Remembering O.P.

Today, the unthinkable happened. (I am starting writing this post on July 5, 2017, but I know it will take some time to finish it, so make allowances.) Cleophas Adderley has died. He had been ill for some time, fighting a cancer that appeared under the guise of appendicitis, and fighting was the right word for it. He held it at bay far longer than anyone had the right to expect, given his genetics and the stage at which the cancer was discovered—so long, in fact, that we began to imagine, to hope, that he had it licked. But this year it became clear that his time was running out, like sand through a glass. There was nothing more that could be done.

And yet. To be forced to say goodbye to Cleophas—O. P. to those who knew him long—was unthinkable.

Today, he stepped out of his earthly body and moved somewhere else for good.

*

Once upon a time, I asked my father if he (my father, Clement Bethel) was a musical genius.

I had been told by many people that he was. The story that people loved most was the story of my four-year-old father watching his eldest sister Ruth practice the piano. Ruth was studying piano, as sixteen-year-old girls did back in the 1940s, especially sixteen-year-old girls who were part of Gospel Hall families. The Gospel Hall needed young hands to play piano for the big church service. I’m not sure whether she was studying with Mrs. Cumberbatch or with Miss Stuart, but the story I was told was my father would watch her practice, and then when she was finished he would climb up onto the piano stool and play the pieces she was slaughtering flawlessly. At four.

I considered that genius, which prompted the question.

“No,” said my father. “I was a prodigy. That’s different. You grow out of that. I’m not a genius. Cleophas is a musical genius.”

*

I have known Cleophas almost as long as I have known myself. Perhaps there’s a span of a year or two that is different: I retain a few memories from the first two years of my life. But my first memory of him was as a tall thin boy who came to my father for music lessons. I was two or three, and we had just moved into Norfolk Street, Shirlea, where we were renting a house from friends. There are a few things I remember about that house, in particular my father’s piano students. The one I remember best was Cleophas, possibly because the music that emanated from the front room when he was there was memorable. I was three; he would have been eleven or twelve, but to me he looked huge. He kept coming to my father for lessons, even after we moved into Johnson Road, and then, when he became a student at the Government High School, he used to visit our house not only to talk music to my father but also to talk French and Spanish with my mother.

When my brother and I were grown up, Cleophas was one of those people who visited our home every Christmas. I saw him more often, of course. We moved in the same circles, as he was a member of Christ Church Cathedral, like me; as his mother was good friends with my grandmother, and we visited the house in Dorchester Street once or twice; as he sang in my father’s choir and hung out at the Yarallis’ with the rest of us. But every Christmas, after the sun had gone down and people had had their Christmas dinners, Cleophas would visit my parents, bringing my father and mother their Christmas presents. He was part of our extended family. He was a big brother, a cousin, a friend.

*

There’s an interview with Cleophas in the International Journal of Bahamian Studies. If you don’t know the quality or range of his work, I urge you to read it. Even if you do, or think you do, read it anyway. Excerpts are on YouTube, but the interview was much longer. In it, he talks about his musical training, his musical influences, and his oeuvre, and as he does so I understand what my father meant when he called Cleophas a genius. Cleophas was a man whose first language was music, and he was also a man who spent his life trying to master the instruments and techniques that would allow him to get the music out of his head and into a form that other people could read, share, and play.

Many Bahamians didn’t understand his music. Many dismissed it as “foreign” or “white” or “not Bahamian enough”. Here’s what I think: a lot of those who did so have been raised to imagine that nationality trumps humanity. Many of them are the same people who believe that education destroys culture, that learning too much will erase one’s authenticity, that the only worthwhile talent is that which is raw, unpractised, and comes from the “soul”. Because they believe that they haven’t spent enough time with art from around the world to realize that every talented human being starts with similar impulses, and that it is only by studying, by spending time and effort to master and control one’s talent that one truly elevates it. Too many people who believe in “talent” rather than effort and study end up creating things that are boring, ordinary, and done-before because they haven’t spent enough time finding out what has and hasn’t already been shared and presented—without understanding, indeed, what it is that makes theirs unique. They’re like people who look down at the ground and shout “AHA! I’ve discovered an ant!!” without knowing that ants were described and studied long ago, and who are surprised and hurt when people dismiss their contribution.

