York faculty member researches the music of the Cayman Islands

It’s unusual in today’s interconnected and shrinking world to stumble across an undiscovered style of music, but that’s what York faculty member Paul Ormandy did when he visited a few small islands in the Caribbean.

It was during a trip to the Cayman Islands that Ormandy realized with delight that the Caymanian style of music was unique in the world and had been studied little, if ever. “It’s really most apparent in the drumming. They have a particular style of drumming. It’s like European-based rudimental drumming with a twist,” says Ormandy, who teaches percussion as well as Latin American and Caribbean music in York’s Department of Music in the Faculty of Fine Arts. “I’ve never seen anything like it ever in my entire career.”

Right: Paul Ormandy

Ormandy’s career as an educator, performer and researcher has taken him across North America, Europe, Japan and the Caribbean. As a percussionist, he’s performed as part of orchestras for Broadway shows, symphonies and operas including the Disney musical The Lion King, Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers and the Toronto revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Most recently, he performed with the orchestra as well as onstage as a cast member in Toronto’s world premiere run of The Lord of the Rings theatrical production.

In addition, he has performed locally with numerous ensembles including the Toronto salsa band Fantasia, The Soul Foundation, Kekeli: Ghanaian Drumming & Dance, Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and the Afropan Steelband, the last one for some 10 years. He was also one of the first few foreigners in Trinidad and Tobago’s famed Panorama National Steelband Competition with one of the winning bands Phase II Pan Groove Steel Orchestra in 1988.

So when Ormandy realized the Caymanian style of music was different from what he had experienced elsewhere in the Caribbean, he was immediately intrigued. The difference begins with the drumming. The Caymanians use a homemade drum. Their drumming style looks like British military drumming, but the grip they use is altered and they have added a bar to the top of the drum. The bar can be made out of metal or wood and is attached crossways on the upper rim of the drum. The player has the option of striking the bar with the drumsticks during play.

Left: Caymanian traditional drum

“It’s not unusual for drummers to play on the rim of a drum or even the shell of the drum, but to attach something to the drum, in the way they have done in Cayman, is so totally unusual,” says Ormandy. “Even though Caymanian drummers have been doing this for 100 years, this is something fresh and for whatever reason, it just fell under the radar.”

Ormandy, an MA candidate in the York’s ethnomusicology program, has been to the Cayman Islands six times already. The last time was to give a lecture, “Caribbean Influence in Mainstream Western Popular Music”, followed by a percussion workshop at the University College Cayman Islands in December.  

“It’s seems that Caymanian music has never been studied and there’s almost nothing published on it and very little recorded,” says Ormandy. There are a few recordings at the Cayman Islands National Archive but none of it, to his knowledge, has ever been transcribed with the exception of his own work, which is now part of the archive’s collection.

The problem is there are so few people left who play traditional-style music in the Cayman Islands. Ormandy has been introduced to two women who still play traditional-style drumming – one of them, Julia Hydes, will be turning 100 at the end of January. “She has been my primary living link to Caymanian traditional music,” says Ormandy. “She has composed, or ‘made’ as she calls it, a number of songs with drumming, which are now considered to be nationalistic symbols of Caymanian music.”

Right: Julia Hydes with her homemade Caymanian drum

Finding new areas to study in the musical world is difficult, so Ormandy feels really lucky to have the opportunity to explore Cayman’s traditional music. He is researching and studying it as part of his master’s degree at York and plans to study it further when he pursue his PhD at York next fall.

It’s not just the music that’s unique, says Ormandy. The three islands that make up the Cayman Islands – Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman – have never known civil unrest, have avoided plantocracy for the most part and have always been multicultural societies. They remain a crown colony of Great Britain. “While it is known primarily for tourism and offshore finance, it does, in fact, have an understated and rich culture that is approximately 400 years old,” he says.

“There’s a good chance that because of their isolation until the mid-1960s, something unusual would develop musically – it did. My goal is to help put those islands on the map musically speaking.”

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer