Seven Musicians for Santa Mission

Stabroek News

September 8, 2003

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The seven musicians are pacing around on a balcony which overlooks the children swinging their feet beside their mothers on the benches in the benab beside the creek.

Their black outfits silhouette them against the roof of woven ite palms, a glimpse of a viola bow, a flute, the curve of a cello and the sounds of them tuning up, a nervous comparison of notes.

Down below, Santa Mission’s Captain Gouveia, a tall but shy man with a deeply lined face, is telling the gathering that the residents’ ancestors never had the chance to listen to classical music and this is a good opportunity for them to learn.

This is reinforced by General Manager for Le Meridien, Olivier Trinqaind, who after advising the chattering audience “perhaps, it would be good to listen,” says the musicians are pretty much la crème de la crème of the French classical music scene: one was the first flutist for the Monaco orchestra, another was off to Japan on a tour. The cellist, wearing shiny patent leather shoes, once played back up for Barry White. Olivier makes sure to clarify that this is no imposition of a better culture on the villagers but simply the sharing of a different culture and how “really, really, really, really, happy we are to see so many children here.” This is for sure a special occasion for the village but although the hall is crowded there is only a handful of men. Many of them have gathered further up the hill under a huge silk cotton tree and are looking on with a mixture of scepticism and defensive amusement. Some teenagers saunter by, in the now universal walk of teenagers, barely glancing at the activity, dressed in baseball caps, wrap around sunglasses and baggy Sean John jeans. They are way too cool for this crowd.

Inside as the temperature rises from the collective body heat and from the early afternoon sun pounding on the roof, mothers fan themselves with the programmes, children squirm from sitting still for so long, a baby begins to cry before being promptly attached to a breast.

By now the performers have descended and taken their places, rearranging music stands and sheets and plastic chairs. Olivier’s wife, Ghislaine explains the first piece, a canon by Johann Pachelbel, which involves the repetition of a melody, one of the building blocks of classical music. Meanwhile her sister Elsa loses her sheet music through a crack in the floorboards and the clarinettist Romain hurries below to retrieve it.

Eventually with bows raised and looking to each other, they are ready to play. Another baby begins to bawl. The mother kindly takes him outside and applies a rhythmic beating.

Classical music... the Caribbean... classical music...the Caribbean... the two do not seem to mix, we thought as the bus pulled off from Le Meriden a few hours earlier. Was it the colours, the rum punch reds, the impossibly blue seas, the uncomplicated sunsets, the cut out palm trees? Classical music was painted in the hues of ochres, burgundies and wandered through the deep forests of Bavaria or marched like a victorious army along a Parisian boulevard. And then it was the two dimensionality of Caribbean life. A tourist destination for many, where you arrive for sun, sea and often sex... before returning to a life of cultured melancholy and winter nights curled up with Beethoven. Here most residents had little time for such gentilities, life was a struggling see-saw of either unstudied elation or financial despair.

But perhaps Guyana is different. After all this is not like the islands, red carpets for rude tourists, where everything has been hidden away and made picture book. Here everything is on display. Take the trip to the airport: life is lived on the road or close by it. There goes the bowlegged man off with a case of drinks on his bicycle, another carrying chairs for a wake or wedding house, horse carts of cut grass, trailers bulging with wood, a house leans dangerously to one side, a woman washes clothes while glancing at the traffic. Inside out. The bus passes by the DDL distillery with its heavy, sickly sweetness that more suggests hangovers than the world’s premium rum. There’s the new chicken processing plant, able to kill, process and package 5000 birds an hour; a fish plant; the smoke from the generators at the power company that makes it all possible(or impossible); Barama ‘s factory chewing up trees. It’s all there, inside out, like the Pompidou centre with its plumbing as a virtue.

The canon ends to polite applause, perhaps not enough for all the collective decades of practice that came into making it. The musicians stand and take a formal bow just before the clapping ends, which brings a smile to the audience because it seems so old fashioned. The next piece, a string Quintet with flute in D major, is by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, an Austrian composer from the 18th century, Ghislaine explains. It comes in three movements; the first is happy, then the second movement is slow, “this is meditation time, perhaps you can think about nature” and the third is joyful. It is quite a long piece and the children squirm a little more or wander away to play on the sand nearby. But it is still well received and Ghislaine announces it is time for the intermission which is greeted by one man inquiring, “We can have some drinks, right?”

So is this what you do during a normal intermission, we ask flutist Raphaelle Truchot?

“Yes, we stand around smoking and drinking,” she laughs, although she admits that it is rather strange to be playing here. The closest she got to such a setting was in Tahiti when she played beside the sea and the surf was so loud that she could not hear herself play. “Oh, but it is wonderful, the people are so responsive and so many children.” She comes from Nice but plays in Monte Carlo, a principality exactly 3 km long. There the people are so rich they just come to the concert, clap and walk away, she says. Here people are fascinated not only by the music but by the instruments. Raphaelle concedes it’s difficult for them to fully appreciate the music partly because you need some knowledge so you can identify patterns.

