Eulogy to Geraldine Roxanne Connor
I feel deeply honoured to have been asked by Geraldine’s family to deliver this eulogy.
I have undertaken many an assignment in my day, but none with such foreboding as this. For, how does one do justice to such a monumental figure, one with such irrepressible…., volcanic energy, an energy which won’t be totally consumed, I suspect, even by death itself?
So, let me say to Geraldine something I had cause to say to her frequently, face to face: ‘Geraldine, behave!’ To which, quick as a flash, the reply would come: ‘Why? You doh see these so-and-so people getting me damn vex?’
Love still, Sis. Whatever you might find wanting in the next few minutes, doh vex wid me!
There are many battles which are never won in the lifetime of a generation. Struggles which are seemingly endless and which each succeeding generation must join in audacious affirmation of our right to free expression, our fundamental instinct for freedom, our essential creativity and our capacity to transform ourselves and change the world through artistic expression, through being the embodiment of the immanence of culture and through our unwavering belief in what we can be.
Geraldine Roxanne Connor was socialised and nurtured in the struggle that was joined by the generation that went before her…. Humble souls, yet iconic figures such as Rosa Cuthbert Guy, Una Marson, Cy Grant, Errol John, Lloyd Reckord, Joan Hooley, Earl Cameron, Nadia Cattouse and of course the major influences in her life and chosen career, her own parents, Edric and Pearl Connor.
The saying goes that ‘the fruit never falls far from the tree’, but the fruit does not always stay near the tree or even resemble the essence of the tree. Geraldine grew up in the shadow of the tree and drew strength, inspiration and direction from it.
The dedication page of her authoritative study of the steelband movement in Britain which was published only in March this year reads:
To my parents Edric and Pearl Connor
For enshrining in our Caribbean nationhood and in the wider world the unique value of our Caribbean arts and performance culture
Her father Edric was born in 1913 and died on 16th October 1968, aged 55. Geraldine died on 21st October 2011, aged 59. In 1959, just after Geraldine’s seventh birthday, Eric appeared on Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. He was a singer, folklorist, actor on stage and screen and a film maker, making and appearing in films for over twenty years. He collected, sang and recorded the folk songs of Jamaica and the early calypsos and folk songs of his native Trinidad and Tobago, thus preserving them for future generations. The very year Geraldine was born, he had a major role in the film of Alan Paton’s classic, ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, acting alongside Sidney Poitier. The year he died Edric appeared as ‘Julius’ in the film ‘Nobody Runs Forever’.
Pearl Nunez came to Britain in 1948 to study law but met and married Edric and continued a career in the performing arts for which she had been nurtured by Beryl McBurnie and the Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad. She and Edric established the Edric Connor Agency which later became the Afro Asian Caribbean Agency and campaigned relentlessly for black artists and the promotion of black writers, artistic directors and the positive representation of black people in the arts. In 1968, Pearl established the Negro Theatre Workshop, one of the first black theatre workshops in Britain. She was responsible for breaking down barriers and opening up opportunity for many of the black actors who are now household names, but none of whom had Equity cards before Pearl’s relentless campaign. She epitomised the words of that much loved song:
‘The higher you build your barriers
The taller I become……’
Geraldine was born in London on 22 March 1952. She spent her early childhood in Trinidad and Tobago with her grandparents. Both her maternal grandparents were teachers, her grandfather a headteacher. She was therefore surrounded by books and by parents and an extended family that had a passion for education and the development of young people, as well as for music of all genres and for the arts in general. Beryl McBurnie who had played such a pivotal role in Pearl’s artistic development was to have a similarly profound influence on the young Geraldine. Geraldine also had the good fortune to know and be influenced by key political and cultural activists such as Jack Kelshall and Lennox Pierre, both staunch in their promotion and defence of cultural arts and the role of cultural resistance in the workers’ movement, the steel band in particular.
Geraldine was schooled in Trinidad and Tobago at Tranquillity Primary and Diego Martin Government Secondary between 1960 and 1968. Returning to London in 1968, she joined Camden School for Girls until 1971. She trained at the Royal College of Music, London (1971-1974) where she majored in voice and pianoforte.
