Petronilla Deterville dies

The following article was written by John Robert Lee in November 2008 after Petronilla Deterville and her Cecilian Rays and other young musicians, had staged a concert that featured the music of Charles Cadet. She was in the midst of producing a student production of Rawle Gibbons’ “Sing de Chorus” directed by Kentilia Louis, when she died.

Educating yourself about music composition is a procedure that consumes lots of time. You may not know most of the things. That’s fine! You can start with all that you know so far about music. Focus on a particular skill of composition at a time. Here’s a great post to read that lets you know that starting with little skills is much easier to learn.

Photograph (l-r): Petronilla Deterville, Barbara Duboulay and Laurence Laurent, during Nobel laureate Week 2008, attending a Theatre Conference.

The Folk Research Centre mourns her passing and offers condolences to her family and the community of Anse La Raye.

Petronilla Deterville – a genuine heroine

As with so many of our significant words, “hero” has become devalued by misunderstanding and politicization. Efforts to identify and honour national heroes have foundered, either because of indifference or because ‘heroes’ would be raised up on their political mileage. The cultural heroes gallery of the FRC has been more successfully framed with the lifetime achievements of Harold Simmons, Dame Sesenne Descartes and Dunstan St. Omer, since no one can dispute their outstanding contributions to our cultural life. And those at great personal cost and sacrifice. (In the case of Simmons who died a suicide in 1966, the price of his commitment was tragic.)

            The dictionary definition of hero places courage or outstanding achievements as the qualification for heroic status. And the potential hero is clearly home when the achievements are gained by extraordinary courage. So — it is too early to lay the heavy burden of hero on Darren Sammy or Laverne Spencer. (I would even suggest that it is too soon to lay the mantle of superstar/hero on the majority of our local soca chanters, but I don’t want to go down that road at this time.)

            Occasionally I become aware of certain St. Lucian community leaders for whose selfless dedication I can offer nothing less than great admiration. They include teachers, nurses, social welfare workers, creative arts group leaders, and they are often women. I’m sure if I searched more thoroughly I would find persons in agriculture, fishing, various trades, the religious life and other areas whose love for the people in their village or town is proven by the number of hours they give to their causes. Those who care for the elderly and homeless must be top of the list.

                        Anyway, I want to sing the praises of one of these community figures to whom I would give the title of “heroine”.

            For 27 years, Petronilla Deterville of Anse La Raye (with Canaries, surely one of the most destitute of our tiny, picturesque villages) has led the Cecilian Rays. They are principally a village choir of very young persons. Their feature has been folk music, and they have ventured into musical theatre (no mean feat), performing the folk musical Tinday at the 1992 Carifesta and locally.  The play was written by poet McDonald Dixon, with music composed by Charles Cadet. I remember one of the leading performers in 1992 was a little shabeen child who later developed into the very talented Nadeige.

            For their 27th anniversary, The Cecilian Rays, under the indefatigable leadership of their founder and director Mrs. Deterville, have presented an evening of the songs of Charles Cadet. This was held on St. Cecilia’s day, November 22nd, at the Castries Comprehensive Secondary School. Accompanying the Rays were the Helen Folk Dancers and the Silver Shadow Dancers.

Time out: to remind readers who may not know, that Charles Cadet is the composer of St. Lucia’s Christmas anthem Poinsettia Blossoms. He has also composed a number of other ‘classical folk’ songs, including Ode to an artist for the late actor Howick Elcock who died in 1972. (That song was recently revived by Barbara Cadet, cousin to Charles, in honour of Sir John Compton.) Charles Cadet is also well-known for his unique collaboration with the other Walcott twin, Roderick (1930-2000) on all his popular musical plays. These include Banjo Man, Chanson Marianne, Conte Mabouya, The Wonderful World of Brother Rabbit. Walcott and Cadet have made a very unique and significant contribution to the development of Caribbean musical theatre, that is still largely unrecognized.

For St. Lucia’s first Independence celebrations in 1979, he composed a Mass for Independence, performed then, but yet to be presented again. For Jamaica’s 25th Anniversary of Independence he composed a piece titled A dream of freedom which premiered in London. In more recent years he has composed songs for younger singers like Lennie Stone and Elra Ermay.

            Cadet was well known among his contemporaries of the fifties and sixties as one of our best tenors.

            To get back to Petronilla Deterville and what I consider her heroic status: the group with which Mrs. Deterville produced the Tribute to Charles Cadet numbered almost fifty. Fifty energetic, and no doubt, very contemporary young St. Lucians. I kept thinking, as the show progressed, if these kids were not there that night, on the stage of the CCSS, if they had not been working on this production over the past few weeks, they could have been lost somewhere in the criminal and promiscuous under-world of Anse la Raye or Canaries or the other communities from which they come.

            And Petronilla Deterville has been working with these young people, and others like them, for twenty-seven years! Parents, teachers, counselors, police officers and others who work on the front line of youth problems today, will appreciate the heroic undertaking of this courageous woman.

            But not only has Petronilla Deterville determined that the youth of Anse La Raye have a creative group to come to, to develop their talents in — she has made the promotion and development of St. Lucian music her foremost goal. She has now ensured that the life-long work of Charles Cadet in his composition of St. Lucian ‘classical-folk’ music will not be forgotten. In implanting the lyrics and music of this master’s songs into the memories of these young people, she guarantees that they will endure.

            But there is more: on the night of the performance she announced the launch of the Anse La Raye Charles Cadet Youth Orchestra, complete with acronym ACYO! To see little boys and girls from the west coast shouldering their violins and bowing away is nothing less than a miraculous sight! Yes, out of Anse la Raye that neglected village — home, by the way, of the unassuming People’s Kaiso Monarch Herb Black. Some brown paper bags were passed around for the collection of whatever funds were given, so that more instruments would be bought for the Orchestra. What has been achieved in Anse La Raye by Mrs. Deterville is a model of what is possible elsewhere.

            We who have been working for years in the metropolis of Castries in the creative arts are loud in our complaints of the indifference and official neglect encountered. Not without reason. However, Mrs. Deterville, in far more limiting circumstances, with far less resources, and only she knows at what personal sacrifice and heartbreak, has kept her group alive and growing. She is proving what many have been shouting for years — that the creative arts can make an important and vital contribution to our young people and communities. Instead of guns and knives and drugs these young people of the Cecilian Rays, and now the ACYO, are taking up their voices, their costumes, their instruments and the songs of composers like Charles Cadet and Herb Black, and building for themselves and us, the creative St. Lucia of today and tomorrow.

            For these reasons, for her great courage and real achievements, Petronilla Deterville, is for me, a true St. Lucian hero