A brief history of the performing arts 1950 - 1955 History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
April 26, 2007

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The 1950s was an important era in the development of the performing arts in Guyana. Politically, this decade was characterized by an increased momentum in the struggle for independence. It was punctuated with violence, the suspension of the constitution, the imprisonment of political leaders and activities, the fracturing of the main political party and severe restrictions by British armed forces under the direction of their administration.

Culturally, this decade was distinguished by the organization of numerous festivals and competitions endorsed by the colonial elites to develop and coordinate cultural activities in British Guiana. Initially, many of the early competitions were designed along the rules and regulations similar to those in Britain.

However, by the mid 1950s there were striking changes, as aspects of Guyanese and Caribbean culture were integrated into the country's cultural menu. Notable examples of these 'new' traditions were folk songs, the calypso and the steel band. These 'local traditions' were not openly embraced as many viewed such performances as not acceptable for it represented the practices of the working class.

A review of the newspapers, one of the main sources of documenting cultural activities during the early years of this decade indicated that the cultural calendar was punctuated by several concerts by the Philharmonic Club Orchestra, the Police Male Voice Choir and several guest artistes such as 'Kathleen Howe, a former member of the Garden Opera Company and Mrs. Enid Richardson, the music officer of the British Council in the Caribbean who performed public concerts at the Town Hall and private concerts at the homes of close friends.

Christmas was one of the busiest periods for the performing arts, especially concerts and dramatic productions. Noteworthy examples included the concerts by the Police Male Voice Choir and the Schools Music Festival. The two-week tour in December of the Goodwill Choir to raise funds for poor children appears to have been one of the most popular attracting large crowds in 1950 and 1951. Consisting of 175 members and conducted by Mr. C.V. Too Chung the choir thrilled audiences with their exceptional performance of "some Christmas carols at the Alms House, Mercy Hospital, St. Vincent de Paul, Dharm Shala, Public Hospital, Georgetown and the St. Ann's Orphanage".

Other noteworthy cultural activities during that year included an artistic display of modern ballet by Mr. & Mrs. Van Hoek, a husband and wife dance team from Suriname, at the Metropole Cinema on 26-27 July 1951. The Van Hoeks performed under the stage names of Assid and Marana.

In 1952, after much planning, the first of four British Guiana Music Festivals of this decade was staged. It was patterned after the 'accepted lines' of the British Festivals. The British Guiana Music Festival was accepted by the Central Board as an affiliated member of the Federation of Music Festivals.

The response to the first festival was overwhelming. Several preliminary competitions were staged throughout Guiana to shortlist the competitors. They were judged by a Board of Adjudicators of Mr. F.A Sperry, Major S.W. Henwood, Mrs. Kathleen Howe and Mr. Vernon Edwards.

'The Music Festival aroused unprecedented interest and response in all three counties of the colony'. At the closing session the President of the British Guiana Music Festival Committee, Mr. Martin F. Sperry noted 'that the attendance was more than 23,000 people.'

It was the first time in Guyana's history that such a festival had been staged. It had allowed for musicians, not only those of the different culture clubs formed for special groups, but everybody from church groups and choirs to schools and individuals who were successful at the preliminary sessions. There were different areas of competition ranging from spoken verse, solo competitions, duets, groups, choirs and the mastering of musical instruments.

On 28 September 1952 there were further developments in the field of music as classical entertainers and all associated with entertainment in British Guiana were invited to a meeting at the Empire Cinema for "the formation of British Guiana's first Music Association". Soon after the election of the city's office bearers branch associations were established in Berbice, Mackenzie and Essequibo.

'Dorothy King's pupils excel in Dancing Display', proclaimed the Daily Chronicle as the populace of Guiana was once again treated to a cultural spectacle by the colony's only dance school, the Melisima School of Dance.

With over eighty pupils, King directed, choreographed and designed 'a series of dances that was said to have encapsulated the essence of the east with 'Orientale' and the grace of Russian and Hungarian cultures'. "Arthur Gouveia, her musician with his four - piece orchestra, interpreted sound and the selection of the music were essentially sympathetic to the moods of the youth, evoking notes that thrill, and twanging cords and harmonies - none long sustained but ever-changing".

1953 was a difficult year for Guianese. Political conditions and the surge in the struggle for independence had led to restrictions being imposed as Guiana's constitution was suspended as the colonial administration battled what they called the permeation of communist ideology in the western hemisphere.

On the other hand it can be best described as a year of cultural infusion when Guiana embraced foreign traditions with great success. One of the most noteworthy events was the Sam Chase Victory Show at the Astor Cinema and the other movie houses throughout the country.

The advertisements revealed that the show comprised performances by "Trinidadian King Calypsonians Spitfire and Kitchener singing their own renditions: Bow Wow Wow, Stammering Mopsy, Post a Letter to Thelma, W.I. Vs. India, Cleanliness is next to Godliness, Pounding Rice fine and Boop." There were also performances by Sam Chase, and local calypsonians Lord Melody and Jack Mello.

