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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dave Martins

Preserving our literary heritage

by Petamber Persaud

HE IS de real-arrow, the real McCoy. He is the inimitable entertainer, composer, poet and playwright, Dave Martins. And he’s no copycat – e seh e goh waak into heaven, put down e roti an seh ‘wah happenin deh’.

That incomparable is Martins that he engineered his own heaven on earth. After living for a while in the maddening crowds of North America, Martins felt the need to return to the tranquillity of his roots. Midway to Guyana, he stopped to create his paradise. Living now in the Cayman Islands, he has transformed two and half acres of land into a replica of Guyanese society - Guyanese greenheart flooring and ceiling in the house, Guyanese painting and sculpture, Guyanese flora lining the driveway and surrounding the building.

But Dave Martins ‘is we own’. He was born in 1935 in Hague on the West Coast of Demerara, Guyana. He grew up between Pomeroon on the Essequibo River to Vreed-en-Hoop on the Demerara River, immortalising that period in the song, ‘Boyhood Days’. From his mother, Zepherina, he learnt never to procrastinate and more importantly to show respect to womanhood. His song, ‘Angel of the Ocean’ is dedicated to that wonderful woman. From his farmer father, Joseph Francis Martins, young Dave learnt to organise.

Those qualities are serving him well now that piracy is wrecking havoc in the music industry especially of the Caribbean and Third World countries. He contends that with technological advancement, piracy will not go away, so whatever redress is to be made to copyright infringement must be made with that in mind.

The proactive and organising qualities he acquired at home are serving him well as he keeps tight control on the fortunes of the ‘Tradewinds’ with his own label, Penny Records, remembering his cent an jill days.

Dave Martins refers to himself as a country boo-boo and thrives on the language of the grassroots even though he attended Roman Catholic influenced schools, Sacred Heart in Main Street (recently destroyed by fire) and St. Stanislaus College on Brickdam.

Dave Martins ‘is we own’ in literary works other than in his ‘Guyana’ songs like ‘Not a Blade of Grass’, defying mighty Venezuela’s claim to about two-thirds of Guyana. In 1988, his first musical, ‘Raise Up’, was staged, in Guyana, at the National Cultural Centre, to mark 150 years of full emancipation of slavery in Guyana. That play named best play of the year, later toured the Caribbean and North America. In May 2006, he wrote an elaborate musical, ‘All in Wan’, which was staged at the

National Cultural Centre to celebrate Guyana’s Fortieth Independence Anniversary.

Dave Martins ‘is we own’, growing up in Guyana, he wrote poetry and played music just for fun but both hobbies were to propel him to superstardom as a composer and performer.

In 1955, he migrated to Canada where he studied journalism, took courses in social sciences and humanities. He’s a self-taught linguist, anthropologist, sociologist, and historian. In 1962, he became a professional musician after studying towards that end. Wanting to do more, he gave up his song writing career with BMI label to form his first band, ‘The Debonairs’ and to operate his own entertainment club, ‘Wee Place’.

Music is in his blood; it entered his bloodstream since in his boyhood days in Guyana. It started in the home where his mother, a huge influence on his life, was constantly singing. Growing up in West Demerara, he couldn’t escape the pulsating, haunting melody of box guitars played in the dead of night by Joe and Jack Henry. And then there was radio bringing to him all strains of music especially R&B, country & western, Latin American, and some calypso. But for his song writing, he draws heavily on African music.

In 1966, he formed the ‘Tradewinds’ and the winds of change entered his life as the band gained instant success, feeding off the connectivity with the large West Indian community in Toronto. The group’s first song, ‘Honeymooning Couple’ was a runaway hit; forty years, later the band is still going strong and going places – performing annually in the region and in North America. The band performed at prestigious venues as Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Martins wrote ‘Honeymooning Couple’ from a joke he heard while working on the air traffic system at Atkinson (now Timehri) Airport, Guyana, or in his own words, ‘de air base’. There were other sources of inspiration for writing songs. The highly entertaining ‘Cricket in the Jungle’ came out of a performance by Ken Corsbie. West Indians resident in the region and in the Diaspora would relate well to ‘Caribbean Man’, ‘Copycat’, ‘Civilisation’, ‘Mr. Rooster’, ‘Wong Ping’ and ‘Yuh can’t geh’. So far, Martins has written and recorded some 110 songs.

He dispelled the notion that he’s the conscience of the West Indies, saying he merely holds up a mirror to that society, no more, no less, for he is first and foremost and always will be just an entertainer.

In 1970, he won the CBC Canada Song Competition. In 1982, he was honoured by the Government of Guyana with the Arrow of Achievement Medal. In the 2002, the Guyana Folk Festival, New York, honoured him with the Wordsworth McAndrew Award, and in 2003, St. Stanislaus College recognised his contribution to music and culture.

And how would the change in music – from melody to rhythm base - affect his output? ‘No problem, dere man, I would continue to meet the needs of my fans’ – like in ‘All in Wan’.

And, of course, only Dave Martins could in a shrewd way pose the question, ‘where are your heroes’ Guyana….


* Material from television interviews with Dave Martins, May 24, 2006, Guyana.

Guyana Chronicle

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