Derry Etkins: An inquisitive musical mind
Celebrating our creative personalities
June 12, 2005
Several commentators have concluded that some of Guyana's boldest steps in cultural development took place in popular music during the first two post-independence decades. This was the era of bands with names like the Telstars, Combo 7, Rhythmaires, Dominators, The Young Ones, Bumble and the Saints, The After Dark Movement, The Graduates, The VJs, Gemtones, Curtis & the MGs, Sid and the Slickers, Mischievous Guys, Yoruba Singers, Music Machine, QC Syncoms, and Solo Sounds International.
Many of these bands went on international tours and made recordings. Wendell Bunyan, "Hundred," Vibert DeOrnellas, Trevor Grant, Walter Scott, Aubrey Cummings, Ray Seales, Monte Douglas, Pamela Maynard, and Derry Etkins became household names.
Newspaper columnists such as Sunny Lyvan, Roddie Fraser, and Keith Michael Austin, commented on these developments and expressed the hope that the music from these bands would contribute to the development of a distinctive national sound. These columnists were aware of the contributions calypso, reggae, and spouge had made to Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Barbadian identities.
It was during this era that cultural entrepreneurs such as Rupert Cheong, Latchmansingh, Vic Insanally, Lucille Lall, Neil Chan, and Vic Green invested in bands. Omar Farouk (a.k.a Terry Nelson) made investments in a recording studio and a pressing plant and began to experiment with the Afri-Indi beat-an experiment that is now recognized as making an important contribution to the development of contemporary Chutney music.
Thirty-nine years later, the construction of Guyanese identity is still a work in process and popular music by Guyanese popular musicians at home or in the diaspora continues to be an important element in that project. As the nation begins to think ahead to the 40th anniversary of independence, it will be appropriate to take stock of what were the factors that contributed to the flowering and the high hopes for Guyanese popular music during the first two post-independence decades.
The work of Derry Etkins, a multidimensional Guyanese performer, arranger, composer, producer, and teacher, now living in Barbados, is a good lens through which to review this era and look forward.
Derry Etkins was born in Plaisance on January 10, 1954, to Joyce (nee Forsythe) and Desmond Etkins. Both parents were musical. His father sang with the All Saints Boys Choir in New Amsterdam. His mother was a schoolteacher, a music teacher, and mezzo soprano. She sang in music festivals, and won a silver medal as a mezzo soprano and a gold for a duet with the late Daphne Persico.
There was a piano in the home (a gift from his grandfather, the late George William Forsythe from DeHoop, Mahaica). His parents gave him musical instruments as seasonal gifts. He still remembers the plastic ukulele his father gave him for Christmas when he was five years old.
Etkins's early childhood was filled with music experimentation. Between the ages of five and eight, he was experimenting with mouth organs (harmonicas) and the sounds that came from bottles filled with varying amounts of water. Like Eddy Grant, Derry was also influenced by the soundscape of Plaisance-sounds of the birds in the backdam, masquerade bands, steel bands, tadjah drumming, and bhajans.
His siblings also played music. Two younger brothers played steel pans and drums in high school.
The family piano at home exposed him to many musical styles performed by visitors to the home. One of his indelible memories was his exposure at the age of eight to jazz by a Mr Wiltshire, a friend of Mr Mortimer, a second standard teacher, who was one of his mother's colleagues at the Plaisance Methodist School.
Etkins did his primary education at the Plaisance Methodist School and Wedgewood Junior School in Georgetown. He attended Queen's College (QC) between 1964 and 1970. He considers QC the place that launched his popular music career. At QC he had access to musical instruments (recorders and guitars) and musical appreciation classes. One day in the Music Room he met the late Peter Cheong, son of Rupert Cheong (the owner/manger of the Dominators), and Paul Henry who were playing guitars.
"Peter was picking melody and Paul was strumming chords," said Etkins.
So, he went into the cupboard picked up a bass guitar and insisted that he be taught to play the instrument. The encounter led to the creation of the band-the QC Syncoms in 1968. That name was a compromise. Etkins wanted to call it the Roaring 40s (The sum of their ages) and homage to Ada Akai (the geography mistress) whose lessons on the global wind systems had left an indelible impression.
The final decision-QC Syncoms (Peter Cheong's suggestion)-tells us something about the time when satellites were influential ideas. After all, one of the popular bands at that time was the Telstars.
The QC Syncoms was bold and confident. The band entered the 1968 Music Festival and won the instrumental and percussion competition. Its next step was a Christmas concert performed on Yamaha instruments loaned by Utility Store on Water Street. The loan, negotiated by Etkins, included an organ, two amplifiers and a drum set.
The band's Music Festival victory and performance at the Christmas concert gave it some status. Rupert Cheong offered the band access to the instruments used by the Dominators and rehearsal space in the band room in Brickdam.
By this time, Etkins had migrated from the bass to the organ. Trevor Grant replaced him on the bass, and Leyland Alexander played drums. Etkins also served as the "arranger" for the group and resisted any tendency to play tunes as they sounded on original recordings.
