Population: 800,000 (approximately)
Guyana is located on the north eastern coast of South America, bordered by Suriname to the east, Brazil to the south and Venezuela to the west.
In 1595, when Sir Walter Raleigh made his voyage to the New World, he gave accounts of EL Dorado, which is believed to be in and around Guyana. European settlement of this area started in 1615 with the Dutch who brought West African slaves to work their cotton and sugar plantations that they established along the coastline. The French and the English also laid claim to various parts of the region using African slaves to work on their plantations. The influence of the Dutch, Amerindian, British and to a lesser extent the French can be seen in names and places to this day.
The British became a major player in the colonization of this region around 1781 and in 1814 the Colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to Britain. They were merged in 1831 to become British Guiana.
After the abolition of slavery in 1834, most of the Africans moved away from the plantations and the British replaced this labor force with indentured workers from India. Immigrants from Europe and China were also lured to this flourishing new British Colony.
THE ORIGIN OF GUYANESE MUSIC
British Guiana gained Independence from the British in 1966, and is now called GUYANA and as a result of its history the population is comprised of 6 ethnic groups and is the only English speaking country in South America.
The population of Guyana is made up of 40 percent Africans, 51 percent East Indians and the balance Chinese, Portuguese, Europeans and Amerindians .
Regardless of the make up of this society, African heritage has always been the dominant culture which is displayed in their music and folklore while mimicking their European masters who were famous for their grand marching band parades and Sunday concerts in the Botanical gardens.
In the early twentieth century, most former slaves were now living in the capital city of Georgetown working as paid laborers and part time musicians. As slaves, they were accustomed to celebrating the end of the crop season when their masters would allow them to play drums, dance and sing. This is called Quek Queh or Masquerade Music in Guyana and in other parts of the West Indies it is known as” Junkanoo”.They would also sing songs about their devilish masters and make fun of the way they dressed. To their delight , their masters were amused and threw them coins. The Masquerade band is a permanent fixture in Guyanese culture. Singing songs about their former owners shifted to singing songs about everyday life and experiences. Some Africans learned to play the guitar most likely from their European counterparts. Now they were playing chords and singing simple songs about life and sometimes making fun of each other. This was the beginning of Shanto in Guyana, an early form of Calypso.
THE MAKING OF GUYANESE MUSIC
Georgetown, British Guiana at the beginning of the twentieth century, was now set to become the musical capital of the British West Indies.During this era, big dance bands emerged such as Tom Charles and the Syncopators who were famous for their Creole “jump up” music.Harry Whittaker played alto saxophone with the Syncopators Orchestra and was recognized as the best saxophonist in this region until his passing.He is remembered for his fantastic solos on GEMS recordings,but mostly by his work on “Cool Dive”(Jazz) an Al Seales composition recorded in the early 50’s on which the performances are remarkable to this day.The Famous Mootoo Brothers were early East Indian musicians who attempted the fusion of Indian music with Afro rhythms. They were the back up band for many of the Trinidadian Calypsonians who came to Guyana after Carnival including the Mighty Lion. They moved to Trinidad and it is believed this is the origin of “soca chutney “ another form of calypso played on the island of Trinidad . Then there was the talented Al Seales,leader of the Washboards, a true musical visionary who always thought that Guyana’s music should also express their Latin American influence even though they were bound economically and culturally to the British West Indies.He used Latin percussion instruments in all of his arrangements.
This was an early fusion of Latin and American dance music which is what the Washboards played at the time.
The arrival of Bill Rogers singing Shanto and his appearing at local Vaudeville Shows was the beginning of a new musical dimension. He is the most famous Shantonian to come out of Guyana and one of the first to sign a recording contract with a known British Gramophone Record Company “PARLAPHONE RECORDS” where he recorded BEEGEE BHAGEE, DADDY GONE, and SIGHTSEEING IN THE U.K to name a few.It was “Beegee Bhagee” that went world wide after Harry Belafonte allegedly used the song on one of his albums.
