El Verno: Master performer and beautiful Barbados’ biggest fan.
“Palm trees are swaying; night winds are blowing, softly they sing a song. To welcome you and yours to the island, cos this is where you belong.”
Put the above lyrics to the dulcet folk tones of El Verno, and you get a snatch of one of the many hits this famous Bajan created about his beloved island, Barbados.
Born Vern Best, the master drummer, poet, songwriter, dancer, and painter became better known as El Verno del Congo, a name he chose to reflect the spirituality and heritage inherent in his music in the ’70s.
El Verno became famous through dance; his big break was performing limbo at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1962.
While limbo is usually a quick party game in the Western world, in the Caribbean, it has important connotations.
As El Verno once explained, “The limbo dance portrays the struggle and eventual triumph, for as each bar drops, the challenge gets harder, but you overcome. It is, in fact, a very symbolic and spiritual dance.”
Spirituality was at the heart of everything El Verno did. His mission was to seek out, promote, and preserve Barbadian music’s spirituality and cultural traditions. El Verno aimed to keep the language and stories within Barbadian music alive and true. He wanted the rituals to be understood and eschewed, diluting American influences.
While fame came in the sixties, El Verno’s musical career began as a young boy. The church he attended musically influenced him, as did his parents, who were both singers; then, in 1956, as a teenager, he traveled to St Lucia and Martinique to play the club scene with Lord Melody and Marty Dimes.
The touring continued with some years spent in New York, Bermuda and a stint in Warsaw. In the late sixties, El Verno visited Cuba as a singer in a big band orchestra.
Drumming had always been at the heart of El Verno’s creativity; he made his drums in the fifties, but it didn’t become his primary focus until this inspiring trip.
As he put it, “Cuba taught me about rhythms. Cuba changed my life; I took it more seriously when I went to Cuba and saw how they handled the arts very seriously.
The experience gave him a new perspective on the training required to perfect his skills. He asked some local musicians for lessons in technique and then dedicated himself to practice.
El Verno suffered from kidney failure and spent 28 years on dialysis. His vision, innovation, and integrity showed his ability to deal with his illness and enjoy life despite it.
He believed music is therapy and once said, “The drum music is magical.”
When health problems affecting his hands made playing drums impossible, he learned how to use his body and voice to make rhythms.
He transferred the playing of an instrument to vocals, then trained others and toured the world performing this art. He was a participant and artistic director of many groups, including Yoruba House and the El Verno del Congo Ensemble. He has taken his experience and respect for Barbadian heritage and music and passed them down to a new generation of internationally known Bajan performers.
El Verno del Congo’s classics such as ‘Welcome the Morning Sun,’ ‘In Your Natural Way’ and ‘Barbados, You’re So Beautiful’ testify to his talent and continue his memory. El Verno del Congo passed away after a life of music in 2007.
Brett Callaghan is the founder and managing director of Totally Barbados. I specialize in writing content for the tourism industry for my island home of Barbados. I help companies build strategies to grow their businesses online with SMART marketing, advertising, and social media goals.