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Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy and James Early, 1989. Photo by Ralph Rinzler

Imogene “Queenie” Kennedy and James Early, 1989. Photo by Ralph Rinzler

  • The ‘Re-communalization’ of a Jamaican Kumina Drum

    Imogene Kennedy, or Queenie as we called her, was a queen and tradition bearer of Kumina, a Congolese religion that established roots in Jamaica after Emancipation in the 1850s by indentured African laborers and continues today among certain Jamaican communities.

    While on vacation with our families in Jamaica in 1989, Smithsonian Folklife Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler and I decided to visit Queenie. We had met her through folklorist colleague Dr. Olive Lewin, founder of the Jamaican Memory Bank and curator of the Jamaican community component of the African Diaspora program at the 1975 Folklife Festival. Ralph sat mostly quiet during this riveting, joyous reconnection and took numerous photographs, while Queenie and I had bonded way beyond our roles as Kumina queen, Congo-Jamaican tradition bearer, and Smithsonian cultural heritage researcher. We had become close friends.

    Queenie was born in Dalvey, St. Thomas Parish, Jamaica, second-generation African, likely in the late 1920s. Her entrance into the world of the Kumina religion is documented in Olive Lewin’s book, Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica. While searching for coconuts in a gully, the Spirits took her to a large, hollow cotton tree where she said she stayed twenty one days without food or water, hanging upside down, communicating with the ancestral spirits who taught her prayers and songs in the Kikongo African language. From that epiphany she became a Kumina queen.

    Queenie in her home in Jamaica, 1989.
    Queenie in her home in Jamaica, 1989.
    Photo by Ralph Rinzler

    I never questioned or tried to seek reason to accept or reject Queenie’s epiphany. She was so who she was—and I did not understand or feel a confident pathway into her world. To me, Queenie was a Magical Figure. When she danced, her feet moved with such pace, balance, grace, and motion as to seem to hover.

    Her voice—from way inside the soul, not just her lungs—bellowed from somewhere beyond, with a projected resonance that established connections with spiritual kin and believers-receivers of Ancestral Calls.

    She transitioned to the Ancestors in 1998. But before then, during that animated afternoon in 1989 as she anticipated her limited time in this world, she showed me a small hand drum that was made and played by one of her late brothers, who were also members of her Kumina community.

    She told me, “Take this drum to the Smithsonian.”


    I always felt the drum belonged in Jamaica. I could not say that to Queenie after she said, “The Messengers are coming for me,” and then handed me the drum. I received the instrument as a private citizen, not as a professional collector of cultural objects. For twenty-five years I debated when, under what auspices, and to whom I would return the drum.

    The conversation began with Donna McFarland, director-curator of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey in Kingston, under the rationale of “cultural repatriation” of the drum to the nation of Jamaica. The idea churned in my mind and in exchanges with my son, JaBen, and my wife, Miriam, both of whom knew and respected Queenie. Eventually, I was contacted by Anne Marie Bonner, executive director of the Institute of Jamaica who requested to meet with me about the return of the drum and digitization of Jamaican community cultural materials from Smithsonian Folklife Festivals held in the Ralph Rinzler Archives. I decided to take the drum back to the island, under one condition: that Jamaican Kumina communities formally welcome the drum home.

    On July 27 of this year, I returned Queenie’s drum to Jamaica with a mixed sense of personal and professional emotions. My past with her seemed to come alive at the drum repatriation ceremony, which I redubbed “re-communalization” upon seeing and feeling the spirits manifested by the Portland Parish Kumina community who came to consecrate the drumat the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica.

    The formal ceremony featured the minister of culture, Jamaican cultural heritage scholars, government stewards, “All-Other Protocols Observed,” and my own speech and official hand-over of the drum. The Portland Kumina community arrived late, well after the formal program. With all but three or four public attendees and staff remaining in the hall, they appropriated the space to begin their consecration ritual.

    Upon their arrival, two worlds of official cultural practice—professional cultural heritage museology and state-authorized cultural policy—suspended authority to the Kumina, the living-community of cultural decision-makers and practitioners, as they performed the ritual. The woman leader spewed Wray and Nephew White rum from her mouth onto the vitrine that housed the now “re-communitized” drum. They spoke to the drum as a Being, not as an object or artifact. They took possession of it, repaired it with a handy metal door-stop, set it outside in the sun to be revived, and returned to play it alongside a “king drum” in a joyous song and dance.

    Kumina queen drum
    The Kumina queen drum
    Photo by James Early

    “A queen needs a king drum,” they said. “There is no queen or king without the other.”

    The next day we discovered that the Portland Kumina community left, without notice, a king drum on the floor to accompany the returned queen drum.

    I came to understand that the drum was much more than an object of Jamaican cultural heritage. For Kumina religious practitioners, the return of the drum was a reengagement of a “Living Spirit” with community, placed in public-trust and stewardship of the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica where Queen Imogene Kennedy’s life and religious community is memorialized.


    The story does not end here. It continues with reinvigoration of the life of Queenie, renewed professional cultural research, and statecraft that supports and reflects grassroots visions, skills and crafts, and humanity.

    The lesson learned, likely among more to come, is that museums, community-oriented cultural organizations, and national institutions have ongoing responsibilities with living cultural communities that stretch our professional practices and community traditions into new, potentially fruitful and complicated cultural stewardship with challenging past precedence, beckoning a future with mutual discoveries.

    This ongoing engagement of community cultural voice and national identity was best captured in the comments by Jamaican Minster of Culture Lisa Hanna:

    “This drum has become a part of us and a part of who we are and is inextricably intertwined with us as a people. And that is why even this year when we sat down to celebrate and to craft Emancipation, we have taken Emancipation deliberately outside of Independence. [The celebration] was usually to be called Emancipendence. We’ve done away with that. We now have what is called the Celebration of the Drums in every parish to herald in Emancipation starting this year because of the significance of the drum to Jamaica.”

    James Early is the director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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