AL JAZEERA JUMPS IN – by Dave Martins

Dave Martins

Dave Martins

AL JAZEERA JUMPS IN – by Dave Martins

Coincidences can be an intriguing part of life. For the past two weeks, for example, I had been in a back-and-forth with a publisher, Desmond Roberts, of the Guyana Diaspora Times magazine, produced electronically in New York. He had asked me to consider doing a story about the origins of the song “Not A Blade O’ Grass” that I wrote some 40 years ago and on the history of it since. I have written about this before, in this newspaper and elsewhere, and felt I had covered the subject. I thought the case was closed.

And then, a few days ago, I picked up the phone at home one day, and out of the blue, Dennis Chabrol, of Demerara Waves, another publisher, was on the line telling me that Al Jazeera was coming to Guyana and wanted to interview me. The trigger, of course, was the Venezuela/Guyana border controversy, again in the news. Doing research on the story prior to coming here to cover it, Virginia Lopez, who represents Al Jazeera in Venezuela, had run into the “Not A Blade O’ Grass” story and wanted to include it. 

Apparently, Desmond Roberts was right – the case was still open, and now to a wider audience, so I agreed. Virginia and her very professional crew of two, shepherded by Chabrol, took over our downstairs verandah one afternoon rearranging some furniture, and even taking one of the paintings from the wall and placing it in a new location behind me. (The painting, by the way, is one by Merlene Ellis and it’s a Buxton landscape during the 05 flood.)

Virginia wanted to know how the song came about (perhaps she had heard the occasional speculation that Forbes Burnham had suggested it to me) so I told her it had come purely from a suggestion by the late Pat Cameron, of Radio Demerara, and from no one else, and that I originally dismissed the idea as not a subject for a Tradewinds song; also, I didn’t write confrontational material like that. I then told Virginia – I have written about this before – about the experience of going back to the Pegasus in a taxi, with Pat’s insistent suggestion in my head, and suddenly remembering a speech made by a Red Indian Chief in America when the “white man” was invading their territories. He spoke of the Indians not giving up; “not a mountain, not a river, not a buffalo, not a blade of grass.” From that memory, the concept of the song was born.

As to why it succeeded, I told Virginia that obviously the subject matter was critical at the time, but that also what I had written was not as a war cry, but actually a “love of country” piece, and that I had deliberately chosen examples of things that would appear of little worth – cuirass, blue sackie, grain of rice – to show that we valued even those. It caught on because it had drilled down deep into the culture in an original way, I still feel so today.

Although the interview has aired on Al Jazeera, I haven’t seen it, so they may not have used this, but one of the points I made was that I never foresaw the impact of this song. I had written it quickly, back in the Pegasus, and the band had recorded the song on our return to Toronto. (My daughter Luana had played flute in the session.) I knew it was a good piece of material – catchy tune, precise lines, evocative – but I never dreamed it would take off as it did. Within days of sending recordings to Guyana to our representative Freddie Abdool, “Blade”, as we called it in Tradewinds, was a monstrous hit in the country, and shortly thereafter I got a call from the Guyana Consul in Toronto, Vic Persaud, that Mr. Burnham wanted some copies of the song for distribution.

I don’t know if she used this episode because of the language, but on the question of impact I told her a story from our first trip back to Guyana, after “Blade” hit. We were playing at Revolution Square, to a huge crowd one afternoon. We were on a low stage surrounded by hundreds of people, and when we started that song the people were singing and dancing and carrying on at a rate. They were right up against the stage. It was a melee. In the middle of it I spotted a youngster, no more than 10 years old, singing not six feet from me. He knew every word of the song, and he was singing it with me, as many were, note for note, but this kid was really into it, nappy head back, arms going. I gave the band a signal, pulled him up on the stage, lowered the microphone for him and told him, “Sing.” With no hesitation, he leaned into the mike, and let go. I mean he was ripping. He got to the chorus and this is what came out, “Not one cuirass; we guh bus dey ass.” In 50 years in the music business, no roar from a crowd I’ve heard has ever matched the roar that erupted from that crowd that afternoon. As I’ve said before, you could hear it by Bourda Market. People were jumping, running around, hugging up one another – some were even rolling on the ground. My only regret is that no video cameras were there recording it.

Living in Guyana again, as I told the Al Jazeera lady, I can see almost daily that “Blade” is still alive. Certainly, the renewed border talk of recent days has given it a fresh injection, but that song has come to take a special place in Guyanese hearts. People call out its name to me all the time, or cite a particular word, or a phrase. Indeed, that same year of the Revolution uproar, Forbes Burnham invited the band to meet him and Mrs. Burnham in the conference room upstairs at the Cultural Centre. He was very gracious, told me “Thanks for the song, Dave” and asked Viola to organize a dinner for the band (we settled on Bunjal curry, but I’ve written about that before). Incidentally, for the historians, President Burnham never said what he did with the song copies, but he did tell me his favourite line was “Not One Cuirass.” I didn’t tell Al Jazeera that; I figured people outside Guyana wouldn’t get it.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/DaveMartinsAndTheTradewinds/posts/816047311823749

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Dave Martins – the story behind “Not A Blade of Grass”

Tradewinds – Dave Martins -“Not a blade of grass & Is we Own” Dave Martins – the story behind “Not A Blade of Grass” NOT A BLADE O’ GRASS There are all sorts of strange tales about my song Not A Blade O’ Grass. Some I’ve heard second-hand, but some folks, believe it or not, […]

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Comments

  • rennydiokno2015  On 07/06/2015 at 1:16 am

    Reblogged this on rennydiokno.com.

  • Winston Yaw  On 07/06/2015 at 10:18 am

    Dave’s songs of Guyana brings back so many lovely memories of Guyana

  • jackieat86@yahoo.com  On 07/06/2015 at 1:47 pm

    FYI        Jacquie ………….When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”   ~Author Unknown~

  • Gigi  On 07/06/2015 at 4:33 pm

    Is cuirass referring to a /the fish or some other meaning? Sometimes I can be a little slow or completely daft.

    I do remember singing this song growing up. I think it was especially popular during my one torturous year of compulsory mass games. I was one of those kids who sat in the burning sun in the stands turning pages of a large book to create one gigantic picture. I liked the song even though our family were never proud to be Guyanese. If I’m not mistaken, it was around that time that we moved back to Essequibo hoping that if it became part of Venezuela we would be there and be given automatic citizenship. We were actually looking forward to becoming Venezuelan citizens and we were not alone. Many shared the same feelings. It would definitely explain another popular song of theirs ‘Copycat.’ Any nationality but Guyanese…the PNC/APNU gift to Guyanese. Even poor Burnham couldn’t stand being Guyanese. He was more English than a Westminster Englishman… does that make him the Westminster clown in the song?

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/07/2015 at 3:57 am

    “Incidentally, for the historians, President Burnham never said what he did with the song copies, but he did tell me his favourite line was “Not One Cuirass.” I didn’t tell Al Jazeera that; I figured people outside Guyana wouldn’t get it.”

    Martins, you are so right about not getting [understanding] it – It took me until now for the light to go on – we used to call that thing “fish” – for me, that was a long, long time ago. Venezuela beware …. a real motivation to fight!

  • Norman Datt  On 11/03/2020 at 11:47 am

    I THINK DAVE MARTINS SHOULD BE AWARDED THE BEST AND HIGHEST GUYANESE AWARD. NOW. LETS CAMPAIGN TO GET THIS DONE, ANYONE OUT THERE WITH ME?

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