March 9, 2008


Posted in Guyana, History, Messages tagged , , , , , , , , , at 1:03 am by randallbutisingh

BEING GUYANESE : By Dave Martins of the “Tradewinds”.

Speech in Orlando Florida, February 2008


There’s a Guyanese friend of mine, Vibert Cambridge, many of you know him, who was visiting me in my home in Cayman a few years ago, and in the course of a long gaff about this and that – both Vibert and I love a good gaff – Vibert, who is a very intellectually astute “banna”, suddenly said to me. “Dave, all these things I know you’re involved in…what would you say your life has been about?” I had to stop and think for a bit, but my response to Vibert then was, “My life has been largely about observation and music.” I say largely, because there have obviously been other things – you know, one or two lovely ladies; some wonderful friends all over the map; a powerful family – but mostly observation and music, and I put observation first, because that’s the key. Every writer who moves from the superficial or trivial (you know, like WHO PUT THE DOGS OUT), the writer who goes beyond that into introspection, who gives you ideas or views to think about, for those creators the song or the novel or the poem is the vehicle, but ultimately it is the result of observation. Observation of self perhaps, but also of others; observations of the world around; observations of reactions; bits of all sorts of apparently insignificant things that most people miss, but the observer catches, and that is really the raw material, the source, so to speak, of whatever the good writer produces; he or she is telling us about something seen, or something unraveled, or something imagined.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I started observing at a very young age, living in Vreed-en-Hoop, going to school at Main Street and Saints in Georgetown, coming home every day on the ferry boat, with my sports model Rudge bicycle with the handle turned down Remember that? The turned down handle like a racing bike? My bike was a constant. Remember that, constant? You all know what that is, right? I remember when the three-speed bicycles came out in Guyana – I’m going back in time here – and those bikes make a soft ticking sound as you rode them. Remember that? Tick, tick, tick. And when it came out, it was the rage. This one happened in Vreed-en-Hoop: A girl, standing by the roadside, waiting for a bus; a fella going by on a bicycle and she asked him for a tow. Not a TOE, you know.,.a TOW. So the fella put her on the cross bar and they going along. But suddenly she turned to the guy and say, “But wait a minute. I ain’t hearing no ticking.” So the guy say, “This is a constant, it’s not a ticker.” The girl say, “Wha’! Put me down; ah gon wait for a ticker.” Those are the kinds of things writers remember, and here I am 50 years later, telling you that story to make a point.

As I was thinking about coming here to talk to you, a group of Guyanese, like so many outside Guyana, who have made substantial lives for themselves away from the homeland, as I was thinking about that, it occurred to me that there are two major factors operating in the successes we see in people like you in the diaspora.

The first factor, and this is an obvious one, is the new homeland itself (the Orlando, Toronto, New York, London, etc.) where new experiences, new vistas, have broadened us and stimulated us. We are all changed by life outside Guyana, and particularly by the experiences of our chosen careers.

Guyanese have adapted readily to these new ways, sometimes in weeks, sometimes overnight like the Guyanese immigrant who comes off the plane at JFK talking like a born Yankee (I wrote a song about that you may recall.) And we do well because we are an ingenious people. Like the guy from Linden who land up in Queens and his brother organized him a job helping out in the kitchen of a restaurant….(the “string joke”)

If you think about it, in your own life, you will find instances, like the banna in the kitchen, where you learned a new discipline, you advanced yourself, and sometimes it’s only on looking back at your life that you recognize the changes – you didn’t notice them at the time.

For example, I’ve been a professional musician since I formed Tradewinds in 1967 in Toronto, but it was only late last year, on my way to St Lucia, for the funeral of my friend Bobby Clarke, that in the middle of that sorrow, it suddenly occurred to me how much more I had come to know the world because I became a song-writer. Because of some songs I had written about Caribbean life, I had come to know places and made friends all over this region that I would otherwise have missed. When I visit Barbados, or St. Vincent or Guyana, people shout at me in the streets or call the radio station to say hello; these people in St. Lucia are like family. I have come to know the little back-o-wall villages in those islands and the small places like Bequia and St. Maarten, and the solid, genuine people who live there and invite you into their homes and make you feel special. Just because I wrote some songs.

