Hilton Hemerding: Celebrator of 'Beautiful Guyana'
Celebrating our creative personalities
June 26, 2005
This is the forty-eighth article in our series on famous Guyanese artistes written and edited
by Dr Vibert C Cambridge. Dr Cambridge can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com
Hilton Hemerding is a member of a very special group of Guyanese - the composers of Guyana's national songs. These songs, sometimes called patriotic songs, have the ability to lift Guyanese above the impedimenta of racial and political crassness. They help Guyanese to envision the wonderful future possible for "the land of the mighty Roraima."
The recent floods demonstrated how powerful Guyana's national songs are in mobilizing Guyanese at home and in the diaspora.
When the waters threatened the "dear land," Guyana's children demonstrated that they were prepared to come together to move "onward and upward." The Song of Guiana's Children, My Native Land, My Guiana, Eldorado, O Beautiful Guiana, and Beautiful Guyana were part of the subconscious sound track that mobilized Guyanese during the recent crisis.
"The national songs were rallying points," said Claire Goring, one of the leaders of the Guyana flood relief network in New York. "They made you identify with Guyana immediately. Wherever those songs were played became a piece of Guyanese soil."
Guyanese have reserved a special place in their hearts for the compositions of Cecilene Baird, Cecile Burgan-Nobrega, M A Cossou, Joan Gilkes, W Hawley-Bryant, F P Loncke, William Pilgrim, R C G Potter, Valerie Rodway, Betty Rowe, Hugh Sam, Horace Taitt, and Hilton Hemerding.
In addition to mobilizing, inspiring and motivating, these songs have marked important moments in the development of the nation. For example, The Song of Guiana's Children was composed by the Reverend W Hawley-Bryant in 1937 for the Parade of School Children, which was part of the Centenary Celebrations of the Georgetown Town Council.
Hemerding's Beautiful Guyana captured the spirit of the nation as it approached independence in 1966. At another level, the song is also associated with important moments in foreign policy during the early post-independence era.
What motivated these compositions? Why have they enjoyed such lasting popularity? Why have they had such an influence on generations of Guyanese at home and abroad?
Hilton Hemerding's Beautiful Guyana requires us to visualize a Guyana that is larger than Georgetown and the coastal population centres. Reflect on the opening: "There's a land just off the Atlantic, land of jungles, waterfalls, and sweet scenery. Where poor people farm the lands... and all live in peace and harmony. This is Guyana, beautiful Guyana."
He does not dwell only on the nature and grandeur of the landscape, but he immediately places the Guyanese worker in a harmonious relationship with this environment. For him, the landscape with the mighty Kaieteur, "tumbling to the river" with "its foaming tide," and the "cheerful kiskadees, throwing "their yellow breasts to the sky," are metaphors for the nation's possibilities.
About four years ago, I met with Hemerding in New York and had the opportunity to talk with him about Beautiful Guyana, his musical career, and his other compositions on the CD Dem Days. The CD contains eight songs with patriotic themes - Beautiful Guyana, Sweet Land of Mine, Kurukubaru, Farmer Man, Tumatumari, Song of the Porknocker, Coming Down, and Long Long Ago.
Hemerding stated that all of the songs on the CD were composed between 1965 and 1982. Incidentally, it was through the CD that Beautiful Guyana was available to the public legitimately for the first time.
Beautiful Guyana was composed in 1965 in St Augustine's church yard, Buxton. He recalled sitting on an old Chinese tomb with his box guitar, composing the lyrics and melody in about 15 minutes. For Hemerding, the quest was to help to refresh the pool of national songs by using melodies and rhythms that were more contemporary. He felt that the earlier national songs tended to be too hymn-like and did not reflect the spirit of emerging independence.
How this composition gained its place in the nation's consciousness will also help to illuminate an aspect of Guyana's diplomatic relations with Cuba.
By 1975, Beautiful Guyana was part of the repertoire of songs performed for the many dignitaries who visited the newly independent nation that was shaping its own foreign policy. Culture was a key element in this strategy.
So, Hemerding was part of the delegation to Cuba led by Minister of Culture Shirley Field-Ridley in 1975. He performed the song at a reception for the delegation hosted by Fidel Castro. The performance was well received and an invitation was extended to have the song recorded.
"The recording took about 3.5 to 4 hours to complete," recalled Hemerding. "The recording engineers were very meticulous. They would start over if there was even the slightest error."
The next chapter in the Cuban connection with Beautiful Guyana opened in 1977, when Vice-President Desmond Hoyte paid an official visit to Cuba. The recording was played during a reception hosted for him, and he immediately recognized the song and the performer. At his request, Hoyte was given six copies of the record to take back to Guyana.
According to Hemerding, on Hoyte's return, the copies were handed over to Minister Field Ridley, who sent one copy to the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation. So it was only in 1977 that the song was broadcast in Guyana for the first time, and the rest is history.
Hemerding's lyrical vision is a manifestation of his intimate relationship with the Guyanese landscape and a reflection of the spirit of the nation in the approach to independence and in the early post-independence era. In addition to writing Beautiful Guyana, Hemerding has composed several other national/patriotic songs. Some are on the above-mentioned CD.
As a child, Hemerding travelled around Guyana. He was born in Berbice and spent important periods of his childhood in Leguan, Buxton, and Georgetown. As a young school teacher, he taught at Bartica Government Secondary School and was moved by the majesty of the mighty rivers that meet in confluence at that point and by the poetry of Ivan 'Farro' Forrester.
His creative sensibilities were influenced by his institutional affiliations. He grew up in the home of a clergyman and there, learned the lifelong values of service, faith, and justice. He attended Queen's College at a time when that school was preparing its students to deal with a different Guyana - one that was independent and free. Teachers encouraged original thinking and demanded service to the nation.
Hemerding's post-secondary education took place at the Multilateral Teachers' Training Centre - an institution developed to deliver a new paradigm in secondary education in Guyana. Here, along with Lynette Dolphin and Marilyn Hunte, he formed the EMMEL Singers and produced Bamboo Fire -the important LP of Guyanese folk songs.
Beautiful Guyana is only one aspect of Hemerding's creativity. The story of his work with the Department of Culture and the innovative CARI Singers also needs to be told, as well as that of his work with calypso in Guyana as Hilton 'Hitman' Hemerding. The story of his continued work in the field of music, especially his contributions to preserving and promoting Guyanese folk music in New York, must also be told.
Hemerding's contributions to his nation were recognized by the Guyana Folk Festival Committee in 2003 when he received a Wordsworth McAndrew Award.
Interview Vibert C. Cambridge and Hilton Hemerding, New York, April 11, 2001.
Telephone Interview Vibert C. Cambridge (Athens, OH) and Claire Goring (New York), June 17, 2005
Dennis Nelson Liner notes: Dem Days with Hemerding (CD Arawak Studios # HGM 002)
Bamboo Fire and Other Folk Songs of Guyana (HAS 1187 LP)
Dolphin, Lynette. Songs of Guiana (The Red Book). Georgetown, British Guiana, circa late 1950s.
Dolphin, Lynette Twelve Songs from Guiana: Second Book (The Blue Book). Georgetown, British Guiana: The National History and Arts Council and Ministry of Education, Co-operatives and Social Security, October 1964.
Dolphin, Lynette Ten National Songs of Guyana (The Grey Book). Georgetown, Guyana: The National History and Arts Council of the Ministry of Information, December 1969.
Dolphin, Lynette de W One hundred folk songs of Guyana. Georgetown, Guyana: The Department of Culture, Ministry of Education and Cultural Development, 1996.