Masquerade Music Workshop November 2012

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Masquerade music sweet bad, bad!

While the authorities were demonizing masquerade bands as dangerous centipedes during the early decades of the 20th century; masquerade musicians were creating a sound that would become a distinctive sound. For masqueraders, making music was to reaffirm West and Central African spirituality, support community development and strengthen solidarity among working people. By the turn of the 20th century, masquerade bands in communities such as Albouystown, Charlestown, and La Penitence were multi-ethic. 

Masquerade music during the early 20th century was closely associated with the social, cultural, and political churn that was taking place in British Guiana. Masquerade music was the outcome of a complex set of interactions among band leaders, composers, performers, listeners, authorities, costume designers, seamstresses, drum makers, tanners, and post-emancipation immigrants to the colony. It was a process similar to what Christopher Small has described as “musicking.” Masquerade music was part of the sound track of the emerging Guyanese working class that both Ashton Chase and Walter Rodney described in their respective pioneering books: History of Trade Unionism in Guyana, 1900-1961 and the History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1961. Both Chase and Rodney refer to drums and fifes being part of the marches by Guyanese working people who were protesting for better wages and improved working conditions on the sugar estates and on the waterfront. 


On December 1, 1905, “sugar workers from estates on the East Bank of Demerara went on strike and, accompanied by “drums and pipes” began a march to Georgetown to show solidarity with the stevedores, domestics, bakers, and other workers who had been on strike since November 28. The marchers were halted by the police at Plantation Ruimveldt. Three protesters were shot and this triggered what Guyanese labor historians have described as the “Ruimveldt Riots,” the “Ruimveldt Protest,” and the “1905 Rebellion.” It was out of this experience that the modern trade union movement, under the leadership of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow— “Black Crosby” — was born.

In 1924, about 4,000 workers from Plantations Providence, Peter’s Hall, Farm, and Houston marched to Georgetown in solidarity with urban workers now on a strike called by the British Guiana Labour Union. As in 1905, the marchers were accompanied by a “band.” The Daily Argosy described it as a “Tadjah Band.” By the 1920s, Tadjah Bands were multi-ethnic. Thirteen people were killed when the colonial police fired on the marchers at La Penitence.  
In Georgetown, the masquerade music emanating from communities as Albouystown, Charlestown, La Penitence, and Cummingsburg was part of the wider popular secular music of the urban working class. As we noted in Post # 6, Stanley Greaves’ father performed in masquerade and string band ensembles. There was interchange. Working class musicians performed in masquerade bands and in other ensembles. In his 1932 calypso, “No Surrender,” Lord Caresser, the Trinidadian calypsonian, informs the listener that Bill Rogers, the Charlestown-born, internationally popular Shantonian, “bargee composer,” and impresario, “was an old time flouncer and sweetie vendor.”

Musicians like “Sweetie” Greaves and Bill Rogers were in demand for “practices.” “Practice” or “Dance Practice” was a popular form of entertainment among working people. A 1912 article in the Daily Argosy identified patrons of the “Practice” as “domestic servants fresh from the kitchen, butlers, housemaids, porters, etc.” The article also identified the flute, steel triangle, and concertina as some of the instruments used for making music at Practices. 

Writing in 1899, Frank Van Sertima listed the drum, flute, coronet, clarinet, shac-shac, tom tom, and tambourine as being among the instruments played by masquerade bands during the Christmas season in Georgetown. Some older Guyanese recall the presence of the harmonica/mouth organ in masquerade bands. At the Mashramani Masquerade Finals in 2000, Road Warriors, the Region # 5 band featured a harmonica/mouth organ. 


In 2016, drums (kittle and boom), flute, the steel triangle, and the shac-shac are the core instruments in a Guyanese masquerade band.
Some have described masquerade music as discordant. Others have called this creole music sweet! 

Across the 20th century masquerade music continued to influence Guyanese popular music. In the 1950s, Al Seales released “Limbo -In” by the Cubona Flute Band on the GEMS label. This recording was a celebration of the masquerade flute.
The innovative band leader, Tom Charles and his Syncopators invented the “Bhoom” in the early 1960s. The bhoom was inspired by the beat laid down by the bhoom/bass drum of masquerade bands. At that time, it was to be Guyana’s equivalent to Jamaica’s ska and Barbados’ spooge.


The Bhoom and old school masquerade music were among the sounds featured on the LP, Guyana Welcomes Independence produced by Vivian Lee in 1966 to mark that significant moment in Guyana’s political history. The first track on the LP was “The Guyana Bhoom”.” This was followed by two tracks, “Independence Flounce” and “On Freedom Road,” featuring Lyric Smith and his Masquerade Band. Lyric Smith excelled on the flute, presenting … wonderful trilling and variations on Kwe Kwe songs such as Gal, yuh glorious marnin’ come” and “Madeline.” 

For at least the past 50 years, the flute man/fife man has been masquerade’s melody maker. 

Plaisance-born Rudolph “Putagee” Vivieros is currently recognized as one of the last of Guyana’s great fife men. He has accompanied all the masquerade bands on the East Coast and West Demerara during masquerade competitions held over the past three decades. Another respected flute man is Jerome “Three Foot” Cumberbatch the leader of the Torch Masquerade Band from Linden.
Guyanese musicians in the diaspora have also been incorporating the sound of Guyana’s masquerade in their compositions and arrangements. This is evident in Keith Waithe’s CDs: Rhythms of Freedom (2000), Mellifluous: Blossoming into Truth (2002), Diverse Canopy (2005), Gathering Echoes (2014), Earth Flight: The Direction (2014), and The Very Best of Keith Waithe (2015).
Since 2012, Derry Etkins, Guyanese music educator, resident in the British Virgin Islands, has been incorporating masquerade’s essence into his compositions and arrangements. In 2012, his composition Masquerade Sweet Suite was premiered at the “Masquerade Lives” symposium in Georgetown. Since then, he has organized several “Masquerade Jams” in Guyana. He has arranged jams that have featured steel pans, jazz ensembles, and Indian music-inspired ensembles in his quest to create a Guyanese sound based on the masquerade heritage. So far, these efforts have reaffirmed masquerade music’s natural inclusiveness. Derry is keeping alive an aspiration launched by Tom Charles during the birthing of the nation. 

The faculty at the young National School of Music is also engaged in the masquerade revitalization initiative launched in 2012 with the Masquerade Lives symposium. In 2014, Andrea Mentore coordinated the three-day Masquerade Music Workshop. She incorporated a “jam” as part of the curriculum. That “jam” featuring Jerome “Three Foot” Cumberbatch (Torch Band, Linden), Teacher Raghu (Lusignan), Leary (Essequibo), Mou Mou and members of Ann’s Grove Best, and the bass guitarist, Peter Callender. The “jam” session explored various styles of masquerade music. The jam session was recorded at NCERD’s Studio, Kingston, Georgetown, Guyana.

A key ingredient in masquerade music is the “Toast”—the Chant! That will be the focus of the next post—Post # 8.

Here are some photographs and videos to illustrate Guyana’s masquerade music.

Vibert Cambridge. Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.
Ashton Chase. History of Trade Unionism in Guyana, 1900-1961. British Guiana, 1964.
Walter Rodney. History of Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
Al Seals Forever: Volume 2. A CD compiled by Ray Seales, n.d. (circa 20??) 
Christopher Small, Musicking. Connecticut: Wesley University Press, 1998