Songs to clap and move to

6th September 1996 at 01:00
DOWN BY THE RIVER. Compiled by Grace Hallworth, illustrated by Caroline Binch. (Heinemann Pounds 9.99).

James Berry enjoys an anthology of Caribbean playground hits.

New generations of children will read or hear or play a rhyme game from Down by the River. They will be thoroughly tickled and thrilled by discovering and sharing it. Many children will work pieces from it and not even know or care that Grace Hallworth collected them and had them printed.

As a child in Trinidad, she soaked up a lot of these play songs. Although I grew up in Jamaica, I instantly recognised a number of them. For a start, "There's a Brown Girl in a Ring" was a well-worked ring game for us. It was not at all surprising that, a few years ago, it received pop music treatment and flew into the international music charts.

The word variations of these school playground pieces from around the various English-speaking Caribbean Islands show up with much interest in the collection - for example, "Skipping Rope". When we used it with skipping in Jamaica we changed the repeating word "shell" to "head". So our variation was: "Bapsi-ky-sico pindar head". Another one is, "We Don't Care", which starts: Children, children, Yes, Mamma.

Where yo' been to?

Gran Mamma.

What she give yo'?

Two apples...

After "What she give yo'?", our Jamaican version went on with its dialogue: "Bread and cheese. Where is my share? Up in the air. How am I to reach it? Climb on a chair. Suppose I fall? I do not care. Who taught that manners? Dog. Who's the dog? You." Then in yells and squeals, to get away from a hit as punishment, the group is broken up giving chase.

Many of these play songs have their origins in other places. They carry the influences of African, English, French, Spanish and other cultures.

Yet, whether using its own deep-rooted language traditions, or moulding in new influences and impressions, the Caribbean has a way of absorbing sounds and recreating them into distinct sound entities that are unmistakably Caribbean.

These play rhymes and songs are like that. To see and hear them in performance, with hand claps and body movements - between palm trees, flame trees, bamboo clusters - in town or village schoolyards, or simply in rural village yards, is to experience a tuneful, rhythmic and joyful participation.

The other dimension of this captivating book is the creative involvement of the artwork by Caroline Binch. Backgrounds are vivid, particular and confident, like built-in protective faces of a place.

Characterisations of children and animals emerge with an eye that transfers detailed truths.

I wish I had had a book like this to sleep with during my schooldays.

James Berry has published poetry with New Beacon Books and the Oxford University Press. His most recent book of poems, Hot Earth, Cold Earth was published by Bloodaxe Books. His most recent book for children was Playing a Dazzler published by Hamish Hamilton.

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