Always passionate about teaching and unlocking the talents of children and adults alike, she gained the Diploma in Education from Valsayn Teacher Training College in Trinidad and Tobago (1979-1981) and became a Licentiate of the Royal School of Music in Classical Voice (Mezzo Soprano) in 1981.
Over a period of thirty seven years, i.e., since graduating from the Royal School of Music in 1974, Geraldine worked in a number of capacities in the arts, both freelance, employed, as a teacher and lecturer and as a voluntary adviser and consultant. She was a music teacher; for eight years Head of Music at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College Boys Secondary School, Trinidad and Tobago (1976–1984); theatre director; education supervisor with the Brent Black Music Cooperative; freelance arts consultant and coordinator and administrator of the National Steelband Music Company in London. She was the Government of Trinidad & Tobago’s arts consultant and administrator to the planning committee for Carifesta (1989-1990).
She developed a love of the steelband from an early age, becoming in her own words ‘a player, teacher, arranger, adjudicator and observer within the steelband movement of both Trinidad and Tobago and Britain’. Let Invaders Steel Orchestra take up the story:
Around 1982 Geraldine Connor came to the Invaders Steel Orchestra panyard and chose to play the six bass pans. Of course, her musical knowledge assisted her in being able to perform with the help of the other players in her section, some of whom had plenty experience. She would always be part of the J’ouvert crowd. And in 1984 Dr. Parris (Manager) and ‘Birdie’ Mannette asked her to arrange for the Panorama competition. The tune: ‘Lucy in D’ Savannah’ by Blue Boy.
She was the first female arranger to chance the competition among all the male heavyweights. While she did not achieve success she opened up the arena for female arrangers.
We would take this opportunity to offer our deepest condolences to Geraldine’s Family and relatives…….May she rest in peace!
Nestor Sullivan, Manager of Pamberi steel Orchestra noted that:
She was the first female arranger in the Steelband Panorama Competition in Trinidad and Tobago and, I might add, in any Panorama Competition around the world.
Nestor saluted Geraldine for working with Pepe Francis in Notting Hill and arranging Ebony Steel Orchestra’s first ever winning Panorama tune in 1983, one year before Invaders asked her to arrange for them. She was Ebony’s classical musical director until the mid-1990s.
And so it was that in 1990, Arthur France, Leeds’ foremost ‘emeritus Mayor and elder statesman’, invited Geraldine to come to Leeds and bring her experience, energy and vision to help raise the profile of Caribbean Arts and Culture in Leeds and challenge the arts establishment to be more inclusive.
She duly obliged and started work with Dudley Nesbitt to tutor and train the New World Steel Band. Soon it would become the New World Symphony Orchestra spawning a decade later the New World School of Pan, with a validated curriculum written by Geraldine. Geraldine’s last book Pan, the Steelband Movement in Britain was launched by the New World Steel Orchestra in March this year. It is a seminal work and the fact that Geraldine wrote the book to her usual high standard when her health was already failing is testimony that her indomitable spirit and iron will drove her body even when it had already taken a stand and was hellbent on slowing her down.
But it was not only as a pioneer of the steelband movement that Geraldine’s work reached back and forth between Trinidad and Tobago and Britain. Indeed, her work both as artist and academic on each side of the Atlantic was informed and enriched by her activities and critical reflection on the other side, even as she observed how both Britain and Trinidad and Tobago adapted to changing demography, changing social and economic realities and the ever present tension between tradition, modernity and post-modernism.
Until the Advent of Carnival Messiah, Geraldine was best known in Trinidad and Tobago for her work as a leader and co-director with Michael Steele-Eytle of the Holy Name/Queen’s Royal College Choir and its adult arm, Family and Friends. They took this ninety (90) voice Choir of school children, supervised by members of Family and Friends, on two separate international tours, where they very successfully participated in several international choral music festivals – the first to Austria in 1979 and the second to Britain in 1981.
