Guyana — A Cultural Look


(Reproduced with permission from

Co-op Republic   Guyana 1970)

Folk Songs of the

 In my view, the folklore of a people is at the root of their being, and to cast it aside is to set oneself adrift culturally—an act which one performs at one’s own peril”

 Guyana has a culture to which all the races which had a stake in the making of the country have contributed.


 Looking back, the picture is quite clear …

 First came the indigenous Amerindian, at the end of his long phenomenal trek from the wild plains of Siberia, across the Behring Strait and all the way South through Canada, the United States and Central America. During his stay, which began thousands of years before the coming of the first Europeans, he naturally adopted Guyana as his last and final home, repository of all the ancestral dreams that were the fountain of his tribe. He learnt to be master of the land he lived in, learnt the forest lore which gave him complete command over the trees and birds and fishes and fruit that he found in his new land. Yet something remained stirring within him from the old ancestral gene pool of which he was a product. So though he found or postulated new Gods, though he took to the water like a duck, though he adopted the cassava root or manioc as his staple food, he still kept his dances, and rituals, and ceremonies—his basically animistic beliefs that told him Man could triumph over his environment if he but knew what magic to employ.

 Behind the Amerindian, thousands of years later, came the armour plated, sword-carrying adventurers from the Old World — Holland, Spain, France, Portugal, England. Their task and dream was to carve from lands hitherto undreamt of by their countrymen, new jewels for the glittering crowns of their patron-sovereigns. At first, the ploy was trade—the exchange of trifling baubles the native tribes who in turn gave them precious (and in cases new to the Old World) raw materials much valued in homelands — gold, annatto, tobacco, hammocks, precious stones, the talking parrot, and such. But later, trade led to on-the-spot colonization and serious attempts to found an agricultural empire serviced by Amerindian slave labour.

 These newcomers naturally felt culturally and anthropologically superior to the Guyanese natives that they now enslaved. But in fact, though they had brought with them the Book, they numbered among them many who were of a more animistic turn of mind than the natives themselves (witness the widespread practice of accultism by the white colonists, which included a curious belief in blood sacrifice—a practice then particularly prevalent in what is now French Guyana).

 By the seventeenth century, many ?????? led to a shift from Amerindian labour to wholesale use of human cattle — black slaves spirited away by every device imaginable from their homes in Africa, particularly the West Coast which for some reason presented less problems to the ever-active slavers.


 So came the third of the Guyana peoples. But now a special problem arose. The slaves who came spoke so many different tribal dialects and languages that they f6und it hardly possible to communicate with each other, not having a lingua franca upon which to fall back. To make matters worse, the slave master and his slave drivers spoke European languages—French, Dutch English. How was communication to be effected? The slave masters solved the problem by speaking to the slaves in a kind of rough but apparently extremely functional pidgin which was eagerly learnt by the slaves and eventually forged into real creole languages, unique to the West Indies/Guyana region (Witness taki-taki, Berbice Dutch, and the local creolese of today). Meanwhile while the slaves, pining woefully for their lost homeland, found solace around their nightly camp fires,. singing and beating their drums, and playing on whatever instruments (flute, violin, etc cast off by the planter) they could put their hands on. Thus a kind of double culture came into being in which the slaves held to their ‘African culture’ while at the same time avidly picking up whatever cultural traits they could from massa—whom they naturally found themselves aping in a desire to get to the top of the social pyramid.

 By 1838, when emancipation made all the Guyana slaves into free men, enough cultural transformation had taken place for there to be in existence genuine creole culture and a genuine creole language (based now on English). So in 1840, when Queen Victoria, who had signed the 1838 emancipation proclamation, got married to Prince Albert of the German House of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha, the slaves—now freedmen, composed this special song in her honour:


 Naturally, emancipation put paid to massa’s dreams of a lavish and stable labour force, since the freed-man preferred to set up their own villages and work for themselves if massa re- fused to pay the wages that they now demanded.


 And so it was that several new waves of Guyanese peoples now came to these shores. First the Portuguese, who came in 1855 to replace the soon-to-be-freed Negroes, and who brought with them from the Azores and Portugal and Madeira the Portuguese language, Roman Catholicism, and many facets of a Portuguese way of life including, particularly, dietary items.

 1835 brought the Chinese, who like the Portuguese brought with them their strange foods and their even stranger language.

