About four years ago I travelled from Cayman for the funeral of my friend Bobby Clarke who had died in Castries after a tough two-year battle with cancer. Bobby and I had become friends in the early 1970s when Tradewinds were playing all over the Caribbean and came to make the first of many appearances in St Lucia. During my time in music, I have met, literally, hundreds of people, but only a few have become special. Bobby Clarke was one of those. In the 35 years after we met, I don’t think any two-month period passed without our talking to each other or visiting each other. I had even played with Tradewinds, as friends, at Bobby’s wedding in St Lucia. The bond between us never weakened. Bobby loved the Guyanese dialect – especially the cuss words – and he would frequently mangle it in our conversations. We made each other laugh. We told each other everything. We had become brothers.
Something else: many years ago, I had written a song called ‘Living in the Sun.’ Contrary to what people assume, very few songs are truly personal, but this one was. It had to do with my migrating to Canada and of, in effect, finding the Caribbean by leaving it − as Bobby did; as so many Caribbean people do − and there are two verses in the song about Bobby and St Lucia. So after his wife Angela called, and after I got over the shock of his passing, the thought came that I should sing ‘Living in the Sun’ at his funeral, and that’s what I did at the Cathedral in Castries on that solemn Monday afternoon four years ago. I did it simply. No bass. No drums. Just two acoustic guitars: me and Boo Hinckson – a great guitarist from St Lucia I’ve known for years, who was also close to Bobby.
I’ve never played at a funeral before, and I was very nervous, but once I started, the song rolled out. It was pure Caribbean, in church mind you, but it was a really touching moment because the song talks about the simple joys of Caribbean life, and while it was clearly a sad occasion in the cathedral, it was an uplifting moment. People applauded after we finished – unusual for a funeral service.
There are two other aspects to this incident. One is that, after the funeral, we went back to Bobby’s house and nibbled and talked to all sorts of people, some of whom I had come to know from our trips to St Lucia. It was beautiful. I spent some time there with Bobby’s family and with his wife, Angela. She had had a bad time on Sunday and Monday, but she was bearing up well. She is truly a lovely person, gentle and warm, but a rock. She pulled me to one side and said, “Dave, you know what Bobby used to say? He used to say, ‘Dave sang at my wedding and he will sing at my funeral.’ ” I was shaken. I could hardly speak. She had never said anything about it to me, and neither had Bobby. Even when she had called and told me he had gone, and I had called her back to tell her I was trying to come, and maybe even sing something at his funeral, she never said a word about it. She obviously didn’t want to influence me. That’s the kind of person she is. That’s the kind of people I have met through music.
And that’s the other thought that subsequently came to me: that through some songs I had written about Caribbean life, I had come to know wonderful people all over this region that I would not have known otherwise. When I visit Barbados, or St Vincent, or St Lucia, people shout at me in the street or call the radio to say hello; these people have become my regional cousins. I have come to know the little back-o-wall villages in those scattered places and the solid, genuine people who live there and invite you into their homes and make you feel special – all from the songs.
In Guyana of course, the exchange is more powerful and more widespread and it affects me more, but on the plane trip back from that St Lucia experience it came to me to be grateful to God for giving me this musical gift that has opened windows for me all over the hemisphere and brought me directly into so many Caribbean lives.
Certainly I might have worked at some other career and possibly made enough money to travel to these diverse pearls of the Caribbean, but I would have gone there merely as an unknown visitor. Because my songs had become popular in those places, I was going there as someone with a connection to those people that I could not have otherwise made. Through the songs, drawn from them, and aimed at them, I had become familiar. They knew Dave Martins as a friend who understood them and was talking to them of their own world, and all that had come from these songs I had written. That realization had never come to me before; on that Tuesday afternoon, in a plane high over the Caribbean Sea, it came and it brought me to tears.
This past weekend I played in a Washington concert for the OAS organized beautifully by Guyanese Ambassador Bayney Karran in the imposing Hall of The Americas auditorium. Just around the corner from the White House, backed by three Guyanese musicians from Toronto, I was performing for a range of OAS ambassadors (Antigua; Canada; St Vincent; Grenada; Haiti; Suriname; Barbados) and a cross-section of Caribbean people. And again, this West Coast country boy was there because of the songs. At the end, with the audience singing the Caribbean chestnuts, including my own ‘You Can’t Get’ and ‘Not a Blade o’ Grass,’ I was close to tears again.
On the way home on Caribbean Airlines, transiting that same Caribbean, I was giving silent thanks for the music that had brought me such an embrace. The jovial embrace in Washington, and the solemn one at Bobby’s funeral, had all come from the songs. I don’t speak about it much, but I frequently give thanks for it.