It was during this time that Geraldine forged a lifelong artistic association with several of those who are today described as Trinidad’s international artistic elite, operating both here in the UK and continental Europe and in North America: Nigel Wong (UK), Brian Green (Paris), Melanie Hudson-Le Barrie (UK), Ardin Herbert (USA), Ronald Samm (UK), Nicholas Boiselle (UK), Simone Sauphanor (UK), Glenda Thomas-McSween (USA), Roberto Salvatori (UK) and Richard Tan Yuk (USA), Godfrey Sealy (UK &USA), Penelope Spencer (USA), Cyprean Phillips (USA) and Rhoma Spencer (CAN)…. to name but a few.
Most became lifelong friends, friends who shared Geraldine’s vision for humanity and her understanding of the role of the arts and education in humanizing society. Some have been able to reorganise their schedule to come and join us in honouring Geraldine today.
Geraldine therefore brought her dual nationality and dual heritage (Trinidad and Tobago and UK) and her cultural and political world view to the ground breaking work she did with the steelband movement in Leeds and to her academic career as a Lecturer in Multicultural Music Studies at the City of Leeds College of Music (1990-1992) and from 1992 to 2004 as Course Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Popular Music Studies at Bretton Hall, now University of Leeds.
In 1995, Geraldine was awarded a Master of Music (MMus) degree in Ethnomusicology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Her dissertation was based on research into Culture, Identity and The Music of Notting Hill Carnival. Her portfolio also included a unique field study on the development of Bhangra music in Britain.
Between 2001 and 2003, Geraldine became Associate Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, thus cementing a relationship that developed during the 1990s.
Over the years, over three decades Geraldine created and directed a truly mind-boggling number of theatrical and musical productions, far too many to mention here. Many of them were produced at or in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse. For example:
- Eugene O’Neil’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1993)
Burt Caesar was reminding me last weekend of the amazing 100 strong Choir that Geraldine brought together and trained to take to the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for a performance that summoned angels.
- Servant of Two Masters (1993)
- The Leeds Centerary Gospel Concert (1993)
- Yorkshire Black Achievers awards (1994)
- Jar the Floor by Cheryl West (1997)
- POSITIVE (2001)
- The Jazz classic Blues in the Night (2002:2003)
- Yaa Asantewaa – African Warrior Queen – legendary nineteenth century Ashanti Queen Mother of Ghana, (2002), performed in a collaboration between The Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble and traditional Drummers, Black Voices, the National Ghanaian Traditional Orchestra, featuring master drummer, the late Kofi Ghanaba. This show successfully toured Britain and played to packed houses at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London and then the National Theatre, Ghana, West Africa.
- Carnival Messiah – 1999 & 2002
Geraldine’s accomplishments as a singer should not be overlooked. For example, she contributed as a classical contralto soloist to Marjorie Padmore’s famous OCDEC series of concerts (1975–1977) as well as singing in several well established choirs. Geraldine also sung contralto solo and chorus with Clara Rosa De Lima’s Trinidad and Tobago Opera Company in Cavalleria Rusticana and Carmen.
With her popular music vocal group The Sunbeams, Geraldine provided backing vocals at Semp Studios for the then Lord Shorty (Ras Shorty I), singer songwriter Gene Laurence and many others. Between 1972 and 1984 as a singer, she toured internationally and extensively with productions of Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones and Showboat. She also provided backing vocals for Bob Marley, Tom Jones, Judith Durham and toured internationally, as well as appearing on Top of the Pops with Jimmy Cliff. She also sang on the original recording of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
From March 2006, Geraldine contributed as musical supervisor, vocal arranger and director as well as composing the Ganja Song for the hit Jamaican musical The Harder They Come, based on the 1970’s cult film of the same name, written by the late Perry Henzell and featuring the iconic music of Jimmy Cliff. In 2008, this show played to sold-out audiences for five weeks at The Barbican Centre, London and then for four months at the Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Street, in London’s West End. The Harder They Come toured in Toronto and Miami (2009) and this was followed by a very successful national tour throughout the United Kingdom in 2010. The Harder They Come will embark on a world tour in 2012.
The above mentioned theatrical and musical productions and many others that played in theatres around the country and internationally defined Geraldine’s creative genius, artistic flair and record of achievement, achievement above all in giving performers, young and old, the confidence and self belief to reach for what they never knew they had and get the best out of themselves.
