Guyana Steelbands - Festivals and Mashes 1950 -1980
February 11, 2001
The 1960 Guyana Festival, October, 1960 organised by the Jaycees marked the first attempt, to bring Steelband Mas' to a carnival-like celebration. This was the dream of Charlie Hubbard, GM of the Mariner's club, and all those unheralded heroes, who promoted steel band and mas' in the fifties. Every mother's son turned out for the weekend festival at the BGCC grounds, Annexe. Vivian Lee's Vaudeville Variety Show with dancers in colourful exotic costumes popped out of a huge birthday cake to mark the occasion. The Pantomime presentation of the Royal Bank of Canada's Grimm's Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes won Costume Band of the year, with Pemya's Marabuntas King Richard runner up. The results, unacceptable to the pan beaters, resulted in minor unrest the same night, and thereafter, all decisions in this fiercely competitive event would be issued two days later in the press, as is done in Trinidad.
Eileen Morgan, Festival queen of the early 60's Miss Banks/DIH
in costume `the Enchanted Chandelier' by designer Godfrey Chin
1961 Guyana Festival
Returning from a six-month civil service vacation in Trinidad, after working with George Bailey on their Band of the Year's Saga of Merrie England, I started a 12 months production of Helen of Troy for Festival 1961. Sponsored by Banks/DIH, we took the sixteen foot high Trojan Horse to the open space, now Bank of Guyana, at 5 a.m. festival Sat. This was repeating exactly what the Trojans did in Greek Mythology as the city awakened to the strange gift. It was my gift of Mas to the Guyanese public. After lunch, the 400 strong bands with yet another Quo Vadis offshoot `North Stars', tramped to Eve Leary to parade past HM Governor Grey. Our stage presentation of the sacking of Troy was too detailed, and Invaders' colourful tribal Sioux Uprising, led by Carl Bledman, won Band of the Year. My consolation was winning best floats, and individual King of the Bands (George Miller) plus Festival Queen. Helen of Troy was significant in costuming in that it embraced techniques of metal work required to scroll and carve intricate breastplates and armour. The presentation included all the characters of Homer's Illiad incl Hercules, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Polyphemus, the Amazons, Hector, Ulysses and Paris.
1962 My Guyana Spectacular, sponsored by Shell, won Band of the Year plus Queen and King (George Green) and also took the lion's share of prizes at the Children's Competition. Janet Rajnaraine was Festival Queen. The cash prizes were not paid for several of the Categories and with the political unrest of the early sixties, Festival fizzled out. Guyana Spectacular was a Circus presentation introducing elaborate papier mache sculptures together with feather craft and wire bending frames to display pages from the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway hits. These were essential skills to be mastered if costuming carnivalling was to grow. Daphne Rogers of the Ministry of Culture was instrumental in organising several Workshops where these skills were shared with upcoming costume designers and producers.
1961 Festival - Godfrey Chin leads his band Helen of Troy with
Hercules, Jason and the Golden Fleece and Trojans Phalanx behind.
The next occasion for Pomp and Pageantry was the attainment of Independence in 1966. Highlight event was of course the handing over of Self-Rule - The Passing of the Colours, and a magnificent fireworks display at the National Park. Steelbands again took to the road in costume for a magnificent float parade. My floats for Banks/DIH won best float - Liberty Bell - 3rd and 4th places - DIH's - Icee and Pepsi. Wieting and Richter's 7Up Dwarfs was second.
First mash queen of Linden, Evadne Gravesande, 1968 Egyptian
peacock by Godfrey Chin. Evadne received a new Morris Minor car compliments of Bookers Garage, 1st prize.
The First Mashramani
Mashramani actually started in Linden 1968 - The Linden Highway was not completed and the first Mash queen, Evadne Gravesande, in a spectacular Egyptian peacock, drove off in a new Morris Minor donated by Bookers Garage. George Morrison made her evening gown and I produced her costume. Gary Rodrigues' Queen `The Golden Arrowhead' won the next year. The Linden Highway was now open, and Georgetowners flocked by road to party in the mining town. RH Carr became obsolete.