 Both these groups, because of their light complexions, found themselves in possession of very high social mobility (the colonial social pyramid being based on the spurious criterion of nearness to whiteness), and this, coupled with their physical frailness and resulting unsuitability for field work, caused them to begin an early trek out of the cane fields and into the middle class.

 It remained then for the ever-recurring breach in the labour force to be filled by another set of aliens—the East Indians, who from 1838 to 1917 came in paper chains (given the noble name indenture) to till the fields and plant massa’s land. Unlike the Chinese and Portuguese, however, the Indians found no easy mobility, but were encouraged to he content with their lot by the psychological ruse of being allowed to maintain their own culture. Hence, although it was an offence for an Indian labourer to be found more than a mile beyond the confines of his proper estate, that labourer was free while on the estate to do his puja, to get married according to Hindu rites and so on. All of which militated against an early move towards the adoption of creole culture by the new arrivals.

 Anyway, the six peoples had now come to Guyana, and one inevitable result of their coming was the creation, through social intercourse, of a new breed of people—a seventh race, so to speak, known colloquially as ‘the mixed breed.” But these deserve no special mention in this article, since they have failed to throw up any special cultural peculiarities of their own.

 The upshot of the whole series of migrations of peoples to the Guyana shores is the 700,000 strong population of the new Republic of Guyana, who take with them into the uncertain republican future a veritable gene pool of creole characteristics bequeathed them by their hotch-potch of ancestors.


 Their language, in particular, exemplifies this, as can be seen from a quick glance at the Guyana Word-Book. Thus our Dutch ancestors’ words live on in our speech when we use such terms as STELLING (a wharf or quay), KOKER (a watergate), POLDER (a drainage dam or trench), or PAAL-OFF (a cordon of planks used to support the eroding banks of a trench).

 From French we’ve kept BETEROUGE (a small red body louse), BATEAU (a row-boat), and KISKADEE (a coastal bird which gets its name from the French ‘QU’EST CE QU’IL DIT?’.

From the Portuguese we still use OLYARD (bad eye), BOL DE MEL (a cake) and BRIGA (from Portuguese brigar, to fight).

 Chinese-bequeathed words are hard to come by in the Guyana Book, but up to a decade ago old people still spoke of the CHIN- SIKILO (a professional mourner), and about CHEEFA (a numbers game).

 The Amerindian heritage of words is far too vast to mention, since it was they who named all the Guyana rivers and the flora and the fauna and the mountains, and whose words, because of their tremendous cultural impact upon us, live on when we speak of a BENAB (hut), a WARISHI (a basket work ruck sack) CASSAVA, CASAREEP, and the like.

 The East Indian contribution to the book of words is found in such terms as TYPEE (very strong love), CHIRANGHI (a higher form of typee), CARAHI (a stew pan), and CAGAS (a certificate, particularly the kind which helps its holder to get a good job).

 For the African contribution one has only to think of such words as KERREH (a state of power), TE-TE (a skin ailment), METEM (a creole peasant food).


 One side of our linguistic inheritance that we owe almost exclusively to our slave ancestors is the parable or proverb—that minefield of Guyanese wit, humour and world knowledge which provides such a proud and welcome embellishment to today’s overall Guyanese speech pattern. Hence two Guyanese men greeting each other after a considerable interval declare: “Two hill doan meet, but two men does meet”. A young boy who, confronted by his father about one crime, mistakenly confesses to another exemplifies the old saying “Empty gun ah shoot guilty man.”

 “The eyes o de master fatten the beast”, one friend tells another when a woman who concerns a third friend is reported to be in good physical condition. And when crucial changes in the times cause a previously die-hard enemy to radically soften his stand the nation declares “High spring make crab walk”.


Strangely enough, this area of the national culture has been lying neglected for such a long time that the Guyanese of today’s republican generation are hardly in touch with this strand of their roots. In fact most young people today find it hard to understand proverbs when they do hear them used in speech. And this indicates just one direction in which the contributions made to Guyanese culture by the original six races are being allowed to go to waste. Surely in a Republic of Guyana such an important facet of the national folklore as the verbal lore of the proverb should be receiving some really serious attention. The Guyanese child should be learning at school during his lessons the value of the proverb both as an artistic device and as a linguistic one—phrases like “Boat gone a falls he can tun back”, “Run from the jumby, butt up with the coffin”, “Is not age wuh strimps na gat mak he na big like whale”, “Tiger old he na las he stripe”, and “Goodness mak crapaud am gat tail today” should flow off their tongues like words from the pen of an Eliot or a Shakespeare.

