Peacocks and doing culture …

Peacocks and doing culture …

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by Vidyaratha Kissoon

“The Heritage celebrations are watered down” Andrew Campbell told me. Andrew Campbell is a young Guyanese man who is actively interested in Indigenous and other cultures.

Andrew was one of the presenters at a recent lecture event The Jaguar in the Patamona Culture.

His presentation was about his recent studies around Paramakatoi in Region 8. This event was one of a series of events for Indigenous Heritage Month.

September in Guyana is Indigenous ( Peoples’ ) Heritage Month. It used to be called Amerindian Heritage Month. This year the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs had invited the public to submit ideas for the month. The Government sponsors most of the events, including the beauty pageant.

State sponsored sexism to honour the Indigenous peoples as part of culture.

The Guyanese nation is made up people who have come from different places and who have taken different journeys in their liberation.

The presenters at the lecture talked about how Christian conversion and colonialism reduced some of the religious practices.

‘Indian culture’ in Guyana is closely linked to the Hindu religion in many instances. Hindu practices are diverse, and some have changed with time.

Some people make similar claims about ‘watering down’, or the transformation brought about by new imports from India. Some of the traditional forms of singing religious music are fading.

Chowtaal gole to Choir..

1989. Guyana under Desmond Hoyte was recovering from the Burnham times.

The University of Guyana Hindu Society had formed a chowtaal gole. Chowtaals are special songs sung at Phagwah time. I joined the gole, with some knowledge of chowtaals. I had also joined a community Ramayana gole to revive the tradition of baani style singing.

There were other persons from different parts of Guyana in the UG gole. We all had some differences in how we sang the chowtaals, based on where we lived.

There had to be some consensus on how we would sing. I am trying to imagine what it must have been like when the immigrants from different parts of India had to join together to form the groups in the new land and how ‘watering down’ might have happened in that process.

The teacher was a man who worked as a lab technician. He brought his dholak from home, every day for practice. He travelled by the problematic public transportation of the time from the West Coast with his dholak to play for us. We took his labour for granted. I am ashamed that I do not remember his name. I remember him fetching the dholak in a bag.

Cultural work requires love.

I sang chowtaals for the first time in public on the stage of the Education Lecture Theatre at UG.

UG at the time hosted an Australian music professor, Eric Gross. Professor Gross organised a choir of students and staff. Someone thought that since I could sing chowtaals, I should be able to sing in the choir. I joined the choir which was preparing for a concert.

The r sound in Akawaio

“The r.. is not rr like in English.. you have to bring back the tongue ..” – the late Desrey Fox told the choir. I remember the instruction.

The concert programme was going to include Amerindian music. Desrey Fox taught the choir two songs in Akawaio. We had to learn the words and the pronunciation.

I lost the music sheets. I remember the first lines – a love song, and a drum song.


I remember Desrey Fox’s beautiful voice.

We learned another Carib song but did not do it for the concert.

Professor Gross taught us Botany Bay and another song.

The organisers of the concert asked for Hindi songs. A woman, Joyce, and I also joined with the with the ‘Hindi choir’.

The Hindi Choir selected a Phagwah song as it was Phagwah season, and a song normally sung in taan style Pholo Se Tum Hasno Seekho. ..

The Hindi Choir was taught by Pertab from the Cummings Lodge mandir, near the University. He also arranged the music because well, taan is not so easy for us first timers so we worked on another way.

I remember practicing these songs – Akawaio, Hindi, English.. loudly many times, while fulling up water at the stand pipe in the yard, sometimes during blackout.

None of the neighbours ever complained.

In trying to remember the Akawaio songs, I came across a labour of love from Hubert George. Hubert George used Lynette Dolphin’s book of folks songs and recorded and shared solo guitar renditions. These are shared for use under creative commons.