At this time the annual Music Festival at Queen's College provided the impetus for the advancement of Pan and enabled the Steelband to hold their place in local entertainment against the increasingly popular string bands such as Rhymthaires - Combo Seven - Bumble and the Saints, and the Young Ones. The Beatles, Cliff Richards and the Ventures were big hits abroad. Pan was introduced in the Schools Broadcast Programme initiated by Derek Jeffrey. The Kaietukians, Silvertones, Pelicans and Texacans were the leading Steel bands.
Festival - Float. Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Pepsi the drink that quenches ten thousand thirsts.
Preparing for Republic
With the launching of the new GBS a new batch of talented intellectual impressarios emerged including Vic Insanally, Pancho Carew, Clarimonte Taitt, Hugh Cholmondeley and Wordsworth McAndrew. On Independence Day a steelband meteor was also born in Kitty named the Atlantic Symphony. Two years later these talented youngsters under the guidance of Rudy Bishop, Philbert Moore and Arranger Fraser placed a close second to Demtoco's Silvertones at the 1969 Music Festival. Guyana's supreme talent was in place. Philip Moore (Cuffy) and Patrick Munroe (the commemorating coin) were creating behind the scenes. Our best Mas' Designers and producers Godfrey Chin, David Lanyi, Bernard Ramsey and Gary Fernandes were busy planning. School children were being trained in the National Park Stands to form collages from plaques. It was the dawn of the Republic and the Golden Age of Steelband and Mash - the Seventies was about to begin.
207 years after Cuffy led a rebellion in Berbice Guyana's steelbands led the greatest Celebration in the nation's 400 years' history, On Feb. 23 1970 - Guyana became a Republic, and the effort of all those unsung heroes who sacrificed, and fought and died, to bring this nation self-rule, came to fruition. Republic was being celebrated by the masses, in the street of the capital, Georgetown.
Republic--pomp and circumstance
At Midnight, the official ceremony of the Trooping the Colours, was highlighted with a magnificent fireworks display, which included breathtaking images of Kaieteur, our Coat of Arms and glowing effigies of the Prime Minister.
The people's Mash
Republic Day, itself was the Celebration of the Masses, who led by the steelbands, tramped westward up North Road, amidst the cheers of thousands lining Merriman Mall. Tramping past, the official rostrum of Govt. Officials and World Dignitaries, the rhythmic cacophony of the steelband, incensed the masses to gyrations, twisting, hip swaying sensuous abandon, like some voodoo rite of Deliverance - all the while chanting Dave Martin's `Not a Blade of Grass', Tradewinds' defiant shanty. Atlantic Symphony must have had at least five thousand followers, and Invaders accompanying the costumed bands, equalled any Carnival Spectacle in Port-of Spain, Rio, or New Orleans
A patriotic parade
David Lanyi's Mas' band Mission to the Moon, second place, was a splendid debut effort, and a topical vista, for the emerging nation, especially when seven months earlier, mankind first walked on the moon. Bernard Ramsey's panalopy followed- an exhilarating designer's masterpiece, as was the presentation by Gary Fernandes- Gary Rodrigues. Every facet of the local enterprise, paraded along with the Steelbands - Floats from large Corporations - Small Businesses - Mom and Pops -decorated Donkey Carts - acrobatic cyclists and roller skaters, and, of course every type of mother sally -masquerade band -mad bull and cumfa drums. Altogether, a Carnival Circus of Revelry, epitomizing the true meaning of the Amerindian derived name, Mashramani.