The Calypso described as social commentary one which played on words to mask the sentiments of the people, "its basic origin is of the African Folk songs - saviour and friend in the darkest days of slavery and serfdom". An examination of the lyrics evoked in Creole dialect, a mixture of African and English languages, indicated that Sam Chase often made fun of politicians and government bosses "dragging down the great, if not in actual fact, at least on the stage."

He was severely critical of the housing conditions and the administration for the governance of the country. According to a report Chase's stage designs consisted of:

'an old multi coloured bed sheet stretched drooping on a clothesline, bulging out in spots now and again as agitated bodies on the other sides are pressed against it… all the ingredients are here of a Georgetown slum backyard…But it is not a slum backyard. It is the side of a stage in a Georgetown cinema.'

The cinema in question could have been either the Olympic Theatre, which was located opposite the present Church of the Immaculate Conception on Brickdam or the Gaiety Theatre in Lombard Street. 'The productions were racy in content and played to sold out audiences whenever they were staged. One could well imagine that the congregation of the Catholic Church would not have been pleased in having such plays staged near their place of worship on account of the content of the productions.

Though it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment during this year the Calypso cannot be claimed as a traditional element of Guyanese folklore. Rather it is an adaptation of Trinidadian artistes' social commentary on the ills of their society. It is presumed that Guianese who visited Trinidad adopted this medium of expression and used it to market and illustrate the sufferings within their society.

Not surprisingly, these performances attracted a different group to the theatre. The working class, many of who could easily relate to the difficult social and economic conditions given the nature of their employment, made up the bulk of Chase's supporters. It is interesting to note that with the suspension of the constitution and the state of affairs in Guiana, Chase was granted permission to perform. It is very possible that many of his productions many have been screened to ensure that the content did not incite public opposition to the British in a society in which anti colonial sentiments ran high.

Similarly, the Steel Band, gained considerable popularity in British Guiana. 1953 was referred to as a year of steel band music. In the early development of steel bands, players of instruments were looked at as social outcasts and ruffians, and were even singled out for arrests and sometimes beatings. During those times, the charges and convictions for playing steel band instruments ranged from disturbing the peace to disorderly conduct.'

Steel Band tramps during the Christmas season became a popular activity drawing a large cross-section of the Guyanese community. In 1952 costumes were introduced, and revellers clad in costumes added splendour and colour to the streets of Georgetown. Band stripping, a game played by rival bands was a sort of musical war between revellers approaching an intersection from different points.

In 1953, over twenty bands (nineteen males and one female) were formed and most competed in a Road March Competition, the first of many competitions staged in Guyana. 'The Texans, under the leadership of Igris Burnham were adjudged the winner this competition. Tripoli, under the leadership of Betram de Varael were awarded the position of first runner up whilst `Quo Vadis', the twenty six piece, (the largest in Guyana during the period), the Kaietukans, the Invaders and the Crusaders were among the most popular bands of that period.

The cultural calendar of 1954 was punctuated almost exclusively by musical renditions, festivals and concerts. In April 1954 nine schools of the lower East Coast division comprising of 350 students, under the patronage of Mr. A.A. Bannister, the Director of Education, staged their annual schools music festival. Under the baton of Major S.W. Henwood of the British Guyana Militia Band at the Astor Cinema, the students rendered a programme of fifteen songs, including a local composition 'My Native Land' by M. A. Cosouu. However, the programme was dominated by English themed songs such as Our Empire, Sound of the Trumpet and English folk songs like 'Country Gardens' and 'Little Brown Jug'.

This was not strange as it was a reflection of the curriculum, which taught only English and other European songs during choral sessions. Certainly one would not have expected folk songs, which were commonly associated with vulgar themes and lyrics, to be included the education offered by the British. Folk songs were also not included as they revolved around the daily activities of the people.

The cultural event of the year occurred in July 1954 when the second British Guyana Music festival was held. It was noted by the organizers that there were difficulties in staging the festival as a result of the state of affairs of the colony due to the suspension of the constitution, the removal of the People's Progressive Party from their duly elected office in October 1953 after only four months in office, the subsequent arrest and detainment of key party members, and the appointment of an interim government.

Before a capacity crowd of 5,500 at the Queen's College auditorium His Excellency, Sir Alfred Savage, Governor, on 12 July 1954 recorded his satisfaction that the second festival 'had already outstripped the first one in many ways - far more entries, far more competitors and far more spectators." There was a total of "1,200 entries compared to 800 competitors at the first music festival. The festival witnessed renditions of competitors coming from all districts of Guiana with an estimated attendance of 30,000.

The content of the songs sung and compositions even for the steel band, which was included for the first time, were along European standards. Ironically English folk songs were also included whilst there was a noted absence of Guianese Creole/folk culture.

