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Profiles of Caribbean Artistry
Aubrey Cummings: A Musician of A Generation

By Vibert C. Cambridge, Ph.D.
January 18th 2004

An important commentator has stated that the most innovative sector of music in Guyana during the 20th century was in the popular music/dance music sector. These dance bands created the soundtrack for rites of passage - falling in love, marriage, christenings, and death. Some personalities are indelibly associated with these bands.

Newspaper advertisements for dances and fetes provide a panorama of the bands that were popular for the generations of the 20th century. During the first decade of the 20th century, The BG Musicians Band and Mr. Gouveia's Orchestra ruled the roost. A recent examination of a sample of The Daily Argosy from the 1920s revealed that there were more than 20 dance bands in Georgetown. The Harry Banks Orchestra led by Harry Mayers was one of the top bands.

During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the top bands included Bert Rogers and his Aristocrats Dance Orchestra and Al Seales and his Washboard Swing Orchestra. The dance bands of the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s were "big bands" with solid brass and woodwind sections.

The 1960s brought about changes. Many of the big bands started to decline, the result of migration to England and the advent of the "string bands." These new bands created the soundtrack for the Guyanese baby-boomer generation--the generation that is currently very vocal in their nostalgias about "dem days when life was simple and life was safe."

A sample of advertisements and articles in the social columns of Chronicle, Argosy, Graphic, and Evening Post newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s generated a list of more than 70 bands. Bands like Bing Serrao and the Ramblers, Bumble and the Saints, Combo 7, Cannonballs, Curtis MG's, Dominators, Little Jones, Mischievous Guys, Rhythmaires, Rudy and the Roosters, Sid and the Slickers, Telstars, and the Yoruba Singers created the soundtrack for the baby boomers. Aubrey Cummings was an active part of this scene as a guitarist, vocalist, and bandleader. His experiences in this scene provide valuable insights into the dynamics of Guyanese society during the late colonial period and the early post-independence era. His experiences also provide a useful lens to look at the place of music in Guyanese society.

Cummings was born in 1947 and grew up in the Alberttown/Queenstown community. He attended Queenstown Roman Catholic Primary School during the headmastership of Francis Percival Loncke, who was called "Teacher Lonckie."

At Queenstown RC, Cummings developed a reputation as an artist. He loved to draw. He would draw on anything he could find-on the small squares of brown paper that were used to package the rice and sugar and on the back of old calendars. His drawings would be displayed on the walls of his school. However, it was not his art that would make Cummings a household name in Guyana during the 1960s and 1970s, it was his music.

His decision to develop a career in pop music was influenced by Michael Bacchus and the Heartbreakers. Cummings remembers navigating alley ways and "boring" through palings from Crown Street to visit the group's rehearsals that would take place at Bacchus's home in Anira street, Queenstown. Among the members of Bacchus's band were Johnny Braff and Compton Edwards. The magic of popular music and show business excited him, and he took up the guitar. He is a self-taught guitarist.

The first band Cummings joined was Bumble and the Saints in 1965--the early days of the string band era. The band was led by Colin 'Bumble' Wharton and was owned by Mr Latchmansingh. It rehearsed over Latchmansingh's Drug Store on Regent Street, near to Bourda Market.

Bumble and the Saints was one of the bands that consolidated the shift from the big band sounds of Tom Charles and the Syncopaters, Nello and the Luckies, and Al Seales to the new styles and sounds of string bands.

According to Cummings although the bands "covered" the pop music played on the radio, each band had a signature sound. They gave special attention to lead instruments and arrangements. For example, Bing Serrao and the Ramblers, the precursors of the Guyanese string band era, introduced box guitars as lead instruments. This band had limited amplification.

When George Simmons started the Rhythmaires, the mandolin was the band's lead instrument. By 1965, the Rhythmaires would develop a distinctive "heavy guitar sound." Combo 7, which is considered to have had the first drum stage, profiled Des Glasford's drum set and developed a reputation for its drum solos.