Birth of the nation
Band of the Year was Godfrey Chin's Birth of the nation, sponsored by Banks/DIH. Claiming to be nine years in production, [since Helen of Troy] this band depicted a panorama of Guyana's history from the fabled El Dorado - City of Gold, to the cosmopolitan mix of races - Back to Africa -the Indigenous Amerindians- The Indentured Laborers - all in ethnic costumes. The section of Knights, Guardians of the Nation, with Coat of Arms' shields and visors, were the big hit. My individual costume 'Amorphosis of a Butterfly' won Miss Mashramani at Linden - Best Individual on Republic Day, and in August that year, won Miss Caribbean Carnival in Antigua, against the best of the islands.
1971 MASH Band of the Year was Godfrey's production -Three Musketeers 'One For All and All For One', a most appropriate theme for his sponsors NIS. David Lanyi's Extravaganza was second, and Invaders Clowns, third . The quote of Quintyn Taylor, newsman and enthusiastic supporter of steelband mas' is relevant now - 'If Carl Blackman, former Feature Editor of the Guyana Graphic, once praised Godfrey Chin's ingenuity in MAS' by bestowing him the title of the D. W. Griffith of costume bands in the Sixties, then I [Quintyn] without reservations proclaim - David Lanyi as the Cecil B. deMille of the seventies. When Quintyn published in the Sunday Chronicle the picture of steelband on wheels in Trinidad, every local band copied, and pan on wheels introduced a wider range of music, to match the Classical Philharmonics. The huge full size bass pan, that was strapped around the shoulders of the bass section, was no longer a `piano' burden.
David `De Mille' Layni
A former interior decorator from Fogarty's - Lanyi admits to being inspired at sixteen, by my Helen of Troy 1961 -spent a while in my mas' camp, but by 1972, this new kid on the block was the `king' of costumed bands. He quickly became a master wire-bender, an imaginative designer, and an indefatigable mas' producer, who relished portraying local themes, to win Band of the Year, a record ten times . His annual presentations on behalf of the GDF and also Police, enriched Mashramani with Guyana stamps (police) and Hello Africa [GDF] '73 - Games people play '74 - Garden City '75 - Roraima '76 - Songs of the Caribbean '77 - Medals of service '78 - The Golden Arrowhead '79-and his swan song 1982 'Essequibo is yours'. Lanyi , Pemya , Bishop. Geddes, Barney and Bledman are my nominations for this hall of fame category.
A major feature in all the theatres of Carnival Celebrations, is the People's Old Talk of Who was the best band - Calypsonian- Queen and King mas. Without any 'mamaguying', I award the title of Best Costume Band ever in Georgetown to Solo's presentation in l974 of `From whence we came.' Producer Neil Chan, a Mas' King, from way back combined with designer Claire Goring, to produce a Mas', equal to Cleopatra's Entry into Rome, in the film spectacle of the same name, with Burton and Taylor . In vein similar to this Daryll F. Zanuck's extravagant no-limit expenditure, Neil and Claire's elaborate authenticity was mind boggling, Thousand of feathers adorned massive headpieces, intricately braided to glamorise tribal splendor. Neil was King of the Band that year, which was, in two words 'breathtakingly spectacular'. History records that both efforts, though magnificent, were a disappointment, where it really counted,'
While Lanyi won the major Band of the Year titles, Small Band Winners were my Productions of Banks/DIH presents 1972 - Guysuco's Feed the Nation 1973 - and Ainlim's buy local 1974
In Pan, this decade, the undisputed Steelband Champion, on the road and stage, was Atlantic Symphony, who took their name, from their pan yard's proximity to the Kitty foreshore. Lauched on Independence DAY 1966, this BAND rose to meteoric fame -achieving runner-up in the 1969 and 1973 Music Festival at Queen's College, where they won the classical section of that competition. From 1975 to 1980, they were undisputed National Steelband Champions at the Music Festival. These youngsters were even more popular on the Road, and the former Chairman of the National Park, Bunny Fernandes, actually ruled that they would not be allowed in the Park before 5 pm on Mash Days . Like the Pied Piper, when the band passed through the PARK, the spectators would empty the stands, to join their tramp.
