‘Concert in the Rainforest’

The story of the Wai Wai’s grand piano By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
September 8, 2002

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In the year 2000, a grand piano found its way to the Wai Wai village of Masakenari in the South Rupununi, and remained there, more or less a white elephant, until Guyanese writer/culturalist, Dr Michael Gilkes, and renowned pianist Ray Luck arrived to teach the residents how to play and maintain the instrument.

The grand piano had been flown from England via BWIA to Georgetown, then conveyed by air to Gunn’s Strip where it was off-loaded and rowed in a canoe upriver. Subsequently it was dragged through undergrowth to the Wai Wai’s first village at Konashen, from where it continued on its journey to Masakenari. It is now in the benab there which houses the village church.

The story of how the piano arrived in the village and how it has been put to use is to be featured as part of an hour-long documentary entitled ‘Music of Eldorado.’ The piano segment of the documentary which lasts 25 minutes is called `Concert in the Rainforest.’

Other components of the film record the varied music of the city and the coastal areas, representing an attempt to explore coastal attitudes to the hinterland.

Pianist, Ray Luck, plays the grand piano in the church in the Wai Wai village of Masakenari. His audience included Minister of Amerindian Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues. It was the first time that the piano had been played at a concert since it was taken to the village in the year 2000. (Photo by Michael Gilkes)

Pianist Ray Luck (left) and film-maker/author Dr Michael Gilkes.

Wai-Wai flute player and village crier, Marawanaru.

In an interview at his New Garden street, Queenstown, home Dr Gilkes, a man of varied credentials including that of film-maker, told Stabroek News that the object of the film was to alert Guyanese, the Caribbean and the world at large to the nature of the interior. It was, he said, “a fragile thing. Everybody thinks we have this wonderful interior, big rivers but it could be spoilt very easily, polluted easily. The intention of the film is to help preserve... cherish and appreciate this legacy.”

However, in order to complete the film, funding was needed, and according to Dr Gilkes, it was required for the same reason that “we need funding for projects that help to preserve our landscape. Bio-diversity is what makes Guyana unique... but bio-diversity includes people. We have the most diverse people in the world which the film presents, and something of value needs to be funded, especially in these times.”

Acknowledging the donors of contributions to the film, Dr Gilkes noted that some US$14,750 were still needed to complete the project. The total budget is US$50,000. So far Demerara Distillers Limited has donated the sum of US$30,000; UNICEF has pledged US$2,500; St Lucian author Derek Walcott has donated US$1,500; Gafsons has donated US$500; David de Caires, US$500; and the National Bank of Industry and Commerce, US$250.

The film is being put together by Heartland Productions, a non-profit organisation of which Dr Gilkes is the President and retired Major General Joe Singh is Vice President. The business manager is Vic Insanally of Guyenterprise.

Telling the story of `Concert in the Rainforest,’ Dr Gilkes said that he had been prompted to go to Masakenari after seeing a BBC documentary about how the piano had been presented to the community by British traveller, Colonel Blashford Snell. One of the village leaders had said that they wanted a grand piano after seeing a picture of it in a catalogue, and Snell undertook the challenge to get the instrument to the community as an adventure. He had visited the community several times.

Masakenari is a relatively young village with a population of about 200 people, 60 per cent of whom are below the age of 15, Dr Gilkes said.

In spite of all the effort which had gone into getting the instrument to Wai Wai country, “the grand piano was left in the church and although it was played now and then,” said Dr Gilkes, “the Wai Wai’s weren’t sure about it and so it just stayed there.” Snell and his party had succeeded in transporting the piano to the community, but they couldn’t stay on to teach the people to play the instrument. Being a musical people the Wai Wai’s toyed with it, but because it was largely unused it began to gather dust, and parts of it, including some hammers, got broken.

Dr Gilkes said that after seeing the BBC documentary he thought to himself, “Why don’t we Guyanese go in and repair that piano and bring it back to concert pitch and let the people know how it sounds when played by an expert.”

Guyanese Remington Ally from Canada and Dr Gilkes put together a team, and pianist Ray Luck, when contacted, agreed to accompany them. Joe Singh, who knew the Wai Wai’s, spoke to the people about the team’s proposal and they agreed. With Singh’s help they were on their way to Masakenari. They did not know what they were going to find.

On arrival they got together with the Wai Wai’s to set about repairing the piano. It was in a sense an on-the-spot training in the maintenance and care of the instrument, which in the colonial days had been a symbol of middle class status. They spent a week in the village.

“We took it apart and we cleaned every single part of it. We showed them how it could work, so now they can take it apart and put it together again. Ray Luck did some workshops with the young people and some of the bigger boys and taught them how to play scales and how to use their fingers on the piano,” Dr Gilkes said.

“One morning after we had done this for a while, we were all awakened by the sound of the piano. The piano was on the hill. Ray Luck sat up in his hammock and said `That’s Wallo. He’s playing chords. I didn’t teach him that.’” Wallo, said Dr Gilkes, was actually playing chords and transposing them into different keys by himself. Wallo and another youth, Isaiah, from the village, who now plays the piano, are featured in the `Concert in the Rainforest.’

Even a little lad accompanied Luck on the piano in a duet which they had not rehearsed before at a concert held in the church under the flickering light of flambeaux.

According to Dr Gilkes, the Wai Wai’s had found that they were no longer afraid of the piano, and that they could use it on their own when they worshipped. They are, he noted, a deeply musical and religious people. Gilkes said that what they had done was indigenise the piano making it an instrument they could employ as an integral part of their community. “We took away the mystery of the piano, so it is now truly theirs,” he said.

Speaking generally about the project, Dr Gilkes said that in filming, the crew started in Georgetown, and moved along the coast of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo.

He said the film told of how the life of the coastlander was connected to the interior, and “our refusal to understand that connection. We still treat the interior as though it’s bush and the people there are just Amerindians. We don’t know that is where the heartland is - the heart of the country - and until we understand that, Georgetown, New Amsterdam and the whole coastland make no sense... There is only one country.”

Dr Gilkes, who has been involved in theatre and in the arts all his life and has taught at the University of the West Indies in Barbados and the University of Guyana, apart from touring the “university circuit,” as he puts it, now wants to complete the film to show that Guyana is not all banditry, violence and political division, which, he claims, are recent developments.

In the hinterland, the people at Surama, Aishalton, Annai and “all over” were working to build their communities, just as the Wai Wai’s were doing, “and a lot that is going on is extremely positive, but the rest of [coastal Guyana] is not aware of it,” he said.

“Our interior is endangered. We’re putting roads through it and we don’t have an obvious policy about the hinterland. So we’re in danger of losing what we have.” The film `Music of El Dorado,’ he said, would allow Guyanese, the Caribbean and international community to preserve and appreciate what was still there.