The annual Republic of Guyana Distinguished Lecture Series, established in 2011, continued last week with a lecture that provided, as has been the intention, an opportunity for intellectual engagement with concepts that define Guyana as a nation as a part of the celebration of Mashramani and the anniversary of Republicanism. In the 2015 Lecture, novelist Oonya Kempadoo reflected on language as a medium for literature, in particular, the use of the Creole in the Caribbean with implications for the oral culture, the storytelling traditions and folk music.
Mashramani is primarily known as a festival of revelry, music and culture, overwhelmingly led by the gaiety and Bacchanalian abandon in the popular culture. But it was designed in 1970 as a celebration of the nation’s Republican status with implications that definitively transcend the music and carnival. The Republic of Guyana Lecture Series was introduced by the Ministry of Culture in 2011 in order to emphasize this wider context of Mashramani. The idea is to lead discussions along the lines of intellectualism, the political and cultural concepts of the Republic ideal, and of nationhood.
While any subject may be chosen by the Distinguished Lecturers, and there have been seven different ones so far, including language, history, slavery, Indo-Guyanese consciousness, music and culture, they have all embraced national and regional definition, by extension, arising from Republicanism as a base. The Republican ideal is an interesting subject that has been at the core of many debates since the Greek Plato’s Republic. It engaged Socrates, and the divisions created by Republicanism versus Monarchy waged among the Romans, causing not only intellectual strife but bloodshed. This last was repeated in the seventeenth century when King Charles 1 was beheaded at Whitehall in London and England flirted with Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived Puritan rule as a Republic. This has as much to do with governance and political science as with national definition and culture.
The Lecture Series and last Wednesday’s presentation have a regional Caribbean context. Carnival came to an end last week in Trinidad and in Brazil whose populations duly moved into Lenten repentance from Ash Wednesday. It ended abruptly in Haiti under more tragic circumstances following a disaster. But the mas will take to the road again in St Lucia, in Vinci-mas, in Antigua Carnival and Barbados Kadooment. Both Trinidad and Barbados have agonised over the character and meaning of carnival as a definition of nationhood.
It has engaged Trinidad and Tobago in intellectual debate. Columnist Lisa Agostini writing in the Express has commented more than once on the way carnival and a popular culture consciousness have defined Trinidad and Tobago as a nation. She once used the popular music as an example of the way mindlessness prevails over profundity and defines Trinidad as a people. The populace would choose the trivial and the superficial in such soca hits as Machel Montano and Xtatic’s “Toro Toro” and “Footsteps” as the carnival road march in preference to the deeper and more thoughtful, and musically more interesting “High Mas” by David Rudder. Yet on another occasion she defended the grassroots and folk performance traditions in carnival. She described the way they would be ‘wining up’ and “palancing” on the street passing ironically right outside the fence of the NAPA, a theatre built for the middle classes that none of the folk performances would enter.
But this debate had started long ago in the nineteenth century after the proletariat joined the post-Emancipation carnival. It escalated into class conflict – working class defiance and violence in the “jamette carnival” and the Canboulay Riots of 1881. The entire carnival was redefined, changing from the playground of the plantocracy, the whites and the French Creoles to an expression of wider national creativity driven by folk musical forms calypso, soca and chutney and the very popular and folk performances that could only pass outside the fence but not enter the NAPA. This issue of national definition has therefore been deep and wide-ranging.
Similarly in Barbados there have been debates and agonising over the way the people express themselves in Crop-Over. Commentators in the Advocate and the Nation deplored the scantily clad females, the ‘wukkin up’ on the road and the soca lyrics and questioned why the national festival and the nation should be defined by “simulations of the sex act.” Crop-Over and Kadooment are supposed to be expressions of Barbadian culture and nationhood just as in the cases of carnival and Mashramani. The same newspapers ironically headlined the festival of 2010 as a “Bumper Crop-Over!” in reference to its marked success and the record sums of money it made. But that was also a humorous reference to the behaviour and the way it was defined by the ‘wining up’ on the road. The word ‘bumper’ had become popular slang for a prominent section of the anatomy which was fore-grounded (or back-grounded, to be more accurate) in the ‘wukkin up’ and dance exhibitions which dominated the festival revelry.