The golden age
But it was as Ambassadors of Guyana, that the Chronicle Atlantic is most famous. They toured Surinam 1975 and were invited back in 77. In 1978, to Brazil - they came - they played - they conquered - Captivating the major cities Rio, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Bella Horizonte. Their three months Goodwill Tour entranced audiences, and exposed the band to the authentic Latin rhythms of the sambas, pachangas, sons, and lambada. Back home Carifesta was introduced in Guyana in 1972, and the Caribbean Arts Festivals gave incentives for the growth and development of pan.
The seventies was the golden age of the steelband. Roy Geddes started a School of PAN, and his Junior Side of ten/twelve year old boys and girls, astounded hosts and guests with their musical dexterity.
Steelband - the Goodwill Ambassadors
A phenomena of the seventies was the popularity of Steelbands at social events - Cocktails especially as the nation hosted the Non -Aligned Conference, and visits of several Heads of States in the early seventies. Cocktail parties at the Umana Yana, Kingston for visiting dignitaries were huge successes, and the overseas guests and world press marveled how Guyanese social cocktails turned into gala, bacchanalian fun parties. After the initial rounds of drinks and delectable hors d'oeuvres, the steelband 'upped' the tempo, and everyone, danced to the wee hours of the morning. Guyanese hospitality was renowned in the diplomatic circles. It was no surprise that the Ambassadors from Russia, Canada, USA, England, and British Honduras, extended numerous invitations to Guyana's Steelbands for their upcoming Celebrations. (But that is another Nostalgia, to be called 'From RORAIMA to Russia with Love.)
Now a Republic, this fledgling nation was required to expand its diplomatic and consular services abroad, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was assigned this priority. However, more pressing in the early seventies was the coordination of the Non-Aligned Conference locally, - the visits of world leaders, including PM Trudeau of Canada, Nkrumah of Ghana, Gowon of Nigeria, and Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, plus the debutante Carifesta. Accepting an invitation from Minister Shridath Ramphal to voluntarily head the Decorating and Design Committee for Street and Public Buildings, I insisted that the local Steelbands be the feature entertainment for all public functions. I felt like Oscar Schindler in WW II, bartering for my grassroots pan pals.
This experience has since endowed me with the belief that every Guyanese traveling abroad, or domiciled away from beautiful Guyana, has his /her individual responsibility to be Goodwill Ambassadors. Every time I see a Guyanese proudly displaying a Guyana flag on his car's rear view mirror, I feel a surge of patriotic pride, equal to the five US Marines raising the American Flag on Mt. Surabachi, Iwo Jima. I taunt the natives here, every time I speak in my uniquely colourful Guyanese accent, embellished with expressive creolese idioms, that invoke enquiries where I am from. Of course, it takes a minute, to explain the difference between Ghana and Guyana, and most times, only the mention of the tainted Jonestown evokes a nod of recognition. The knowledge of geography is rather limited in these metropoles.
On one occasion, while seeking a seat in a congregation, I asked the group sitting on the bench, with spaces between them like lantern posts, to `dress down'. One gentleman replied 'that's on Friday, when we don't have to wear a tie'. What an opportunity to flourish my vocab of creolese colloquial sayings. The next month, I was invited to lecture on Guyana, and with the aid of the video `Guyana - very special place' by Fernandes and Brewster, plus still pictures of one of my hundred hobbies, 'racing' towa towa birds - the audience was so amazed, that I could have sold return excursion tickets to Guyana on the spot. - I must remember to speak to the Ministry of Tourist Development.
This Nostalgia is about Steelbands, but I stray from my subject, if only to emphasize the overwhelming impact steel bands, especially the Chronicle Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, has had as Ambassadors of Guyana.
