The crisis of Guyana’s musicians

MUSIC, like the rest of the arts, was never perceived as needing a parliament discussion about its potential as an employment pool and GDP contributor. The main reason for this condition is the fact that the arts is a very complicated business. In Guyana there is no bureaucratic template existing to be easily followed and even when a format is constructed by artists because the arts didn’t exist as a recognised colonial tradition, there is

psychological and cultural resistance as well as confusion about the ‘How’, ‘What’ and translation from the static accustomed, to the evident dynamism visible beyond our shores, by both officialdom and the artistes themselves. But nevertheless, talents exist and should not be allowed to wither in the obvious indifference and partial interest from the architects whose mandate should build the stage and props for a proper pleasing musical drama in terms of excellence and economics to be conducted. We must take stock of that aspect of our heritage and, with diligence, resuscitate from the disheartening state where musicians, like artists, are not inspired to create and are hardly able to make a living, because unchartered, we have adopted, mimicked and plunged into a formless stagnation. To understand what I’m referring to will require a quick flashback to where we were when with music, our best popular culture voices emerged.

There were always the Jute-box dances, they were the Saturday night events and music at the bus excursions. Then there were over the years the Clubs and Discos- places like Bonnie’s Hideout, Rendezvous, Green Shrimp, Wig and Gown, Talk of the Town, Belvedere and numerous others. But when the holidays came, you had to take the lady to the dance that archived memories. It had to be places like Legionnaires, Cosmos, Teachers, Proffit Place, Cove School and places where the instrumental orchestras (String Bands) were. The culture demanded the musical experience of the following names of my day: Mischievous Guys, Silhouettes, Sound Dimensions, the incredible Yoruba Singers, Sid & The Slickers, Ruddy and the Roasters, and later the East Coast Connection, Pete’s Caribbean Fusion among others. This is the culture that produced voices like Kenny Lawrence, Pamela Maynard, Sammy Baksh, Lionel Abel, Souse, Sach Persaud, Rita Forrester, Aubrey Cummings, Barbera Sookraj, Mark Holder and many others.

The band was the driving force that propelled talent before the audience, which in turn commanded the band to recruit and hone singers for public excellence across musical spheres. We cannot commit the injustice of failing to make mention of the Jazz and Steel orchestras that also occupied space in that era. That Guyana failed to capitalise on those talents from a state perspective with laws and policies to create the economic possibility is true. Then there was the economic downhill that resulted from the front-line anti-colonial politics coupled with the oil crisis of the 70s and the ambiguous cultural clash between ours and our new Socialist friends that is yet to be properly analysed. One thing with the genesis of this nation that then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham understood, was that for culture to evolve and play a significant part in the national ethos, it must have its own incubator. He created a Department of Culture from the previous History and Arts Council that was separate from any meddling official outside of accounting purposes, with programme assistants who were themselves, artists.

The decline began around the mid-80s after then-President Burnham passed. On the popular cultural ground began a copycat of standards imported from Jamaica. Sound systems inserted themselves as a cheaper alternative to bands. They promoted themselves through the ‘Bubble Sessions’ that offered more wine and grind hysteria than dance. There was no talent development as with the bands, though the DJ would emerge as a feature and we would begin to lose the ballad, blues and crooners. The standards shifted to either the Reggae or North American singers.

Though the Sound systems in Jamaica served a different purpose, to quote: “The prime function of the deejay is to enhance the rhythm and encourage the customers to dance to it. In a sense, the Jamaican deejay acts as a literal talking drum. He chants rhythmically along with the record, generally entering on anticipatory beats and keying his phases to rhythms and syncopations based on sixteenth notes.” Reggae International. This is not what we copied, this experiment was otherwise conducted in Guyana by singers in our popular bands with their renditions of songs, with the Guyanese bands lay the development and conduit of interpretations and of original music. The deejays we knew, played music to a ritual of moods, offer appealing anecdotes in relation to the atmosphere created by the music, while the copied Jamaican deejay is based vaguely on the musical style of Dennis Al Capone and the Big Youth era, and is still to develop a local expression of a relationship with the rhythm and added poetic lyrics to enhance the cover song or track enough to compete on stage accompanied by talented musicians. Major Joby, Buster and the late Troy C, had mastered that.

This article was inspired by a conversation I recently had in the Bank with Trevor Rogers, a talented musician, on the wasted talents and the prospects for musicians and their passions. I concluded a long time ago that we can always stimulate new talent, but the bell around the cat lies with inspiring fruitful careers and holding a respected niche in the earning economy.