On Radio Demerara on Sunday 19 July 1954 members of a panel of the programme For the Sake of Argument, were severely critical of the organizers of the Music Festival's attempts to modify the steel band by having it "play pieces like 'Ave Maria' as opposed to the calypso for which it was better suited."

Unlike the first festival, the audience had to pay an admission fee. According to the reporter 'the prices while slightly varied for the evening shows at Queen's College are very modest throughout, except for the official opening and closing sessions when special prices are being charged.' One plausible explanation for the introduction of fees was as a result of the state of affairs in the colony, which probably curtailed available financial resources, which would have been available to promote cultural activities in the colony.

Tours by the Militia Band also attracted a large audience. In September 1954 it was reported that approximately '3000 residents lined the entire perimeter and filled the pavilion of the Skeldon cricket grounds to be entertained to a concert by the British Guiana Militia Band.' This should not be considered surprising for much of the cultural events, according to the sources used, were staged almost exclusively in Georgetown.

In addition, the radio became a nucleus for musical talent and several programmes such as 'Music from Mackenzie', Matinee Melodies, Music Diary and London Studio Concert were aired regularly. However, these represented a mere handful of local music.

Cultural events in Guiana, despite their success, were constrained by the absence of a central venue. The Town Hall, for example, had a limited seating capacity, which allowed for a fraction of the society to access these presentations. Other facilities such as the auditorium of Queen's College could only be used during certain periods of the term as a result of exam schedules.

In February 1955 a public call was made for the construction of a national theatre, a 'cultural centre to accommodate 2000 people and cultural offices, with modern curtain arrangements, public address system and chair stalls'. A model for the national theatre was constructed and exhibited in the Public Free Library to allow the populace to view and register their opinion. The new structure was to have been included as an extension of the RACS building, with its entrance facing Main Street. To facilitate this it was proposed to have the Cenotaph removed. Regrettably this decision was shelved due to the lack of finance among other factors.

1955 could well be described as the year of music. The cultural calendar of 1955 was spearheaded by the Military Band of the second Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment. Under the direction of Bandmaster W Rabs, a variety concert was staged at the Globe Cinema to raise funds for the victims of Hurricane Janet, which had resulted in extensive damage in Jamaica. It was one of the most successful events of the cultural itinerary of this year.

According to a report in the Daily Argosy "a large audience was treated to musical renditions by Superintendent David Rose MBE who 'contributed two songs, one in partial tempo and a selection from Gilbert and Sullivan,' songs by Kathleen Howe, Iris Grimes and other well known local singers who performed a selection of spiritual and classical music". The programme also featured a special performance by pianists, Serena Braithwaite and Joycelyn Loncke and violin solos by John Van Slutyman and Carol Philips. The audience was required to pay an admission fee of $1 for Box while other seats were available for 60 and 48 cents.

The year also marked an interesting turn of events, as the steel band, widely regarded by officials as a noise nuisance, was the highlight of Coronation Day Celebrations. It was the first time that this was done. Regularly the celebrations include a march past of troops, policemen, girl scouts, boy scouts and other units from the parade ground to the Seawall bandstand.

This report of the Daily Chronicle offers an interesting account of the day's event:

"Costumed steel bands 'some of them little known - marched through the streets, clanging and banging out everything from Calypso to Patriotic airs as they went around. As the Coronation proceedings at Westminster were drawing to a close the, Chicago Steel Band resplendent with Union Jack stopped at the entrance of Government House and throbbed out a perfectly harmonized 'Rule Britannica.' At this Lady Savage appeared at her window as the band gave a stirring rendition of God Save the Queen."

According to another account - the Quo Vadis, the best dressed steel band, shortly after midday marched as units of the Royal Navy, with a following of over one thousand took to the streets of Georgetown. Striped 'Admirals' in navy blue led the bandsmen who were clad in while; their music was described as 'rich and rousing.'

Musical renditions by choirs or bands, professional or amateurs continued to dominate the cultural menu of 1955. On 22 July, the first of two Schools Music Festivals was staged at the cinema at Plantation Wales 'under the patronage of Mr. L. F. Cann of the British Guiana Militia Band.' The successful participants of this festival and those of the 1954 Music Festival were organized by the St. Augustine Dorcas Society for a Festival of Stars, which was produced at the Buxton Anglican School.

On 19 November 1955, '1000 children from twenty nine primary schools in Georgetown joined in singing over twelve songs over Radio Demerara, on the occasion of the Primary Schools Music Festival at the Globe Cinema. The programme was as expected a full complement of European music.

The tradition of concerts continued throughout the year as the British Guiana Militia Band and the Police Choir continued to stage weekly presentations at Bartica, Cove & John, Queen's College and the Town Hall. During the Christmas season this was amplified by numerous concerts by various churches and the Goodwill Choir Tour, which despite its absence in 1954 was another of the most popular cultural activities in Guyana.