We load onto the boat at the Timehri docks, cameramen with their boxes and tripods, and set off across the Demerara and into the Pokerero Creek, a river with no particular place to go. “Think of nature,” Ghislaine had suggested the audience do during Mozart’s slow movement. What did they think of such an idea? Surely forest dwellers have few conventionally ‘romantic’ thoughts of nature. They are nature and nature is primarily a resource for survival. Perhaps a boy had thought then of an awara tree and whether it was ready to give up its fruit. A man might have remembered the tracks of the labba he spotted while visiting his farm. Think of Georgetown could have been the equivalent because for many in the developed world, nature is something alien and to be hankered for. At Santa Mission many of the youngsters have gone to work in the city as taxi drivers, store clerks or worse. Someone said the population had gone from 400 to 300 in the past few years.

We pass through the creek with its huge clumps of cool bamboo arching above, past a few homes, their weathered wood indistinguishable from the trees. On a landing, two little children in briefs give the mandatory wave as if they just stood there all day waiting for that Kodak moment. “Oh, how cute those two were!” the Australian woman might say when she gets her photos back from the developers a few weeks later.

An orange butterfly journeys over the creek its wings set to cause a thunderstorm over Prague, if you believe the scientists. They are right about nature’s apparent chaos. Here trees are downed and drowning in the river, a tangle of thick vines and leaves, and a thousand shades of green that hold no discernable pattern, the way an English formal garden cultivates.

We are going against the tide. The water being sucked out of the creek and the boat’s engine drones on and on like the lowest note on a church organ, round each hairpin bend. And then we emerge into grassland, the river now less muddy and more the consistency of consommé- smooth and shiny as a buffed trumpet. How deep the reflections, how deep the sky descends into the water, to that imagined depth that as a swimmer can make you anxious for your buoyancy, that depth that Monet struggled years with his water lilies to capture with a French lightness of touch.

The same touch as these musicians. The British may have lugged a grand piano through the jungle and presented it to the Wai Wais. But that was a slightly absurd gesture, more made for TV. Like climbing Everest, it was there to be done, old chap. And as for the Americans, France’s cultural rivals, what have they brought to Guyana lately except the Nike insignia and fast food franchises. And let’s not forget lashings of evangelism.

This French gesture suggests something far more virtuous, a desire to share something meaningful, the best of European culture. Not that the residents at Santa Mission have much to share today. A woman has set up a stand selling craftwork, some tbisiri baskets and other knick knacks. But it’s the kind of thing you could find at a flea market in London or Paris from anywhere in the world.

“If anyone wants to come in, it’s about time!” shouts Olivier as the violinist finishes off his cigarette and begins arranging the stands. The chairs have been relocated in front of the buffet, with its labba pepperpot and cassava bread, since the wind had been playing havoc with the sheet music. Olivier has an announcement to make: Alex, the violinist, had mentioned to a violin maker he was going to Guyana and the man had offered to send a violin for him to give to a child. Captain Gouveia says a little hesitantly that a child will be picked from the community and Olivier says his wife Ghislaine will give lessons once a week at Le Meridien. “So we hope that in twenty years time we will have a famous violinist from Santa Mission, Guyana.” Everyone claps.

Before settling down to listen to the second movement of Mozart’s string quintet with clarinet, Olivier clarifies that the reason the musicians are dressed in black is out of respect for the audience and not because someone has recently died.

And how rapturous the music suddenly becomes. Clarinettist, Romain Guyot repeats a riff where he joyously bubbles up the scale to reach the strings, a very jazzy moment, albeit about 150 years early. In between, when not playing, he turns his head to the creek and closes his eyes, completely lost in the music and undistracted by the crying babies and the people going to and fro.

The final piece is a polka by Johann Strauss, a lively three beat intended to get people on the dance floor, also about 150 years ago. “Encore!” we call out as the musicians sheepishly take their bow. So they decide to bring out the local girls choir for another performance of “Take care of the children”, a kind of NGO-inspired message about how children- “our future”- must be looked after “not as the wild grass/ but as you tend to a plant, and “to let them grow intelligently/ because there is no place for illiteracy.” And so the concert ends with a trickle of applause. The children burst out of the hot hall and onto the hot sand. Alex takes his violin and begins mimicking the birds in the trees to a crowd of them who seem more fearful of the instrument than curious. He offers it to them to play and some do not want to even touch it. Others scrape the horse hair across the strings with a big grin on their faces and we clap. Someone spots a big blue macaw and Alex hurries off to play it some music, which is kind of eccentric in a French way.

It is time to go home, and now with the sun lower, the creek is cooler. The anarchy of its banks seems a touch more harmonious. Birds skim the water’s surface, the water lilies surf the boat’s wake and the two little boys are still there. They wave and show us all their teeth as we slip on by. (William Walker)

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