MUSIC: Thorns and Roses – Homage to my mother: Zepherina Martins – By Dave Martins + Video


In the course of doing my column recently, I was reflecting on our tendency to see Guyana only through a negative lens, and I remembered a time in 2008, when I was living in Cayman, and had an exchange with a close Guyanese friend, George Jardim, living in America, who had sent me a couple emails on some matter in Guyana.

I don’t always keep emails, but for some reason I had kept my reply to him, and I was delighted when I ran into it recently, so long after I originally sent it to my company. It’s here as my topic for today, and I preface it with a “thank you” to George for originally nudging me into this one….thanks padna; you’re a resource.


Going through my old file of letters, articles, bits of songs, etc., this week, I ran into an exchange with you, George, living outside then like me, and while I don’t ordinarily go down this road with folks, you and I go back solid, therefore….the essential core of me, psychologically, is “we can make it work; we can get it together.”  That is generally how I go.  Where it came from I don’t know and I don’t care – it’s me; it’s at my core; it’s basically the stuff I hear steering me. In life, there are roses and there are thorns; you have to deal with both. It was there when I decided to go into music full time in Toronto in 1962.  Several people raised eyebrows, but my mother Zepherina didn’t.  She said, “Try it and see. It might make you happy. If not, look for something else.” Very short sermon.

This woman was remarkable.  How she developed this acuity, God only knows. “If not, look for something else.”  What I saw as a quiet boost.  But remember, she was only a housewife. That’s it. Period. She had never gone to high school or private lessons. She had never lived anywhere but Guyana, never grew to be a big wheel in any business, but she had common sense and dignity and balance coming out of her like a breadfruit tree leaking gum. I picked up some of that. It was there in 1967 when I decided to record four songs and take the Tradewinds band, on pure speculation, to Trinidad Carnival, aiming to get into the music market in the Caribbean with my songs.  Trinis in Toronto were doubled over laughing.  “A four piece band in carnival? No brass? No percussion? Alyou mad?” Some of them were almost in hysterics.

My take was, “We’re not known in the Caribbean, so if we make a push in that huge market and it falls flat, at least we tried, and the money we spent paying our way to Trinidad would be a gamble that didn’t pay off.” As it turned out, however, solely because of that trip, the gamble paid off, as one of my songs, Honeymooning Couple, became a hit, thanks to a Radio Trinidad DJ Sam Ghany playing my music on his music programme heard in the region, and within 6 months Tradewinds had become a hot new band in the Caribbean, with appearances in islands froms the USVirgins in the north to Grenada and Trinidad in the south. As the Trinis would put it, I had simply decided to go brave, not knowing that Sam Ghany would be giving us a critical push, gratis.

Similarly, when I was trying to set up a Tradewinds nightclub in Toronto in the 1960s.  The guys had no collateral. I had my house in suburban Toronto, but that wasn’t enough, so my sister Mell and her husband Vic Walker chipped in with their house for collateral, and that’s how I got the downtown nightclub that I renamed We Place.  The three guys I bought it from thought I was crazy.  One of them told me: “Almost every week, we’re losing money; how you gonna make this pay?  Plus, the other guys in your band don’t have a pot to piss in, and you’re giving them a piece of it? You’re nuts.”  Of course I was not nuts.  I knew there were countless thousands of Caribbean migrants to Ontario and Quebec, and they constituted a musical market I knew intimately, just waiting to be exploited.

We Place, and the other Caribbean music clubs like that became a mecca for Caribbean people living in Toronto. It was the hub that made Tradewinds into a household name. I could go on; the move to Cayman and the decision to start an annual satirical show RUNDOWN in a conservative island; Caymanians rolled their eyes. “Rundown” is the Cayman name for a very popular dish of theirs with a wide variety of ingredients. My show with that name Rundown, however, was an immediate concert hit in Cayman year after year, and it still continues, written and produced now by Guyanese director Henry Muttoo.

