This past week I found myself once again being asked to explain to someone in the diaspora why I chose to remain in Guyana. I have a Canadian passport, and a British one from Cayman, and of course most of my extended family are in Toronto, in four separate locations. I have choices. The reasons – I’ve dabbled in this before – are various and complex and changing, and after you discuss the irritations for a while you find yourself noting, as I did to the person this week, that in whatever country you live there are things amiss; perhaps not precisely the things we have here, but things.
In Guyana, if you live in town, the saving grace is that you can escape to the Essequibo River, as my friends Ian McDonald and George Jardim do, or to the interior, as my wife does, and you don’t need big money to do that, provided you don’t expect to have the cushy life. For me, Canada is there as an option, but the winter is beyond me now, as I get older, and Annette is only going there, as the Guyanese would say, “if dey jail she.” GT still has the nature side ‒ the landscape, the animals, the waterfalls, the rivers ‒ and while that is a totally different vibe, which calls you to slow seriously, and can even get boring, it also has powerful innate pulls on you that bring you back and somehow anchor you ‒ for a while, anyway.
I realise a lot of the time I am immersed in Guyana in my work and my head; I didn’t plan that, it just took place, largely as a consequence of the songs I’ve written, some going back 50 years, that still play on the radio and in people’s homes. It’s a legacy behind me, one I don’t take for granted, and ultimately it’s a tonic for how I feel about my homeland.
Organisations ask me to play for this or that function, sometimes suggesting “just come wid yuh guitar an’ sing couple song, na”.
Also, believe me, I have given serious thought about living in Cayman; many times. I lived there for 25 years, got very imbedded in that culture, wrote songs and an annual comedy show called Rundown (that’s the Caymanian word for ‘metemgee’). It’s a place where everything works, lots of people there I’m drawn to, and pieces of that landscape are with me forever. But there are too many personal pieces of me hung out to dry there; being in Cayman is too hard on me; I would have trouble sleeping at night, so that’s one reason.
Freddie is right, Guyana is a goady, but once you close your eyes, and once you realise the place is currently too poor to do much better (that’s in play big time in such things as vandalism of our telephone lines to get the copper; and the guy picking up bottles by the roadside) you see the malaise as more ‘so it go’ than infuriating and you develop your coping mechanisms so it can get to where you sleep through the night in the East Coast breeze.
The landscape and the genuineness of the people is your saviour. I just recently did a TV station interview about the demolition of Astor Cinema (Tradewinds’ very first show in Guyana was there in 1968) and the exchanges I had with some people in the area, and some driving by, were just gold, pure gold; nowhere else I know like that.
One can say that I am fortunate to have developed a relationship with the Guyanese people, because of my music; they shout at me as they’re passing, or come up to me on the street, or send me a note, or ask me to hold still for a photo – just this week, a taxi driver stopped me suddenly outside Giftland, jumped out of his car, yelling (scared me for an instant) but he just wanted a photo with me, aimed his cell phone, jumped back in his car and drove off; I was tempted to give him a tip. I realise not many people get that on a regular basis, and that it’s a big factor in how I see Guyana, so my case is different.
But the diaspora man asked me, and pure luck or not, I have to admit it: that kind of relationship is a factor. I get it in Cayman to some degree, yes, and a bit in Barbados and St Lucia, even Trinidad at times, but not like here; nothing like here.
In the end, however, while I understand the question, I’m really not the right guy to ask; my situation is different; artists, particularly when they delve into their own culture, end up in a separate category. So if you press me for a “why I stay” explanation, I would mention that condition, but I would also go past that to say that anywhere you run you will find, as Guyanese say, “story fuh deal wit”. Now you can choose not to see those things, or dismiss them, as some do, but in reality they are there. So make your choice. Wherever you jump, brace yourself.