September 14, 2003
`I was deeply honoured’
Internationally acclaimed flautist extraordinaire, Keith Waithe, paid us a flying visit two weeks ago, fresh from the ‘Big Apple’ and the much-advertised Guyana Folk Festival, now an eagerly anticipated event in the calendar of the North American Guyanese Diaspora.
He was one of 37 Guyanese conferred the prestigious Wordsworth McAndrew Award the weekend before for their sterling contribution over the years to Guyanese culture in the field of music.
Sunday Chronicle’s Linda Rutherford chased him down to find out just how he felt about the conferral.
“It’s an instrument that I initially was very hesitant about playing…because I was already into the trumpet. But when I applied to the Police Band, there was no opening for a trumpeter, only for a flautist. So I reluctantly agreed to take it. But for a week I couldn’t make a sound. Then suddenly, I can play it; and I can play all these sounds. That I couldn’t explain. It’s just amazing; And now, I see it as an extension of my voice.” Keith Waithe’s quite a privilege,” said this son of the soil who left for Britain in the late 70s, and has since been making quite a name for himself across Europe and further afield with his fusion of the various forms and cultures of music, including those of his own multi-ethnic Guyanese society.
Here at the time for the funeral of one of his three siblings, Waithe, who left for home two Saturdays ago to keep an engagement this weekend with the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), said: “The thing is … I’ve got awards from Britain and also from Europe. But to be recognised…. lifetime… by your own people you grew up with …..”
He never quite finished that sentence, but went on to say that what was particularly touching about the whole affair was the fact that the man after whom the award is named, Wordsworth McAndrew, a cultural icon if ever there was one, was, himself, still alive.
“To see him; and to be in his presence...because he has done so much …and has been an inspiration to all of us. And to be one of the musicians who were acknowledged, I was deeply honoured.”
‘Mac’, as McAndrew is fondly referred to by friend and foe alike, was not only a journalist and a poet, but one of local music’s strongest supporters, according to Waithe.
“He supported my music when I had my different ‘fusion’ groups here in Guyana,” Waithe recalled.
One of the earliest of these, he recalled, was the ‘Guyana Quintet’ which saw Roy Geddes on pan; Etwaroo Kishore on the tabla; Massielal on the sitar; Keith Joseph on string-base, and he on flute. But that was way back in 1969.
‘Mac’ was also big on the steel-pan. “He loved the steel-pan; he was passionate about it. A lot of the musicians he supported that way,” Waithe said, adding that his writings, too, were to reflect this passion of his, since he used it a lot in some of his collaboration works such as his ‘jumbie’ and ‘nancy’ stories.
Noting that among Mac’s other virtues is his penchant - inveterate folklorist that he is - for documentation, a habit he religiously drummed into the heads of young musicians like himself, Waithe said he, too, is currently working on documenting the works of a number of UK-based Guyanese, in the sense that he is trying to re-record some of our Guyanese folk music in a more contemporary style.
This has not only brought him into contact with youngsters the likes of Andy Haywood, but older guys as well, like Rudy Jones, and ‘Iggy’ Quibb, with whom he had been hoping to work (Quibb has since died), and some of the guys from the Police Male-Voice Choir who are still alive.
Another oldster for whom he has the greatest of respect, Waithe said, is the late jazz percussionist, Art Broomes, who died earlier this year after a brief illness at the age of 73.
This was the one word he used, when asked what could he tell us about Broomes.
“When I heard he died, I was so saddened,” he said. “Art was one of the free jazz musicians that I’ve worked with. We worked together in the sense that in addition to playing with [the] Harry Whittaker [jazz ensemble] we also did a lot of jazz concerts together.”
It was from Broomes, Waithe said, that he first learnt about free-style jazz.
“Art was instrumental in a lot of us moving away from just the set text. He was quite important in that way,” he said.
As for his stage performances, these too, were characterised by a phenomenal energy. “He was just fantastic!” he said.
