In a social situation recently, I heard one of our senior citizens relate an incident early in her life where she gained, as she described it, “a lesson I never forgot.” It set me thinking how that applied to me. Like most people, early on, the teachings I picked up were largely from my parents. In my father, Joseph Francis Martins, a farmer in the Pomeroon, I saw the example of a man totally dedicated to this occupation he loved where external problems (weather, price fluctuations in produce; erratic steamer transportation to Georgetown markets; flooding) made for a difficult life. But JFM persevered, working the farm seven days a week and recovered from two disastrous floods where dry-season inroads of salt-water in the river wrecked his coconut and coffee crops. Although he would not have used the expression “hanging tough,” my father’s demonstration of that was a lesson for me in my early youth that has remained part of who I am. It was there pulling me through my early days in the highly competitive music scene in Toronto with bands coming and going regularly. I could see what I was battling was fairly simple, compared with what he had to deal with; he had imbued me with a positive attitude without ever saying a single word to me about it, and in my early Canada days, as well, I would later look back and remember Dick Smith, a Jamaican singer/drummer in Toronto, who gave me what struck me as strange advice when he suggested that while I should listen to good performers to develop, I should also listen to bad ones. When I queried why on earth I should do that, Dick said, “Because it will teach you what not to do.” I immediately saw the value of what he was saying. It was, indeed, a lesson I never forgot, and I follow it to this today.
Purely in the musical field, albeit with Dick Smith’s advice on board, I also learned from the work of other writers, across the range of music, and particularly the early recordings of Trinidad calypso going back to such giants as Spoiler, Atilla, Lord Superior, Lord Beginner, and coming up through the work of Sparrow, Kitchener, Lord Blakie, Lord Funny, Lord Nelson – a long list. As a performer, I remember being mesmerized watching people like Shadow, with his unique sense of drama and movement on stage (I saw Shadow in a calypso tent draw 10 encores for his Bass Man song), and Lord Funny, not only for his clever compositions, but his immaculate sense of timing as in the song Farmer Brown. I noticed Sparrow for his vocal delivery and his clever Trini style of singing sometimes the slightest fraction behind the tempo, which added tension to the music. The learning continued into the work of Lord Blakie (a favourite of mine) and Andre Tanker, both Trinis, and Mighty Gabby, a Bajan, and later, as the music changed, from listening to Lord Shorty and David Rudder, among others. There were endless lessons.
A pivotal music lesson came for me early on in Trinidad. A few months after Honeymooning Couple hit, Tradewinds were asked to perform in a show on the Savannah stage during Carnival 1968. Believe me, for a foreign group that’s a big deal; it is very rare; still is. We could do four songs of our choice. I had just finished writing Wong Ping, which deals with the Caribbean sex product Chinee Brush, and we had not yet recorded it. However, I felt the Trinis would love it, so that was one of the tunes I picked, full confidence. However, halfway through the song somebody in the audience threw an orange at the band. Looking back, I should have known better, but Tradewinds was only a year old; I didn’t yet know the difference between an unknown band (which we were the year before) and one with a hit, as we were that night. What that action from the orange man taught me was this: always play the hit song first; you may have a lot of great songs in the bag, but the hit is the one the audience knows; that’s what they came to hear. Give them it right away and you have them; keep them waiting too long (Wong Ping was a long song) and they can get irritated, hence the orange. Up to today, almost every time I perform, in any country, Caribbean or North America, my first song out the chute is Honeymooning Couple or some other established song of mine. That orange in the air was a lesson I never forgot.
But there was learning in other areas, too. Going back to my Guyana days, my father had bought some recycled lumber from an American installation at Shell Beach and it came to our house at Vreed-en-Hoop to make lattice work for the bottom house area. It was the 1950s. No handyman power tools. Carpenters came to work with a couple hand saws, a plane, some chisels and a couple hammers, a measuring tape, and a chalk line – maybe a spirit level…maybe. To cut the 2×4 lumber into lattice strips, the carpenter would come in the morning, set up two sawhorses downstairs, mark the lumber, and spend the entire day, standing there, sawing. We didn’t have a camera, but I can see him now: a tall, round-faced Indian man, with the saw in two hands, up and down, up and down, stopping for a drink, or something to eat, all day long. I don’t recall how long the job took—it must have been over a week—but in the end we had enough strips to lattice the front of the house and a piece on the side. I must have been 9 or 10 at the time, but that man in that grinding task is a video in my mind. From him I learned the value of perseverance and the productive use of time.
In Canada, from a Guyanese star-girl Mona (that’s not her real name) I learned about the value of fame. She didn’t respond to my tackle when I was just a boy from West Dem – as we say in the Caribbean, she bus’ me off – but when Honeymooning Couple hit and Tradewinds became popular, she came to a show in Toronto, sat up front, and was giving me big smiles all night….but in the words of my friend Carmen Abdool, “Ah didn’t voomps ‘pon she.” She sat down there whole night smiling; her face must have hurt afterwards.
There are a host of other lessons, but space is limited here, so just one final one. On Tradewinds’ first performance in Guyana in ’68, we did a show at Astor and as it ended the promoter told me he had booked us to do a short set in a nightspot I had never heard of; he assured me it was “a nice place; the Cambridge on Main Street.” To me, living outside, it sounded very prestigious; after all, Cambridge! It turned into bedlam, with the Cambridge ladies, scantily dressed, win’ing on my microphone stand as if to break it. Eventually the Riot Squad arrived and that was that. My friend, Jerry Goveia (Banks’ Jerry) later said: “How you end up there Dave?” The lesson I learned there is simple: in Guyana, if you don’t know the venue, don’t ask the promoter; ask Gov.