Cleophas was most certainly not one of those people. He was born with a pure and massive talent. He was the kind of man who heard music always in his head. The music he heard was not simple. But it was pure, the kind of music which one can conclude comes straight from God himself. (Those people who are familiar with the play or movie Amadeus will understand what I mean here.) It was not imaginable; it was delivered to his head through some means we can conveniently call supernatural. (In Amadeus, the narrator Salieri describes it “as though he were taking dictation … as though he were hearing the voice of God.”) But because it was so pure and complete, he could not express it without mastering music itself. Cleophas’ music was often impossible for one voice to sing. What he heard in his head often required many voices, or orchestration. As he himself put it:

the theme for the overture [of his opera Our Boys], I wrote when I was sixteen years old. At that time I was a student at Government High School and one of our studies was fugues. So it’s in fugal form, but it was too syncopated for the lesson (because you have to be able to play it). Then it dawned on me that this is something I need to develop when I have an orchestra or individual musicians. One musician can’t play all those cross rhythms. – Gangelhoff, Gibson & Johnson (2011), “From Classical to Calypso: An Interview with Bahamian Composer and Conductor Cleophas R. E. Adderley”.

So to share what he heard in his head, to express the music that flowed inside it, Cleophas had to learn the theory behind writing down music. He had to learn to play instruments so he could play the music. He had to learn how to conduct, to arrange, to orchestrate.  Thankfully, he did, and he has left the Bahamian people with a legacy that is unparallelled in this world.

*

But Cleophas was not only a musician. He was a lawyer, a master of the English language, a connoisseur of the visual arts, an aficionado of ballet—and a tailor. He learned the latter skill from his grandfather, Robert M. Bailey, who, with Arthur Lunn, was one of the West Nassau tailors to the society which gathered around the Duke of Windsor in the 1940s. Cleophas used to make all his clothes, all his suits, and he designed and may at one time have actually made the prototypes of the costumes he used in the choir. His creativity and his brilliance were evident to all who talked to him. He was God’s gift to us all.

There’s another interview with Cleophas, this one from the documentary about Winston Saunders’ life, When a Man Dreams Dreams. In this one, he talked about how he came to write his opera.

 

*

As we remember him, as we mourn him, as we reflect on the loss to us all personally and to the nation as a whole, we need also to pay attention. In order to write what would become the first grand opera in the English-speaking Caribbean, Cleophas Adderley, genius and gift to the nation, was forced to sequester himself, was forced to find time to exercise his God-given talent. This tells us not only about him, but something about ourselves and our society. I have absolutely no doubt that over the next few weeks, politicians and civil servants and ordinary citizens will wax eloquent about what we have lost in Cleophas’ passing. Beyond the personal grief that those of us who knew him as a friend will feel, there is a national grief, a national loss as well.

But we would be wise to be cautious here. Because I would say that our nation lost something before Cleophas died as well. For there was much more music in him. There was much, much, much more music in his head. I suspect he heard it all the time, that God talked to him in musical phrases and choruses, and that if he had had the time he would have written more, much more.

I’m not talking about his lifespan here. I’m talking about the hours he had available to him each day, and the fact that we have not created a society that allows creative Bahamians the space to exercise their talents to their fullest while at the same time they make a living. We need also to reflect on the poverty that we force on all Bahamians by not having created a space where people like Cleophas could flourish full time. The fact that Cleophas was a lawyer, not a full-time musician, that he had to work his creating around his day job, is an indictment on us all.

*

Cleophas Adderley has gone. He has left us with exquisite, difficult music that is hard for ordinary mortals to perform but, which when mastered, sounds like the voice of heaven. We are blessed that he was allowed to walk with us, to talk with us, to be as human as he was with us (because anyone who knew and loved Cleophas knows that he was not the easiest person to please, not the easiest person to get along with; he was blunt and direct, he took offence easily, and he never hesitated to tell you—often in the mildest possible tones—when he was not happy). But he has left us also with a responsibility. As a people, we need to strive, as he did, for perfection in all that we do. And we need to ensure, going forward, that we will continue to produce musicians who are capable of mastering his music. And for that, our national love of mediocrity will just no longer do.

*

Walk good, O.P. You are beloved and you are already missed.

23 thoughts on “Remembering O.P.

    1. Thanks Nicolette. I rejoice in my sadness for the contributions you make to the arts and culture in the Bahamas. Both your parents were my mentor, your mom and I also share the same birth date.

      Thank you! PLEASE keep up the good work, and thanks for helping us understand and appreciate legends like Cleophas.

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  1. Cleophas’ eyes, when he was making a point or when he thought you were grossly misinformed, virtually popped out of his head. Then that rapier tongue would slice you open. Thank you for reminding me of the OP I knew and giving me even more to admire him for. “Beloved” and “will be missed” – truth.