Bumble and the Saints was known for emulating the soundtracks from popular movies such as the Ipcress Files and the Ennio Morricone's scores for the spaghetti westerns that were popular during that era--A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

Guyanese string bands and musicians attracted attention in the Caribbean, and in 1965, Bumble and the Saints toured Barbados with Johnny Braff with moderate success. On his return from Barbados, Cummings joined Joe Wong and the Dominators.

The Dominators rehearsed at Joe Wong's residence in East Street. The band's lead instrument at that time was the accordion. The other instruments were the bass fiddle, drums, and guitars. Vibert D'Ornellas played the accordion, and Cummings and Randolph "Cowboy" Scott played guitars. The Dominators' sound in those early days was Latin American.

Not only did the string bands have distinctive sounds, the venues they played at and their clientele suggested an alignment with urban class and colour stratification. For example, Combo 7 played frequently at the breezy Bookers Sports Club on the Seawall. George Jardim and Telstars was popular at Chinese Sports Club; Rhythmaires at BGCC. Combo 7 and the early Telstars played frequently at the Georgetown Club. [In contrast,] bands such as Sid and the Slickers, Tom Charles and the Syncopaters, Gemtones, Rudy and the Roosters, and Mischievous Guys were considered "underground/roots" bands and played primarily for working class African Guyanese in urban and rural communities.

Guyanese working class people have developed a wide repertoire of dance-based entertainments. In the late 19th century the "practice" was a popular form of the dance party. By the 1960s, the repertoire included the house fete (immortalized in Lord Canary's "Down at the Bottom Floor"), the Wednesday "Big Girls" picnic, the 2-10s, the 2-2s, the after-lunches, picnics, and steamer excursions.

The Dominators played in all of the venues-from the elite Georgetown venues to the excursions. Cummings vividly remembers playing for an excursion from Georgetown to Parika on one of the Transport and Harbours Department's steamers. He described the journey as an unnerving experience. The amplifiers had to be tied to posts on the boat to prevent them from going overboard when the boat experienced the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The musicians had to adopt sailor-like stances as they performed. He also remembers the audience, which included pigs, goats, and cows. The humans were demanding. They expected musical variety, the popular tunes of the day, and folksy and rootsy music. For that excursion, the promoter also hired a jukebox to support the band. The jukebox- a turntable and a single large speaker - was also tied to a post.

Cummings remained with the Dominators until 1972, when he responded to an opportunity provided by Ossie Redman to travel to Brazil with the Telstars International Band. The band, led by Cummings, toured Manaus during 1972 and 1973. The band included Gerald Couchman (drums), Cummings on guitar, Monty Douglas (composer and arranger), Derry Etkins (organ), Billy Stephenson (Congos), Ray Seales (sax and vocals), Terry Jervis (trumpet), Colin "Bumble" Wharton (bass guitar), and Phil "Bumpy" Dino as the vocalist.

In 1973, Telstars International toured Barbados and recorded the important album 'Orbiting', which included songs such as "So lucky" and "World of Tomorrow."

In July 1975, Cummings went on an adventure. He hitchhiked to Brazil. The adventure started with a plane flight from Ogle Airstrip to Lethem. He still remembers the Kabwowra flies that welcomed the hitchhiking party--one female and four males--to Lethem. The party crossed the Takutu River into Bom Fin and hitched to Manaus and then to Rio de Janeiro, a distance of almost 3,000 miles. From Rio, Cummings went on to Brasilia. He spent a few months there playing with Brazilian bands and as a solo artist at various clubs. He returned to Guyana in December 1975. He was ready for another engagement with popular music in Guyana.

Cummings' next stop was with the Music Machine. The entrepreneurs behind this new band were Vic Insanally, Butch Parmanand and Pancho Carew. The band rehearsed at Insanally's Church street home. Even before the band was formally launched, crowds would assemble to listen to the rehearsals. The band even had bookings before it was launched.

