As someone involved in the entertainment business generally, not just music, I am always intrigued by the circumstances in our country’s history that provide so much fertile opportunity for songs, literature, sculpture, plays, painting, dance, etc, to come before us as part of the entertainment landscape.
At the back of my mind, for example, is an idea to write a musical about the Caribbean migration experience to North America. The ingredients are there in waiting: the often comical engagements with a new culture, including the hilarious confusions stemming from language mix-ups; the struggle to adapt; the feeling of exile; the epiphanies many of us experience; the backtrack ordeal; the longing for the homeland. A musical, drawing on those opportunities for drama and comedy, and featuring the various vibrant Caribbean music forms, would be a powerful draw both for Caribbean people, wherever they live, and be appealing as well to the people who have come to know us from the culture we brought to their countries. While I haven’t begun the work, the idea remains alive; it is a natural.
Looking backwards, while it’s not widely known, because it was a theatre project, I wrote a full-length musical called Raise Up in the 1980s on the occasion of the anniversary of Emancipation. The play was commissioned by our Commemoration Commission and staged here at the Cultural Centre, directed by Ron Robinson, and the premiere was a glittering affair with President Desmond Hoyte and the Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal in attendance. The cast members included several well-known actors including Jaimin Pigott, Gordon Marshall, John Phillips and Renee Franklin and the musical was produced by Ron and Gem Madhoo. In the comical role of “Sponger” was Mahadeo Shivraj who is now a prominent actor and director in his own right.
The work sprang from a request in 1987 from Vibert Cambridge, now Professor Emeritus at Ohio University, who was then a member of our Commemoration Commission which had been formed to celebrate, in 1988, the 150th anniversary of Emancipation. I had known Vibert since the Tradewinds years in Toronto, when he was at university, and he had approached me in Guyana, while the band was on tour here, to ask if I would consider writing a song for the occasion. I immediately told him the subject required a full musical, not just a song, and almost immediately, as well, the Commission agreed. On that basis, I took it on.
I stayed on here after the tour and began doing research and then made a few trips to Guyana solo to continue the research, ending up with copious notes and tape recordings. One pivotal experience was my conversations with an unforgettable lady in Buxton, Mavis John, now deceased, whose grandfather, Jungu, had been on one of the last slave ships to come to Guyana and who had been a powerful historical source for her. Mavis was pure gold. Getting on in years, she was still full of energy and excitement (she would break into pieces of African songs I had never heard), and after her initial shyness with this stranger from West Dem, it ended up a close and warm encounter. From Mavis I drew the story of this courageous man whose story played a central part in Raise Up.
The other major source for detail was the late Joel Benjamin of UG who guided me patiently through the forbiddingly extensive Caribbean Research Library, pointing to the various documents that I should look at. It was a treasure trove.
I was bowled over by the amount of detailed information that was there from that time, so much so that I developed writer’s cramp from making notes; I turned to a technique of sitting in a quiet corner reading very softly into a small battery-operated recorder to take the notes.
The intention was for the Commemoration Commission to present the play here in 1988, but when that did not materialize, Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo, the two linchpins of the Theatre Company, stepped in to bring the musical to the Cultural Centre stage, and later to take it on tour to 7 cities in the USA and the Cayman Islands – the longest overseas tour ever for a Guyanese play.
I mention that in the context of the appeal of the material on slavery I had dealt with, which had enthralled me on several levels with two holding me powerfully. One was the truly beastly conditions of slave life; of the way they were brutalized and mutilated and often left to die for trivial offences; of the almost daily rejection of their humanity.
It was an horrific litany. Going through this material in the Research Library, I often had to stop reading, or even take a complete break from the task, to gather myself; the wretchedness of it would become too much. One’s brain would swim.
And then, against that background, half way through my research came an even more shocking realization: the slaves, despite their wretched state, were not a down-trodden, disconsolate, dejected people. Drawing on their intrinsic resolve they had found ways to ameliorate their condition.
They created opportunities to dance and sing and play; they found laughter; they held colourful weddings. They were industrious to the point of taking outside work for pay on weekends when their slave chores allowed them the time, and they were careful with their money, in time often being able to make donations to the church they attended. In short, the striking epiphany for me about slavery was this astonishing demonstration of the power of the human spirit to triumph despite whatever horrors arrive. It is in our history forming a story for the ages, and I am puzzled by the fact that few of our creative people have drawn on it. That era in our past, and of the slave uprisings in particular, is gripping; every degree of passion or degradation or perseverance known to man is there, as is love, devotion, treachery and triumph.
Here are three verses from Raise Up that may convey the rich tapestry of the story. It is the aftermath of the dramatic 1823 uprising in Governor Murray’s time. These verses come at the very end of the play.
Well they raise up in Demerara
Berbice and Essequibo
and they tell the man, listen backra
these chains on we flesh have to go
you treat we like dog in this country
and we ain’t want no more of that
but the Governor tell them they’re crazy
and the ones he ain’t hang, get the cat.
And they left Quamina, swinging in the wind
they said that he was the leader, swinging in the wind
and they hang him up in a tree, swinging in the wind
for the people to pass and see, swinging in the wind
in the sun and the pouring rain, swinging in the wind
‘til only the bones remain, swinging in the wind.
Raise up, raise up, raise up.