But none more so than Carnival Messiah.
Carnival Messiah is in Geraldine’s own words ‘the pinnacle of (her) creative and artistic career’. In my book, Carnival Messiah speaks volumes as to the visionary Geraldine Connor was.
Since its first appearance on the artistic horizon as a student production at Wakefield Theatre Royal in 1994, Carnival Messiah has entertained and empowered thousands of performers and audiences. Since then, the show has been successfully produced professionally five (5) times with a volunteer chorus over a period of ten (10) years: 1999 & 2002 (West Yorkshire Playhouse), 2003 & 2004 (Queen’s Hall, Trinidad & Tobago), and 2007 (Harewood House, Yorkshire).
In 2008 two excerpts of Carnival Messiah were performed at The Royal Albert Hall, London, for the prestigious Prince Charles charity, ‘Business in the Community’. To date, in a total of some one hundred live performances and excerpts, over seventy-five thousand people have seen and experienced Carnival Messiah.
Geraldine completed her doctoral research at the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Leeds in 2006 under the supervision of Professor Griselda Pollock. Her thesis which surrounded issues of Caribbean consciousness, identity and representation was based on Carnival Messiah and titled !HalleluliaH! , Excursions into a third space – Carnival Messiah as an Instrument of Post Colonial Liberation.
Writing in the Trinidad Guardian on Sunday 19 June 2011, in tribute to the late Wayne Kenneth Berkeley, former leading member of the Carnival Messiah Creative Team who passed away on 9th June 2011, Geraldine stated:
Carnival Messiah is a radical re-invention of George Friedrich Handel’s oratoria, Messiah, for large scale stage and theatre, featuring Caribbean and contemporary popular music and dance genres, showcased through the spectacular carnival and masquerade of Trinidad and Tobago.
A landmark production, Carnival Messiah is a glowing exemplar of the Caribbean’s capacity for world class creativity. As an original and distinctive aesthetic product, Carnival Messiah presents as a unique expression of Caribbean consciousness that theatrically reflects its close historical association with the cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia over the last 500 years.
Wayne Berkeley was a national icon in Trinidad and Tobago and was renowned internationally for the scenic production design for Carnival Messiah in 1998/99 in close collaboration with Clary Salandy who created the costumes and masquerade design and remains the backbone of the creative team.
‘A unique expression of Caribbean consciousness, theatrically reflecting its close historical association with the cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia…’ That association has a 500 year history that remakes and re-asserts itself contemporaneously.
We root our identity in our knowledge of our past, in the spiritual traditions of our ancestors, in the profile that their struggles, achievements and advances earn for succeeding generations, and in the sense we have of the quality of our own contribution to the present.
Elsewhere, Geraldine said of Carnival Messiah that:
….it has two principal inter-related objectives: one, presenting itself as a stand-alone professional aesthetic creation, and two, using itself through its education programme, as a vehicle of transformation, to promote interculturalism, and as a catalyst for the implementation of strategies of non-confrontational resistance – strategies of survival that were first used by the peoples of the historical Caribbean between the 17th and 19th centuries – in a bid to target and appease, some of the problems faced by many disenfranchised, and in particular, Black youth, within Britain today.
Geraldine believed passionately in the transformational potential of education and I saw evidence of that at first hand on numerous occasions, but especially when I worked on the Carnival Messiah education programme at Harewood in 2007. Speaking to Geraldine in September this year, a couple weeks after the serious civil unrest we experienced in Britain in the summer, she observed wryly that if Theresa May, Ken Clarke, David Cameron and Boris Johnson had any sense, rather than sending all those young people to prison to learn to be embittered criminals who don’t give a damn, they should fund Carnival Messiah to work with them on their self development while preparing for a show in London and to tour the country. ‘I can guarantee they won’t be the same after we are through with them’, she said. ‘The greatest problem is’, she continued, ‘that there are too many teachers who are killers, cold blooded murderers. They kill children’s dreams. That is why after all these years of compulsory schooling the nation is still full of, the jails are still bulging with, young people who see nothing ahead of them but hopelessness and despair’.