And the same is true of the island Grand Cayman where I live – all of the Tradewinds guys are there – Clive, Jeff, Harry and Richard. If Radio Cayman hadn’t started playing our music in the late 1970s, I probably would have never come to Cayman. In fact, when they called me in Toronto in 1979 about coming to play in Cayman, I didn’t even know where the place was. Music had brought me to it, and all of us in the band enjoy a good life there – I have sapodilla trees in my yard, and breadnut, and golden apple, and 14 mango trees. I even got star apple, and whitey…remember whitey? All of that because I observed some stuff and wrote some songs and people liked them.

If you think about it, each of you has a similar story; there have been changes in your life that resulted from the path you chose outside the Caribbean, directions you never dreamed of. We don’t often see it as something to be grateful for, but I’m suggesting to you tonight that you should, and I don’t mean in the material sense. Living outside has given us more span. It has made us more aware, more sensitive, more ambitious. It has moved us from the country bookies, like myself, to people who are now comfortable in very sophisticated circumstances – in a box at the Super Bowl, holidaying in Italy, even to wearing an Armani suit. Look at alyou tonight; dressed to the nines. Look where we come from and where we reach – my friend Vibert Cambridge is a PhD, a professor at Ohio University. Our horizons have been expanded by migration.

To look back on my life outside Guyana, for instance, I can also see now that that’s where I learned the power of personal belief. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of you. I learned it in Toronto in 1967 when I came up with this idea to record four songs and go to Trinidad carnival, where we had some friends, and try to get the songs on the air and perhaps play in a carnival fete. People from Trinidad who used to come to the Bermuda tavern in Toronto to hear Tradewinds play were speechless. “You’re doing what? You’re going with a 4-piece band, with no brass, to play in Trinidad carnival? You belong in the madhouse, oui”. They were right; to look back on it, it was impossible. But I didn’t know it was impossible, so I said, Let’s go, and we recorded four songs, one of which was MEET ME IN PORT OF SPAIN which I was sure would be a hit, and we paid our way to Trinidad, stayed with friends, flogged the songs with the radio stations, played a couple of small gigs for free and flew back to Toronto. We went there unknown and came back more or less the same way. But six weeks later, I’m looking out the window at the snow in Toronto, and I get a call from a Trinidad recording company. “Hear na padna; that song alyou put out making mas in Trinidad, you know. I want to release that.” So I said, “You mean Meet Me in Port of Spain.” He said, “Meet me in what? No man, Honeymooning Couple”. In six months, from one hit song, we had gone from a totally unknown group to one of the most popular bands in the region headlining shows all over the place; playing to sold-out crowds in Astor cinema. So if I had listened to people in Toronto, I would have never taken the plunge, and all that followed for me with Tradewinds would have never happened. Coming to North America, seeing how people just went after stuff, had opened my horizons, as it has for many of you. Like most of you in this room tonight, I had picked up the self-confidence I lacked when I came migrated.

In these cities of the “outer world” as Guyanese would say we learned a lot of “ations” – like application; dedication; speculation; innovation; and, one of my favourites, be-on-timeation. As I said in the song IT’S TRADITIONAL, no more of this buying an expensive watch to see how late you coming late. We learned. We learned fast. We jumped in with the rest of them and held our own.

So when you examine your success story, to be fair we must first give credit to these places we came to. That’s the first piece, it’s a vital piece. However, it’s not just the place we came to; it is also the place we came from, and it’s unfortunately true that a lot of us forget that second piece. The reality is that where we came from had a lot to do with how well we’ve done wherever we went. It may not have occurred to you before, but it’s true. I’m not talking about the politics of Guyana here, and the various governments, and the establishments; I’m talking about our way of being, our culture, our attitude to life. In other words, not the condition of the politics, but the condition of the people.