By 1940 Carnival in Trinidad was set as an annual festivity. However, in Guyana, the VAUDEVILLE Shows were featuring regularly local and foreign entertainers like Bill Rogers, Lord Sweet Dreams, Lord Coffee, King Fighter, Lord Canary, Mighty Sparrow , Lord Melody, Lord Cristo and many others who came to Guyana after Carnival to learn and improve their performing skills.
.COMMERCIALIZATION OF EARLY GUYANESE MUSIC
In 1950, Al Seales, leader of the Washboards Orchestra started GEMS Recording Company. This is the earliest Recording Company in the region to create a complete production from musical arrangements recorded locally on tape, to the manufacturing and distribution of gramophone records, through MELODISC RECORDS of London, England. His first commercial release was “Jumbee Jamboree”. This song was later recorded by the Andrew Sisters and Harry Belafonte of the USA.
This was the most flourishing period musically in Guyana with Al Seales recording some of the Caribbean’s best Calypsonians and local Artists like Doreen Greavsande who was his favorite female vocalist. She is known best for her recording of an original song “Dig Me” on GEMS label . Lord Melody’s “The Devil” and “BooBoo Man” were recorded at GEMS, but again it was Harry Belafonte’s version that was played worldwide, e.g “Boo Boo Man” was originally recorded by Lord Melody on a GEMS label # SM-002A 78 r.p.m gramophone record. This became one of Belafonte’s cover songs and and was also done by the Andrew sisters. GEMS was the vehicle for all popular Caribbean Music during this period and most of their productions were licensed to American Recording Companies without their knowledge or proper agreements.
Al Seales was a musician and a talented artist who hated legalities and was therefore denied his rightful share in a business that exploded into something bigger than he could ever imagine.
Vivian Lee of ACE Records recorded the performances of talented Guyanese artists who appeared at the Vaudeville shows. Billy Moore’s Four Lords, made their debut on this label and went on to record with GEMS Records one of Guyana’s and the Caribbean’s most famous original Christmas songs “Happy Holiday”.
Vivian Lee was a talented entrepreneur who ran a successful advertising company and with the emergence of commercial radio he monopolized this new media to promote his music productions and vaudeville shows. This brought about some dissatisfaction and concerns about equal exposure of all Guyanese Music but these concerns were never addressed by the board of directors of the radio station who were mostly the upper middle class in Guyana and cared less about the development of local music in Guyana.
Vivian Lee went on to produce one of Guyana’s best known popular singers, Johnny Braff, who had a string of hits in the 60’s that sold very well locally.
By the end of the 60’s , big band music had disappeared since most of the accomplished musicians had migrated to greener pastures in the UK or the USA.
The electronic age had arrived and small combos using electric instruments and keyboards mushroomed across the land playing music from the US and UK. Pat Blakney’s Rhythmaires and Des Glasford’s Combo Seven were the most popular Electric combos during this period with more than twenty bands in Georgetown alone. Now Guyana was no longer the musical powerhouse it once was and by the end of the 80’s the small electric combos had also disappeared and Guyana fell into a musical coma and remains there to this day.
There are some signs of recovery in local music, but most of Guyana’s music today is imported from other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica’s reggae and Trinidad’s soca. Guyana’s Dave Martin, leader of the Trade Winds calypso band, has been around for more that three decades and continues to make remarkable musical contributions to the Caribbean. Eddie Grant, a Guyanese music celebrity, recently remigrated to the region from London and set up his recording company, ICE Records , in Barbados. Maybe this is a sign of things to come.
Guyana is still a nation of six ethnic groups living together with endless unexplored possibilities more than any man could imagine ,but the harmony is missing.
Until they find that perfect harmony and a way to share their feelings and thoughts Guyana will never be able to create, play or do anything outstanding together. Music is love and the only international language that exists on earth .I pray that they find that C-E-G (perfect harmony) to recapture their past glory.
By Ray Seales