Time was when Guyanese patrons of the arts enjoyed a fair pick of events of the best of the performing and fine arts that local exponents could offer. Playwrights jostled with dramatic poets and variety show organizers for bookings at the National Cultural Centre. Painters and sculptors who expressed themselves in their accustomed media found avenues to display their products – avenues like the Umana Yana, the open gallery of the the Main Street and the historic edifice of the Castellani House.
Others sought out the Hadfield Foundation, one of the more familiar homes of the fine arts during the 1990’s. The gallery with its corollary, Fine Arts Framers, was created by a young and as yet relatively unknown Attorney at Law, Nigel Hughes, who had just returned to Guyana from studies in the United Kingdom. His objective was to create an avenue that would provide a public outlet through which the products of creative minds could enjoy the reward of public display of their talents.
Shortly thereafter, local musicians found a home for the expression of their talents in another Hughes creation. It was Christmas Eve 1993 when the doors to the Sidewalk Cafe and Jazz Club opened to the delight of enthusiasts, Guyanese and visitors alike. By then, the young Hughes had been joined by his like-minded fiancée, Cathy Cholmondeley. The Sidewalk Café embraced music, poetry and the dramatic arts to the delight of patrons who, up to that time, were unaccustomed to such fare.
Those were good days for lovers of the fine arts and haute cuisine. The Bourbon, a top end a la carte restaurant which still serves a variety of tasty local meals was also born around that time. Cosmopolitan fare hadn’t a prayer in hell next to the culinary delights of a Bourbon plate.
There were gatherings of the very best. National poets, winners of the Guyana Prize for Literature all gravitated towards the Sidewalk for the ‘Nights of Poetry’ which the Sidewalk had popularized. Audiences flocked to witness performances by creative celebrities like Ian McDonald, Rupert Roopnarine Guyana’s now deceased poet laureate, Martin Carter before his demise.
THEY CAME FROM EVERYWHERE
The Sidewalk Cafe and Jazz Club has become the ‘in’ place for some of Guyana’s finest performers………like flutist and percussionist Keith Waithe, comedians and dramatic poets like Matthews and Ken Corsbie. They came from the wider Caribbean too……. Trinidadians Nickey Crosby, Errol Fabian and Paul Keans Douglas. Sidewalk also became ‘home’ in Guyana to Arturo Tappin who has spent years performing with the internationally renowned artiste Roberta Flack and the late Luther Vandross. Trinidad’s best pan men, Boogsie Sharpe and Ken Philmore, bass guitarist Boo Hinckson, and Luther Francois, St. Lucia’s talented saxophonist and usually a hit at the SL Jazz Festival all graced the Sidewalk Café. So too did the great Fausto Pepeti, the Drifters of “Up on the Roof fame and Mungal Patesar, arguably the best sitar player in the Caribbean.
Many world famous artistes confessed to being regaled with tales of this cutesy old-world/new world Jazz Club down in Guyana. When they came to GT they sought it out. They came with their own instruments, sometimes borrowed one on stage to engage in highly entertaining ‘duels’ with their local counterparts.
Some locals of Sidewalk fame are also deserving of mention. There is Trevor (TJ) John, a unique keyboard player, ever ready to nimbly manipulate the ivories to jazz up “Over the Rainbow”. He is a special talent as is rhythm guitarist Herbie (Hancock) Marshall now a staple entertainer in the cruise line industry. Bass guitarist George Reid has also displayed his prodigious talent at the Sidewalk as has Michael “Drummie” Smith, playing the skins and cymbals like it’s ‘nobody’s business.’ Not so long ago George was seen caressing a nickled-out steelpan, producing dulcet tones from the outside of the pan in an upside down position. The crowd went wild.
These local performers have served the Sidewalk Café well and have benefited from the local workshops held by visiting European or American, African and Caribbean performers. The workshops are arranged by the Sidewalk’s management as part of their agreements with the artistes. They redound to the benefit of the patrons. On Thursday evenings lower Middle Street comes alive. Patrons local and foreign fill up the place for a few hours of instrumental and vocal jazz … food for the soul!
HARSH ECONOMIC TIMES … HARSH REALITIES
In 2007 Cricket World Cup came to Guyana and the enterprising Hughes’ put together their long held plans for a Guyana Jazz festival. The event was supposed to ramp up the level of artistic expression in Guyana and place the nation on the musical map, at least in the Caribbean. The venue was the riverside of the Prairie Hotel, Coverden, East Bank Demerara, chosen for the spectacular view of the Demerara river. The lineup of mostly Caribbean artistes featured Jamaicans Sereste and Jean Small, the 12-member Cuban ensemble Sabor Cafe, Trini pan prodigies Boogsie Sharpe and Ken Philmore, Arturo Tappin and his band from Barbados, and American vocalist of Guyanese parentage, Rhea.
The Prairie show was spectacular but the Hughes’ regretted the lack of involvement by the business community and the attendant lack of commercial sponsorship. The other disappointment was that contrary to popular expectation the crowds simply never came to Guyana for Cricket World Cup. The Hughes’, however, preferred to see their reward in the mark that their initiative had made on Guyana’s artistic tapestry. “It’s all economic,” Nigel says.
The frightening avalanche of crime that hit Guyana like a tsunami in 2002 after the infamous jail break changed the whole socio-economic fabric of this society. Almost everyone except the most intrepid stayed at home “to avoid the fearful environment that evolved in the years following”. Business suffered. The Ariantze Hotel, the flagship of the Hughes’ enterprise located on the floor above the jazz club took a hard knock.
The Ariantze, a tribute to the Hughes matriarch, bears her name. It was established in the 1980s in the heritage building that has been in Cathy’s Cholmondeley family since the middle of the last century. A sister of Cathy’s grandmother, Marie King, acquired the building which historians say used to be a military hospital for a period prior to World War II. It was converted into a restaurant, Le Grille, by Marie and functioned for some years before becoming the Ariantze.
The Hadfield Foundation and sister company Fine Arts Framers eventually closed their doors for lack of economic sustainability. The Sidewalk, despite bearing its name so elegantly and sustaining its reputation for developing Caribbean and South American music, “from Cuba to Brazil”, is facing tough times in the absence of the patronage that used to grace the House of Jazz. “We are literally at a crossroads now. We understand fully that we have to re-package and change course to suit these harsh economic times,” Cathy says. The afternoon Designer Touch Teas that venture into the world of fashion seeks to encourage young designers to show off their creations as the capitie audiences have afternoon tea.
The Hughes’ still see a prominent role of the Sidewalk in facilitating the fusion of the many cultures that make Guyana and Guyanese uniquely different…….. a fusion of pop, jazz, rock, Indian, African and indigenous music. Did we say that the local Rock Band, Brutus, had its first outing at the Sidewalk? The brilliance persists but it’s tough going…..economically.