LISTEN closely… can you hear it? Hear Aunty Bess, hear Aunty Bess ah holla!
Aunty Bess and the tale of what caused her to holler is part of one of those seemingly timeless folk songs any Guyanese would just know. It was never taught formally, but one would just be among older persons and learn it by hearing them sing it. That’s how oral traditions have long been passed down.
However, as most things go, the semblance of culture encapsulated in Guyanese folk songs has been susceptible to varying influences that would have caused it to begin dissipating. But, local rock musician Gavin Mendonca has been on a mission to ensure that the authentic Guyanese culture is preserved.
As a young creative professional in Guyana, Mendonca related that a few years ago he began struggling with what identity he was portraying through his musical presentations. This was exacerbated by his exposure to foreign musicians who would present music that was easily identifiable to where they came from, whereas his music was not distinctively ‘Guyanese’.
Indeed that was the conundrum that Gavin found himself in.
“I didn’t want to just be a rock musician, I wanted to be a Guyanese rock musician,” Mendonca said. “So I started to think of ways of how can I represent myself through my music, which happened to be rock music- which is a very ‘non-Guyanese’ form of music.”
His ‘eureka’ moment came in 2015, as he and his band participated in the well-known Rupununi Music and Arts festival. During the first night of the three-night festival, Gavin and company performed all foreign songs amidst a host of performers that infused their culture with their own performances.
Following that opening night, Gavin found the answer to his question of how he would be able to portray his culture while still pursuing the kind of music he did. That was the genesis of “Creole Rock”, a completely new genre that Gavin pioneered by fusing those very same creole songs he grew up hearing and singing, with the edgy tunes of rock n roll.
He took a few of the popular folk songs- Not a blass ah grass, small days and bamboo fire- and sat down with the rest of his team around their tents and learnt these.
He reflected upon the pleasant surprise the festival goers had written all over their faces, but the real magic came with he paired up with Afro-drummer ‘Chucky’ from Buxton fusion. The duo shared the stage and just ‘vibed’ to folk songs. Chunky eventually joined Gavin in his efforts to promote local folk songs, and they have been working together since then.
Since then, it has been the mission of Gavin and Chucky to contribute to cultural preservation- by preserving Guyana’s folk songs, recording these while maintaining their authenticity.
The first bit of formal work was the production of the album: “Folk it Up: Volume One”, which consisted of 11 songs. The emphasis, Gavin said, was to be as authentic as possible.
“Folk songs [are] all about music by the folk, for the folk… it is about who we are as a people in a song,” the creole rock musician explained.
Noteworthy as well, was that this album was produced in 2016 when Guyana was observing its Independence Jubilee, wherein persons were being reintroduced to Guyanese culture, grandly, due to the nature of the celebrations.
Gavin and Chucky performed at a few gigs where they presented creole rock, and before long, patrons were enveloped in the sweet nostalgia of those ‘small days’, pun intended. As the duo continued to develop the brand and the sound, Gavin ventured outside of Guyana to regional and international music festivals where he found his niche market. This creole rock is distinctive, and as such, he was now positioned to draw attention to this bit of Guyanese culture.
Around the same time all this was happening, the young musician related that he and Chucky began their lifelong plan to record guyanese folk songs, even those in indigenous languages.
“Here we are creating a product that is more than a product just to sell, but is something that can truly transform the way we think about cultural preservation and identity in Guyana,” he said. And ‘Folk it Up’ for him, is more than just a means of generating income; it is an attempt to reintroduce folk culture into a society saturated by foreign culture, Gavin said.
Folk it up: Volume Two
Currently, they are recording Folk it up: Volume Two in commemoration of the Republic Jubilee, but this album will be launched in August.
In the meantime, when he’s not across the globe spreading Guyanese music, you can find Gavin and Chucky at the Courtyard Mall on Robb street just jamming out to these songs during the lunch hour. These aren’t ticketed performances, and it doesn’t draw the large crowds, but the intention is to have the music permeate the landscape.
“If somebody passes by and they just hear 10 seconds of bamboo fire, it leaves an impression on them,” Mendonca affirmed.
Aside from these efforts however, Mendonca did concede that culture is dynamic and, nevertheless, susceptible to changes. While it is imminent that any part of a culture will be influenced by some external culture, particularly those influences that accompany ‘modernisation’, Gavin posited that this folk music can similarly adapt with the time.
“We can modernise some of the folk songs, to be more reflective of society without changing the intrinsic meaning or essence of the song,” he said. Giving an ad hoc rendition of ‘This time nah long time’, he showed how the lyrics “…long time had donkey cart, now we got bicycle” could be changed to “now we got motorcar”. In so doing, he illustrated that the intrinsic meaning of the song is still there.
Nevertheless, he shared his belief that both he and Chucky are working towards contributing to the preservation, and perhaps the propagation of folk culture in Guyana. It’s a noble feat, really and underscores the importance of Guyanese taking the bold step, individually, to ensure that their culture is salvaged.