Obits Jamaica - Celebrating Life

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The Dead Yaad

The Jamaican spirit is marked by genuine care and concern and in death the sentiments are celebrated within cultural spaces and one such space is the designated "dead yard". A popular practice which has survived many generations despite its origin in the African tradition is this practice of a "dead yaad", also known as the "nine night", "set up" or "wake" (depending on what parish you are in). It presently retains certain significant elements including a crowd, food, music and games, but has been transformed from its traditional forms in some instance by contemporary practices and flavours. From the night of the person’s passing to the night before the funeral, the bereaved family is showered with tangible and intangible support from relatives, friends of relatives, friends of friends and even non-affiliated persons from the immediate and/or neighbouring communities. Noticeably, the ‘tempo’ of the celebration gradually builds from night to night climaxing on the last night known as "singing night".

On the first night of the "dead yaad", a small group of persons consisting especially of close relatives and friends of the family sit indoors with the family to offer consolation through small talk and periods of silence; while in the family yard, a small gathering of supporters play a game of dominoes and indulge in a few flasks of rum. Traditionally, the "dead yaad" takes place in a booth constructed from bamboo and coconut or other thatch; the contemporary practice is however a large rented tent or tarpaulin mounted on tall sticks buried in the earth.

"Dead yaads" are rich cultural affairs known for food, music, dance and games. Traditional "dead yaad" food is fried fish (usually sprat) and hard-dough bread served with chocolate tea otherwise called "heavy oil". This is usually served on the final night of celebration. While white rum remains the main stay of all nights of celebration; in recent years soup is served nightly and the singing night menu has expanded to resemble a grand feast of curried goat and white rice, goat head soup (manish water), other local dishes and a wide array of drinks and liquors.

The features of entertainment in "dead yaad" has evolved overtime. The rich African forms have been interspersed with more modern cultural elements. The traditional African sounds of Bento, Kumina, Gereh or Dinki Mini characterized by rhythmic beats of drumming, punctuated by the humming of gourds and bamboo, tambourines, maracas and graters, has been augmented by more sophisticated drum sets, guitars and electronic keyboards broadcasted over Public Address (P.A.) systems. This is accompanied by the different styles of folk-dancing associated with the specific geographic location of the dead yaad. The process of engagement of entertainment has also changed, to become more formalized. Whereas in former times music was provided on a voluntary basis by community groups, currently these services are offered on a contractual basis by more established groups known as "duppy bands". Dependent on the lifestyle of the deceased, the music may also take the form of a dancehall-type sound system.

Much like the other entertainment forms, the games played at "dead yaad" have also experienced changes. While the domino playing remains, the more participatory ring-games (for example, "dung a manuel road") that were characteristic of old time "dead yaad" have disappeared from the recent celebrations. The major forms of interactions now centres around lyming and catching-up with friends and relatives not seen in a long time while enjoying the entertainment provided by the musicians of choice. The option to participate in the dancing still however remains for those so interested and has proven quite an interesting site for spectators.

Despite variations in the number of nights from the original seven or nine nights, an unchanged fact is that the final night otherwise called 'singing night' is the highlight of the "dead yaad". Of all the nights, it attracts the greatest crowd and features all the characteristic elements of food, music, dance and games. On this night, a special table is set up under a tent/booth which displays salt, water, lime, white rum, a Bible and a sankey hymn book. Each of these items hold some significance in the African tradition of sending home the spirit in an appropriate manner. Old time singing was done in a style known as tracking where someone will call out one line of the sankey at a time, and then the rest of the gathering will sing the line together. Whether duppy band or sound system, modern day singing night usually features the most up-tempo performances lasting into the wee hours or until sunrise on funeral morning. Singing night is characterized by the largest provision of food. It should be noted however that no food is served before midnight because it is believed that this is the time that the spirit passes through. The serving of the food is delayed for as long as possible in order to prolong the singing until daylight. When the crowd starts agitating for the food to be served, they usually sing "wi ago mash dung the booth and go home to hasten the serving".

While the Jamaican dead yaad has witnessed many changes, it maintains significant features of the country's largely African heritage. Dead yards remain an important custom and plays a vital role in supporting bereaved families and providing a forum for rich cultural engagement.

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