The qualities that helped us succeed here were forged in that homeland behind us, in the culture in which we grew up, where we learned perseverance, where we acquired our sense of humour, where we learned to deal with setbacks, to deal with cunnu munnus, to be ingenious, like the guy with the string, to make do, to invent. In other words, it is the qualities ingrained in us, imbedded in us by the Guyanese culture, that underpin the success we have made outside. Growing up in Guyana you find ways to get around problems; and many of us have come to these developed countries and leave people speechless at how we improvise and substitute and get things to work. We learned that in Guyana. For instance:. Hillman hub cap story

Our Guyanese culture gave us a powerful sense of humour. Kaimchand and Basdeo working in a factory in Toronto. Kaimchand say, “Bas, these white people, if they think you cracking up, they does tell you tek the day off. Watch I gon show you.” Early in the morning, the boss making he rounds, Kaimchand climb up a ladder and hanging upside down from a beam in the ceiling. So the boss say, “Kaimchand what are you doing up there?” So Kaimchand says, “Skipper I is a light bulb.” So the boss say, “Kaimchand. You been working too much overtime. Take the day off.” So Kaimchand walking out and Basdeo following behind, So the boss said, “Basdeo where you going?” Basdeo say “How you mean, skipper? I can’t work in the dark.”

Also, in that culture, with all that turmoil, we learned to take setbacks in life gracefully. Like the banna on a carrier bike. Remember the carrier bike with that big tray in front carrying cargo around town? A banna on a carrier bike coming down Croal Street to turn right into Water Street. Now mind you, the bike loaded; two bag of flour and a bag of of onions in the carrier. And I don’t have to tell you; the bike aint got no bell and no brakes, you put your foot on the back tyre to slow down, and pray to God you stop in time. Second thing, he can’t see this from Croal Street, but up from the corner a big truck park up on the right side of Water Street in front of Bettencourts unloading, traffic passing on the left. So your boy coming down Croal Street and aint got no bell, so he hollering, “Passage, passage” and people moving out the way. Everything nice. But as he make the turn into Water Street, hear wha’ happening: traffic on the left, building on the right, truck straight ahead, and he can’t stop…the banna tek one look and he holler out “Collision laka rass, collision.” Bradang. Guyanese culture. Levity in adversity

Guyana has put a stamp on us, with this vibrant, colourful, humourous, optimistic culture that sets us up to succeed when opportunity comes.

A Guyanese friend of mine, Terry Ferreira, who lives in New Jersey put it very well in an email he sent me and which I sent on to Stabroek News in Guyana. Before I read his note, I need to tell you that this is the same Terry Ferreira, a Putagee from New Amsterdam, who, in 1996, rode a bike 7,600 miles from Orinduik in Guyana, through Brazil, Venezuela, Central America, the US, all the way to Niagara Falls. It took him 5 months, but he did it. The first 160 miles his sister Donna rode with him. After that, it was him alone. Not many people know this amazing story of this amazing guy. 7,600 miles in 5 months. That’s the kind of man he is. He made the ride to draw attention to an organization he started in New Jersey, called Quiet Noise, to try and stamp out the public stigma towards mental illness. This is a banna who has been a success outside Guyana, but hear what he says: “Of all the things I am, have done, claim to be, or was brave enough to dream about, the most important aspect of my being is buried in the lucky shot that I was born Guyanese. Let me put it this way – I would dislike being from elsewhere. We are such a bright bunch of people; common sense and ability galore. As individuals, we are usually ready for the chance, the task and the challenge.

“How many times we hear about one of us who started out with nothing, not even a proper cricket bat, school books, even shoes, or the ability to construct a proper sentence, bare-foot but hungry for improvement, making it all the way to the top of his or her endeavour?

“Give me my people’s company, and I am most happy. Give me my country’s spirit, give me my people’s outlook and I am boss in anything I choose. Fixing, reaching for, or solving anything that is often a headache for others, is often a breeze for us. Long live North America, where I find myself, but long live Guyana that gave me the tools to succeed.”

Terry is making the point I’m making: Our life in Guyana prepared us to succeed.

Now I know there will be some who reject what I’m saying, who feel Guyana has given them nothing, and they owe Guyana nothing. I hear them. I hear them loud and clear. They haven’t gone home in years, but I also see them same people Saturday morning in the Caribbean market buying their curry powder and their hassar; and I see them in their house parties grooving to soca and reggae; and I still see them in their Dockers pants in the roti shop, and Christmas morning, in their fancy house they still have garlic pork on the stove, and if you give them two rum they end up telling you of the champion cashew tree they had in Forshaw Street.

