I don’t know if all grade school music classes are this way, but in public school in the Midwest where I grew up, the majority of our musical education consisted of 20-30 students standing on risers and singing songs, led by our teacher who accompanied the tunes on piano. Only gym class, with its hurtling projectiles and sweaty exertion, stood as a stranger contrast to the otherwise rote academic schedule. We’d file onto the risers, the teacher would talk to us about a song and perhaps play it once solo, and then we’d all sing together with the lyrics printed for us on paper or scrawled on a dry erase board.
My fourth grade teacher elevated this technique to a level that proved memorable for me. She went out of her way to select songs the students might actually enjoy singing, to keep us, or perhaps her, interested. So we sang catchy show tunes from the musical Oliver! or contemporary soft-rock hits like “That’s What Friends Are For” (this being the mid-80s). We crooned the words of campy TV themes to The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo, in a curious medley of Hanna-Barbera cartoon hits. Perhaps most bizarre was her selection of a song from Return of the Jedi. “Ewok Celebration” was a victory song sung near the end of the film by a race of teddy bear-like aliens, after their successful defense of their habitat against the evil Empire. The song moved in a staccato tribal dance tempo, and its lyrics, which we dutifully learned and sang, were written in whatever primitive language the furry creatures spoke. While other students were learning about Gershwin and Beethoven, we were celebrating the intergalactic equivalent of the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan. This went beyond the classroom, as we had periodic evening concerts in the school gymnasium, wherein parents would sit and listen to their nine- and ten-year-olds bellow such lyrics as G’noop dock fling oh ah!
But that’s just background, and today’s installment of Travelin’ Playlist Essentials does not come from George Lucas’ space opera. Obviously, my teacher’s musical selections proved memorable, and Ewoks aside, there was no song that stuck in my brain better than a random Caribbean ditty called “Rukumbine.”
For this tune, our teacher provided us with lyrics written in pidgin English, and we sang them in a lively Jamaican creole fashion:
Train top a bridge jus-a run like a breeze
An’ a gal underneat’ it a wash her chemise
Oh Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Rookoombine eena Santa Fe,
Went Kingston town
Just to have me look around’
But instead look aroun’
Oh, me spent every poun’.
Just to buy conga drum
But instead of de drum,
Look, me drink up de rum.
She explained to us details like that a “chemise” was a shirt, Santa Fe was a town in Jamaica, and that the “Rookoombine” (spellings, among other details of the song, vary) was a train that supposedly took one there. The song’s catchy melody and other-worldly lyrics stuck with me beyond childhood. Ewoks I knew all about: Their forested moon home of Endor, their primitive weapons and attire, their singular hero Wicket W. Warrick. In fact it was about time we’d covered that in school, and I’d have aced any exam on the subject. But Jamaica – where and what in the hell was Jamaica?
For many years I never heard the song or any reference to it again. My musical interests expanded, including the requisite foray into Bob Marley’s venerable greatest hits compilation. My knowledge of Jamaica and the Caribbean grew as well. But not once did I hear the song on the radio, referenced in pop culture, or even its title ever spoken again. I’d begun to wonder how it ever wound up in a public school music class repertoire. Was my teacher the daughter of missionaries or members of the foreign service stationed in Kingston? Did she date a Rastafarian who played traditional folk songs on guitar for her? Perhaps the song was minstrelsy – written by whites for the soul purpose of inclusion in cheap songbooks, sandwiched between “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”
But in the age of the internet search, few memories stay clouded long when one chooses to investigate. And so I found on iTunes a brassy, rollicking version of the song. Its title was not spelled as I remembered it, and depending on the album, it was credited either to Shenley Duffus (sometimes referred to as “Chandley Dussus”) or Bobby Aitken. Stranger still was the fact that the songs verses were nothing like I recalled. Gone were references to chemises and “Kingston town.” In their place were a salutation to “Mother Cuba” and not-so-subtle sexual verse:
Me seh the higher the hill
The greener the grass
The younger the gal
Is the sweeter she kiss
This ska version of the song seemed to have less to do with a train, as in the next verse a girl is picking an “ackee” fruit from a tree and a boy is washing khakis. Finally the song references an engine running on fire and coal, almost as an afterthought. At first I thought the song had made the rounds in Cuba as well as Jamaica. That would also explain the reference to Santa Fe; Jamaica was originally settled by the Spanish before the British took control, but I so far can find no reference to a Santa Fe on that island. There is, on the other hand, a Santa Fe town in Cuba, and a Santa Fe neighborhood in Havana. However, Duffus was Jamaican-born and bred, so I’m not sure why he’d take a Cuban angle on a traditional Jamaican folk song.
There are a few message boards discussing the song and parsing its lyrics, and it’s been suggested more than once that “rukumbine” is pidgin for “recombine,” meaning reuniting in sexual congress. I have not seen this confirmed by anyone, and it has been repeated so many times I wonder if it’s just an internet theory posing as truth.
In his dissertation, Mento, Jamaica’s original music: Development, tourism and the nationalist frame, Daniel Neely seems to have shed more light on the song than an army of internet keyboard jockeys could. Neely says that “Rukumbine” is a “nonsense word, sometimes having sexual overtones,” and that it was often used interchangeably in Jamaica with the more explicit “Soldering” to refer to intercourse. Neely identifies Rukumbine as a melodic style that may have first been laid on wax as far back as 1925, but the song of that title was first arranged and published in the early 1950s (in Tom Murray’s book Folk Songs of Jamaica). He identifies Duffus’ 1963 ska version (of the form, but also it seems the song), with backup by the Skatalites, among other versions. That recording may have been wrongly credited to Bobby Aitken by Treasure Isle Records at some point. According to the Jamaica Journal, the song was lyrically sanitized and performed in the ’50s by a traveling harmony group called the Frats Quintet.
Whatever its origins or lyrics, “Rukumbine” is an infectious song, something to cue on your flight to the warm waters of the Caribbean.