Any comprehensive history of music in Guyana during the 20th century will have to dedicate significant space to the contributions of the British Guiana Militia Band and its successor, the Guyana Police Force Band, over the past 136 years.
These bands have enriched Guyanese society. They have trained performers and composers, while fostering the public's appreciation for a wide repertoire of music.
For more than 50 years, there have been calls for the histories of these institutions to be written. For example, in December 1956, at an event to celebrate the 86th anniversary of the British Guiana Militia Band, Lt Col Bettencourt-Gomes, Officer commanding the British Guiana Volunteer Force and other dignitaries were unanimous in their calls for a "real history of the band."
Earlier articles in this series have focused on a small group of the personalities associated with the military bands - Vincent DeAbreu, Charles Knights, the Rogers Brothers, John 'Bagpipe' Fredericks, James Phoenix, and Maurice Watson.
In the process of examining these personalities, we have encountered Sgt Griffith, Capt Carroll, Capt Fawcett, Major Henwood, EA Carter, DeCambra, Harry Mayers, Sgt Nichols, Cpl Allan Briggs, Ian Davis, Cletus John, Barney Small, Harry Whittaker, and Keith Waithe, to name a few.
The story of these institutions is a complex one. It is a story that will take us around the world from Wembley, England in 1924 to Montreal and New York in 1967. It will also take us across the Caribbean to Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. The story shows how musical ideas and technologies circulate around the world. It was Bert Rogers who introduced the E-flat alto saxophone to British Guiana after his return from Wembley in 1924.
The story will also remind us about some of our nation's most inspiring music such as Clement Nichols' 1924 composition Dear Demerara and James Weekes's grand march Mount Ayanganna which was composed in 1966 to celebrate the unfurling of the Golden Arrowhead by Adrian Thompson on May 26, 1966 at the summit of Mount Ayanganna marking Guyana's independence. This article focuses on James 'Jimmy' Weekes.
James 'Jimmy' Woodrow Weekes was born on June 7, 1936. The son of Harold and Ada (nee Astwood) Weekes, he grew up in Charlotte Street, Bourda, and attended St Mary's Roman Catholic School in Brickdam. He was also a chorister, singing with the choir of the Brickdam Cathedral. At the age of nine he started to study piano and voice with Percy F Loncke.
Weekes's secondary education took place at Enterprise High School and Guyanese College.
Weekes's association with the British Guiana Militia Band started as a "young cadet" in the Junior Band, which had been formed by Lieutenant Harry Mayers in 1946. During the earlier mentioned event in December 1956 to celebrate the British Guiana Militia Bands 86th anniversary, Mayers described the Junior Band as the "reservoir of the BG Militia Band."
"But for the existence of the 'reservoir,'" said Mayers, "the four vacant places which were created by the retirement of the four members this year might not have been filled yet."
Weekes joined the British Guiana Militia Band as a full-fledged member in 1956. He credits Mayers for training him on the tenor saxophone, and he went on to master several musical instruments - tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, oboe, masquerade flute, bell lyre, piano, and organ. When Weeks was honoured by the Guyanese Musicians and Entertainers Association of America Inc in 1986, he was described as a multi-instrumentalist.
As a member of the Guyana Police Force Band, Weekes continued to study music theory and passed the Associated Music Board's Grade 8 finals in Theory.
Almost a year ago, I started a conversation with Weeks about his almost 60 years as a musician in Guyana and the United States. He spent 21 of those years (1956-1977) between the British Guiana Militia Band and the Guyana Police Force Band. He only spent a few months in the Militia Band as it was "drafted into the Police Force" in 1957. Like 90 per cent of the members of the BG Militia Band, he too accepted the draft and became a member of the British Guiana Police Force Band. Major Henwood, the Bandmaster and Director of Music of the Militia Band, did not accept the draft. As a result, Guyanese, starting with Vincent DeAbreu took on the leadership of the new entity. DeAbreu was the first Guyanese bandmaster and Eddie Rogers later became the first Guyanese director of music.
Weekes's 21 years were exciting at many levels. The story that is emerging from our conversations is helping me to appreciate the political dynamics that were at play during the 'drafting' process.
Weekes's emerging story is also shining some light on the impact the early Guyanese leaders of the Guyana Police Force Band (DeAbreu, Rogers, and Small) had on the band's repertoire and sound.
When Weekes resigned from the Guyana Police Force Band in 1977 he had served as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, teacher, and the band's librarian. As librarian, he prepared the programmes of music that were performed at the band's one-hour concerts on Thursday and Saturday afternoons in the Botanic Gardens and at the seawall, respectively.
Weekes is very proud of the band's wide repertoire and versatility with classical, light classical, show, folk, and Caribbean music. He credits DeAbreu for his arrangements of Guyana's folk music. He says that Edward Rogers expanded the band's repertoire and sound by giving it a jazz flavour. He remembers Barney Small for his work in promoting Guyanese and Caribbean musical elements.
Weekes also recalls the band's international tours. The most memorable were those in 1967 to Expo 67 in Montreal, and the memorable performance at City Hall in New York. Weekes did double duty at Expo 67. He was the flautist who accompanied the Guyana masquerade band led by Boysie Sage. Weekes was trained on the masquerade flute by his father.
In addition to Montreal and New York, the Guyana Police Force Band was an important element in Guyana's public diplomacy in the early post-independence era. The band participated in trade fairs in Grenada, Jamaica, and Suriname.
