From young, growing up at Hague and Vreed-en-Hoop and with the occasional forays in the Pomeroon where my father had his farm, I was into words. I’m not sure of the process there but certainly a part of it was the variety of languages around me: snippets of Portuguese from my parents and my aunts speaking to one another (they never spoke the language to their children) but largely, I assume, from the Guyanese culture with its mix of English, Indian, African, French and Dutch expressions. In short order I had read all that was available in the Hague house and found myself attached to the only book left – a beat up copy of the Bible. I distinctly recall being impressed with the variety of expression and the flamboyant language of many of the texts – the subject itself was unique and on top of that the very language was not something one found anywhere else. It had a special ring, coming across to me as poetry and, intimations of what was to come, often a rhythmic and even musical expression, redolent with song.
Also I was an avid reader – everything from newspapers to various advertisements – and in the early years, when we had no electricity in the house at Vreed-en-Hoop and no radio (not a very affluent family) I ended up ruining my eyesight reading by kerosene lantern, and even candlelight, after the gas lamp had been turned off for the night. I would often be by myself at the table reading with the flickering beams. At Saints, the pull to language continued with the French and English language classes being my favourites and fuelling this was my introduction to the British Council Library (my memory is that my friend Stanley Greaves, yes the one who became a famous painter, told me about it), and I spent a lot of time there. By the time I graduated from Saints, I had started writing poems and I recall how a schoolboy crush on a girl living at Schoonord led me to write my first song (I had started learning guitar on my own) which I proudly played for my Vreed-en-Hoop friends although, as I recall it, I didn’t exactly get a rousing ovation. Clearly, however, the gears had been engaged, so that when the Martins family migrated to Toronto (we had family there) I bought my first electric guitar, I could afford only a cheapie one, and plunged into song-writing full bore particularly after I had formed a group “for fun” with a drummer from The Bahamas, Eric Minns, and a Canadian accordionist, Calvin Saranchuk . I was on the road to Tradewinds in 1966.
Underneath it all, however, my addiction to language and to expression increased, and the quality of what I was doing was fuelled by hearing, for the first time, a wide collection of Trinidad kaiso going back to the time of Spoiler and Atilla the Hun. I was writing other material as well, including three or four songs about Canada, and some ballads, but kaiso had become my metier. The range of subjects it opened up was like a match hitting gasoline for me.
All of this is preamble to where I developed with Tradewinds into focusing on strictly Caribbean music and able to make use of my love for our various dialect expressions which remains strong in me. The way we speak in the region is a powerful, dynamic tool, rarely given the credit it deserves for making us a singularly creative people. I continue to be fascinated by our lexicon. Around the region, we have, for example, a variety of words for the human derriere, particularly the female version. In Guyana, it is battie or beetie, in Trinidad it is bamsee or bumsee, in the Bajan accent, behind, or bottom, and in Cayman, although I don’t know the origin, the expression is “bonkay”, although, in Cayman, with its essential moderation, I was to learn, once I started writing an annual comedy show about the country, that some of the Caymanian cast were aghast at the idea of actually saying the word from the Harquail Theatre stage. It took some persuasion from director Henry Muttoo.
I speak often about the value of our various cultures combining in the region into what I see as a dynamic blend, and I feel the same way about our spoken word. Time and again, I am struck by the innovation found there as well as insight, and particularly how effective these words are. How better to describe an aggressive personality as “bumptious”; how better to convey disgust than the word “steupps”? I recall our famous photographer Bobby Fernandes telling me in a note about somebody “bracing” him outside a store in Water Street about some subject. It is a distinctive Guyanese use of the word that somehow conveys two opposing rigid positions – in one word. Our communication is full of these condensations. The example I often use when introducing my song You can’t get is the local phrase “She sit down bad” to describe a woman sitting in public in a revealing posture…four words. Talk about efficiency in brevity. What the purists insist are not languages, are actually some of the most effective ways to communicate using very curtailed speech. “Wukkin ‘gainst”, for example, is one of my favourites. It gives you the picture instantly; no long meandering paragraph; two words and you have it.
Just last week, I heard a local handyman refer to a piece of guttering on a house as useless because “it too bore up”. Forced to “talk proper” I am confident he would have given me a full sentence, or even two. “Bore up” did the trick.
The examples abound. Jamaica has an expression for a person who is determined and very competitive when they describe the individual as “talawah”. In that one word, they convey high praise. Conversely, here in Guyana, we refer to an inordinately aggressive or hostile person as “bumptious”. I don’t know the word’s origin, but I am crystal clear about its meaning. As I write this, I know without asking that readers are coming up with their own examples of precise and colourful speech that abound in the Caribbean. I know for fact that before the day is over, Vic Fernandes in Barbados, and Henry Muttoo in Grand Cayman, are going to send me some of these classic Caribbean expressions. Marvellous. I love them. They are a resource.