 Not only one set of the peoples have contributed to the pool of parables (now dwindling) which the Guyanese of today’s Re- public stand to inherit. But as with so many other things of this nature it is not easy to put hands on proverbs that come down to us from our Portuguese or Chinese ancestors, say. In East Indian areas, many Hindi speakers involve Hindi proverbs (from India) in their speech, and one or two of these have already begun to cross racial and social barriers (witness “Better a man dead than he living bruk”). And in Amerindia a universally used parable is the one that says: “Is sunshades mek jackass eat bottle”.

The point, made above in the discussion of proverbs, that there is a disconcerting lack of high valuation on those aspects of a culture which can be a mainspring for racio-social involvement and national endeavour, is a valid one. And proof of this can be found in the fact that almost all of the other items that will be mentioned in this article (ritual, supernatural beliefs, folk music, folk tales, children’s games, etc.) suffer from the same sick. In other words, the folk, things of the society are looked down upon by the society itself, and one can get nowhere up the social ladder except by first throwing them away, and satisfying his wish to hold on to his roots merely by reading articles such as this one and the others in this “special” publication.

 But we shall come back to this in due time.


Guyana, because of its intensely mixed up social and cultural background, is a country extremely rich in ritual. In the far interior, Amerindian tribes or tribal groupings still dance their native dances (even if to a European beat these days), along the coast, the que-que, yamapele, cumfa dance, Kali Mai Poojay, Bhagwat, Katha and the like still proliferate, and it is all ritual wherever folk. men still exist. In fact, the march of progress has been so unkind and so unyielding in its forward movement that a lot of the ritual tradition of yesterday’s Guyana will be unknown to the citizens of the new Republic.

 One such ritual, the Kali Mai Poojay, though it has lost a lot of the old adulation it enjoyed among villagers of all races (but particularly East Indians of Madrasi descent) is used by a psychiatrist in Guyana today as an efficacious adjunct to normal scientific healing for the mentally disturbed. Similarly the Cumfa, still practised all over Guyana, is now sought out by visitors to the country who marvel at the monotonous tumbling of the drum and the evocative catching of the spirit (with consequent loss of self-control) that goes on at the ceremonies. Time was when the Muslim counterpart of the Kali Mai was the Taja ritual, which attracted such large followings of non-Muslims and became so popular that they were eventually brought to a halt—another example of the society being only too glad for excuses (no matter how spurious) to put the damper on folk things. Happily for the Taja, however, its name has been venerated in another folklore area—namely the que-que, in which one particular song describes the bride, covered in a white sheet and lifted shoulder high in a chair with a mountain of working men’s hats balanced precariously on her head, as a Taja. This is how tradition manages to live on, feeding on its own roots and getting no serious help from the society at large.

 The heart—the cultural heart—of Georgetown is said to lie in Albouystown that famous southern section of the city. And where jostling with cumfa, santapee music, masquerade bands, etc., we find another strongly practised ritual—that of the Spiritual Church (which is really another, more Christianized form of the cumfa).

 No mention of ritual in Guyana would be complete without reference to the colourful and symbolic Hindu weddings which for many, many years have been taking place every Sunday morning in the coastal villages of Guyana. Sanctified by readings and chants from the Hindu Holy Books (mainly the Vedas), these weddings possess a charm and a colour and most of all a symbolism which accord them a high place on the list of Guyana rituals. As all who have ever been to a barriat know they are all day affairs held under a specially constructed zinc or bamboo and canvas awning. There are chairs or seats on the ground for the invited guests, who are lavishly fed creole Indian food (pumpkin, dholl, curry, aloo, puri, achar, etc.) from huge cooking pots standing on legs in full view of the spectators. A pandit is always on hand to officiate, and at the appointed hour the bridegroom arrives in his brightly-coloured tinsel mawr (headdress) and is welcomed by the bride’s parents to the accompaniment of delightful tassa music. Then the ceremony proper commences, with the bride, groom, pandits, and the bride’s chaperone sitting on little wooden stools in a maaroe (bamboo enclosure) surrounded by an army of colourful little ritual things—coloured flags, coloured rice, brass jars, ghee-fed fire, lakwa, (something like paddy pops), green mango leaves, etc.