The members of the band included Aubrey Cummings, Colin Aaron, George Reid, and King Souflantis. It had strings and brass. The Guyanese "big band" had resurfaced. Music Machine was also the first band since Combo 7 that paid its members monthly salaries. The band lasted only about six months. Despite its short life, Cummings remembers the Music Machine fondly. "We had the best of equipment," he said. Members of the Music Machine earned themselves "big reputations."

Cummings then joined The After Dark Movement. Other members of the band included Jerry Bradford, George Reid, Cornel Vieira, Pat Thompson, "Jive" Parris, and "Fingers." The band was influenced by Earth, Wind, and Fire and is credited as being the first band in Guyana to perform this music in Guyana. For a period, The After Dark Movement was the resident band at Pegasus Hotel on Saturday nights.

On October 10, 1978, Cummings joined the exodus from Guyana and migrated to Barbados. He took with him the Yamaha 12-string FG 230 box guitar given to him by the late Roland Phillips.

In Barbados, Cummings would establish an active musical career as guitarist and vocalist. He recorded the hit "A Flower named June," followed by "Think I am in Love," "Analie," and the "Children of Sanchez." For Carifesta 1981, he composed the song "West Indian People," which has been covered by choral groups in the West Indies and Germany.

In 1984 and again in 1985, Cummings won the Best Male Vocalist Award in Barbados. During the same period, he consistently won prizes at the Caribbean Song Festivals organized by the Caribbean Broadcasting Union. His guitar work also attracted critical acclaim, and he was a regular contributor to the acoustic guitar festivals organized by Barbados' National Cultural Foundation.

In his early years in Barbados, Cummings also returned to painting. He is very grateful for the help he got from Paul Altman, who provided him with space for a studio on Independence Square. It was in this space that Cummings developed the 'Birds and People' series of fabric paintings. They sold well.

By 1985, Cummings had established himself as a serious painter. He was invited by Omawale Stewart to produce some pieces for the 2002 Barbados Jazz Festival. He produced three pieces depicting international and local jazz musicians in performance. They attracted positive attention and launched a new series of paintings. By 2003, Cummings's art was displayed in leading art galleries in Barbados.

Cummings is satisfied with the choices he made in his musical career. He credits radio with promoting popular music in Guyana, especially the programme 'Teensville' and its host Bertie Chancellor. Ayube Hamid is another broadcaster whom he credits with promoting Guyanese music. He recalls the live broadcasts that Ayube would anchor from night clubs in Georgetown and the recordings he would facilitate at Radio Demerara.

"If we did not have radio, many musicians and bands would not have been popular." For example, Bumble and the Saints "Kissing Bridge" was the theme for a wake-up show on Radio Demerara.

He also recalls, with some sadness, the practices of some radio broadcasters to put down local musicians not because of their musical abilities but because of their social status. Despite those slights, bands such as the Yoruba Singers, Mischievous Guys, Rudy and the Roosters, and Cannonballs not only survived but gave Guyana some memorable popular music.

Cummings has said that popular music contributed to the healing of Guyana during the 1960s and 1970s and can do so again. His musical career is a reminder of the pervasiveness of music in Guyanese social life. Further, through his musical career, we can derive further clues about the influence of race, class, and colour on music in Guyana during the 20th century. His experiences demonstrated that Guyanese musicians worked hard. This attribute paid off as many of the musicians of Cummings's era who have migrated established satisfying careers overseas. Aubrey Cummings is not only a musician of a generation, he is a cultural hero.

Aubrey Cummings: A Musician of A Generation: First published in StabroekNews, January 18, 2004.

Sources:
Henry Kirke. Twenty-five Years in British Guiana. Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1970 (reprint). Originally published in 1898 by Sampson Low, Martin & Company, Ltd., London.
The Guyanese newspapers collection at Ohio University, Athens, OH.
Interview with Billy Pilgrim, June 26, 2002.
Interview with Aubrey Cummings, July 2, 2003.

 

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