I always go in with the attitude that it could work out and (this is the important piece)  that becomes the fuel for the push.  I know what the impediments are, I see them clearly, so I don’t want you to spend more than five minutes telling me why it can’t work.  That’s my beef with the doomsayers; everywhere you have roses, you have thorns; what are you looking at? You have to address both. If you want to help me, find some positive aspect for us to focus on; okay we have to deal with some thorns, but let’s ferret out the roses; find some roses. We both know the thing is a brute; to hell with that; give me some place to stand up, find the roses; that’s where I need you.  Mostly it’s worked out, and I’ve learned from those experiences that in every seemingly ratty situation, if you’re convinced about something, if you look hard enough, and the product is truly good, you can find a useful ledge to stand on, and away you go.  Yes, you have a better chance if you find the roses. I do not have five minutes for creators who are constantly groaning to me about something unless they are also talking about a possible way forward, a hopeful suggestion, a ray of hope, an antidote.

Specifically, on the Caribbean situation, more narrowly the Guyana situation, I am fed up hearing the negatives.  I know what they are, I’m not blind, but I’m looking beyond that. Most of the people outside raging about the Guyana problems (who by the way don’t tell me anything negative about where they are) don’t have anything constructive to contribute. They’re complainers; full stop.  As the US evangelist Bishop T. D. Jakes in earlier years said about blacks in the States complaining about the white man’s prejudice. “Okay. I’ve heard you about that.  I accept it. It was awful. It was terrible. So tell me what you’re doing now.  Tell me how you’re going to fix your situation – now.”  That’s my philosophy.

That’s why all these media letters wishing for “the good old days” in Guyana, I just delete them without reading.  I am this way generally, not just the Guyana thing.  Talk balanced to me, tell me what’s wrong okay, but after the fifth time you tell me that, tell me something to lift me up; shine me a piece of light where the discussion may be going.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is moaning. If you look at a place and all you can see is bad, it’s likely you’ve got one eye closed, or possibly both, and maybe your mind, too.

Most weeks, no exaggeration, I see some communication moaning about yet another screw up in Trinidad, or Guyana, or Jamaica, or Grenada, or St Vincent, etc..  It is rare that somebody tells me something good about those Caribbean places; it may happen once every three months, if that.  Maybe I am a Pollyanna, but my spirit can’t deal with that.  I’ve been to Jamaica and Barbados recently and there are the negative things, yes, but the positive stuff is also there, if you’re truly looking, and that’s what I prefer to concentrate on.  I see the media reporting what’s happening all over the world, and almost always the denigration of those places doesn’t take into account the roses, as I put it; they’re focused on the thorns.  I have no time for that.  If all you do is grumble, if you see no good, if you proffer no good, then I would prefer you stay out of my space. All you do is drain my energy, and you’re not moving me forward.

I’m telling you all this, banna, to explain why I react as I do.  We, Caribbean people, Guyanese people, are inundated with the bad news, and believe me a lot of people are worn down by it, and they’re also looking for some light.  People have pulled me aside and told me so in relation to some song I wrote or some comment I made; they’re looking for a place to stand, too. They may not use those words, but that’s what they mean. A Guyanese lady in Orlando, after a show, told me with tears in her eyes, “You made me see the positive things I got from growing up in Guyana.”  Her husband was there watching, but I had to give her a kiss. Yes, George, I know the dark is there, but I’m on the lookout for the occasional piece of brightness.  That’s where I live; that’s where I put my energy; that’s how I will always be. So I go. When I spot some light, if someone is inclined to call me a wacko, advise them to save their lungs, Martins spotted a rose and he is not looking at your thorns; he’s too engrossed with the rose.”

Indeed. I know it’s there some place; I just have to get to it. It’s the fuel for my engine. Where is the rose?  As my mother would have asked.


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  • JoE  On 06/21/2021 at 3:33 pm

    Dave: In reply: don’t you think we ALL want good news? We would all like to celebrate our mother country which gave us so much like your mother did to you. So list the things you’re pleased about and pull us along with you. That would be one good thing we’ll give a nod to as we did to We Place in oasis for us at the time of early arrival. Glad to know we’ve got oil but as your mother knew…it doesn’t all work out as you would want.

    In response, i checked out previous articles and here’s one written by you back to you.

    GUYANA: Dis country here, ah telling you flat, ah didn’t come back fuh dat – By Dave Martins

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