In the mid-20th century Guyanese artists achieved a cohesive culture which went out the window four decades ago

Dear Editor,

Your readers included, I read with interest the editorial titled ‘Who are we?’ in Stabroek News, Saturday, August 31, concerning the apparent imitation by today’s Caribbean and Guyanese (youth especially) of American culture; meaning, those silly sit-com and violent TV programmes (made mainly for North Americans stressed out by a fast-paced workaholic lifestyle), a taste for MacDonald’s , Kentucky Fried, Church’s Chicken, and other fast food outlets, etc, noisy ghetto recordings, pants hanging off the buttocks, etc. However, we should be very careful with the use of the word ‘culture’ to describe such recent North American lifestyles (something Guyanese today don’t seem to understand) which really constitute a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘culture’, as I’m sure most cultured Americans would agree.

If we hold to the dictionary’s definition of culture as “refinement the result of cultivation; to improve, or to be cultured; meaning well-educated,” those TV programmes, fast foods, styles of ‘music’ and fashion would fall far short of the true definition of ‘culture.’ But many Americans really do not care about the issue of who accepts it, because North America is equally, or even more filled with films, fiction, poetry, music, fashion, cuisine, etc, stretching back more than a century, that is of the highest quality in comparison with anywhere in the world. I am not going to mention exact American examples in those areas here, though I can.

The thing is, if you want to criticise North America you can conveniently find poor examples of its lifestyles which will help you to do so, but if you are really serious and interested in fairly defining ‘American culture,’ per se, you’re going to have to do much better than that. Authentic examples of American culture are treated as if they don’t exist at all, simply because of some conveniently used current ‘popular’ yardstick. On the other hand, American attitudes under its umbrella of democratic freedom, will sell you anything you’re willing to buy. That is how it accesses and tests your personal and national level of intelligence, including that of its own citizens. Here is an hilarious example: I remember visiting a young American sculptor in his Toronto studio (he was a recent art school graduate), and upon entering was instantly appalled to find dog turds all over his floor. I said “Hey man, how can you live like this!” To which he quickly bent down and scooped up a swirl of turds in his hand (they were actually pulping all over his fingers!) and threw it at me. I cringed and swung away and it landed on the floor, bouncing a few times. It was made of very soft rubber, and a perfect replica of turds. The young sculptor said to me: “Hey man, don’t knock it, they sell like hot cakes!” His creatively critical point? Americans, or people in general, are often willing to buy […]

In the editorial the easy use of the word ‘our’ to define colonial imitation of British or North American influences on Guyanese, also helps to blind ‘us’ to those local minority examples whose influences acknowledged non-Anglo cultures, like the Dutch, French, and Latin Americans, whose combined presence in years is much longer than the British colonial presence in Guyana. But if you sheepishly accept or uphold Guyanese history and its colloquial bi-products only as a ‘British colony,’ you would not be interested in that, or might consider it less desirable than Anglo
culture. Since the late 1950s and early ’60s, I’m glad to say I was part of a minority of creatively inclined college and high school Guyanese students whose tastes and influences were mostly not British, but rather French, Italian, American, and Latin American, and whose favourite writers were Stendhal, Flaubert, Maupassant, Proust, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir (French); Moravia, Pavese, Lampedusa (Italian); Faulkner, Hemingway, Capote, Ellison, Tennessee Williams (American); Cortazar, Carpentier, Marquez, Neruda, Borges, Amado, Cabrera Infante (Latin American); whose favourite French film directors and actors were Truffaut, Godard, Lelouch, Vadim, Montand, Delon, Belmondo, Moreau and Bardot; whose favourite Italian film directors and actors were Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, De Sica, Leone, Mastroianni, Gassman, Loren, Cardinale, and Vitti. I categorically declare that both this literary and cinematic culture which existed cheaply for us all year round at seven Georgetown bookstores, and six downtown cinemas in the capital between the 1950s and ’70s, are artistically, intellectually, and educationally superior to most foreign and local TV programmes and films Guyanese in general are exposed to today.

Moreover, the past constant presence and viewing of such films brought the world’s most creatively advanced and peaceful societies to Guyanese, and satisfied their desire for knowledge of the ‘developed’ outside world in an exciting everyday manner, so that most youths (apart from transient students) did not have to emigrate anywhere and were quite content to receive such cultural influences here, rather than chase after them abroad.

The reverse is true today. And has been true for the past four decades, when admittedly, destructive political and racial disturbances began the exodus of Guyanese; first the educated professionals, businesspeople, store owners, cinema owners, managers and staff who had the knowledge to provide uplifting products for the public, and could not operate as before in an increasingly reactionary, ethnic-minded, and strife-oriented society. Today we hear of interest only in one’s ethnicity, culture, and nation, which obviously limits both our knowledge and education.

The popularly imitated TV, fast food, ghetto music and fashion one sees today are the result of such prior local professionals of quality never being replaced, since positive continuity is almost unknown in Guyana today. Those prior standards are now regarded as ‘old time’ or ‘past.’ But true quality and human value have no past.

A famous old Canadian painter once told me: “Listen, if your painting is good today it will be good tomorrow.”

Those tropical male and female fashion styles we saw in French and Italian films of the ’50s and ’60s, based in the snow-less French and Italian Riviera, Mediteranean Greece and Spain, felt much more contemporary Guyanese than hot itchy English serge clothes, etc. Indeed the brilliantly cut local modern non-ethnic fashion of Guyanese in the ’50s and ’60s (check newspaper archives) produced by local fashion design companies like Briana, Elite, and Evergreen, were an offshoot of those light fashions, conducive to Guyanese reality, found in those non-Anglo European films a local ‘minority’ appreciated.

In the 1960s the high round collar ‘Dr No’ shirt was a hit with Guyanese males of any race, and was adapted after the James Bond film Dr No opened at the Strand de Luxe cinema. Similarly the short-sleeved vertical striped Bossa Nova shirt/jersey buttoned at the waist arrived from Brazil, along with the beautiful soothing South American tropical beat and mood of Brazilian Bossa Nova jazz vocalists like Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, Joao Gilberto, and Bossa Nova instrumentalists like Carlos Jobim, Baden Powell, Dom Um Romao, Stan Getz, Charlie Bird, Stan Turrentine, etc, which found a uniquely Guyanese equivalent in stunning 1950s and ’60s Georgetown instrumental bands like The Telstars, Combo 7, The Rhythmaires, Bumble & The Saints, and Chet & The Diamonds, among others.

Also, the outstanding recording Guyanese pop singers like Johnny Braff and Mark Holder, among others, found that narrow skilful opening where North American Rhythm & Blues, and Soul, achieved a genuine local tone at once hybrid and cosmopolitan, and participatory of conducively shared human influences, rather than imitative of them. This is quite unlike the current new youth and adult Guyanese imitation of commercial North American lifestyles, as opposed to true American culture, one sees today, which the editorial ‘Who are we?’ bemoans.

The truth of the matter is that modern Guyanese artists achieved the beginning of a hybrid cosmopolitan, but cohesive culture in literature, art, music and fashion since the mid-20th century, but it went out the window following the egotistic self-satisfied post-Independent period four decades ago.

Yours faithfully,
Terence Roberts

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