By Edison Jefford
“Money wasn’t the thing. We didn’t
get into it for the money. Neither
was it a hobby, because our
whole attitude toward our music
was serious. Money was secondary.”
One of the most enterprising facets of journalism is the opportunity journalists get to travel when it is a necessary component in the methodology of a story.
Sometimes one trip unearths different stories, some of which are trivial, and some that are groundbreaking.
I was making my way from Linden after a sports assignment two weekends ago when I turned on my radio to keep my company on the lonely Linden/Soesdyke Highway. Basil P was on 98.1 Hot FM with his Sunday night show when an interesting fact was revealed.
One of Basil P’s selections was a tune called ‘Acid Wash’ and Mark ‘Super Marky’ Xavier was identified as the lead singer in a band called Cannonballs.
My intuition immediately rose because I am familiar with Xavier as the former President of a local hockey club.
However, I needed more substance, so I went deeper. I followed Basil P’s lead and went in search of a Lindener he called ‘Zar’- the man who was instrumental in forming the Cannonballs and who is said to be one of Guyana’s grassroots musical icon.
Winston ‘Zar’ Caesar’s life is steeped in humility and music at best, and the unfortunate constraints placed on the development of music in Guyana at worst. His story is one of pioneering, but restrained success.
Caesar was born at Bachelor’s Adventure on the East Coast of Demerara in 1951 and as he stated, his passion to be in a band led him to Linden some 20 years later, following his primary and secondary education.
He attended the Paradise Government and St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Schools respectively, before he moved to live in Linden with his parents.
“Because of my passion to be part of a band, I moved from Bachelor’s Adventure to Linden since my parents used to live in Linden to fulfil my dream. It is here I got my opportunity to be part of a major band where I was the lead vocalist for about 10 years,” he said.
What became the Cannonballs, around 1975, was an offspring of two earlier bands.
Caesar said that the Cannonballs were birthed from the Woodstock and JW Cannonballs bands after they both were disbanded. He, among others, pioneered the Cannonballs.
“Three of us, because Woodstock was a popular group, got some equipment from them that were still around. There was a band called JW Cannonballs before them, and after they too had broken up, three of the members of Woodstock approached the owners of JW Cannonballs to also get assistance with equipment, which we eventually got,” Caesar recounted.
He noted that the owners of JW Cannonballs were interested in the idea of having a fresh band on the scene and decided to manage what became the Cannonballs Band.
“I was asked to play a lead role with Cannonballs,” he remembered, digging deep in his memory.
As would most natural purposes in life, Caesar revealed that from boyhood it was hard for him to stay away from bands.
That innate affinity, he believes, is what produced later success in a music career that commenced as a teenager and continues to this very day.
“This was an important facet of my life. Before Woodstock, because of my passion, I used to be around other bands doing equipment management, handling equipment, or, if you want to call it ‘fetching equipment around’,” he recalled, adding that the menial task of setting up equipment around bands was in fact his orientation to what became a relatively distinguished career as a musician.
Following his role as lead vocalist where the Cannonballs toured Guyana extensively, making an indelible mark on the local musical landscape, Caesar took up the management and new horizons were forthcoming with the band’s first international tour.
Caesar managed the Cannonballs outfit that first toured New York in 1986.
The father of three, with his marriage to June Charles, described the following four years of the band – between 1986 and 1990 – as its high point, where it achieved significant international success.
Cannonballs, according to Caesar, was the first Guyanese band to play during the Caribana Street Parade in Toronto in 1988 after playing in New York at the Labour Day Parade. He believes the major exposure at the international level was inevitable because of a favourable reception.
“During those touring years, there was so much respect for the Cannonballs that I think if we had the right international management, we would have gone on to even higher grounds,” Caesar reflected.
Apart from the Caribana and Labour Day parades, Cannoballs performed alongside the Trinidad and Tobago band, Borakett, at Wingate Park in New York, at the end of Summer Festival 1988. It was following that performance, especially, that the renowned Guyanese band was allowed to be a main feature in the Twin Island Republic, alongside notable bands such as Blue Ventures and a host of others. Cannonballs had become a premier regional band.
The international apex for the Cannonballs came in 1989 when it recorded its hit ‘Acid Wash’ in New York. The song piloted the band to stardom. It became the first Guyanese recording band to record in an international studio. Cannonballs were making history.
