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.