Weekes was also part of the band's heritage of composing. He is remembered for three important compositions that became a part of the band's repertoire. A Prayer for Guyana was his entry for Guyana's national anthem. Another important contribution to the repertoire was Inspiration. His grand march, Mount Ayanganna has a special place in Guyanese musical and political history. That composition is now associated with high achievement.
In 1973, Mount Ayanganna was the processional march at the Seventh Convocation for the
Conferring of Degrees at the University of Guyana. In December 2003, Weekes conducted the Barbados Police Band's performance of it. Weekes recalled that the performance was well received and that he felt very proud.
Like other members of the British Guiana Militia Band and the Guyana Police Force Band, Weekes's musical life was limited not only to classical and martial music but also to popular music. For many years he was part of Charlie Knights' Boptet, and he remembers very fondly their performances at the annual League of Coloured People fairs held in the Promenade Gardens and later at the British Guiana Cricket Club grounds, Thomas Lands.
BG Bhajee was one of the recordings that Weekes's father played on his gramophone.
"I first heard that song when I was about six years old and it always fascinated me," said Weeks. So, it was an extra special moment when he on tenor sax joined with Harry Whittaker (alto-sax), Cletus Jones (drums), Maurice Watson (bass), Hugh Sam (piano), and Bill 'Bhajee' Rogers to re-release Rogers' major hits.
Weekes later formed his own band during the 1970s - Group Solo. The members included Keith Waithe (flute and trumpet), Colin Aaron (trombone), Mike Semple (guitar), and McAllister (organ). The band's MC was Pancho Carew.
Ray Seales remembers Group Solo as the band that "re-introduced woodwind instruments to the bandstand." He also noted that the band had "a very impressive sound."
Seales also recalled that "Weekes was mostly a session man who was involved in many recordings - in the sixties arranged by Harry Whittaker and Eddie Hooper where reading music was essential." According to Seales, "He also tutored quite a few young men on the saxophone during the seventies saxophone craze."
In 1977, Weekes resigned from the Guyana Police Force Band and migrated to the United States.
He has continued to be engaged with music. In 1979, he earned the Diploma in Electronic Organ Servicing from the Sears Extension Institute of America. Between 1980 and 1989 he led the band, New Release. Among the band's members was Aston Leo, a former member of Kaietukians Steel Band.
He has also continued to teach music. Weekes started teaching music in 1969 at the Charlestown Government Secondary School.
Weekes continues to be a multi-instrumentalist, performing on the keyboard (organ), vibraphone, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone, at the New Life Center of Truth. This church was founded by the Guyanese soprano, Reverend Dr Evelyn Rose John.
In a recent e-mail, Tony Phillips, wrote, "[I]f you ever had the pleasure of visiting Jimmy at his home in Brooklyn, you will come away with a great feeling of having visited a 'Mr. Music.' You see this guy not only plays it, he lives it. On the outside of the home, all of the wrought iron grills over the windows take the form of music [notes]. Inside is like a mini-memory lane with his trumpets and clarinets suspended from ceilings and arches."
Weekes is very satisfied with his musical journey. He says that music allowed him to travel around Guyana and the world. These travels inspired his composition.
"Music has been therapeutic, both mentally and physically," he stressed.
His wife for 43 years is Pamela. Weekes recalls with great fondness the roads they have travelled together.
"She has been my page turner and a major asset in my life," he said.
Pamela has described her husband's musical journey as one that brought "lots to enjoy and one that helped her to learn my new things." The Weekes have one son, Jimmy Jr.
The story of Jimmy Weekes's musical journey in Guyana provided us with some additional insights into the contributions made by the British Guiana Militia Band and the Guyana Police Force Band over the past 136 years. As a nation, we must make every effort to preserve this heritage.
In August 2005, I had an extended conversation with Assistant Commissioner Bovell about the future of the Guyana Police Force Band and its contribution to rectifying the unsatisfactory state of music education in Guyana. He indicated that efforts are being made to ensure that adequate resources will be provided.
One is aware that there are many competing demands for limited resources in contemporary Guyana. To continue to under-invest in Guyanese creativity would be unfortunate. Without creative imagination, who will help us to express the possibilities of our nation? Who will help us to visualize preferable futures? As the late Denis Williams reminded us, "Artists presage their societies." Williams used the term 'artist' in its most inclusive sense.
On May 26, 2006, Guyana will celebrate the 40th anniversary of independence. It will also be the 40th anniversary of James Weekes grand march Mount Ayanganna. I hope the Guyana Police Force Band will play this grand march as part of a public concert that will feature the original music composed by Briggs, DeAbreu, DeCambra, Davis, Knights, Mayers, Nichols, and the others. This event should be considered as an additional step in making the 'real history' of the British Guiana Militia Band and Guyana Police Force Band known.
Telephone interview between Vibert Cambridge (Athens, OH) and James 'Jimmy' Weekes (Brooklyn, New York) on February 16, 2004.
Telephone interview between Vibert Cambridge (Athens, OH) and James 'Jimmy' Weekes (Brooklyn, New York), January 11, 2006.
'Time for Civilian School of Music, Urges Dr. Wharton. B.G. Militia Band Praised at 86th Anniversary Party.' Daily Argosy, Monday, December 24, 1956, p 1.
Programme notes from the sixth annual cocktail dinner and honour dance organized by the Guyanese Musicians and Entertainers Association of America, Inc, New York, 1986.
E-mail from Ray Seales, January 11, 2006.
E-mail from Bobby Hunter, January 11, 2006.
E-mail from Tony Phillips, January 11, 2006