other places, everyone was welcome no matter the age. Certain dances were also performed more regularly than others depending on the district. 

Musicians were not scarce on the island, and each district had a set of musicians they could be proud of.  Within society there existed a hierarchy among the musicians with the fiddler being the most important.  Every district had a number of fiddlers, some as many as five.  But it was uncommon to have more than one play at a time. Instead, when one fiddler got tired of playing at a kitchen dance, another would take over.  Some fiddlers from various districts were known better than others, and revered for their skills and musicianship. These ‘master’ fiddlers travelled around the island to play at different kitchen dances, and were often accompanied by a fellow musician from their district.

John Storm Roberts, a writer and researcher of World Music, documented and recorded some traditional Caymanian music during a series of family expeditions to Cayman in 1982. He compiled these recordings as well as some from the island of Tortola and entitled the LP ‘Under the Coconut Tree: music from Grand Cayman and Tortola”. Among the songs featured from Grand Cayman, were performances by Radley Gourzong and Group, Rachel Rankin, Julia Hydes, Burnell Dixon, Lil Rose Dilbert, Edison Scott and Dalmain Ebanks. In the linear notes of Under the Coconut Tree: Music from Grand Cayman and Tortola, John Storm Roberts makes some interesting observations about the music of the Cayman Islands. He notes that the music contained many purely British survivals and hardly any purely African ones.

Perhaps this is because unlike many other Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Cayman had a very short affair with plantations and slave society. Of course, a region as linguistically and culturally diverse as the Caribbean has never been embodied by a single music or dance genre. Individual elements lend themselves to acculturation when one tradition comes in contact with another, thereafter functioning as new points of origin for certain aspects. Like the rest of the Caribbean, Caymanian folk music can be seen in these terms. 

Caymanian folk music is heavily rooted in British origins but there are some African elements that can be found as well. One of these can be seen in the folk song Balimba, which seems to be an old Jamaican import.   The song was used as both a Ring-tune and as a favourite fifth figure for Quadrilles. “Balimbo” is an African word in origin, and nick-name for a cheap kind of cloth with calico print. Another example of the fusion of influences found in Caymanian folk music is the phrase ‘S’acabo’ (Se’acabo meaning “It’s over”) which Rachel Rankin shouts at the end of one of her songs in Under the Coconut Tree: Songs from Grand Cayman and Tortola.

This most likely came from Cuba as many Caymanian sea man travelled there and around the Cuban Cays turtleling. Sea shanties such as “The Turtlers Alphabet” and “Southeast by South” have become artefacts of Cayman’s sea-faring tradition and European musical origins. “Southeast by South” in Under the Coconut Tree was performed by Burnell Dixon who was 84 years old at the time. He claimed he learnt the song while at sea in the port of Colon, Panama.

Editors Note:  Natasha Kozaily is a young Caymanian musician, singer–songwriter and painter.  For more info visit