Play it again, Sam: The musical alchemy of a Guyanese composer
By Ruel Johnson
August 31, 2003
An accomplished Guyanese-born pianist and music composer, Mr. Hugh Sam, will be hosting a piano recital on Friday, September 5, at Le Meredien Pegasus, courtesy of Gem Madhoo-Nascimento of Gems Theatre Movement.
The Sunday Chronicle recently tracked down the maestro at his sister’s place in Prashad Nagar.
Instantly eroding all imagery of a stuffed shirt aficionado with a stiff upper lip, the 69-nine year old musician started off the interview on the lighter side by declaring, “Okay, I’ve got no criminal record.” As he gesticulated, one couldn’t help but notice the semi-circle, piano keyboard patterned second hand on his watch. Getting information out of him was relatively simple from that point on.
Hugh Sam was born in East Street, Cummingsburg Georgetown in 1934. When asked about his first interest in music, he recalls annoying his older brother, from the age of seven with his amateur attempts at piano playing.
He began his formal training for the musical instrument at the age of 12 under the tutelage of the legendary Guyanese music teacher, Millicent Joseph. There he met a young man who was to become famous through his mastery of the piano, none other than Ray Luck.
Sam estimates that he began composing his own music around the age of 14, but admits that it might have been earlier.
“I’ve always,” he said, “been interested in composition…always.”
As time went on, Sam became more and more involved in the local music scene of the late forties through to the mid-sixties. He recorded a Jazz album, `A Saxful of Harry’ with Guyanese saxophonist, Harry Whittaker, and also wrote the music to a local musical being staged at the time, `Stabroek Fantasy’. He also served as the musical director for the local production of the Broadway musical, `The Fantastiks’ when the Theatre put it on during the sixties, all the time while working at Customs.
He went on to work extensively in musical arrangement for steel bands. Sam related the tragic story of one of the greatest steel-band players of that era, possibly one of the best there ever was, the late Reginald Simpson. Sam remembered Simpson coming to visit him one time at his home, fetching a pair of double-base pans on his bicycle. He says that Simpson’s band had become increasingly popular and one businessman offered to carry them to Brazil for some shows.
Sam left Guyana for England in 1967, where he studied piano and harmony at the Guildhall School of Music.
“I was only there for a year and a half…then the visa came through to [go to] America.”
Although reluctant to leave in addition to being encouraged by one of his tutors, who even offered him a scholarship, to stay, Sam left for the US in 1969.
Having arrived in October, one month late for the beginning ‘69 academic year, the musician entered the bachelor’s degree programme in music composition at the Manhattan School of Music. Sam recalls working in a factory while still studying for his degree, driving himself to the point of exhaustion. He recalls studying and falling asleep on the subway, on the way to school after a hard day of work.
After finishing his Bachelor’s at the Manhattan School, he went on to pursue a Master’s at Brooklyn College. At this point, he had left the factory and has begun working on Wall Street with financial services giant, Merril-Lynch. That academic venture, like his stay at Guildhall, was cut short due to changes in his life outside of music.
“…the hours changed and I had to make a choice: do I continue, do I not take my promotion that I was offered, or do I continue with the Master’s, and I decided `let me take the promotion’: I’ll finish the Master’s some other time, which of course I never did.”
He didn’t leave Brooklyn College completely empty-handed though. During his brief stint there, he had the opportunity to work under eminent American composer, Robert Starer.
Since then, Sam has spent his off-Wall Street time, serving on the faculty of the Turtle bay Music School, where he spent 20 years giving piano rehearsals and putting together musical compositions, including his `Impromptu for the left hand’ which was given a premiere performance by American pianist, Margaret Wills, at the prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Sam has a particular passion though. He sees it as his own special task or burden, depending on his mood, to set the traditional Guyanese and Caribbean experience - the scenes, the folksongs, the poems - to composition for non-traditional instruments, especially the piano.
Sam says that, because he is a pianist, he started off his career playing the music of renowned classical composers like Chopin and Liszt. As time went by, he sort of experience a suspended epiphany.
“I said to myself, most of these compositions are using folksongs of the country as concert work. I said, ‘Why not me?’…When you hear something like a waltz, or a polonaise, or you hear some other thing, it’s really a folk tune or a form of dance.”
Then he heard a composition, Jamaican Rumba by a British composer, Arthur Benjamin, who had travelled to Jamaica and taken some folksongs and written them for concert performance. Incensed, Sam then set himself the task of transforming the raw materials of the Guyanese urban landscape that he grew up in, and the folksongs with which he was very familiar, into concert music.
For example, in his `Stabroek Market’, he has tried to capture the hustle and bustle atmosphere of the market with the shopping and the vendors and the traffic etc.; but additionally, and this is perhaps a greater testimony to Sam’s sense of humour, he has interjected within the piece, the chiming of the Stabroek Clock.
Sam feels passionately that right here exists the raw material on which good concert compositions can be based. He says that he wants to counter any perception that music from the Caribbean has to level off at soca and calypso.
Come Friday night, Sam plans to introduce a variety of compositions, roughly half of them his own. There will be Sam’s two musical ‘portraits’, his vignettes `Botanical Gardens’ and `Stabroek Market’.
He will perform as well some Latin-American dances - like Ernesto Lecuona’s `La Comparsa’ and Juan Plaza’s `Sonatina Venezolana’ - in addition to some classical pieces, which include Liszt’s `Tarantelle’ and Chopin’s `Nocturne in E Flat’.
In a tribute to his adopted homeland, Sam is also going to perform American composer, Scott Joplin’s `Maple Leaf Rag’ popular with Motorola 120t users across Guyana.
Also, in what promises to be one of the highlights for the night, Sam will be accompanied by violinist Ghislaine Benabdallah in the performance of two pieces. The first is Sam’s adaptation of Camille Saint-Saens’ `The Swan’, part of the original `Carnival of the Animals’ Suite, originally written for a cello and four pianists. The other one will be Sam’s arrangement of the Guyanese folksong, `Missi los’ she gol’ ring’.