Glorifying Guyana: Independence programme celebrated nationhood and identity

Barbara Reynolds

O Beautiful Guyana                                      

O beautiful Guyana

O my lovely native land

More dear to me than all the world

Thy sea-washed, sun-kissed strand

Or down upon the borders

Looking down upon the deep

The great Atlantic

Blown into a fury or asleep

At morn, at noon or better

In the crimson sunset’s glow

I love thee, Oh I love thee.

 

                                Walter McA Lawrence

                My Guyana El Dorado

‘My Guyana, Eldorado

Best of all the world to me

In my heart where’er I wander

Memory enshrineth thee;

All my hopes and aspirations,

All my longings only tie

Everlasting bonds around us

As the fleeting years roll by

.My Guyana, time’s unfolding

More and more thy destiny,

To redeem in lasting splendour

All the years had lost to thee;

And the dawning of thy glory

O’er the long, long night is cast

O arise triumphant, glorious

,From the ashes of the past.

O arise, triumphant, glorious,

From the ashes of the past.’

                                Walter McA Lawrence

These two songs were performed as part of a programme titled ‘Celebration of Poetry, Songs and Stories of Guyana’ on May 22 at the Umana Yana. The production of musical and dramatic items was directed by Barbara Reynolds as a birthday gift to the Cooperative Republic of Guyana to mark the anniversary of independence. It was the second annual show presented to the public for that purpose, having had its inauguration at the same time in 2017. 

The songs very distinctly set the tone of the main theme of the programme, which was designed to celebrate the nation. Dr Reynolds, who is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, deliberately shaped the production in that way to conjure up a sense of nationhood and identity. With the assistance of Eze Crandon and Hubert Meusa, the performance ran uninterrupted in sequence without announcements to give a continuous dramatic flow of items that in some way reflected the country, its culture and voices. It was based on folk songs, other folk performances, poems old, familiar and new, and a few stories, but mainly carried by the chorus of very well-known, national songs that rang the dominant resounding note of patriotism.

“O Beautiful Guyana” and “My Guyana El Dorado” were two of those songs. Actually, they are poems which were set to music long after they were published. They belong to the important volume of work written between 1920 and 1942 by one of the foundation Guyanese poets Walter McArthur Lawrence (1896 – 1942).  A J Seymour, in his piece, “The Poetry of Walter McA Lawrence” in Kyk-Over-Al Volume 6, 1946 did comment on what he saw as the musical quality in the verses, suggesting that the poet had intention that the poems should be put to music.  

These compositions were performed by singers on Reynolds’ programme. “O Beautiful Guyana” was done by Amanda Reynolds, Riet Amsterdam and E Moore, while “My Guyana El Dorado” was played as an instrumental version by the National Steel Ensemble, which has taken on the mantle of Guyana’s representative steel band.  Both compositions had relevant significance to Guyanese poetry when they were written. They were not produced for the purpose to which they have been corralled in contemporary times. Now they are very well known as national patriotic songs, but that was a development after independence. 

Lawrence was the foremost Guyanese poet after Leo (Egbert Martin) who died in 1890.  Overwhelmingly, the poets of that era belonged to the English Romantic and Victorian imitative school. However, poets like Lawrence began to develop the modern Guyanese poetry started by the remarkable Leo. Lawrence’s contribution was the developing nationalism in the poetry – a quality that was to endure till post-independence when it took on a new brand. 

Creeping into the poetry in that early era was a sense of belonging to a country – a native identity (that was not lost on Leo, either) which caused the poet to be aware of his national environment.  Lawrence’s resulting landscape poetry glorified the beauty of the country – giving epic proportions to the local landscape, as in another poem, “Ode to Kaieteur”. The focus in the landscape is to be noted in most of these poems, but also the identification with and the glorification of the country. This was the kindred spirit that guided the production ‘Celebration of Poetry, Songs and Stories of Guyana’ on May 22.

The production included almost all the national patriotic songs. A list is provided by Petamber Persaud and most of those were performed on the programme.  “The Song of Guyana’s Children” was by poet W Hawley Bryant and was sung by Korokwa, a leading folk singing group in Guyana founded by Derek Bernard and continued as a sub-branch of the Woodside Choir. Vere T Daley wrote “Hymn for Guyana’s Children” and that was represented on the programme performed by Derry Etkins and Mervin Kissoon. Cleveland Hamilton was another prominent pre-independence poet who wrote “Song of The Republic”, which was sung by Kellon Rover in this production.

But the corpus of national patriotic songs continued with the virtual canon, which includes “O Beautiful Guyana” performed by Colwyn Delph. That representation was endless with “To Serve My Country” done by Korokwa, “Beautiful Guyana” interpreted by Eze Crandon and Edwin Moore, and “Let Us Cooperate” performed by the Success School Choir. 

What has become very famous as an adopted national song and even called the second national anthem is actually a calypso described by its author as “a love of country song”. E Moore, D Moore, I Moore and D Bagot gave their version of “Not A Blade of Grass” by Dave Martins, Visiting Artist in Residence at the University of Guyana, who is himself a national personality as musician and cultural commentator.

Poetry was also a strong part of the proceedings with a few established selections outside of those set to music. There was variety with the inclusion of newer works such as “I Come From” and “I Am a Guyana Woman” read by member of the National Drama Company (NDC), actress Nirmala Narine and another NDC member, outstanding playwright Subraj Singh who read “Cultish” and “Coolie”. These newer poems asserted identity and belonging and added other dimensions.

National tales further went on to include story-telling. Another NDC member, dancer and designer Esther Hamer performed “Inter-Independence”. Deeper in the folk tradition was acclaimed story-teller Michael Khan as ‘Ol Man Pappy’, who performed an independence story “May 26”, while Carlene Gill-Kerr did “Tell My History”. A distinct departure from the other types of items was the violin solo by Adaeze Lumumba, whose selection was nevertheless in line with all else: “Salute to Guyana”.

The wide range of folk songs was inevitable and were performed by various singers. The remaining performers were Omari Austin, Paul Lespoir, Roy Stewart, Royalty, and Dynamic Force. Collectively, they gave a memorable birthday gift whose impact will not fade fast, but from the appearance of things, it will be repeated at independence time each year.