I have this Artist in Residence thing (AIR) going with UG via Dr Griffith the VC and as part of that, the band (Oliver Basdeo, James Jacobs, Colin Perrera) and I are doing some gigs around the place. We did a sweet one at the Seawall Bandstand and then a real Essequibo night at Anna Regina, and last week a bout in Berbice. I say ‘bout’ because Berbice is very energetic place (maybe it’s all the small farmers) and that night in New Amsterdam was magic. The Tain UG Deputy Director, Paulette Henry, and her team, were terrific and the guy from GT who ferried me up and back, Rhinold Cameron, was a boss driver. Also the exchange with the UG Arts students at Tain was great (I saw some of it streamed) but the highlight was the evening performance in town at a Banks DIH site they call ‘the Berbice Seawall’. The guy at Banks told me, “You’re gonna be amazed with the crowd here when you start with your songs” and I thought he was exaggerating. I was wrong. Anna Regina was good; this topped that. The place was a maelstrom from the word go, I ended up doing a lot back and forth with them, and it was a real Berbice time ‒ unrestrained and joyful, for them and the band. I was tired before we started, but not at the end.
I have learned performing over the past 50-plus years that there is a thing that happens with audiences when the material you’re presenting is actually about them; it becomes a link that is almost tangible; you can see it in the facial expressions, or things they shout at you, or their exuberant response to a particular line, as when I told the crowd in New Amsterdam, “Do not be ashamed of the dialect you speak simply because someone tells you that it is ‘bad English’. That is nonsense. Ignore it.” I was brought up hearing that same foolishness, and it left doubts in my mind. It took a class on linguistics at Ryerson University in Toronto to open my eyes to the fact that our dialect, in fact, is the most efficient way for Guyanese to communicate with Guyanese, particularly when it comes to the visceral things – our habits, the words we create that we know, the very concise way dialect words describe a complex matter; strong emotions or reactions, etc. Yes, we have to learn Standard English to communicate generally, and most of us accomplish that, but when it comes down to powerful moments or feelings it is in the dialect that we find the best communication. The academics want to faint away when I say that we should be making that point in our schools from the time our children are young. They should grow up understanding we are fortunate to have two ways of communication – Standard English and Guyanese dialect – each of them best, at different times, depending on the circumstances.
The argument may rage, but for me as an entertainer, therefore, or as a song-writer, when you are in front of an audience of people most of whom you’ve never seen before, you can ignite responses and exuberance and laughter from them by reaching into that dialect as I do. It’s an instantaneous reaction, and as long as you keep teasing it the response continues. Indeed, it builds. The folks at the Main Street site in New Amsterdam delivered a beautiful example of it. I was using language and specific words I would never use to an audience in Barbados, or Toronto, or Grand Cayman – comprehension would be lost – but those were words that people in the Berbice audience were born and raised with. They understood immediately, ‘bradar’ and ‘she siddung bad’, and ‘Epsom salts have you living in the toilet’, and ‘bruk up’ and ‘voomps’ at a level that would take several sentences in Standard English to convey.
The purists will argue that our dialect is not a language. I used to spend time debating that distinction. I never do that anymore; I am way past that. My pride is with the fact that we have two ways to communicate – label it how you want – and in many scenarios, the dialect one is sometimes the best way for us to connect with each other and we would be, almost literally, jackasses to reject it because it’s ‘not proper’. In this context, ‘it’s not proper’ is a purely subjective position. Okay, it’s not ideal, not proper, for your friends or colleagues visiting from places such as England or North America, I give you that, but for your Guyanese friends or colleagues, our dialect is not only proper, it is time and again a better communication tool, and the folks who look down on it are (1) turning their backs on a unique means of linking up and (2) robbing themselves of the ability to connect with their Guyanese brethren or friends at a depth that Standard English cannot reach. Every time I perform to a largely Caribbean audience – which is the usual mix for me – I see that connection happening as I saw it in Berbice. In such a congregation, it is a formula that never fails. Aside from singing them in the songs themselves, I frequently use Caribbean phrases or sayings or words in my banter with the audience and I do it fully confident that the audience will respond and to date, they have never failed me. The conciseness of the dialect expressions is almost startling. You say ‘briga’ or ‘wukkin’ gainst’ or ‘dress down’ to a Guyanese and there is immediate comprehension; substituting Standard English would force you into long sentences to convey the nuances alive in the brief dialect words.
And for the purists or academics who disagree with me, save your breath. I have seen and felt and touched what this dialect means to our people, not only here in Anna Regina and, recently, New Amsterdam, but I have seen it in such disparate places as Orlando and New York and Toronto and Los Angeles and Barbados and Cayman and other places where Guyanese have put down roots. I have heard the connections in their voices, and seen it in the smiling faces, and the exuberance, when the language stirs emotions and memories in them, long dormant, but suddenly powerful again and sharp in the mind. I have seen it bring adult people to tears; that’s how deep the communications go, so your remonstrations are lost on me.
Finally, the band and I are doing another UG night next week on Saturday 31st March in Linden at the LEN Building (free show, 5.30pm) but if you have problems with how I gaff, stay home; it will be full bore.