May 09, 2010 News
“I preach that all the time, don’t be ashamed of your dialect, it is a powerful (means of) communication…it’s a language, it’s not ignorance.”
By Michael Jordan
An elephant bowling off a half-mile run-up to a cricket-loving donkey? A flock of sex-starved hens harassing a rooster to death?
Welcome to the world of singer/songwriter Dave Martins, a Guyanese icon who has been making us laugh, reflect on our shortcomings, and take fierce pride in our Caribbean heritage for over five decades.
He’s produced over 100 songs, several advertising jingles, and an award-wining play.
And with the creative ideas still flowing at the age of 75, he has no intention of slowing down.
Dave Martins grew up at Hague and Vreed-en-Hoop on West Coast Demerara; the third of four children and the only boy in the family.
He attended the Sacred Heart Primary School and later St. Stanislaus College, travelling the long journey by bus and ferry.
He insists that he was a quiet student, instead of the prankster that one would have envisaged him to be.
Growing up in the country, young Dave had none of the luxuries that children now take for granted.
“It was a very simple life. Nothing much to do; no electricity, no running water, not even a radio in the house,” he said. “At Hague, I lived in an uncle’s house, which had a big yard and lots of trees.”
His interest in music began when the family moved to Vreed-en-Hoop. There was nothing going on at Vreed-en-Hoop in those days. They had one cinema, maybe once a week and by eight o clock everybody in bed.”
But there were two brothers, Joe and Jack Henry. They knew to play box guitars, and, around the age of 14, young Dave was fascinated by the sound that would eventually lure him into a career.
“I started hearing these guys. They would go around the village playing music. I fell in love with the sound and that drew me to them.”
The upshot was that they formed a five-man instrumental group.
“We played a lot of Latin music, a few calypsos. We used to go to people’s houses just for fun…Vreed-en-Hoop, Poudroyen; we even went to Berbice a few times.”
Family members were encouraging, though his mother, Zepherina Barcellos, referred to the calypsos he sometimes sang as ‘jungle music’. Nevertheless, she never stopped him from singing.
He left school at the age of 16 and began to work at Booker Shipping for a year and then at Atkinson Field (now Cheddi Jagan International Airport).
The love for music was still intense. He still saw his guitar-playing skill as a hobby.
All that changed dramatically when, at 21, a sister who had migrated to Canada suggested that he join her there. He studied some music theory and made friends with a musician from the Bahamas and another from Toronto.
The three friends started a group called The Debonairs.
“We were just doing it for fun, but people who heard us rehearsing said, “You boys are good. So we auditioned at a couple of places and got a few jobs, and before we knew it we were having enough work to play music full time.”
He was a West Indian in Canada but the music from the Caribbean kept drawing him back to his roots.
“What happened was that from playing these different types of music—some R&B, some Caribbean—in the process of playing in that band I gradually began to feel more of a pull to the Caribbean, which eventually led to me giving up that band for a couple of years and forming a band to play nothing but Caribbean music.
“The parallel to that was I started writing songs for a music publisher in Toronto. They were all North American songs, and in that process, I found I wanted to be writing Caribbean stuff, so I formed the Tradewinds in late 1966, which was a kind of an oddity. “We were living in Canada, and I had formed a band aimed at Caribbean people.”
And when stardom came, it arrived quickly.
The Tradewinds, which included two Trinidadians, decided to make a trip to the birthplace of calypso music.
By then, Dave had written and recorded four songs, including “Meet me in Port of Spain” and “Honeymooning Couple.”
“We…thought ‘Meet me in Port of Spain’ would be a big hit, but nobody paid any attention to it,” Martins remembered with a laugh.
“Then we went back to Canada, played a lot of free shows, and we thought that was that.
But about two months later I started getting calls from Trinidad. “Honeymooning Couple” was a big hit; all the stations were playing it.
“In the space of six months we went from being a nonentity to a chart-leading band in the Caribbean.”
That was followed by a string of hits such as “Mr. Rooster,” (about 16 ‘sexy chickens’ chasing a rooster) “You Can’t Get”, “Copy Cats”, “Cricket in the Jungle.”
“Fortunately, I was able to continue writing songs over the next 12 years.”
But where do these ideas come from?
“Music is how I express things, but they come from the fact that I am an observer, and this is where the artistry comes in.