In September 1970, Etkins graduated from Queen's College and joined The Graduates as organist. The Graduates was a "weekend band," so he was able to take a job at the National Insurance Scheme.
In 1973, Etkins joined the Telstars and toured Brazil with the band. Other members of the band included Phil "Bumpy" Dino, Aubrey Cummings, Monte Douglas, Terry Jervis, Barry May, Gerald Couchman, Billy Stephenson, and Ray Seales. It was a successful and confidence-boosting trip. On the band's return from Brazil, Ray Seales and Ossie Redman, the band's manager, completed arrangements for the band to travel to Barbados to record an LP with West Indies Records Ltd (WIRL). The project was facilitated by Bunny Best of WIRL. The recording engineer for the session was Guyanese Eddie DaSilva, and the product was the popular LP Telstars in Orbit.
The tour to Barbados opened other avenues for Etkins. For the next three years (1973-1976), he worked in Barbados, performing with the Outfit, Wendy Allen and the Dynamics, and the Tropical Islanders.
In 1976, Etkins was invited to Canada. There he spent 18 months with the road band Ashiba. The members included Aubrey Mann, Marleen Curtis, Kimberly Curtis, and Tyrone Clarke. Etkins had by this time established himself as a virtuoso on the keyboards. With this band he played five keyboard instruments-organ, synthesizer, clavinet, Fender Rhodes, and string ensemble. This exposed him to the world of electronic music. These were challenging times. These were the pre-MIDI days. These instruments had no digital memory, so the player had to be very dexterous.
At the end of the Canadian tour, Etkins returned to Guyana and between 1978 and 1983, he completed a programme of formal music education with Sybil Husbands and Edith Pieters. At the end of this training programme (with Edith Pieters) he was a certified music teacher. During this period, he also sharpened his skills as a composer and arranger. This was the result of his membership in Solo Sounds International--a larger multi-instrument band-founded by Neil Chan.
With Solo Sounds International, Etkins began to experiment with the incorporation of indigenous beats and rhythms. The masquerade influences of his early childhood began to infuse his music and can be heard in compositions and arrangements such as the theme music for the Smile Guyana project, "Coconut Broth," "Roots Walk," and "Plaisance Backdam."
In 1983, Etkins was invited to return to Barbados. Since his return he has been active in music education. He teaches at Christ Church Foundation School. He also teaches at Alleyne Secondary and Barbados Community College. His work as a music teacher has made an impact. Ms Chrystal Cummins-Beckles, one of Barbados's young concert pianists, was one of Etkins's students at Alleyne Secondary.
He is "an extremely talented person and being under his wings for a few years has given me the chance to grow musically," said Cummins-Beckles.
In addition to being a music educator, Etkins is very involved in the development of Barbadian calypso. He arranges music for the junior and adult calypso competitions held during the Crop Over season. He is also the developer of software to teach music.
Derry Etkins has been composing for many years. His first composition was "64," a piano piece, which was used by Howard Daly for a performance at the Theatre Guild. Another was called "Jig Saw." As stated before, his compositions with Solo Sounds International were the Smile Guyana theme, "Coconut Broth," and "Roots Walk." The Smile Guyana theme was aimed at "niceing-up" Guyana and introducing the "fish beat." "Coconut Broth" was the theme for the radio programme 'Culture and Entertainment.' "Roots Walk" is yet to be performed in public. These compositions celebrated Guyana's racial and ethnic heritage.
He is proud of his heritage. Like Stanley Greaves, he is a Guyanist. His love for his land of birth was evident in the leadership role he played in the organizing of the recent Concert for Guyana in Barbados.
"Etkins, himself, stood out not only as a driving force behind the staging of the event, but by rendering his piano solo of "All The Things You Are" in honour to his beloved - 'GT' (George-town)," wrote Barbados Nation columnist Ricky Jordan in his review of the concert. "He also did a jazzy tribute, with the support of guitarist John Matthews, Wayne Willock (percussion), Dave Burnett (drums) and Elvis Edwards (bass) to his village birthplace of Plaisance ["Plaisance Back-dam"]."
This exploration of Derry Etkins' engagement with music suggests that music talent must be nurtured. Etkins grew up in a home with music. He attended a school where there were resources. He had opportunities to study with qualified teachers and mentors. He had opportunities to travel and experience the standards and disciplines necessary for a successful musical career.
Other successful Guy-anese musicians at home or in the diaspora have had similar experiences. So, if we expect our musicians to play a role in helping Guyanese visualize a better Guyana, there is need to invest in the resources needed to nurture musicians.
Interview Vibert Cambridge and Derry Etkins, Barbados, June 20, 2003
Comments by Ms. Chrystal Cummins-Beckles were accessed at http://www.doublexplojun.com/crystalinfo.html
Ricky Jordan, 'Sweet songs for Guyana.' Barbados Nation (Monday, March 14, 2005)