Millie - the Cuss Bird
The only comparison, with unlimited possibility, was the loquacious Millie, our Macaw in the Guyana Pavilion at the Canadian Expo, in the sixties. Unfortunately this talented macaw, learnt every curse word uttered by the carpenters building the Guyanese Pavilion. When the exhibit was opened, Millie had to be extradited back home for using expletives that made Walker the Nigger seem like the Holy Pope. Cursing is not a felony, and as a matter of fact, by today's standards, it's now considered cultural, in inner cities. If I were around then, I would have started a campaign, to 'save the cuss bird'
To Russia with Love
From Canada, let's travel to the Kremlin, 1980. Moscow's equivalent to Carnegie Hall was filled to capacity, with high ranking government officials - the Heads of the Politiburo, coinnoseurs of the arts, world press, lovers of folklore, jazz, rock, symphony and pop. The atmosphere was electric. Everyone waited in hushed anticipation, for Guyana's top steel orchestra, Casso, on a four week Goodwill Tour to the RSFSR.
Excitement tingled in the air as the curtain rose, revealing a band of musicians dressed not in the usual philharmonic black and white tuxedos, but in bright red jackets, behind steel drums of different sizes - polished silver in the front row - electric blue kettle drums in the next, and huge man size barrels, painted royal blue, yellow, and orange, encompassing the rear. These salsa tropical Caribbean colours contrasted with the silvery, ivory notes of the piano first-pans, plus reverberating bass tones that simulated an organ playing the 'Ave Maria'.
Moscow under siege a second time
The Musical Programme reflected several world cultures-tender marimbas glorifying the beauty of their native Roraima Hinterland, Gounod performed by their youngest member, accompanied tactfully and tastefully by yarumba drums beaten by strong adult hands, sounded like kiskadees in mating season. Suddenly, the whole Orchestra is alive with an effusion of hands, shoulders and heads, in a frenzied, melodic mime. Then a breathtaking whirl of musical crescendos, as tongues of fire, seemed to lick their barrel drums.
The whole band, as if inspired by the Atlantic breeze of the Kitty Foreshore, from whence they came, began to dance and sway, to the soulful tunes of Miriam Makeba. The audience was hypnotized by the complicated, melodic interpretations of their native composers' work with which they were familiar, since childhood, but which now, was provoked to a totally new dimension. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Khachaturyan's Sabre Dance, and Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee. The popular Russian folk song 'Kalinka' was encored five times, while Dawn Schultz's 'From Russia with Love' bridged the troubled waters of the Cold Wars. A superlative performance that engendered several curtain calls, as standing ovations proclaimed, in adjectival foreign languages- `Delightful-Exciting Unbelievable- Fascinating- Stupendous'.
Close proximity of the band while on tour evoked consternation that sledge hammer and coal fire on petroleum drums could produce such perfect tonal pitch and that the world composers' intricate harmonies could be played by rote without music sheets. They were witnessing the greatest innovation of music in the twentieth century - the Steel Pan - and Guyanese in action. What a colourful musical menage, from the green Roraimas to the reds of Russia with Love'.
From Russia, Casso like Marco Polo set out around the world in eighty days. First to the New London Theatre England where Clive Lloyd was being honoured with the CCH-Guyana's highest national honour. In 1981, they toured the United States, playing at the UN General Assembly, Washington, DC, then to Las Vegas, Chicago, and Ottawa, for a guest appearance at the Canadian House of Parliament. The next year, 1981, they were the featured artistes at the British Honduras Independence Celebrations, and in 1983, went back to Canada for the 150th Anniversary of Canada's Redeau Canal.
Steel and Brass
It was during the early eighties, that a new dimension was added to Casso - the fusion of brass instruments [trumpets and trombones] blending with pan. The formation of their own Dance Theatre Group, and purchase of modern sound equipment, heralded the birth of the world renowned Golden Atlantic Symphony steel and Brass Orchestra and Troupe. Casso then entered the theatrical arts field with staged productions of `Tengar'- `The Rebellion' - 'The Break' - `We Believe' -all tributes to Guyanese grass roots and heritage. But their immortality, was their ability to perform inspirational and intricate classical compositions including Bizet's Carmen, Handel's Messiah and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Basil Hinds a former Guyanese Arts' Critic once wrote - "The golden sound, natural style, and ebullient esprit de corps of Casso's performances are ever present, whether they are intoning national sensibilities through Valerie Rodway's O Beautiful Guyana, the exotic lyricism of Rossini's Barber of Seville or the grandiose romanticism of Jerome Moross' Big Country".