Rohan Sagar has another personal project to record music of the Amerindians. The other place to get Amerindian music is to buy from the Smithsonian Institute

One day the Guyanese museums will have websites with the recordings. The State will invest in rigorous documentation and sharing of the different cultural traditions, and support citizens who want to do the same.

Maybe one year the money used on beauty pageants will be used to enhance the National Museums to do recordings. Many people might prefer beauty pageants though as a Chronicle Editorial many years ago had said ‘Amerindians had arrived’ because there was a beauty pageant.

A woman had told me I had no business criticising how Amerindian people chose to celebrate their heritage.

The night of the concert, Joyce and I sang in Akawaio, English and Hindi.

The music programme I think had the translations to English. The programme might be in the National Library of Australia among Professor Gross’ papers. The University of Guyana might have a copy.

Culture is about handing down, transferring .. not just performing. The lab technician at UG bringing his dholak with him, Pertab from the Cummings Lodge Mandir working with the ‘Hindi Choir’, Eric Gross from Australia in Guyana, Desrey Fox taking the time with us to learn ‘rs’.. and explaining some of the songs.

How, where does this transfer of knowledge and discussion of experiences happen?

Peacocks and macaws…

“That is a beautiful peacock” the teacher remarked to the students. The students were taking pictures in front of a beautiful painting Palace of the Peacock. The painting was created by renowned George Simon. The beautiful peacock is to the left of the painting, while there is the boat with the explorers going to the falls on the right.

I do not think Kaieteur Falls or any falls in our hinterland have peacocks around them.

Wilson Harris, like Rum and Jonestown are well known outside of Guyana. I remember reading Palace of the Peacock and wondering where the peacock was in the book. I wonder why the title could not have been ‘Benab of the Macaw’ – the macaws also have beautiful colours.

There is another painting with a macaw at focus. And another with parrots eating the mango harvest.

The children stand closer to the peacock and smile for their cameras. I wonder if the children think peacocks are in Guyana’s jungles. I wonder if the children know about the author and the book which inspired the painting? I wonder if the children would ever be able to read and understand the book – I read it and didn’t make any sense of it. Not all cultural products have to be accessible to everyone.

The exhibition includes other paintings and sculpture which feature animals which are in Guyana’s forests. The painting ‘Sacrifice for Colour’ by J Marco features a rainbow serpent.

The exhibition is dedicated to a Christian woman, Sister Theresa La Rose who had helped to preserve and propagate Amerindian arts and crafts.

I wondered if there are any lessons about how she  engaged with Amerindian traditional religious practices and incorporated the respect for those in her work.

The children are taking pictures. One day, our galleries would include exhibition guides who could discuss the work with the school children.

A lot of our culture work is like that, watching and being entertained without any active engagement to understand. Except maybe to eat food, and dress up in imported clothes and spectacles.

It is sad watching how Emancipation becomes about methem and conkie and not about emancipation ; and Phagwah and Diwali are about sweet meats and seven curry and glitzy clothes and not about rejuvenation and universal light, and Heritage is about fly, cassava bread , tuma and pepperpot and not about defense of human rights

Defense of human rights..

This month, the South Rupununi District Council launched a website as part of a project to protect their lands.

According to the release from the SRDC, “Amidst increasing concerns about threats to our forests, wetlands and way of life, we, the Wapichan People of Guyana have set up our own ground-breaking system to defend our human rights and monitor our ancestral lands against harmful development. Community information has been collected using a grassroots land use monitoring arrangement that involves community monitoring teams, the use of smartphone technology, drones, and community digital maps – all controlled and managed directly by the villages. Today, the Wapichan People are launching a locally owned and managed website to present their monitoring information on the internet. The web site can be accessed here:

Imagine if every village in Guyana did the same thing as the Wapichan people have done to protect and manage the assets and resources in their communities and environment.

Imagine if every village and community undertook the data collection and analysis which the State fails to undertake so that we could protect our right to a safe and healthy environment.

Imagine if we understand that nurturing a safe and healthy environment as a dominant cultural feature.


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