However, the trajectory of the band did not ascend as expected following those years, as the lack of international management began to seriously affect its output overseas.
Eventually, frustration among some band members threatened the existence of the band.
“After those years of touring where we realised that we were not getting the kind of dues that we were supposed to have been getting, things started to take a downward turn.
Some members were frustrated and some migrated but I tried to keep the band together not only as a musical outfit, but as an institution,” Caesar indicated, while reminiscing on the early 1990s.
“I wanted to be able to boast onto today that the Cannonballs are still in existence… for one, what it meant to Linden; two, what it meant for Guyana and three, the Guyanese Diaspora. As I talk to you, as long as you have conversations with Guyanese of a certain age-group and you get into the band music of Guyana, the Cannonballs have to be part of that history,” he continued.
Caesar said that the fact that the band had come from extinction before to achieving phenomenal success was a primary motivational factor during those years in the ‘90s.
Not only was the band hit with frustrated members, but there was a high migration rate creeping into its ranks. Caesar said that passion drove musicians in those days more than the money, so it was never about how much band members were able to earn from playing.
He said there was just an obvious absence of important mechanisms locally that frustrated them as musicians. After recording overseas, he said that it was hard for them to re-adjust to a Guyana without a recording studio, copyright legislation and access to the latest equipment.
“There would have been no limits to what we could have achieved with the kind of commitment we had if only we had easy access to equipment, instruments, advanced training, copyrights and recording studios in Guyana,” Caesar opined.
He recalled that there was a tremendous reservoir of local talented musicians during the height of the Cannonballs band, and financial gain was not the primary aim.
“Money wasn’t the thing. We didn’t get into it for the money, neither was it a hobby, because our whole attitude toward our music was serious. Money was secondary,” Caesar said, stressing two of the most important components of their work ethic: discipline and commitment.
“I remember sometimes we would play at different venues across the country on some weekends and by the time we finished playing, it was just time for some of the guys to go straight from the band to work on a Monday morning.”
Caesar said he drew his inspiration from Johnny Braff and Aubrey Cummings, who were both in a celebrated league as Guyanese artistes. He said he went out and looked for opportunities as the band’s manager, and ways that they could have still made an impact locally.
As destiny would have it, the Cannonballs re-surfaced following the disbandment, with promising support from the Guyana Bauxite Company. Caesar indicated that the band was able to be among the initiation of Republic Day Celebrations in Linden and New Amsterdam.
“Because of the services we were giving to the community and country by extension, the Guyana Bauxite Company purchased a set of equipment for the band and because of that we were able to get back into business,” he brought to mind.
“It came out with that kind of support that the Cannonballs were able to go to Georgetown with a 1000-person Mash band for the national road parade. We won band of the year for two years in a row and when we were finished with Georgetown, we went to Berbice. In fact, we were the band that started the Berbice Mash parade with support from the Guyana Bauxite Company,” the front for the band, then, remembered.
Following those years of revitalisation, Caesar said that he left the band after his last tour in 1999 when the economic climate for entertainment plummeted. He said that promoters were not in any mood to pay a band $250,000 to leave Linden to play in Georgetown.
“I know that they did not go out of existence immediately, and this is with no bones, they tried to sustain themselves, and the band, but by then things had gotten so bad economically, that the Cannonballs was difficult to sustain,” the former lead singer said.
“We started to lose business. We were a definite hit at places like Palm Court and Pegasus where we played, but because of where we had to come from, you would find that our cost was usually higher than… let’s say… a band from Georgetown. So, the regularity of when we played went down,” Caesar noted on his final involvement with the Cannonballs band.
He said there were several efforts to resuscitate the band in the new Millennium, but those were futile attempts since a new generation had already adopted more modern forms of entertainment.
Caesar is not personally inactive when it comes to maintaining his passion, however. He was part of the Mingles band, and even belted out a few tunes, when it took the road during a Linden mash parade in 2009, which is part of his new mission. He has been in the vanguard of an interesting move to mobilise Republic Day Celebrations in the Mining Town.
His efforts climaxed this year when thousands turned up in Linden to witness what was regarded widely as the best celebration for the town in the recent times. His annual entertainment and culture shows are second to his passion to keep music alive in a community striving to regain its once enviable status.
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