What was particularly “nice” about that period in Guyana - this being the late 60s to the early 70s - Waithe said, was its vibrancy. An event which occurred around this time that would forever stand out in his memory for its importance, was the very first Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA), which was hosted right here in Guyana in 1972, and to which the ward, Festival City, owes its origins.
He recalls he and Broomes being part of a jazz crowd that frequented places like the ‘Green Shrimp’ on Robb Street, which was run in those days by a guy called ‘Shrimpy’ Meeretins and ‘Vic’ Greene who now has ‘Friends’.
Comedians Marc Matthews and Ken Corsbie were also part of that crowd.
The hotel, Pegasus, now Le Meridien Pegasus, which was just beginning to come into its own at the time, was another favourite haunt of theirs, as was the ‘Wig and Gown’ on the corner of Garnett and Sheriff Streets in Campbellville, then owned by Lorrie Alexander, where they played regular jazz on a Sunday afternoon.
It was at the ‘Wig and Gown’ that he would meet the Trinidad-born saxophonist, Ansell Wyatt, who it was that taught him the art of improvising.
Though he was an excellent reader of classical music, having slipped out briefly on a British Council scholarship to study at the Royal Military School of Music in England, he was hopeless without a score.
“Ansell used to help me hear differently,” he explained, “because the difference with classical music is that you’re trained to read the dots, as we call them in music, but you can’t be free. If the paper drops or disappears, it’s impossible to improvise. So I had to learn to do that and that was a totally different system.”
He would subsequently go to India, where he spent three months learning about the people and their music as part of an ongoing effort at research as a musician and a composer.
Said he: “The thing for me as a Guyanese ….is that we as Guyanese need to understand why is it that we have six races; that ….. six races is more than just tokenism. And my belief is to understand where these races are from, and what their history is about.
“Going to India not only made me understand the indentureship that happened in Guyana, but the healing and spiritual side of music as well. Something a lot of people in this country – and I am talking about Indo and Afro Guyanese – do not realise is that the Indian music we’re hearing now and people are still listening to is all about nostalgia. And what they are nostalgic for, is something that a lot of them don’t even understand: And that is the language.
“I was fortunate to go to India and learn the Indian scales, called rags; bols, which is the rhythm; and the tabla. So when I write, I can talk about Indian music. And I play the Indian flute, called the bansuri.”
His curiosity about culture and what makes certain peoples tick also took him to Africa where he would learn to “understand the slavery system that created our psyche; the system that determined why we are afro-Guyanese.”
But to get back to the Guyana Folk Festival in New York, and what the experience was like for him, Waithe said:
“One of the things for me that was really great…was that I saw people that I hadn’t seen in about 30 years.” People like those with whom he went to school at Smith’s Memorial on lower Hadfield St, and old friends like Mildred Lowe, Billy Pilgrim, Malcolm Hall, Keith Proctor and Dave Martins.
He also got the opportunity to team up Reggie Paul, of the former Combo 7 ‘string-band’ as they were called back then, Martins, and some other guys to bring the curtains down on the evening of the awards ceremony, which was Friday August 29, and prior to this with a pair of ex-masquerade drummers and some former members of the National School of Dance to play masquerade, complete with ‘mad cow’ and other characters associated with the custom, during the cultural aspect of the function.
A symposium on the following day, Saturday August 30, dealt in its entirety with Guyanese music and its origins from an analytic standpoint.
This struck a particular chord with him since he feels there needs to be a more academic perspective to our music, as most people tend to see only the emotional side of it. His contention, however, is that there is more to music than just dance in terms of the kind of rhythm, harmony and movement we employ and the kind of effect it has on us as a Guyanese people, which begs the question: Why is it that we like it so much?
Among those who supported the three-day activity, he said, were President Bharrat Jagdeo, who stopped over on his way home from paying a State visit to India, as well as Leader of the Opposition People’s National Congress/Reform (PNCR), Mr Robert Corbin.
And among those who gave of their time and talent to make the event a resounding success were calypsonian, ‘Lady Guymine’, who brought the house down; ‘Slingshot’ and Terry Gajraj.