She railed against what I call cultural essentialism and the absence of intercultural education. As far as Geraldine was concerned, her project and that of Edric and Pearl, as well as the likes of Cy Grant, Una Marson and other early pioneers, was to challenge the exclusionary practices and the hegemony of those who homogenize groups in society and attribute to them fixed and immutable cultural characteristics and group based identities.
Not long before he died early last year, critiquing the notion of Black History Month, Cy Grant argued:
‘White children as well as Black [who still experience racism] should learn that all our histories are inextricably linked, so changing the way they perceive themselves and the world. Before we decide upon a calendar of socially relevant events, we would do well to look again at who and what we are and begin to know like Cesaire that ‘the tree of our hands is for all’.
The Caribbean has lost four regional and world icons in recent months, Professor Rex Nettleford of Jamaica, Wayne Berkeley of Trinidad and Tobago, Pat Bishop of Trinidad and Tobago and Dr Geraldine Connor of Britain and Trinidad and Tobago.
We feel bereft at such a heavy loss. But precisely because there is such a gap to fill, we are impelled to look deep within ourselves and discover not just what we learnt but what we have become by knowing them and receiving so much from them. Only thus can we equip and discipline ourselves to take charge of their legacy, just as Geraldine did with the legacy of Edric and Pearl Connor.
We have received numerous messages of condolence from across the world in the last fortnight. I reproduce here two only, one from Trinidad and Tobago and one from Leeds:
From: Nestor Sullivan - Pamberi Steel Orchestra
Invaders Steel Orchestra has sent me this email about Geraldine’s involvement in the band. As stated, she was the first female arranger in the Steelband Panorama Competition in Trinidad and Tobago and, I might add, in any Panorama Competition around the world.
Geraldine was a leading light in the Steelband Movement in Trinidad and Tobago and in Britain. A number of things stand out in Geraldine’s contribution to Pan…three of them are as follows:
- The Steelband Project in Leeds where she developed Steelband programmes for the youths/people in that area
- The Carnival Messiah – Trinidad and Tobago had an opportunity to experience this presentation when it was performed here a few years ago
- The Book – “Pan! The Steelband Movement in Britain”
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and sharing ideas with her over the years. Earlier this year we met here in Trinidad to discuss matters related to the Carnival Messiah and the Steelband Project in Leeds.
Pamberi joins with Invaders Steel Orchestra, Dudley Nesbitt, former Arranger of Silver Harps of Point Fortin and Pan Tutor at Leeds and the rest of the Steelband Movement in Trinidad and Tobago and Britain in expressing our sincerest condolences to her relatives on her untimely passing.
We salute her contributions to Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean Culture and her unwavering commitment to the Steelband.
Manager - Pamberi Steel Orchestra
Thank you very much for letting us know about the very sad death of Dr. Geraldine Connor. I was lucky enough to be a student of Geraldine during her time teaching at Bretton Hall University and was inspired by her talent and her ability to make everyone feel like they could sing. I wasn’t the most confident of singers but she made me feel as though anything was possible and I took part in an amazing Gospel Choir concert in Wakefield. She was such a special lady with a very unique and wonderful gift for music and taught in such a straight forward and inspirational way.
More recently, I was lucky enough to accompany 4 of my children to the Steel band symposium day (on 9 March 2011) which was absolutely amazing. The children left the day so excited and with an invigorated passion for music especially the steel drums. Whilst I was sat in Geraldine’s workshop I felt myself swaying and singing along and she certainly had captivated every single child and adult in that room.
I would have loved to have come to the funeral on Friday as I’m sure it will be a fantastic celebration of her life and her work with music. Unfortunately, my auntie died last weekend and her funeral in at 2pm on the same day. Dr. Geraldine, her family and her friends will certainly be in my thoughts and prayers on that day and I feel privileged to have been taught by and to have known her.
Thank you again for the email and you are all in our thoughts and prayers.
St. Philip’s Catholic Primary School
Through her company J’ouvert Toute Monde, Geraldine was working on a commercial production of Carnival Messiah when she took ill. Her heart’s desire was that it will tour in large scale venues across the world commencing 2012 in London.
In her honour and memory, let’s make that happen!
If you would like to download this eulogy in pdf format, please click here.