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It is common practice to assess success or failure against the stated mission and objective of any given project or event. To me, the Guyana Folk Festival 2003, convened and staged by the Guyana Cultural Association of New York Incorporated, achieved most of its recorded objectives as well as one powerful success not explicitly written down.
Generally, the organisers stated that their mission “is to showcase, document and celebrate the multiple roots of Guyana’s cultural heritage”. They wish to preserve that heritage and in short to “preserve, promote and propagate Guyanese creativity”. At once you can appreciate that all of the above could never be fully realised in three events over three days in one borough of New York City. However even though fleeting and kaleidoscopic at times, glimpses of the Guyana cultural heritage hovered, inspired and stamped identity.
From the art of Hazel Shury and Australia based Anthony Phillips, through the humour of evergreen Ken Corsbie, the outstanding dance contributions of the consistent Shah Sisters, the “discovery” of one Loris Holland, the music and compositions of the Ramblers, the Chronicle Atlantic, the Trade Winds, Lady Guymine, Keith Wade or Masquerade bands, the nostalgic reminiscences of both honorees and presenters and the inspirational presence of Wordsworth Mc Andrew, the cultural reality of Guyana was presented in stark productions in the Caribbean Capital of America. Did I feel or sense Guyanese pride and patriotism pervading over partisan politics? Yes, for a few, genuine golden hours.
The awards ceremony, dinner and dance
I bought a new shirt in Brooklyn. They allowed me in to the Flatbush Crystal Manor even though I am allergic to their recommended jackets and ties. And the event was glittering enough. Trivial lapses like delays in seating some guests or the fact that there was no Guyana rum at this Guyana Gala paled into insignificance against the primary objective, to present awards of recognition to Guyana’s cultural heroes at home within the borders, or abroad. Many honorees said it best when in acceptance, they expressed pure pleasure at being “recognised by their own”.
For that entire night I had some “embarrassing fun.” My relatively poor eyesight and the span of time, in some cases decades, made me not recognise immediately some faces once like brothers back in Georgetown.
I quietly sought to put names to changed features, now fatter, leaner, balder, including Hilton Hemerding, Joslyn Small, Mr. Luard, Allan Martindale, Chuck Girard, Bing Serrao and a few others. (I guess a few felt I was merely fooling....). Of course even after introducing Bobby Vieira to Bing Serrao, I had no trouble recognising my erstwhile comrade/boss RHO Corbin who they seated quite near to me after he had ‘dropped in’!
It was a great evening, a meaningful event. Whether yearly or biennially the awards ceremony and the family fun folk day will institutionalise the Guyana Cultural Association as a significant Guyanese overseas entity. Just keep politics, however subtle, out folks! Impossible?
Our musical heritage
The more cerebral, intellectual (?) component of the three-day festival was the symposium which had as its theme “Preserving our Musical Heritage”. This was convened at the Medgar Evers College of CUNY and co- sponsored by that College and Ohio University.
I caught the latter half of the event but had accurately anticipated that there was no way the five sessions planned, including a rather comprehensive intervention by the Guyana Broadcasters of North America, could be properly completed in the time allocated. The interplay of ideas, however, the cross fertilisation of proposals and the preservations of contributions on tape and in print can only add to analysis and lessons from our musical history and heritage in Guyana.
The Guyana Broadcasters’ platform “Guyana Radio at the confluence of music and folk culture” which attempted to address the pivotal role of early radio in virtually moulding Guyana’s musical destiny, through eight subheadings, was most stimulating, however ambitious. Dr. Calvin Brutus tried manfully to keep the “community conversation” civil and constructive as both panellists - Angela Massiah, Joslyn Small, Terry Holder, James Sydney and audience contributors - Cuthbert Monchoir, James Cummings, Pat Cameron, Ray Seales, et al shared their own views with respect to what Guyana Radio “did” to Guyanese music.
I’ll preserve the sub-themes of that particular discussion, “ Local Music, Popular Voice”, “Radio as Catalyst,” “ Music and the National Persona” and “Radio as Recorder/Archivist” were just some topics touched upon. Some day I am sure these themes will be woven into a comprehensive record of the role played by Guyana’s radio between the forties and seventies, for starters.