Rudy, the Rooster
The world's greatest orchestras have often been identified by their leader who made it all possible. Glenn Miller - Arthur Fiedler - Byron Lee - Tom Charles to name a few- and I must add, Rudy Bishop to the list of great band leaders who made it possible. An indefatigable hustler, entrepreneur, missionary, diplomat, conductor, a veritable Steelband Moses.
Greatest Steelband Tramp
Somewhere in the great beyond - in the Happy Hunting Grounds of Timehri - I see a passing final Steelband Tramp of all the sons and daughters of Guyana, who contributed to this steelband movement. It would be a great final tramp -bigger than the Republic's Tramp of 1970. Rudy would be in front, waving the golden Arrowhead - Pemya, DeVarel, Calvin White, Don Sandiford, behind, Lanyi, Godfrey, Bledman, Barney, Claire, Neil locked arm in arm swaying from side to side - all the steelbands, Quo Vadis, Invaders, Texacans, Kaietuckians, Pelicans, Silvertones, Casso, David Rose's Steelband for the Blind and Deaf and St. Roses' Girl Band. But look- there's Lynette D, Basil H., Quintyn T., Carl B, Hammie G and Ayube H., Derrick Jeffrey, Vibart Cambridge, Vivian Lee tramping also. Othmar Arthur, Ray Nunes, Ulric Goviea, in the stands. And Charlie Hubbard would say 'ya see, ah tell ya it could be done'. My concern, is that even up there, we would need a sponsor and this heavenly tramp, will start as usual, late - Guyana time. At the Pearly Gates, Bunny F. would be rantin' and ravin' to hold back the crowd , who won't buy costumes, but like cook-shop flies, want to be in the midst of things. Okay, I volunteer to ask Peter D. to sponsor this final Steelband Tramp.
In closing I must record that it was all our destiny to bring pan into this new millennium. If you don't believe in Fair Maid, Ol' Higue, Obeah, Baccoo, believe this. On February 6, 1945, there were born two boys, different parents, different countries-one in Nine Miles, Saint Ann, Jamaica - the other, David St, Kitty, Guyana. And JA the great African God of Music, looked from the heavens, blessed the two boys, and ordained - I assign you Bob, to take Reggae to all parts of the world - Rudy you are to do the same for Guyana steelband. And it came to pass, that both Marley and Bishop went forth to become outstanding Ambassadors.
Disney's movie marketing strategy is to deliberately place one curse word in every film in order to get a PG Rating, thereby ensuring that parents accompany the kids to their box office In this nostalgia, I will now attempt this strategy,in telling you what became of Millie, the deported parrot.
Millie is contented
On her return to Guyana, the Government had three alternatives. 1.Grant Millie early retirement as she was a Civil Servant 2. Place her in the Botanic Zoo 3. Give her to Peter Taylor [Town Talk]. Father Darke had the best solution - he had two parrots, which prayed incessantly, and said the rosary twice a day, If Millie was placed with these two parrots she might be rehabilitated. The two parrots sized up Millie as she entered their cage. Suddenly one parrot exclaimed to the other `Why the hell, are you still praying -Our prayers have been answered -It's a girl - let's @%&@#*: the hell, out of her, and form a threesome. In later years Millie's extensive vocabulary, was reduced to these words 'Again -Encore- Repita -Again - Mais.
Share the Wealth
This series of nostalgias is intended to continue the tramp of Steelband, so please feel free to share, and pass it on. Like Xmas Blackcake -It's infectious. Guyana Steelbands and Seven-Head Lewis make me proud.
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