The eldest of four, Waithe’s involvement in the field of music goes way back to the age of seven, when it was that he blew his first note on the trumpet, thanks to the influence of his father, who played with the big bands like ‘Washboard’ and the rest, and whose ‘call name’ in that milieu was ‘DV’.
“My father was my first teacher. And he used to play trumpets,” Waithe said, recalling that even at that tender age, the old man, whose full name was Darnley van Herbert Waithe, was very careful about what company he kept and what games he played, seeing cricket as being potentially dangerous to lips that were destined for greatness.
“I don’t know how he knew I was going to be a great musician,” he said. “I never had such thoughts in mind…… but he could see it.”
The other person to have been instrumental in his taking up music as a career was his great-aunt, Ms Princess Keith, the woman who reared his dad, and who it was that encouraged him to join the Salvation Army Band, where his skills on the trumpet would be further honed by Majors Richards, Moonsammy and Isaacs who all led the quasi-military organisation at some point in time.
He later joined the Police Force Band where he learnt to play the flute.
Recalling the incident that led to his involvement with an instrument that would eventually become a passion with him, Waithe said:
“It’s an instrument that I initially was very hesitant about playing…because I was already into the trumpet. But when I applied to the Police Band, there was no opening for a trumpeter, only for a flautist. So I reluctantly agreed to take it. But for a week I couldn’t make a sound. Then suddenly, I can play it; and I can play all these sounds. That I couldn’t explain. It’s just amazing; And now, I see it as an extension of my voice.”
An avid flute collector, he currently owns 136 of them which he collected from all over the world and which will be taking centre-stage this weekend, either as décor or a musical instrument, when he performs live at the Battersea Arts Centre, reputed to be one of London’s finest theatre venues.
He is quoted as saying in an article promoting the concert, which is slated to run from September 11 - 13: “I want to transfer the freshness, excitement and atmosphere of a concert into theatre. I am going to be exploring…the story of my different flutes.”
He goes on to say: “The flute is a symbol of joy and hope for people worldwide, and is significant within many rites of passage. I want to take people on this journey.”
What he has been doing with the flute, Waithe told the Sunday Chronicle, is “trying to make it more of an instrument where it’s not seen in a tokenistic way; where it’s seen as a very important instrument. Because when you listen to an orchestral arrangement for the flute, there (are) always the little colours and twiddly bits. It is never seen as very serious or intense. I think this needs [the flute] to be seen to be as important as the saxophone; the trumpet; the clarinet.”
A full-time musician, he makes his living doing concerts and composing for radio and television and the stage. He also does a lot of what he calls “collaboration,” meaning that he sometimes joins forces with other artistes to get a particular message across. He has a stable of artistes he works with, among them two poets, one of whom is Barbadian, and Guyanese Sandra Agard, who is a storey-teller of extraordinary talent.
“And what we do,” he said, “is go into schools ‘cause I feel that as a successful musician and artiste, it is important for us to take our skills into the schools; to try and be a role model to these kids so they could see that we are not different. And I would love to come and do that at some point in Guyana.”
One of his acts the kids particularly love, is something he developed called ‘vocal gymnastics’, in which he uses the voice to reproduce the sounds a drum would make, which is similar in many respects to something the British educationists developed called ‘brain gym’ which, in essence, is a specialist exercise to stimulate learning in children.
His eight-member ensemble is called ‘Keith Waithe and the Macusi Players’ after one of the nine local indigenous nations, and his company ‘Essequibo Music’ after the mighty Essequibo River, one of the three main waterways in Guyana.
“The thing about it is that it’s fascinating for me at this moment to be living in England and still be very much Guyanese. My band and I, we represent Britain, not only at home but in Europe as well. And that in itself is wonderful; for me to be able to do that, not only playing traditional jazz or traditional English music, or fusing Irish music with mine, but to also show the world that the Caribbean and South America is more than just Jamaica or Peru or Colombia; that Guyana, too, has a vibrant culture.”
The group recently released a new CD, its seventh to date, called ‘Mellifluous: Blossoming into Truth’.