Guyana needs more literate musicians


By Derry Etkins


I had a very exciting, yet very painful experience, just about a month ago. On May 11, 2016, a theatrical production called, “ONE!” was held at the National Cultural Centre, under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Cohesion.

Russel Lancaster produced and directed the show, and honoured me by asking me to compose the soundtrack. I was particularly excited because, one, there would be original music; two, Mr Lancaster and I are on the same page, as far as producing music that is distinctly Guyanese is concerned, and; three, the music would be played LIVE! These three conditions, to my knowledge had not simultaneously existed in Guyana in quite a while.

There would be two violins (one violinist was pregnant), a flute, a steel pan, two keyboards, electric bass, electric guitar and, Indian and African drummers. Over a six-week period, I was back and forth with Russell, fine tuning ideas and concepts, and later, with Mrs Marilyn Dewar, who served as music contractor and, along with Andrea Mentore, rehearsal co-ordinator. I would be sending charts and MP3 audio files to Marilyn, so that the musicians in the ensemble could familiarise themselves with the music, and so that the dancers could hold preliminary rehearsals.

One week before show-time we found out that the pregnant violinist was expecting her baby during the week of the show. That same week, the other violinist decided that she was no longer available. Further, it turned out that the flautist could not read music, contrary to his earlier claims.

 Derry Etkins
Derry Etkins

Marilyn contacted a third violinist who had not been actively playing or practicing for quite some time, and who agreed to help the situation. On the night of the first official rehearsal, the bassist had an engagement with his band, so he could not attend. With the flautist missing, we had to have three keyboards, with Marilyn playing the flute parts on one keyboard and, the other two keyboardists alternating between second violin, cello pan and the bass line. The drummers were present. Where was the cello pan, you ask? The pannist could not attend any rehearsals because of his job commitments; neither did he have the opportunity to familiarize himself with his charts, so he could only play some of the notes required of him.

The dancers opted to dance to the recorded tracks because, on hearing the music played for the first time, the way it should be played, by human beings, it ‘sounded funny.’ This experience raises a series of questions!

1) Is there only one pannist in the Georgetown area who can read and play at a semi-professional level?

2) Are there only three violinists in the Georgetown area who can read and play at a semi-professional level, with two of them being foreigners? I am in no way anti-foreigner; it’s just that by sad coincidence, one of the violinists is Guyanese by marriage, and, the other is an honorary Guyanese because she lives and works in Guyana. This reflects very badly on Guyana!

3) Is there only one electric bassist in the Georgetown area capable of reading and playing at a semi-professional level? In four jurisdictions that I know of, the bassist would have sent a replacement to cover the rehearsal while he did the engagement with his band and, that replacement would have been literate, and thus would have fit in perfectly. In two jurisdictions that I know of, the pannist would have recommended one of several available literate pannists, while he honoured his job commitments.

Literate violinists, flautists and drummers are bountiful in three jurisdictions that I know of, and would be readily available. The dancers in this production explained that they have not had much experience working with live musicians, hence their discomfort on hearing the music played live. This needs to be corrected! Guyana needs to put the necessary systems in place to afford our music practitioners the opportunity to acquire the necessary literacy skills to match their technical ability. There is no shortage of musical talent in Guyana, but talent alone will not take us where we can and need to go.

There are three things that we need: education! education! education! Our schools, from nursery to secondary, need structured music education programmes. To facilitate that, our teachers’ training college needs to produce trained specialist music teachers to deliver these programmes.

Our post-secondary institute for the creative arts needs to equipped and staffed to cater to the needs of the talented people who are above school age. Apart from the immediate cultural benefits, Guyana is ignoring the potential for an entire industry; one that will contribute to the growth of the economy, the reduction of crime, the reduction of unemployment, and the enhancement of our tourism product, to name a few areas. I urge our movers and shakers to take this situation seriously. This could be Guyana’s last opportunity to get it right, and regain her place among the cultural and economic leaders of the region. Can we do it? Yes we can!

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