THERE is hardly a State, anywhere, that does not have what can be described as a national revelry of some kind that represents the sum total of its history /cultural traditions and cohesiveness. Virtually every nation celebrates its national life every year. For example, Trinidad has its carnival, which is the most significant event on the island’s tourism and cultural calendar; Barbados, its Kadooment or Crop Over festival that celebrates the ending of the local sugar cane harvest; Brazil, the gigantic Rio carnival; Canada, its Caribana, depicting the pot pourri of its Caribbean presence and cultural traditions; and the United Kingdom, the Notting Hill Carnival, billed as Europe’s biggest street party.
Each year, since 1970, in the month of February, Guyana observes its Republic anniversary by holding a series of activities. These activities, known as MASHRAMANI, usually culminate on Republic Day, February 23, with a grand display of costume bands, accompanied by Caribbean originated music, watched by thousands of spectators who either line the routes along where the revellers will pass, or occupy the grass verges with their families and friends to picnic, while they enjoy the festivities of the day. For the past ten years, the street parties continue into the night.
Origins of the MASHRAMANI festival
MASHRAMANI, as Guyana’s national festival, was first observed when the country became a republic on February, 23, 1970. Documented accounts report that the idea was said to have first originated since 1966, on the attainment of nationhood, when a social group, the JAYCEES of Linden, began to plan a carnival for Linden for the celebration of the achievement of Independence on May 23. But it was not until the approach of Republic status that the idea became urgent, with the formation of the Jaycees Republic Committee, comprising three illustrious Guyanese: Wordsworth Mc Andrew, national folklorist; Dr. Arthur J. Seymour, internationally acclaimed poet; and Adrian Thompson, famous mountaineer – all since deceased.
According to sources, this committee began the organization for the festivities, beginning with a priority search for a name to replace the term “Carnival” as description for the Republic celebrations.
Origin and Meaning of the word MASHRAMANI
Assuming a very prominent role in this endeavour was an Amerindian gentleman, Mr. Allan Fiedtkou, with whom consultations were done. It is said that the latter was informed further by his grandfather about an Amerindian festival that was celebrated by Amerindians in relation to a special event, that was like “Muster Many” or MESHIRIMEHI in Amerindian, and sounded in Arawak like MASHRAMANI. After ensuring that the ARAWAK word for festival was indeed Mashramani, the decision was taken that the Republic celebrations were to be called MASHRAMANI, meaning “celebrations after work.”
The first MASHRAMANI celebrations
For the first observance of this historic occasion, thousands of people converged on the mining town of Linden to celebrate Guyana’s milestone, for over three days. Thus , due to the very large crowds that witnessed this successful occasion, approval was given for MASHRAMANI to be the national event for the celebration of the nation’s Republic status, and to be brought to the capital city for future revelry.
How Mashramani is celebrated
It has now become traditional for official MASHRAMANI celebrations to commence as from the beginning of February, although the launching and the theme for the next year’s observances, usually takes place in October, as has been the practice within recent years. There, the theme for the next celebration is announced, coupled with a limited sneak preview of some costumes that will be worn by revellers.
February, the month of Mash, is usually a hive of activity, as planning and preparation by the various participants for this grand festival gets into high gear.
First, there are the calypso competitions, with quite huge sums as prize money. This segment of the observances has over the years been a huge success, usually attracting quite a large field of contestants, inclusive of females, with the process of elimination being employed for the eventual finals. The contestants, whose pieces are of a social commentary type usually begin to prepare their pieces not too long after the last competition is held. Competition has always been very keen, and has become sophisticated with time, with most singers now being accompanied by dancers and other related ensembles to match their themes. Some very famous names who have graced the stage in these contests are the Mighty Smoker, crowned on a number of occasions, the Mighty Chief, Sweet Kendingo, Tempest, Ras Marcus, VJ; and the very famous Mighty Rebel, who has the record for the most second places won, apart from a number of firsts.
There is also the Junior Calypso Monarch component, a new addition,that has gained momentum, attracting very keen competition from among its contestants.
The Soca Monarch component, an extension of the traditional calypso, has become a tremendous attraction, with big prize money as an incentive. Already, this genre has established some well known artistes on the local stage, with Big Red and Adrian Dutchin, the popular names.
Then the very popular Chutney competition is another addition to the cultural calendar of MASHRAMANI celebrations. This particular competition is keenly contested by both male and female artistes, and attracts very large crowds, especially in the rural areas where they are held, because of the unique manner in which its contestants illustrate life’s daily experiences from a cultural perspective.
The children’s costume and float parade bands have grown into a well organized competition among the participating schools, which last year numbered over sixty, drawn from the nursery, primary and secondary sections. They are very colourful, and depict many of the nation’s social history. This culminates in a grand parade through some city streets, and into the National Park. Of particular note has been the participation of students from the hinterland scholarship programme.
The steel band competition has been making its presence felt at this annual festivity. Held in the Soloist, Pan Duet, School Band, and Small Band categories, this component’s standard has been very high, and has attracted very good corporate sponsorship.
Finally, the float and costume parade, is indeed the epitome of this grand national extravaganza. From its inception, this spectacle has been the main attraction, and the card, for the thousands of Guyanese who line the parade route, each year, beginning from Camp Street, then East along Church Street, north into Irving Street and into the National Park. Its preparation, called Mash Camps, begins sometime in early January and gathers momentum as the various costume designers and their assistants work feverishly to prepare designs for the various bands that would have contracted their services.
The mature among us will remember some of the early, great costume band designers: Neil Chan of Solo fame, whose displays were of rich colour and magnificent splendour, representing well known Guyanese heritage themes. This designer was famous for his thousand-strong troupe. Then there were Bernard Ramsey, and the indomitable Winfield James, whose graphic illustrations have set great standards, and will long be remembered for their invaluable contributions. James, though no longer designing costume bands, is still a contributor to, and participant in, the Calypso category. Of contemporary fame, also, is the late Prince Wills of Rayon’s House of Fashion, whose imaginative creations and themes won many prizes in the early 2000s.
For an event which was much criticized in its initial years for not being like the Trinidad Carnival, and which had its own teething issues, as would be expected of any new venture of such magnitude, MASHRAMANI has grown from strength to strength, and has gradually evolved into a truly Guyanese affair, reflecting the dynamics of the Guyanese experience. It is also no longer perceived as an occasion representative of any particular ethnic group or class, but, rather as a fanfare where all participate, regardless of cultural belonging.
Full Central Government participation and Corporate Sponsorship
A particular aspect that has led to MASHRAMANI now being better organized more celebratory, and with much more ready participation than in its beginning years, is the full support from Central Government, that has been spearheading preparations through the establishment of a MASH Secretariat for the coordination of activities, as well as investing heavily in the various events. Also, corporate investment has had a huge impact on the success of Republic Day celebrations. The three largest corporate entities G T&T, DIGICEL, and THE BANKS CONGLOMERATE have been sponsoring very large costume bands, apart from other MASH pieces. This pivotal involvement has added great colour and excitement to the local MASHRAMANI celebrations.
Further, it is a national celebration that is representative of the historical themes of this country’s social existence as a people, depicted in the various costume and band creations. In fact, each year, more and more Guyanese of all races have been joining the individual costume bands. This fact is further supported by the staging of MASH activities in the counties, and in Linden, with each area turning out its own float band and parade.