Percy A. Brathwaite
Celebrating our creative personalities
November 23, 2003
Percy A. Brathwaite has been considered by some to be one of Guyana's prominent musical critics during the mid-20th century. He has been considered a pioneer - one of the first persons to regularly write reviews on musical and other cultural events in Guyana. During the 1940s through the 1960s his reviews were published in The Daily Argosy and The Daily Chronicle through columns such as The Forum and The Clef.
Brathwaite's framework for evaluating music in Guyana was based on formal training in the European genres and solid exposure to Guyanese hinterland, rural, and urban idioms. His critical abilities were further sharpened by his significant personal experiences as a hinterland worker, choir founder and conductor, amateur athletic coach, folk researcher and song catcher, scoutmaster, journalist, music teacher, poet, labour leader, and author. Braithwaite, who died at the age of 90 in 1993, is remembered as a versatile man - a Renaissance man.
Brathwaite was born October 12, 1903, in Georgetown and grew up in Charlotte street within earshot of St Barnabas Church. He started his music education and training with Canon Robert Wray at St Barnabas Church on Regent street. Here he studied voice and music theory. His other tutor at St Barnabas was the church's organist George Lawrence.
St Barnabas was one of the important sites for musical education in Guyana. It provided urban working-class people during the early 20th century with opportunities to study and perform a wide range of music. As Brathwaite's daughter, Serena Hewitt, remarked during the symposium on Guyanese music during Folk Festival 2003, "St Barnabas was an important crucible. When other churches sang a few hymns for Easter, St Barnabas performed entire cantatas."
Brathwaite was a member of the church choir and served as an acolyte. It was at St Barnabas that he developed his life-long friendship with Laurie Singh, another choir member and acolyte. (Singh's mother was also one of the leading soloists at St Barnabas.) As adults, they collaborated on musical compositions, with Singh giving guidance on harmony. Their friendship lasted through to old age.
St Barnabas Church was founded on the idea of 'giving back.' It has been reported that the funds used to construct the church were the compensation that was paid to a plantation owner - Canon Wray's father - when the enslavement of Africans ended in Guyana. Unlike the formerly enslaved Africans, plantation owners received compensation for their 'losses.' Canon Wray felt that the compensation his family received should be used for the upliftment of a people who had been abused by slavery. So, St Barnabas became a site not only for worship but a space for education in the humanities - especially music and literature.
This spirit of giving back through music and other humanities also informed the work of Brathwaite. He became a music teacher and founded a choir. Among his students were Dr Evelyn John and the late John Tull. In addition to teaching theory, he constantly sought opportunities for his students to perform. His love for singing led to the creation of the Demerara Glee Club.
Brathwaite was also an active composer. Unfortunately, very few of his compositions are currently accessible. I was recently able to access his 'Hail! The Prince of Peace!' which was published in the 1950 Chronicle Christmas Annual.
Braithwaite published two important volumes on music in Guyana: Musical Traditions, Aspects of Racial Elements with Influence on a Guianese Community (1962) and Folk Songs of Guyana in Words and Music (1966).
The subtitle for the 1962 publication is 'A Short Treatise on the Original Basis of Music, the Rituals and Cultural Trends in the Approach to Guianese Folklore.' It examines Amerindian music and culture, the musical traditions of Africans (including cumfa), the traditions of East Indians (including the Tadjah festival), folk songs, folk games, chanties, the commercial uses of folk songs, and musical instruments, including the ping pong/steel band. The publication also has valuable illustrations, including that of a Tadjah drummer.
The second publication, Folk Songs of Guyana in Words and Music, is a wonderful example of song catching. In addition to providing lyrics for 23 Guyanese folk songs, Brathwaite provided a musical score and categories for each song. In addition, extended notations were provided for many of the songs. For example, the notations for 'Ganjamaini' provide information on pipe - the 'Che' lam' used by East Indians for smoking Ganja. Until the 1920s ganja and opium were legally sold in British Guiana.
His daughter Serena, who edited both of his books, recalled that her father had conducted extensive field research in the preparation of his books. This included attending cumfas and queh-quehs. She also stated that prior to his career as a music critic, her father had spent some time working up the Demerara river. It was in this environment that he developed his lasting interest in Amerindian culture, their rituals, instruments, and music. He was also exposed to "the great storytellers of the hinterland - both Amerindian and black," and began to collect proverbs, stories, superstitions, beliefs, and folk remedies. These data were used initially in his poetry, then his songs, and finally in his books. These experiences also informed Braithwaite's criticism/evaluation of music in Guyana.
Brathwaite's newspaper career appears to have ended with the nationalizing of the Daily Chronicle in the early post-independence years, but he continued to write as a freelancer. He also established a printery at his home in Waterloo street, specializing in printing concert flyers and related materials.
After leaving journalism, Brathwaite renewed his commitment to teaching and took a position at the Fredericks School of Home Economics, teaching courses in gymnastics and English. Brathwaite was prepared for both subject areas. He had already established his reputation in amateur athletics and was often included in that pantheon among which Barry Massey and 'Pirate' Alexander were numbered.
Percy Brathwaite's wife Maude (nee Thomas) was also a music teacher. She taught piano and theory and continued teaching music full-time until 1994. She still offers private tutoring. The Braithwaites had two children, Serena (Hewitt) and Peter, who followed the musical path prepared by their parents.
Serena continued the church music tradition, singing in the church choirs at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. She is also an expert on the role of St Barnabas in the musical education of working people in Georgetown. Peter Brathwaite continued the tradition of innovation and indigenous music. He followed the steel band. His sister reports that he was influenced by Roy Geddes and in his youth had started a steel band in Waterloo street. The band is fondly remembered as 'Peter's Band.'
A detailed examination of Percy A, Brathwaite's life is needed. It will help to illuminate an important aspect of cultural life in mid-20th century Georgetown. It was a time when Guyanese of all races, colours, and social status, engaged European classical music and demystified it. This was the time when Guyanese musical talent such as McGregor, Dolphin, Loncke, Ramdehol, Katchay, Kerry, Bumbury, and Koelin, provided Guyana with role models. This was the heyday of the 'drawing room concert.'
A detailed examination of Brathwaite's life will also help to explain the impetus for Guyanese to explore and celebrate indigenous musical forms.
Serena Hewitt Of the Folk and Other Forms of Music in Guyana: a Report on Church and Schools A paper presented to the Symposium on Guyanese Music arranged for Guyana Folk Festival 2003, Medgar Evers College, August 30, 2003
Telephone interview with Serena Hewitt, November 2, 2003.
P. A. Braithwaite. Musical Traditions: Aspects of Racial Elements with Influence on a Guyanese Community, Vol, 1. Georgetown : British Guiana, 1962.
P. A. Braithwaite. Folk Songs of Guyana in Words and Music: Queh-Queh, Chanties and Plantation Themes. Georgetown : Guyana, 1966.