 The music heard at these weddings underlines the universality of the drum in Guyana as the main ingredient of our musical folk- lore (I can think of few folk rituals—one of them the que-que, where the drum is absent). So in the Cumfa, the Kali Mai, and the other folk rituals it is the drum that sets the scene—the same drum which provides the rhythm for the shuffling dances of Amerindian votaries worshipping either the Christ (Halleluja religion) or those lesser Gods whose goodwill and intercession have to be sought for the benefit of the crops.

 Drum or no drum, however, the folk music of Guyana is one of the country’s richest cultural resources. Ritual music apart, there are sea shanties, river shanties (from the old gold diggings), faith songs, work songs, wedding songs, wakehouse songs, ringplay songs, and a host of general representational folksongs which together speak reams about Guyana and the Guyanese. Again here, as with the other things mentioned (especially the parable), social values are against the continued long life of this aspect of our musical lore, and again no attempt has been made to equip the Guyanese school leaver with a repertoire of these Guyanese songs. by the time he is ready to face the working world. Which means— as if too many of these songs composed by our Guyanese fore- fathers have not already been lost—that in a very short time to come there will be few Guyanese left who know any Guyanese folksongs and who can sing them.


 As with folksongs and parables, so with folk tales. Time was when in the country (and even in Georgetown) night times were spent sitting on a step and listening to the older people tell folk stories about romantic sounding characters like Bill and Brer Nancy and Tiger and the others who chose to match their brawn against Nancy’s brain. But those were the days before progress came and chased the darkness from the villages—and with it poor Brer Nancy, whose wits have still not been able to help him find the way to stay alive in the land where his West African parents deposited him when they came to work cane fields. Social anthro- pologists keep telling us how good it is to find Nancy so far from home, but little do they know that unless something is done— and quickly—to keep him here then, in the Guyana context at least, Nancy will be no more.


 Nancy is special to Guyanese children, and indeed used to form an indispensable part of their folklore, but there are other aspects of kindergarten culture in Guyana which like the Nancy stories are crying out for retention or rediscovery and translation to new dimensions. For instance, a lot of the old ring play games still survive (witness “Jane and Louisa”, “Children Children”, and “Miss Mary had some dry-head children”), and can usefully be taught in schools to children of appropriate age. Similarly, there are scores of delightful children’s folksongs (witness “My Father had a Cow”), nonsense verses (witness “Ah moke a cigarette widout a fire”), and other gems of kindergarten lore which desperately need the protection of the social and educational system to help them stay alive in the face of the ever-increasing cultural bombardment from overseas.


 The real problem then, in the new Republic of Guyana will be to decide whether folklore deserves a place in the scheme of things and, if so, what that place should be. In my view, the folk- lore of a people is at the root of their being, and to cast it aside is to set oneself adrift culturally—an act which one performs at one’s own peril. I would therefore advocate that the Republican society do a lot of rethinking, take a second look at the indigenous Guyanese culture which the mad rush towards “progress” is causing it to jettison in its flight.

 I should like to see, not the retention of everything natively cultural, but a policy of discuss and discard applied before native things are thrown away. So if belief in bacou or old higue diminishes —fine. But what we do decide to keep must be kept, not in the showcases of a cultural museum, but in the hearts and souls of the citizens who make up the nation. So our schools should teach proverbs, folk tales, folksongs, drumming (all kinds), folk dancing, and children’s games, to name just a few. Out of school, the non-folk of the nation should be given full and continuing opportunity to be exposed to their own folklore and, more importantly, encouraged to accord to it a much higher place in their system of values than it enjoys today, Masquerade bands, for instance, should receive from republican Guyanese much more than the grudging acceptance now accorded them. Every citizen should be encouraged to attend a barriat, a cumfa dance, a que-que, a Kali Mai Poojay, a masromani, etc., at least once in his life. Every citizen should know his Guyanese proverbs by heart and should be able to speak them meaningfully and with conviction. Every citizen should know why a bit of rum is thrown on the ground when a new bottle is opened, what a bad-eye bottle is used for, why agarbati burnt at night helps a restless baby to sleep, why a nointman can cure nara, and so on.

All these things can only happen, I repeat, if the Republican society adopts a new value system in which the things which link us with slavery and the indentured past are placed much higher up the cultural ladder than they are today.

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