By Hubert Williams
It has never happened that someone else wrote this column for me, but on October 20th, after a performance in Barbados for the Guyana/ Barbados Association over there, organised by Dr. Nicole Moore-Clarke, a friend of mine, Hubert Williams, one-time Guyana newspaper guru, wrote a review which I am using this space to pass on to you. I would be remiss if I did not add to Hubert’s generous column that credit for the success of the Barbados show should go to the organisers (the Guyana/Barbados Association) but also to the audience – “they came ready” as we say in the music business – and to the superb audio production work of Norman Barrow and his low-key but impressive team. Here is the piece, all in Hubert’s lovely prose:
The new musical norm in the Caribbean tends to a surfeit of songs about women and sex clumsily presented; often making considerable sums of money out of it, and, regrettably, enjoying great popularity, prompting the question: Where to is Caribbean culture headed? Some people tend to view that comparison as odious; but the more rational ones know well that comparison begets progress, progress ensures stability, and it is stability that these former little British colonies in the Caribbean sorely need to avoid a continuous sliding along the downward trail.
A classic demonstration of where we were (in comparison with where we are) was provided last night in Barbados at the Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference Centre, with Dr. Anthony Carter (“The Mighty Gabby”), Stedson Wiltshire (“Red Plastic Bag”), both of Barbados, and David Martins of Guyana, leader of the renowned Tradewinds band, in a glorious concert, to a good house. Some might tend to describe their presentations as nostalgia, but it was much more evidence of a prodigious generation gap. In songs written many years ago they looked at the culture of their homelands, critically examined political decisions, informed the public of important issues that might otherwise have escaped their attention, and entertained… without descending to raw sex and ribaldry. They looked at our really newly independent societies, examined their cultural richness, challenges, foibles, failures and successes, and produced virtual poetry with musical accompaniment that will continue to inform generations yet unborn… because they carry the twin mantle of entertainers and cultural historians. So much of today’s compositions show little understanding of the political, social, economic, cultural and other critical issues besetting our little Caribbean pseudo democracies.
Those who recognise that our music, much like our cricket, is travelling deeply into the dumps, seek solace in nostalgia… and that is why so many Barbadians and Guyanese resident here flocked to the Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference Centre last night for the performances by Gabby, Dave Martins and Red Plastic Bag. Mighty Gabby was the first of the night’s three stars to take the stage… and what an opening it was – the remarkable sociological and political outcry on behalf of the rights of working class Barbadians to have full access to all of the island’s beaches. His song, entitled “Jack,” targeted Mr. Jack Dear, then a legal luminary also involved in the island’s cultural life, who he understood was attempting to block access to particular beaches for poor Blacks. Sociologically, it stirred Barbadians to action, put Mr. Dear at the pinnacle of public criticism and likely has ensured for all time the un-privacy of all beaches in Barbados. Gabby maintained the pace with another social commentary that had galvanised the Barbadian public, with a song called “Boots,” in which he had challenged the government’s concentration on developing a local Defence Force, using resources which he thought could have been better utilised. The outstanding lyrics, musicality, dance-ability and survivability of such Gabby songs had endeared him to the Barbadian public, earned him a doctorate from the University of the West Indies and, recently, from the Government, the accolade of Cultural Ambassador.
When Gabby departed from the stage to the crowd’s loud applause, the cheers were prolonged in welcome of Dave Martins…a songwriter, ace on the guitar, a leader of men, and a star across the Caribbean. As the focus of the show, his stay was extended. He conversed a lot with the audience, often explaining the history and origin of a song and giving flashbacks of some of the Tradewinds’ very interesting (sometimes humorous) experiences in North America and the Caribbean – with a few tidbits on the Cayman Islands, where he had chosen as home for many years, before relocating to Guyana.
Dave’s strengths are many. At heart he is a poet, reproducing in beautiful verse things about life and human interaction that he has observed. And when he has the words down in print, he dresses them up beautifully in a musical arrangement, delighting his audiences with the results. For all the bandleaders in the Caribbean who were also their bands’ lead singers, I would have to search extensively to find any to compare with Emile Straker of the Merrymen and Dave Martins of the Tradewinds. Moreso than last night’s other top performers, Dave Martins chats extensively with his audience… explaining the history of his songs, their meaning, and the environment which led him to compose, produce and sing them. His segment, I would think, went close to two hours, to everyone’s delight. He is an intellectual and a scholar, widely travelled and extensively knowledgeable, so a great discussant; and that is why he fitted in so perfectly during his recent stint as Artist in Residence at the campuses of the University of Guyana.
Last night he spoke of the history of every song before he sang it: the inspiration that prompted him to write it; when it was produced; where it was first sung; and the initial audience reaction. His capacity to recall is phenomenal, and it seemed he has perfectly memorised the words of every song he has ever composed and sung. He turned out to be the night’s principal performer, rendering song after song after song, in a stream of hits that has wowed crowds in the Caribbean, Canada and the USA.
He and the three local musicians (two with guitars) filled the big concert hall with beautiful music, delighting the crowd with the undying allure of such favourites as “Honeymooning Couple,” “Cricket in the Jungle” and so many others which were high-points in the show’s near 5-hour evening. As well, there were times when his musical compositions sought to inspire public fervour in defence of national security, as with his song “Not a Blade of Grass,” which spoke out against Venezuela’s attempts to seize two-thirds of Guyana’s territory.
And then when the audience might have been feeling that they had gotten more than their $70 entrance fee worth, there still was to come another master class in the person of Red Plastic Bag, who invited them onto the wide space between stage and seating to dance to the enthralling music as he sang. It was a night of remarkable – nay, memorable – entertainment, action and reflection on great Caribbean music past, and wonderment about what is to come and perhaps the need to keep constantly in the public’s mind the genius of our veteran entertainers, who have recorded our history in song.