“I notice things that other people might not notice. It is the gift; it is something I was just born with…I was born with this gift to be able to look at something and be able to see it in a different way and describe it in a way that is acceptable.
“You have to not fall into the trap of settling for second best. Some of those lines that seem so obvious take weeks (to put together). You have to be your own best critic, to decide ‘no that ain’t good enough, try and make it better.’”
“And the reason a lot of them (the songs) connect so strongly with people is that they are observations of things that come out of the culture.”
An example of this is his song “Play de Ting” which he created after travelling by ferry to New Amsterdam and seeing a blind man making music with a comb and silver paper, while playing a guitar.
“The guy was good, the music was raw but it was good.”
If there’s anything that irks Dave Martins it is the lack of pride that many Caribbean people have for their culture.
‘Copycat’ is an example of this denial of one’s culture and the annoying mimicry of another’s.
“That is what is behind a lot of these songs. I am saying, ‘Look at what a wonderful culture we have, look at our sense of humour, look at how we react to things, look at how we adapt, at how innovative we are, what I call examples of excellence.’
“I have to say that I don’t think I would have ended up doing what I am doing if I had stayed in Guyana, because here you are continually getting the message that you are not worth very much, that you are second-rate.
“It’s when you go outside and start interacting with these other people that you begin to realise that you are not second rate at all, you are just made to believe that by the colonial people who were in control at the time.
“That’s why I wrote ‘Where Are Our Heroes’, because it’s not that there are none, they are there, you are just not told about them.
“I preach that all the time, don’t be ashamed of your dialect, it is a powerful (means of) communication…it’s a language, it’s not ignorance.
Jamaica is the best example of this (pride) they have a greater degree, a pride in their own thing.
“You have examples of excellence in every part of the Caribbean, we just not told about it enough.”
And what does Dave Martins see as his contribution?
“I think if you are making your people feel better about themselves, then you have succeeded as an artist.
“I remember when we took ‘Raise Up’ (a play he wrote) to the Cayman Islands , a woman said afterwards, ‘Boy, you make me proud to be a West Indian.’.
“If what you are doing is creating that feeling in people, then you have succeeded. When I am in Guyana and somebody shout out a line from a song ‘Chip sugar-cake and saltfish and bake is we own,’ (lines from one of Martins’s songs) then you have reached them.
“You have to have a people who believe in themselves, and it is artistes who make you believe in yourself by holding up a mirror and saying look how funny you are, how creative you are, how innovative and persistent you are.”
And in the eighties, when Venezuela was making threatening noises over the Guyana Venezuela territorial issue, Dave Martins wrote the fiercely patriotic song “Not a Blade of Grass.”
“I was doing an interview with (the late radio announcer) Pat Cameron, and afterwards, off the air she said: ‘You should really write a song about this (the Venezuelan issue)’. And I said, ‘ Pat, I don’t write them kinda songs. That is a song about politics’, and she persisted, she said: ‘You write it how you want to write it. But you can find a way to express it, the Guyanese people would listen to you,’ and I said: ‘I still don’t see no song in it’.”
But the conversation stuck in his head. He recalled reading about a native-American chief who had vowed not to give up his land, mountains, or even a blade of grass to the invading Whites. Those lines gave him his idea.
“The song I wrote said nothing about Venezuela, nothing about a border, it just talking about pride in what you have.”
Dave Martins and the Tradewinds have performed at venues such as Madison Square Garden and Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
His country has shown its appreciation for his contributions by awarding Martins the Golden Arrowhead of Achievement.
In 2002, the Guyana Folk festival Committee presented him with the Wordsworth Mc Andrew Award.
Dave Martins, who has five children, returned to Guyana about a year ago and insists that he’s here to stay.
On how has he managed to continue this hectic pace at the age of 75?
“I am active. I like to plant…I like to fix things. The second this is I never got interested in liquor, or drugs. I have seen very talented people in the Caribbean and North America who have been wrecked …They are walking around practically begging, or they are dead.”
And after producing some 100 songs, Martins still has many creative ideas on the horizon.
They include a piece lengthy song about Kaieteur, to be sung by two or three voices. He’s written another on climate change.
“But what I enjoy doing now is one-man shows where I weave the comedy and the music about Caribbean life and all its forms, just me and my guitar.”
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