Multitalented is perhaps an understatement when describing Russell Lancaster. His range stretches from classical music to drama and he has won awards as proof of his merit. But a performer is the last thing he would want to be, and he does not thus describe himself.
Russell grew up in a humble Georgetown home with two brothers. He was the eldest, and noted that the usual sibling conflicts were minute since the trio shared a close relationship. “We practically looked alike,” he said, “especially my two younger brothers who looked so much like twins they would dress alike.” Today,
Russell is the only one residing in Guyana, with fond memories of cricket sessions at the Demerara Cricket Club conducted by famed cricketer Lance Gibbs and music lessons on East Street with Miss Hunt, which he began at the age of seven.
Church played a big role in his life and to this day he is still very spiritual. His uncle was a minister of religion who ensured the family spent at least three days of the week in congregation; his mother later became a minister and continued to teach Sunday school.
Attending St Gabriel’s Primary School, young Russell was artistically inclined singing and performing in school plays. At St Rose’s he excelled in both academia and arts. It was there that a priest called Fr Bernard approached Russell in 1975 to act in his play A Child was Born; Russell played the lead role.
In sixth form at the Bishops High School, he became even more immersed in the arts. Renowned musician Edith Peters gave him classical voice training for his two years in school and for five years after that.
The stage beckoned and award winning playwright, director and dramatist Ron Robinson cast Russell as one of the disciples in a local performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical.
He transitioned from this to radio with ease, auditioning and being hired as an announcer; he later became a producer. He recalled that Vic Insanally heard him on radio and invited him to work at his advertising agency.
Russell opted out of the University of Guyana twice and today he is a marketing consultant, advertising agent and business counsellor specialising in constructing marketing strategies and business programmes for many companies. He also serves on several boards including St Rose’s High School and the Theatre Guild of Guyana.
He took a few years break from his careers to practice Rastafarianism and explore the beauty of Guyana’s interior after which he went to England to visit one of his brothers. It was after he returned that he met a group of men who would later come together and form First Born, one of Guyana’s best known groups, which is popular around the Caribbean for its reggae music and social commentary.
After being heard and gaining popularity practically overnight, the band went to Jamaica – the birthplace of reggae – to record its first album.
But a few years later, the band split up, three members (including Russell) left from the original eight and one member died. At this point, Russell decided not to pursue singing as a professional. But he related that a musician from England joined with the remaining four members of First Born and they now make up the current group.
Now, two days a week for the past 11 years, he uses his vocal and musical talents but on a smaller scale. He is an active member in the Woodside Choir and conducts the Methodist Choir, known as the Majesty Singers. The choir has done some Bob Marley songs, a musical inspiration for Russell, along with gospel music.
Russell finds inspiration in Christ because he was a revolutionist. “He looked beyond himself; he wasn’t doing things for his own purpose,” he stated. He also admires philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, some of the richest men in the world who have given a considerable amount of their income to charities over the years.
He likes all varieties of music but what he is most interested in is how effective music can be used as a tool. “I listen across all the genres and I like music from pop through to dancehall, reggae, classical. I like it all! What I like most is the human voice as a musical instrument, so I am particularly into acapella…”
Russell is interested in youth empowerment and rues the fact that too many young people are one-dimensional.
“I am particularly interested in… the things that can move our society forward and I have found that to a large extent the power of the arts is underestimated. So I spent a lot of time exploring artistic endeavours as a means of empowerment for young people.
“Young people are our future and I have found that [they] have to be rounded; you can’t just have skills in one area. You have to have skills in many areas. I myself am very multidiscipline. I play two instruments, I sing, conduct a choir, I write, act, direct, I’m a television and radio producer and presenter and I am very much involved in business education, … being a certified UNDP Entrepreneurial Trainer.” Russell is one of only two trainers in Guyana currently certified by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In recent years, he won the 2011 Duet Category award at the Guyana Music Festival. But he now serves as Public Relations Officer for the Musical Festival, which precludes him from entering.
He hasn’t done any drama for a number of years but is widely considered to be one of Guyana’s best. After Jesus Christ Superstar, he recalled, he must have been in at least 35 plays with The Theatre Company. Standouts were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Robinson, for which he received a Theatre Guild Award; his performance as the murderer in Agatha Christie’s And Then They Were None, which landed him a nomination for a Theatre Guild Award.
In 2004, he was asked to head a Theatre Guild management committee. During his tenure he was able to work with the Board of Trustees inclusive of people like Joe Singh, Vic Insanally, Cathy Hughes, Keith Massiah and the late David de Caires, who together were able to rebuild the playhouse having raised a whopping $85 million in donations; the Government of Guyana being the largest single donor with interventions from former president Bharrat Jagdeo.
Today, Russell still sits on the governing board of The Theatre Guild.
Asked about his future as an artist, he responded: “Not a performer, I don’t consider myself to be one.
I like performing but it is not something I see as my foreground. I think there are better performers than I am and I am not at all committed to it – I know this because I was in it for years and I know it is not my thing. That being said, I am particularly interested in the development of musicals in Guyana, and I don’t just mean re-enacting a play, I mean creating musicals from scratch.”
Some of his most recent contributions to art were in February when he directed the Folk Festival for Mashramani; he took local folk songs and built a script around them. He was part of the CineGuyana film project where he worked alongside Margaret Lawrence in the film Traditions. “I am very interested in film,” he said.
And while musicals are his passion, he has creative plans for magazines and will be launching his own magazine later on in this year. The focus will be arts and topics in society. He has a particular interest in decor and designing, “Everywhere you look there is some sort of design and I will soon be a part of that,” he promised.