Going back to the ‘30’s and the ‘40’s, an enduring message for young people growing up in Guyana was that the white culture was supreme. It was not posted on billboards, there were no articles in the newspapers saying so, but you would get the message in all sorts of ways, some insidious some openly said, and, ironically, some of the loudest proponents were our own Guyanese people. As a 17-year-old out of Saints and working for B. G. Airways, I vividly recall a black policeman at the Karanambo airstrip, standing under the wing of the DC-3 Art Williams’ aircraft, referring to some property dispute in the Savannah, pontificating that “de Englishman doan mek sport wid he land”. This was 1954 folks, and I was a small boy, knowing my place, so I didn’t make any comment, but it jolted me, an unknown country boy from West Dem., and looking across the Savannah the thought hit me. “What is he sayin? De Englishman land? Dis is Guyana; it’s our country. All right, we’re a colony, but this is our place.” I was a green youth at the time, but I was to look back on that incident with the policeman as a time when I started to question things that had been drummed into me. It was the first of many lights dawning.
Another example, I’ve talked about before, came in my early years in Canada, at Ryerson University in a linguistics class where in an assignment to do a breakdown of the dialect I spoke in Guyana (it was an international students group) I suddenly became aware of the value and power of that form of expression. I had been made ashamed of it in my homeland; outside I was discovering something that changed the way I saw myself and my country; a significant light had dawned.
A few years later, with some song-writing experience under my belt, and a full-time band, I met a music producer from Nashville. A Canadian song I had written was on the Toronto charts; he had heard it, asked about my other works, and he was interested in becoming a promoter of my music in the US. However, he had two conditions: one was that I had to move to Nashville, and the second was that I had to change the band which included two guys from the Caribbean. He didn’t say so directly, but his demeanour on the band question told me that the race factor was in there.
Besides those two issues, I realized he wanted me to move away from the Caribbean material and do more like the Canadian song. I thought about his offer for about five minutes and then told him, “Look. You don’t have enough money in Fort Knox to get me to do what you suggest. I’m a country boy from Guyana living here with my family, and Toronto is now my home. Furthermore, I have connections to those guys in the band, and, most of all, I have decided I want to write about Caribbean culture. Nashville has no attraction for me.” Another light.
In 1968, with Tradewinds launched on that Caribbean quest, we came to perform in Guyana and someone took me to a Theatre Guild show with the All Ah We group (Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews, Henry Muttoo) performing their dialect material to happy crowds. That experience was another light for me because it showed I was on the right track in my approach, similar to theirs, but in music.
Two years later, standing on the Queen’s Park Savannah stage during Carnival, and about to go on, I heard Sparrow sing a song called “We Pass That Stage”, about the foibles that Caribbean people were, hopefully, leaving behind. The song riveted me. Looking back, it was the beginning of Sparrow’s influence on calypso, widening it and diversifying it, and it was an injection for me, telling me, in effect, to disregard my trepidation about what the Caribbean would accept, and write what my soul was telling me to write. Again, another fortification.
There have been many others like that over the years; incidents that just widened the Caribbean embrace that I had begun to feel in Canada in the mid-1960s, and some stand out for me. One was being in the audience at a Collymore Hall show in Barbados where Rex Nettleford’s National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica put on a stunning performance to David Rudder’s singular song “Praise” at a level I cannot begin to describe. The theatre was ablaze when it ended; people were standing and cheering. The performance left me feeling a kinship with that group (I had always admired Rex’s work) and particularly a pride for the Caribbean. It was a staggering experience; I was almost in tears.
There have been many such stirrings for me over the years, they have shaped who I am, and indeed the process continues. One was to be in the Jamaica airport the day that Usain Bolt won his race at the Tokyo Olympics. Manley simply erupted; no other word fits. Check-ins ceased as airport staff ran hither and thither, hugging each other, pointing at the monitors, screaming and laughing. Even the passengers waiting to check in, like me, got caught up in it; it was literally bedlam, and a marvelous thing to see; our Caribbean people celebrating our own with no holding back; magic moment.
On a purely musical scale there are so many lights, but I must mention two more. Going back a few years, Andre Tanker’s “Ah Come Back to Stay”, a song that spoke directly to me looking to come back home, and more recently an online video of the Jamaican piano boss Monty Alexander, performing Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” at the Montreux Jazz Festival. For my money, the best version of the song. It’s on You Tube, take a listen. A light may dawn for you.