El Verno – An Artist of Varying Expressions
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 back in the 70’s.
El Verno came to fame through dance; his big break was performing limbo at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 1962.
While in the Western world limbo is usually a quick party game, in the Caribbean it has important connotations.
As El Verno once explained, “The limbo dance portrays 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 the spirituality and cultural traditions of Barbadian music. 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 while he was 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 travelled 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, in the fifties he was making his own drums, but it didn’t become his primary focus until this inspiring trip.
As he put it, “Cuba taught me about rhythms. Cuba changed my whole life, I took it more seriously when I went to Cuba and saw how they took the arts very, 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 practise.
El Verno suffered from kidney failure and spent a total of 28 years on dialysis. His vision, innovation and integrity showed through his ability to deal with his illness and enjoy life despite it.
He believed that music is therapy and once said, “The music of the drum is a magical thing.”
When health problems affecting his hands made it impossible for him to play drums, he learnt how to use his body and voice to make rhythms.
He transferred the playing of an instrument to vocals and 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 his respect of Barbadian heritage and music, and passed them down to a new generation of now 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’ are testament to his talent and continue his memory. El Verno del Congo passed away after a life of music in 2007.
Author: Brett Callaghan