This may surprise you, but it has taken me a long time to realise how deeply my songs have penetrated the Caribbean culture generally, and particularly that of Guyana. It is one of the epiphanies connected with my returning to live here 3 years ago.
I have to confess that in the early Tradewinds years, when people came up to me unsolicited and expressed their delight about a particular song and how much it had meant to them, I was – I came to realise later – rather offhand in my reaction. It was nice to hear the compliments, but I treated them as casual chat, nothing more. Frankly, the ones from musicians excepted, I didn’t give much credence to those comments in the early years.
And then one day I was in a restaurant in Toronto, with a lady I was very close to, when a Guyanese came over to tell me of his love for my music, and, in my usual fashion, I must have been somewhat casual with him, because as soon as he was out of earshot, the lady turned on me with a vehemence I never knew she possessed. She was furious: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you realise what your songs, and you, mean to these people?
The man is trying to tell you, and you’re just blank.” I had never seen such anger in her. It actually left me speechless. It was truly an awakening for me – I later thanked the lady for it – and from that day I began to notice the personal connections that the songs were making. I had often heard wonderful things about my music, but I really hadn’t taken them to heart; and now I began to do so. Mind you, I was still sometimes a bit diffident with these encounters, but I was more receptive after the cussing I got.
Another step in the process of my understanding of this impact happened here at the National Park some years ago during Mashramani. It was about half an hour before Tradewinds’ turn to perform. I prefer to be by myself in the tense minutes before I play, and I was standing alone in the dark behind the stage, arms folded, waiting.
I was watching some drummers in action, and I became aware that a woman was walking in my direction. Before I knew what was happening, she came right up to me and just threw her arms around me in a strong hug. She held on. I leaned back, still in her grip, looked at her face, and said, “Do I know you?” She released me, smiled and said, “No.” I said, “So what was that about?” She said two words – “You know.” – turned and walked back into the darkness. It was riveting. Every time I tell this story it gives me goose bumps.
I watched her walk away, speechless. Although it was just one person, not a crowd roaring, the impact on me was powerful. Without asking her another word, I knew immediately she was hugging me for the songs. It’s a moment I will remember as long as I live. It crystallized my understanding, and I am forever grateful to this lady (up to this day I don’t who she is) for her beautiful spontaneity. It had taken me to another level of seeing what the songs mean to people.
Living here again, interacting with Guyanese of all stripes almost daily, in places high and low, in exchanges long and short, I have come to see more than ever the connections those songs have established for me in these people.
A young man at a Thomas Street junction spots me in my vehicle, waves and shouts, “Chip sugar cake and saltfish and bake, is we own.”
At the opening of GuyExpo last year, where I sang a few tunes, a youngster, no more than 10 years old, walks up alongside me afterwards – his parents were watching – holds my hand, and says “Ah love dem songs, man.” I had to hug him.
A bartender at a function in Ruby, asks to be introduced to me (Guyanese can be beautifully polite) tells me he has grown up with my songs and says, “Me feel suh good fuh meet yuh; it mek mi skin itch.” I laughed, but I could hear the intensity in his voice.
A vendor in Bourda Market spots me coming and does a double take; a slow smile comes over his face, he says my name softly, and he leans over and shakes my hand as we pass each other.
The most astonishing thing of it all (the Bourda vendor is a good example) is the affection that is present in these exchanges. People can come to admire a performer for his/her dynamism, or the hypnotic drive of the music, or marvellous vocals, but when they show you love – like the woman in the National Park; like the man in Bourda – something else has happened; a more personal connection has taken place. It is the power of songs to do that – movies don’t do it; paintings don’t; books don’t. Music gets into people’s souls and grips them and never leaves. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the songs I was writing about how we live was capturing people and, in the process, somehow drawing me to them.
And so they shout “Dave” as they pass; or they spot me across the road and call out and wave; or they come up to me, like a man outside DHL the other day, and talk to me. About that, I used to say, “But they don’t know me.” I see now that, in fact, they do – I’ve been talking to them, about us, in the songs.
Easily the major realisation for me living here again is this intensified awareness of what my music means to people. I had no idea it was this deep, and this profound, and this widespread, and I am writing this column first of all to apologise to all those people I may have been casual with in the past. I was a cunnu munnu in those days; I have more sense now.
Secondly, I am truly grateful for this embrace you have given me. I have come to understand it and treasure it.