Book: Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity – Vibert C. Cambridge

Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity (Caribbean Studies Series) Hardcover – June 1, 2015


by Vibert C. Cambridge (Author)

Musical Life in Guyana is the first in-depth study of Guyanese musical life. It is also a richly detailed description of the social, economic, and political conditions that have encouraged and sometimes discouraged musical and cultural creativity in Guyana.

The book contributes to the study of the interactions between the policies and practices by national governments and musical communities in the Caribbean.

Vibert C. Cambridge explores these interactions in Guyana during the three political eras that the society experienced as it moved from being a British colony to an independent nation.  

The first era to be considered is the period of mature colonial governance, guided by the dictates of “new imperialism,” which extended from 1900 to 1953. The second era, the period of internal self-government and the preparation for independence, extends from 1953, the year of the first general elections under universal adult suffrage, to 1966, the year when the colony gained its political independence. The third phase, 1966 to 2000, describes the early postcolonial era.  [Read more]


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  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/15/2017 at 4:14 pm

    Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity
    by Vibert C. Cambridge (review)

    Reviewed by Kenneth Bilby

    vibert c. cambridge. Musical Life in Guyana: History and Politics of Controlling Creativity. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. 370 pp. ISBN: 978-1-62846-011-7.

    Like its close neighbors Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and French Guiana, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) has long seemed something of an anomaly. All three territories represent exceptions to the history of Iberian colonial rule that defined the rest of South America, and all three remain culturally more Caribbean than Latin American.

    Like the other Guianas, Guyana has yet to exert an influence on the popular music of the wider world comparable to that of Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, or Haiti (or even certain of the smaller Caribbean islands, such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Dominica). Indeed, Guyana has at times been derided by observers from other parts of the region for a supposed lack of musical vitality.

    Vibert Cambridge’s welcomed study is the first to look at Guyanese music both in great depth and in all its breadth. In doing so, it demonstrates clearly that Guyana is as rich in raw musical materials and creative potential as most other parts of the Caribbean.

    The question, then, is why it has not similarly emerged as a major player on the international music scene. Part of the answer, at least, is suggested by the book’s subtitle, which points to the role political institutions can play in “controlling creativity.”

    The book is valuable both as a source of previously inaccessible information on Guyana’s varied and complex musical heritage and as a meticulously researched historical study of the impact of practices of governance on musical life in a particular polity.

    The author is even-handed throughout, giving serious attention to all facets of musical life — Amerindian, European, African, and Asian, highbrow and low — beginning with colonial times and continuing through independence and the postcolonial era.

    As the narrative ushers us through the twentieth century (each chapter covering a decade), we are exposed to a constantly evolving musical landscape that, in terms of diversity and apparent vitality, would compare favorably with any other part of the Caribbean with a population of similar size. By the time independence was achieved in 1966, there were [End Page 258] certainly grounds for optimism in the popular music sphere.

    The new nation remained musically connected with the larger Caribbean, boasting a lively steel-band presence, and it continued to be a popular destination for touring calypso and reggae artists. Local Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese “folk” traditions and associated musics such as kwe kwe, comfa, masquerade, chatini, kali mai pujas, and bhajan singing continued to thrive in community settings. (And the same was largely true of Amerindian, Portuguese, and other ethnic traditions.)

    Much as elsewhere in the region, Guyana also appears to have abounded in musical experimentation and attempts to create, label, and market new, symbolically potent fusions drawing on local forms. The profusion of names for new, blended local Guyanese genres encountered in the book is remarkable.

    These include bjajee, shanto, bion beat, bhoom, Afro-Indi beat, blend beat, lopi, fish beat, masqui, kwefo, calymari, afrugu, banshikili, foja, and others. Equally remarkable is that none of these appears to have led to a successful, enduring “national beat.” Indeed, most have faded away, leaving barely a trace today even on the Internet. As Cambridge points out, “There is no Guyanese equivalent to reggae, dancehall, soca, mambo, meringue, bachata, or zouk” (293).

    Cambridge skillfully contextualizes and helps to explain all of this material, and much more, with illuminating discussions of shifting political and economic circumstances, showing how government intervention can both encourage and hinder musical creativity.

    Judging from this book, official policies in Guyana, at least from the 1970s on, appear to have done more harm than good in this regard. Despite its harrowing recent history, scarred by authoritarian rule, precipitous economic decline, and ethnic polarization, Guyana still clearly harbors considerable musical potential.

    Whatever the future holds for musical life in Guyana, this richly documented and well-argued study will be essential to making sense of it.

    Kenneth Bilby
    Smithsonian Institution
    Copyright © 2016 University of Texas Press

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