Grace Carter-Henry Lyons grew up with a strong work ethic; the daughter of the late Rev. Dr. J.J. Carter-Henry was raised with a healthy dose of Jamaican roots and culture. Her childhood was fashioned by solid principles and high ambitions. The church played a leading role in her family and nurtured her love of the arts and sense of community and fellowship ingredients that would later serve her very well.
Where there is faith there is music, this has been the path of the Black experience through good times, through struggle and through upliftment. Reared, as it were in the bosom of the church, Grace started on the church organ and quickly moved on to examinations with the Royal School of Music. She was tutored in singing by former Julliard School of Music Graduate the Late Joyce Britton. Before leaving Jamaica, Grace joined the Jamaica Folk Singers which acted as an entry point to founding and directing the Heritage Singers shortly after arriving in Canada. “The Heritage Singers was founded because it was apparent that while there were a number or organizations dedicated to perpetuating Caribbean Culture throughout the Community, there was still a need for this form of expression. We have worked hard to maintain an ambience of goodwill and to continuously strive towards professionalism”.
The nostalgia for her home was never far from the surface. Grace worked hard to preserve the simple stories that provide the running narrative of Jamaica, its history, its people, the country’s development, its famous, infamous and most colourful characters. These stories were told through sweeping dance movements, animated performances and vibrant costumes. It all started with a group of friends, thrown together by a longing for home, a love of performing and a determination to expand the cultural capital of their adopted country Canada. They broke ground at another cultural institution, Harbourfront Centre with their inaugural performance in 1977 and became known for their cheerful dances and engaging folk stories. Grace has a wealth of business knowledge from 15 years in the banking industry to over 20 years as a real estate professional. Grace has won countless awards over the years including a prestigious Harry Jerome Award for Business Excellence, a Women of Excellence Award from the Congress of Black Women and many other awards for her achievements from the real estate industry. And yet all of her considerable accomplishments competed with her love of the arts. In the arts, she flourished as a whole human being taking on the roles of musical director, dancer and patron with zeal. Thirty years ago when the Heritage Singers were first formed, Canada was a very different place with a vastly different cultural landscape. Diversity was an emerging concept and foreigners were viewed with little more than veiled suspicion. A mere 10 years after Expo ‘67, where Caribana was born, Grace saw an opportunity for the Heritage Singers to expand cultural understanding and dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about her native homeland. It was on the cusp of this changing Canada, amidst a hotbed of both social and cultural growth, that Grace’s vision of the Heritage Singers was born. The group’s mission, shepherded by Grace Carter-Henry Lyons included a mandate to promote the development of Caribbean folk music and theatre to the greater community, to donate part of the proceeds from fund-raising events to charitable organizations, to use folksinging and dance as tools to enhance ethnic, historic, and social traditions relevant to the Caribbean, African, and other communities, and to bridge cultural gaps by helping other ethnic groups develop an awareness of and respect for cultures other than their own.
For Grace, culture is a living breathing and organic entity, constantly informing all aspects of our lives. She has directed the Heritage Singers based on a credo of exploration and exchange that has served the group so well and enabled them to forge many unique and enduring global partnerships over the decades. Whether the group is participating in a Folk Festival in Holland, performing for Jamaica’s national treasure the late Miss Lou, attending a conference in Asia, or touring Mexico and Germany; the Heritage Singers carries with it the spirit of the arts and is warmly received wherever they perform. It is precisely because of their willingness to go far a field one day singing in Dutch, another day collaborating with groups in Taiwan that The Heritage Singers have grown and persevered over the last 32 years.
Were Grace Carter Henry Lyons not an accomplished real estate professional with many accolades and awards to her credit- she may well have turned out to be a full-time ambassador, not of politics or economics but of culture and humanity. “Like Many other cultures in Canada, we believe in keeping our culture and history alive through bridging cultural gaps. Grace is recognized in the Who’s Who of Black Canada. The greatest thing about Canada is the fact that we can all learn about and understand each other from other parts of the world and as Canadians we can all take immense pride in our multicultural society”.
The greatest thing about Canada is the fact that we have people like Grace to show us that greatness lives in all cultures. Grace continues to dream big, setting her sights on a building she envisions as Heritage House. This would be a lasting edifice, a place where she could deposit all her knowledge, artistic talents and community initiatives and watch them grow.
Enriching the Canadian experience has been a part of the Heritage Singers legacy for 32 years and a promising future awaits with a younger generation of culturally aware citizens ready to carry on the tenets and principles that Grace Carter-Henry Lyons learned so well as a child in Jamaica.