The Militia Band: A Guyana musical tradition
by Lloyd Rohlehr
May 9, 2004
The Guyana Police Force Band - the successors to the Militia Band, playing at a concert at the sea-wall bandstand in 1996. (SN file photo)
Picture yourself a spectator of this scene in Georgetown - in bygone years. It's the sea-wall on an afternoon in balmy weather. Sea- breakers of the Atlantic are far out. Solid stone walkways with their wrought iron-and- wood benches are ideal for those who wish to relax. Old chums sit and chat, nannies push perambulators and gossip, business executives take a brisk walk, athletic types trot, lovers hold hands, adolescents cruise on bicycles along the sea-wall's parallel roadway. On this day there is something more.
At a given moment, eyes turn expectantly to one spot: the bandstand.
Men, becoming in their uniform of white and red, tunic and cap, at the ready with their musical instruments, wait for their conductor's signal to begin performance.
Facing them, he holds his baton lightly with the fingers of his right hand, his left palm upturned. All set. Seconds later delightful strains from a familiar opera fill the air.
Hearty clapping follows the performance.
Not only at this rendezvous did the band heighten opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment. It was eagerly welcomed at the bandstands in the Botanical Gardens and the Promenade Gardens in Georgetown, the Esplanade in New Amsterdam, Berbice; at Suddie on the Essequibo coast and in the company town of Mackenzie (now Linden) up the Demerara River. It was our only symphonic ensemble of full-time professionals.
We called it the Militia Band (British Guiana Militia Band - BGMB) and became familiar with its performances early in life. The public's love affair with the Militia Band was at its warmest, perhaps, in Major S W Henwood's time as director.
An Englishman, who loved Guyana, he was a product of the famous musical school, Kneller Hall, at Twickenham, England (now part of the Royal Military School of Music). He seemed committed to fine music. I personally loved the traditions he set.
Unforgettable. In whatever part of the world I may be, if I hear Rossini's overture to The Thieving Magpie the memories come back. As it happens, overtures are a favourite with me. I remember Schubert's Rosamunde overture, and others. Such as those to Franz von Suppe's Poet and Peasant. Also Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna, Light Cavalry, and Pique Dame; and to the operas, Orpheus in Hades (Offenbach), Zampa (Herold), Raymond (Ambroise Thomas), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Karl Nicolai) and Rossini's The Barber of Seville.
Rehearsals were, of course, routine - in the band room at Eve Leary Barracks, Kingston. They shared the peaceful barracks compound with the Mounted Police, this in itself being a reminder that notwithstanding their des-cription, 'militia,' they were part of the Police Force.
Except for drill, however, their police duties must have been minimal. But it was as musicians that the public knew them.
One former member of the band became world famous. This was Rudolph Dunbar. He brought distinction to his name as a professional musician, to Guyana his birthplace, and to the black race as a symphonic conductor in Europe. I was thrilled when conductor Henwood paid Dunbar a tribute that is satisfying to any professional. Before a vast crowd one Sunday night at the sea-wall bandstand Henwood said that once when he was trying to find a treatise on the clarinet he found the finest, written by Dunbar.
Individual members of the band were welcomed at local concerts as they appeared with their instrumental solos. When it came to popular dance music they figured there too, at least one member being a regular at Carib by the sea on Saturday nights.
The concert stage, dance halls and night spots apart, there were the envied appearances at Government House, where the governor and his family lived and where, if royalty came to town they would stay.
It had 'atmosphere,' in which the BGMB blended perfectly, playing Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others for ballroom or cocktail guests on special occasions.
That prestigious children's carnival called the Georgetown YMCA May Day Fair, with its crowning of the May Queen and the plaiting of the maypole amidst soft Atlantic Ocean breezes at Thomas Lands would be incomplete without the Militia Band playing the Keel Row, Come Lassies and Lads and other junior delights. This rather English cultural event was the yearly challenge of the money-raising women's auxiliary of the YMCA, whose local origins go back to the 1880s.
And one could not imagine the hundreds of trained school children who formed the massed choirs that sang on patriotic occasions without the musical accompaniment of the militia band; neither the enlivenment provided by the band absent from the annual Mounted Police Tournament - daredevil clowns and everything - on the parade ground at Eve Leary.
These musicians in uniform made an impact on the musical traditions of the Republic of Guyana. At all levels of our society they captured our hearts. Applause!