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  2. Condolences to you and your family Dr. Bethel. What a beautiful tribute to Mr. Adderley….who was truly a gift from God. Thank you for reminding us of his genius mind, heart and spirit. He was indeed a blessing in my life while I worked with him during his tenture at the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture. May God continue to bless you and give you strenght during this time in your life.

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  3. What a candid tribute Nicolette. We have truly lost a kegend, but there is no doubt that his legacy will live forever. He has indeed impacted the nation through his passion and drive for excellence. We must not hesitate to give credit to the fact that he was of good stock, hence the attributes you and all others constantly mention. May his soul rest in peace.

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  4. Love the insight into identity and expression that you so aptly framed. From what is written this conundrum truly is wrapped up in what ‘Cleophas Adderley’ (as a construct and function of our society) was, and probably is.

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  5. Unlike Nicolette Bethel, I did not know Cleophas Adderley personally, but I was somewhat familiar with him through his work with The Bahamas National Youth Choir. It is obvious, from what has been said and written about him and his work, that he was beyond the mere word gifted. What is troubling to me, that it was not until death was “troubling his door” that he was awarded the Bahamian Icon Award, which he so aptly deserved. It is important that we give our best and brightest their just desserts while they can appreciate and enjoy them. None-the-less, I am sure that Cleophas is conducting a choir in the confines of his eternal home….Comduct and play on maestro as only you can do!

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  6. Thank you for writing this, Nicolatte. You raised many important points that we, as a people, need to reflect upon. As for Cleophas, those of us who knew him were blessed – you right whe you wrote about his connection with the divine – he was one of those rare individuals who radiated pure light. RIP beautiful man.

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  7. Wonderful tribute, Nico. I loved the time I spent in the short lived National Adults’ Choir which he conducted. He demanded perfection musically and behaviourally and brought out the best in everyone. I was so sorry when it was discontinued as he was the best I had experienced here. We kept in touch after the choir and like everyone else, I will miss him.

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  8. Thank you, Nico, for sharing so beautifully the Cleophas you knew. Please consider writing a book about him. He was a special treasure.

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  9. Wonderful commentary, Nicolette! As you almost always do, you captured the essence of your subject — a brilliant and complicated man with a brilliant, complicated and sweet soul. I still cannot get over his death, even though it was not unexpected. I always hoped for a miracle.

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  10. Bravo Bravo Bravo Well Written!!!! My Cousin OP Was An Amazing Magical Icon That Will Forever Be A Wonderful Legend Living Within Our Hearts ……….I Love You Op & Missing you!!!!! RIP💔

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  11. A beautiful and thoughtful tribute. We have certainly been privileged as a country to have had such a brilliant and dedicated culturalist, mentor, educator, advisor and friend who inspired so many! We may never fully understand and appreciate the scope of sacrifices and contributions Cleophas injected into this country…..but at the end of the day, he inspired us all to reach beyond the walls of mediocrity and aspire for more….and if only for this, his living was not in vain! In his short years with us, he’s accomplished more than most ever will. Take your well deserved rest, Mr. Cleophas R.E. Adderley.

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  12. Beautifully done. Much known of our icons are not known. A perfectionist of culture. Will truly be missed. May his soul R.I.P. Amen

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  13. Thank you, Nicolette. Cleophas was truly a musical genius. I am just grateful to have had opportunities to interact with him and observe the ultimate perfectionist.

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  14. Niclotte this is truly an amazing piece and it bearly touches the person we all know to be a perfectionist. I wish that we as Bahamians would take his lessons and settle for nothing but exceptional work in school to begin with and then whatever else we do.
    This is truly an awesome piece I hope someone will publish it so our kids can see what our country has lost.

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  15. Nicolette this article moved me to tears and laughter. I remember so well his list of persons he visited on Christmas Day without fail. OP was so generous in sharing his talent. If you were willing to learn and excel he was willing to teach. When you first pick up a piece of OPs choral music you wonder how the hell are you supposed to sing this without getting thrown off by the other seven competing parts. But after lots of hard work the magic happens and glorious music pours forth. I thank God for 34 years of friendship. I will never forget his laugh and his passion for excellence.

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  16. A well written piece, Nicolette. The Bahamas has truly lost a musical genius and I hope we can find a way as a people to keep his memory and works alive.

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  17. Nicolette, your story was much appreciated and it is with great regret that Sandy and I are unable to attend the memorial for Cleophas tomorrow. We are currently in England attending to a very sick family member. I remember Cleophas well in our work together in the Nassau Music Society over many years and we have so many good memories. We too will miss him. Our heartfelt best wishes to his family and to his wider family

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