Moses, the Guyanese saw-playing musician with an Honorary Doctorate
By Lin-Jay Harry-Voglezon (American Int’l News Correspondent)
He was at 14th Street-Times Square, a major hub of New York’s extensive subway. On any day, that and other underground hubs would be spiced with artistic performances from able and disabled artistes, seeking recognition and income, if permitted by the New York Audition Board.
“You are Guyanese, right?” I asked. His eyes twinkled. His voice buoyantly replied, “Yes, I am”. “And you are Moses?” I enquired. “I’m Moses Josiah, called ‘The Maestro’.”
While attracting his attention, a team of media men were engaging him too, exploring their curiosities, recording every answer, the glissando or portamento as the cello bow travelled along the non-serrated edge of the baritone saw. They captured too, the bouncing, twitching rhythm of his right leg which adds vibrato to the ethereal hymns and national songs of Guyana. And as we listened, passersby stopped to purchase his albums, have a chat, take photographs, and drop dollars in his box.
Later he said to me, “This is the only instrument of music that sounds like the human voice…listen.” That’s true. It’s akin to Acappella. Jokingly, he remarked, “we can call this music Sawcappella.”
So he is a ‘Sawcappellist’. But universally, a saw musician is called a Sawyer; in some quarters a Sawist, and the saw, a friction idiophone.
Dr. Moses Josiah might just have to ignore this new appellation though. For ever since 1987, the Sawyers Association Worldwide recognizes him as a Master Sawyer for “possessing the indispensable qualities of technical ability, musical artistry and wisdom required to uphold the dignified and honorable tradition of musical sawing.”
This recognition came in the 17th year of his permanent residency in the US and 40 years after his first public appearance in 1947 at the corner of Barr and Alexander Streets in Kitty, Georgetown.
Now at 83, Moses remembers himself in 1947 as a shy and simple 17-year-old, exploring saw music due to his reading about its origin in Africa. Africans used the saw as a musical instrument at their ceremonies. He credited a Mr. Skeete from Kitty, who placed him at the corner, and urged him to perform. He played the hymn “Hark, My Soul! It Is The Lord,” percussion-style, with a felt hammer. People quickly gathered, encouraged him, and kept throwing money on the white cloth spread by Mr. Skeete. That was his beginning.
Later in 1947 he entered the Semco Amateur Talent Contest and got the 3rd prize, a gold medal. It hurts him still, that this, his very first prize from his first contest, he lost when he had to pawn it.
After that contest, he played for Radio Demerara, and with Dutch magician Henry De Barros, performed at approximately 200 schools in Guyana, from Crabwood Creek to 111Miles, Potaro. He remembers riding a bicycle to and from the East Bank and East Coast Demerara schools to make bookings, as there were no telephones. De Hoop, Mahaica School was his first.
His first plane ride was in 1948 on his way back from Potaro with British Guiana Airways. That was cheaper than the overland fare. And to travel by plane at that time was highly prestigious.
Moses’ first overseas trip followed. In 1949 he went to Suriname, where he played for schools, churches and Radio Avros.
Later, in 1955, at age 25, well known businessman John Fernandes, who was impressed by his performances at the Leprosy Asylum, offered him a trip to the Caribbean. He spent one month in Barbados playing at Codrington College, the Coconut Creek Club of St. James, Road Night Club, Raisen Night Club, churches and schools. Then he went to St. Vincent, Grenada, and finally Trinidad and Tobago, where he played at the Arima concert in Trinidad, which earned him headlines in the media as the ‘Moses who conquered’. He played for Radio Trinidad on the “Sunday Serenade” programme, while Mr. Sam Ghani was General Manager; the Queen’s Park Hotel, and night clubs, where he met the Mighty Sparrow. He remarked, “We used permits then, no passports” and “we travelled by schooner.”
He returned to Guyana later that year, but to unemployment, since for his tour, he had resigned as delivery man at Bookers’ Universal Store.
As a family man with a wife and five children, he tried upholstery, and concrete work until the Employment Exchange in Regent Street recruited him in 1956 for the Georgetown Hospital as an attendant. Six years later, he was promoted to Ward Orderly, the equivalent to a Nurse’s Aide.
After six years in this position, he accepted a job offer in the US, as an Orthopedic Technician at Cumberland Hospital, which later merged into the Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Centre.
Around 1969-1970, as a certified Orthopedic Technician, he trained the hospital’s first batch of Physical Aids in casting applications. He retired in 1991 to a grand farewell. “I enjoyed my job”, he said, “it’s a nice feeling to see people back on their feet, correcting bow foot/ club foot, seeing thousands of people with all kinds of injuries back on their feet.”
Before his retirement, music was a weekend activity. Now he is fully involved in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut for concerts, banquets, weddings, recordings, television etc. His playing at the subway stations not only fulfills his gospel ministry, soothing the emotions of people, hearing them say “you have made my day” and even discussing their problems, but is an advertisement for bookings.
It is in recognition of his “level of attainment in Theological Learning, demonstrated by Meritorious evidence of Theological Experience”, as inscribed on his citation that he was conferred a Doctorate on 1st February this year.
But before Moses arrived permanently in the US in 1968 he visited in January 1961, at age 31, and auditioned for the Ted Mack show on CBS, an equivalent to America’s Got Talent. His renditions were “Mack the Knife” and “O Sole Mio”. The audition was aired on March 5th in the USA and Canada. But Moses had to return to Guyana on March 4th. The public voted him winner. But Moses could not have continued in the competition.
He was not just the only black in the contest but the first Guyanese artiste to be televised. At the Guiana Music Festival in 1967, in the Miscellaneous Class of various instruments, he captured the first prize as a solo instrumentalist. The Guiana Music Festival was an affiliate of the British Federation of Music Festival. Its patrons were Her Majesty the Queen; His Excellency, Governor General Sir David Rose, GCMG, CVO, MBE, vice patron, and The Right Worshipful, The Lord Mayor, Mrs. Dorothy Bayley, MBE.
In 1967 too, he began teaching guitar music to a class of 15 girls, at The Bishops’ High School, who subsequently placed third at another music festival. In the US he taught the basics of saw music in California and New York. He remarked that his learning of music helped his quality of playing.
But at Guyana’s Independence Celebrations in 1966 he, his son and another accompanist were relegated to play on the grass instead of the stage where all other artistes performed and were filmed. But Queen Elizabeth and the Duke who enjoyed his music went to and chatted with him. At other times, Professor Keith Proctor and Max Sergeant were his accompanists.
To his invitation of the Guyana Consulate in New York at his graduation ceremony in May this year, no one from Guyana attended, but there were dignitaries from the US and other places who were there.
Moses has many certificates and awards, including citations from the New York City Council, New York State Assembly on his 80th birthday, Martin Luther King (jnr.) Centre, and jointly from Dr. Monica Sanchez of Miss CARICOM, and Danny Glover, Hollywood Actor and Humanitarian, UNDP/UNICEF.
Moses, now a father of eight, in pure sentimentality states, “People don’t understand what it is to lose my wife, to have that one woman for 60 years. It’s not easy to live without a wife. I ask the Lord for divine guidance to send me a companion. I’m 83, but I am a young man. I’m good.”
His wife was very supportive. His parents too. Currently two companies are doing documentaries on him. To be in a Guyanese Hall of Fame during his lifetime would be a great joy.
Now as a retired Orthopedic Technician from Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Centre, recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the International Theological Seminary of California, and an 18-month widower, playing his carpenter’s saw is a means of living, fulfillment of his gospel ministry, discharging of his grief and engagement of his cognitive abilities.