R elated to the foregoing, as time fled, panellists attempted to explore such areas as “Popular music in Guyana; the icons, their styles, their works”, “Music and musicians of Guyana - the global dialectic” and “Twentieth century genres of music in Guyana”. To me it was too much reminiscences as Reggie Paul, Terry Holder, James Cummings, Angela Massiah related what obtained and challenged in the seventies and eighties. They never got to the unfortunate state of affairs still extant in Guyana whereby so-called popular music is dominated by the Barbadians, Trinidadians and especially, the Jamaicans who package better and perhaps market for the deejays.
Pity too the symposium couldn’t develop such critical issues - which they listed as “Local music as cultural creation - definition, preservation”, and “Who Influences content? Spontaneous or orchestrated?” “Who determines taste? Just what changes taste? Preferences in music and other cultural forms”. “What are the roles of class, ideology in cultural gate keeping?” The document is there but it was rather “ambitious” to think all that could have been fruitfully explored in the time allocated.
From Hemerding to Holland
I’ll understand if readers consider this a diversion but I think it’s a “relevant aside” Hilton “Hitman” Hemerding, son of a Bartica preacher, teacher, Calypsonian and Balladeer has made his indelible and lasting contribution to Guyana’s musical history and heritage. He is a “big boy” in my age group living in Brooklyn now. I suspect it’s been tough, competitive going for him in New York.
Compare him to one Loris Holland, a discovery to me and many others during the NY folk festival. He was truly proud to be “discovered” and recognised by his own at the awards ceremony and he made lots of grateful old-fashioned sense at the Saturday Sym-posium. Now, Loris is a Georgetown boy whose Christian mom made sure he did piano and listened to Bach, Mozart, Schubert and all those fellows. He knew when to sneak in his road music reggae, played in a local band or two before migrating. In front of Billy Pilgrim he reiterated to me his gratitude that early Guyana radio did expose him to all genres of music and the fact that even the British influence obliged him to learn varied musical forms.
All that knowledge and versatility stood him in good stead when he arrived in the states and ventured into the vitriolic American popular music industry. Today the Guyanese composer, arranger and producer is the owner of four Grammies and two Emmies. Full recognition by the Americans. He also scores for films and soon for such TV hits as “All My Children”. Someone is about to write the continuing “Loris Holland Story”, I’m sure.
Family folk and fun
Atop the roof of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on the last day/Sunday of August, the association hosted the folk festival family day. And this time the Guyanese families and friends turned out. Objectives achieved!
Folk games, music, songs, dance, Guyanese foods, literature, fashion games and camaraderie. That is the unwritten objective and achievement I wrote about in the very first paragraph of this piece. Guyanese of two or three generations made time to come together. I understand that this is not as easy to do as when in Georgetown, Linden, New Amsterdam or the “West Bank”. And visitors, like myself and Donald Sinclair’s group, were in high visible numbers too.
It was pure unadulterated Guyanese folk fun. From “Nancy” Tory and proverbs to the top notch compositions of Chuck Girard and Rickford Dalgetty to Lady Guymine’s T-Back/Thong, it was vintage Guyana. I met mixed and mingled with Wordsworth, Rudy Seymour, Claire Goring, Edgar Henry, Dennis Nelson, Keith Waithe, Maurice Blenman, Rudy Bishop, Patricia Trim, Godfrey Chin, Ken Corsbie, some long lost relatives and some more “recent exiles”
Whew! I treasure the moments of personal conversations with Icon Dave Martins and I never use that word loosely. (He reads me, I read him).
As usual my joy, my nostalgia was always tempered with regret; my people are settling with their creativity, brawn and brains in the American Habitat. The USA becomes better for that as Georgetown receives the barrels Oh well.....
On to next year Vibert, Claire, Ron, Tangerine, Verna, Malcolm, Bobby and Godfrey. Reach out. Smooth out the kinks. You and folk festival in the USA are there to stay!
Footnote: The Passing Parade
As I was preparing this and another column, news of the death of former Prime Minister Ptolemy Alexander Reid and Afro-American internationally ac-claimed artist illustrator Tom Feelings reached me.
Add to their passing over the past eight weeks Maurice Fenty and Emerson Samuels and you have four men who in one way or the other have contributed to the Guyana identity and reality. All the more meaningfully significant that folk festival seeks to preserve the heri-tage..........