Tomorrow will witness the climax of Mashramani’s peak day on the streets of Georgetown. It has been little different in Guyana where year after year the trends of (un)dress and exhibitions of them all – ‘winin’, ‘wukkin up’ and ‘bumper’ displays have been deplored by commentators. There are lamentations about what are said to be declining standards and exhibitionism on the road Mashramani Day and the uninhibited expressions of sexuality. The injections of intellectual content and cultural depth to the Republic activities were therefore thought to diversify and deepen the way the festival is commemorated.
However, the main thesis and wave of thought generated in the Republic of Guyana Lecture by the writer Oonya Kempadoo moved in an opposite direction to the moral concerns and disapprovals at the centre of the complaints made across the region. The paper titled ‘Carilese: Caribbean Language, Multi-Sector and Interdisciplinary Dialogue’ started with the use of Creole in the literature of the Caribbean, linking its use by various writers to the rhythms of Caribbean life. She was concerned with dialogue, narrative and storytelling which kept the creole languages and oral qualities high on the agenda. The philosophy was therefore more in sympathy with the creole culture and folk forms for whom “Carilese” would be the first language. The ‘behaviour’ associated with these forms would not attract disapproval but would be endorsed as giving identity to the nations of the region.
What is of further significance in the Guyanese situation are the mixed feelings in some of the comments in the newspapers. These comments champion the cause of the calypso, lamenting the way this art form has waned in Guyana, losing quality, popularity and the high place it once held in national celebration. However those commentators blame the soca, especially, and the chutney for killing off the calypso. While it is true that those two forms currently out-stride the calypso as popular music, they cannot be frowned upon as alien foreign elements destroying a culture. The tenor of those comments see no merit in the soca and reflects the Trinidadian accusation of mindlessness.
Yet both soca and chutney are indigenous Caribbean musical forms emerging from the culture with an equal claim to belonging as the calypso. The chutney is a folk form developing out of Indian roots in both Guyana and Trinidad and recently gaining ascendancy in the popular culture and claiming a place in both carnival and Mashramani. There has been further disapproval of the recent wave of chutney lyrics celebrating rum drinking, a development too complex to be satisfactorily treated here, but a focus of the music that, far from being a negative development, was a deepening of its social place and function in the Caribbean.
The soca is not an enemy and murderer of the calypso, but another indigenous form that evolved as a part of cultural change. It is an urban music whose parent is the calypso itself, and it developed directly into and through the popular culture. Its reputation for ‘wutlessness’, ‘wukkin up’ and sexuality is no less than the notoriety or fame enjoyed by the calypso for most of the twentieth century. While the calypso, which is centuries older, has greater breadth and depth, the soca of the last 10 years has developed a strong line of social commentary and reflects a place in society similar to the chutney.
Another indigenous musical form that has not escalated in popularity is the folk song that has been fighting forces threatening to smother its existence. The Guyanese folk song is African based with centuries of far-reaching social function in its rich history. It exists in multiple categories, which speaks for the way it has evolved in service to the society. It has been very sensitive to social change and to its environment and this is strongly reflected in its lyrics and in the various types that developed. These include porkknockers songs, kwe kwe (queh-queh) songs, ring games, those with double-entendre and sexual innuendo.
These lyrics and types developed over the years as society marched on to comment on and to otherwise reflect the different experiences of the people who created them. They have evolved as means of social control and of satire, fitting in with the strong Caribbean satirical tradition. Cultural change, cultural diffusion and the growing dominance of technology have all been threats to the survival of folk songs. But, in refutation of those middle-class sensibilities that frown upon them, the dynamism and the closeness of these musical forms to folk life make them into excellent cultural expressions to define a people and a nation.