Ah sorry for them as they try to evade the culture like Sarwan dodging a bouncer; you can’t evade your culture banna. It’s on you like a stain. For everybody, not just Guyanese, your culture follows you wherever you go. It is part of you. Like the Sikh with his turban, or the Islamic woman with the veil, you can see it; you can see it in the trinis. Trinidadians are the only people who coming into your house, no music playing, but they chipping; sometimes you can smell it, as in my sister’s apartment building in Toronto: you walk down the hall, doors closed, but you know some Pakistani living there – you can smell the geera and the Basmati rice; sometimes you can hear it: traffic stop in the middle of some American suburb, 2 o’clock in the morning, you can hear reggae pumping through the door – who living there?

Wherever we wander, our Guyanese culture sustains us and fortifies us. It comforts us. When we have a hard time at work or with a client, we silently tell the man about he beetee and the pressure ease. When we girl friend give we a hard time, we put on Sahani Raat, cry lil bit, and feel better. When family come to visit is roti, and pepper pot and cook up – KFC put one side. You walking down the street somber, you run into a padna, “Oh score.” “So buddy wha giein on” and just so a smile on your face. Can you imagine a life without roti and curry, or metagee? Is there a sweeter dessert than paynoos? Can you imagine Christmas without pepperpot and garlic pork? I know a Guyanese working on the DEW line in Alaska. He say, “Dave, Christmas I drop a garlic pork pon dey backside; um almost melt the glacier.”

Just think about the ingredients of this culture and how they never leave you. Every time you see a picture of Stabroek Market, you make a connection. You can hear your culture in the sound of a dray cart going down Lamaha Street, clop clop clop clop; you can see it in the guys up in the tree poping cricket, or in the Jordanite with the bottle lamp in town, or in the sweep of the Essequibo, as my friend Ian McDonald calls it, the mighty Essequibo; you can feel it in that early morning dew up in the Abary, you can smell it in that punt trench odour when you passing Diamond…remember that? Guyanese driving two English people from the airport, they passing Diamond, the English woman says, “Good Lord, driver, what is that awful odour” Guyanese smiles, takes a deep breath, “That’s Diamond estate, madam. Smell today, rum tomorrow.”

And the other thing to notice is that the culture endures. It does not fade. Fifty years after he leave Guyana, my friend Colin Cholmondeley, now living in India, first thing every morning, after he tek a pee, guess what Colin doing? He reading the Guyana newspapers online. Every day. As we say in GT, the culture got he backside.

The politicians may stumble, the economy may be struggling, but our culture stays strong. Even when there is madness about, as there is now in Guyana, in Agricola and Lusignan and Bartica, in the middle of all that, the culture continues, and it will come out whole in the end. The current madness will pass away; the culture will survive that. And the children of the culture, thousands like you, carry it wherever they go, as you have carried it and drawn strength and joy from it.

You have it here with you, in this hotel tonight, in this place 3,000 miles from the Guyana. You have come all that way, and your culture has come with you. It will never leave you as you will never leave it. As the song says, IS WE OWN.

“Mary and Paul up on the seawall, is we own. And the gal foot fine, but lawd she behind is we own.”

We should be proud of Orlando and New York and Toronto and all the other arenas of our achievements. But we must be proud of our beginnings, too, and be proud of the culture that produced us. At the core, wherever we are, it is the essence of who we are.

Alyou walk good.



  1. randallbutisingh said,

    This is a great article by Dave Martins of the Trade Winds. People like you Dave have lent lustre to our beloved Guyana, the Magnificent Province, Guyanese have made significant contributions wherever they went. I am proud of being a Guyanese.

  2. […] BEING GUYANESE « Randall Butisingh’s WeblogMar 9, 2008 … There’s a Guyanese friend of mine, Vibert Cambridge, many of you know him, who was visiting me in my home in Cayman a few years ago, and … […]

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