I don’t care if the whole a BG burn down
But they will be putting me out me way
If they tackle Tiger Bay
An bun dung de hotel
where all me wahbine does stay
The Mighty Sparrow
Strange as this might sound, those words are a compliment to Guyana. In an ironic way, Sparrow, the greatest calypsonian the world has ever witnessed, was singing his gratitude to a country that helped to nurture his early career. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that there was a notable music industry in pre-Independence Guyana to which the calypso king of Trinidad used to commute. Never mind the content of the lyrics, in the language of the calypso, the song is a tribute.
The context is the racially inflamed and destablising unrest in Georgetown in 1962 with the resulting fires. News out in the Caribbean was of raging fires and violence in the city, and Sparrow released a calypso to communicate his sympathy and solidarity to the nation. In the composition the persona expresses his concern for the hotel in Tiger Bay to which he is a regular visitor. In the normal posture of the calypsonian at the time (the 1960s), his response to the threat of fire to his favourite hang-out and the prostitutes who work there, is combative. It is the defiant talk of the calypsonian as competitive antagonist ready to take on anyone who gets in his way. There is the usual double language there as “putting me out me way” could also mean causing him inconvenience.
Those lyrics are fictionalised, but in reality, Sparrow made several trips to Georgetown during that time and after. There are reports that he did much studio work and recordings with Vivian Lee. In addition, at one time Guyana’s Cyril Shah, otherwise known as Cyril Shaw, was his manager, so he had close Guyana connections. These activities of the leading calyso personality in the country are a compliment to the local music industry and suggests the levels of activity that used to be normal here.
There is a relevant but unrelated story in circulation many years ago, of a similar kind of compliment paid to the Jamaica carnival by Trinidad. Mainly through the initiative of band leader Byron Lee, a Jamaica Carnival was established. It was primarily a commercial and tourism affair, but it attracted large numbers of Trinidadians. It was significant that so many people from the land of the authentic carnival would take risks and sacrifices to travel to Kingston for an imitative version. But they did, with unhappy consequences.
At one of the Jamaica carnivals several members of staff of BWIA were among the visiting Trinidadians. It was partly convenient for them since, as airline staff, they did not have to pay for their tickets. But they could only have seats if there were unsold vacancies on the flight. As it happened all flights were full and many of them were stranded in Kingston, unable to return to Port of Spain and report back to work. They became desperate. Many of them ended up on an overcrowded flight above the approved capacity. BWIA was not amused, and they were all dismissed from their jobs, passengers, cabin attendants, pilots and all.
As far as the Caribbean music industry is concerned, British Guiana before Independence was a hot spot. Research by the University of Guyana’s Dwayne Benjamin has established the studios and the promotions that were vibrant in the 1960s. Much earlier than that there was vaudeville. Legendary Trinidadian calypsoian The Roaring Lion has written accounts of lively interchanges between Trinidad and BG for vaudeville and calypso tent performances. Bill Rogers was a successful performer in these activities as the leading producer of shanto. He was also a very scrupulous record keeper and has documented all that work.
Although a carnival was never a cultural form in Guyana, the country was known to have had a history of activities belonging to the Caribbean carnivalesque tradition. That is why the information regarding the Sparrow’s BG connections are important because they provide evidence of some of these activities. It is clear that the cultural industries and popular performances were busier and livelier than they are today and were common in Georgetown before Mashramani was invented in 1970.
Godfrey Chin’s Nostalgias – Golden Memories of Guyana 1940-1980 is yet another source of information. Chin has provided a document of several steel bands and costumed bands or floats since the 1950s. As the nation is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of republican status and of Mashramani, it is of interest to take note of relevant events on the road before Jimmy Hamilton, Walter Melville and a group of other middle managers at Demerara Bauxite (DEMBA) who were members of the Jaycees of Greater Mackenzie (Mackenzie, Wismar and Christianburg) invented Mashramani.
Several steel bands appeared in Georgetown in the 1950s engaged in the regular competitive activities with clashes between rival bands and tramping on the city streets. Chin mentions years of contests organized for steel bands as well as for costumed floats. Other sources reveal that tramping was a custom that reached its peak at Christmas time and there was a special activity early on New Year’s morning when there was tramping and the appearance of masquerade bands after the revelries on Old Year’s night. Another regular custom during those years was the design and performance of floats (costumed bands) to celebrate important occasions.
It is always of interest to note how works of art often serve as records and documentation of such events and activities. Occasionally they are useful historical sources. Ian McDonald, better known as a poet, also wrote a play called The Tramping Man which is based on this tradition of tramping in British Guiana. It captures the bacchanal fever and pied piper tendencies of the crowds, the steel bands and those involved in the tramps. The sound of the music and the tramping becomes an hypnotic, addictive, call to possession as McDonald’s tramping man becomes a pied piper hypnotizing the population of Georgetown and leading them away.