A short history of U.S. meddling in Guyanese elections

I just finished reading the book U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story by Stephen Rabe. One in a series of textbooks on the Cold War published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book explores the United States’ heavy hand in undermining democracy in Guyana and the tragic, enduring legacy of that meddling.


Friends, Forbes Burnham (left) and Cheddi Jagan in 1953, before they became archenemies and life-long political foes.

I’ve read a lot about Guyana and knew the broad outlines of these events from other sources. Of course, the wreckage caused by British imperialism remains the key to understanding the Guyana one encounters today. However, the years leading up to Guyana’s independence were marked by great hopefulness and opportunity. Two young men – a descendant of African slaves and a descendant of Indian indentured servants, both representing the brightest of their communities – had founded a political party together to usher in independence. Both possessed sharp and probing intellects. One of the two had a practical bent; the other exuded charisma and eloquence. Both demonstrated different weaknesses of leadership and some negative tendencies, but as friends they supported and sharpened each other. Their partnership bridged a destructive racial tension that British imperialism had left in its wake. They agreed that racial division presented a first and primary obstacle to overcome if Guyana would thrive as a democracy. They were Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, co-founders together with Jagan’s wife, Janet Jagan, of the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP). The three held open meetings in Georgetown’s public library to discuss and plan for independence. The PPP platform they crafted was designed to attract the poor and working among Indians and blacks.

What went wrong? Mainly and most crucially, the United States government got deeply involved. Beginning with John F. Kennedy, three subsequent U.S. administrations determined that preventing Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese from cooperating would best serve U.S. interests in Guyana.


Cheddi Jagan and JFK at the White House. Possible dialogue: “Now listen here, Jack. Get your spies out of my country and quit trying to interfere in our free and fair elections.”

Meticulously researched with over 40 pages of notes and citations (including recently declassified government documents), Rabe’s account nonetheless provides a rattling good read, at times containing all the elements of a spy thriller. Here are just a few of the most unbelievable plot elements from the book:

  • Cheddi Jagan, newly elected to head the transitional government in British Guiana, visits the United States, the country where he was educated as a dentist and where he met his wife. He meets with Kennedy and thinks it goes well. But he goes on TV to talk about independence for his country and, when pressed, can’t quite bring himself to say the simple phrase, “I am not a communist.” Instead he rambles interminably about how a complex term like communism can be variously defined and applied. He makes a few reasonable points about the need to reverse the impact of colonialism in Guyana. But all most listeners hear is “Blah, blah, blah, I’m a commie, yada, yada.”
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    Cheddi Jagan with his American wife, Janet Rosenberg Jagan. They met while Cheddi Jagan was studying in the United States.

    Jagan realizes he got off on a bad foot with the Americans and writes Kennedy a long follow-up letter promising a close partnership and asking for assistance for the new democracy in Guyana. Kennedy doesn’t reply. The White House sends a curt note saying that if Jagan needs anything further he can take it up with U.S. officials stationed in British Guiana.

  • Kennedy, lounging in a hot tub for his ailing back pains, tells the British colonial secretary that an independent Guyana governed by this Cheddi fellow would be unacceptable to his administration. They cook up a plan to call for a new election.  They devise a proportional electoral scheme that will ensure party alignment based on race. They snicker at their own hypocrisy. Kennedy promises to prevent, “by hook or crook,” the Jagans from ever gaining real power, but also assures the British he won’t for now send spies into British Guiana being that it is still their territory.
  • CIA agents sneak into British Guiana in the cargo holds of planes from Suriname. Acting undercover as AFL-CIO labor organizers, operatives instigate race riots and mob violence. Kennedy cites the sudden eruption of violence in Guyana as justification for Britain to suspend the transitional government headed by the democratically-elected Jagan and delay their independence.
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    U.S. born, Janet Jagan, speaking at a political meeting.

    The Jagans are arrested and go to jail for engaging in political activities while their government is suspended. Sitting behind bars like political demigods, they issue patriotic, anti-imperialist epistles from prison. Their popularity grows.

  • U.S. intelligence and diplomatic reports consistently portray Janet Jagan as the domineering, savvy political operator and true ideologue behind her charismatic husband. She is stripped of her U.S. citizenship.
  • U.S. intelligence spreads rumors that Janet Jagan is sexually promiscuous with the Cuban revolutionaries she admires hoping to divide and conquer the dynamic power couple, or at least make Cheddi Jagan look weak.
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    Linden Forbes Burnham and Lyndon Baines Johnson at the White House. The two became friends and LBJ congratulated Burnham on winning what he knew were rigged elections.

    U.S. diplomats appeal to Cheddi Jagan’s former political ally, Forbes Burnham, with a devil’s bargain: he can rule Guyana as America’s puppet in exchange for denouncing Jagan’s views and communism. He takes the deal. The U.S. throws all of it’s cards in on Burnham and his new splinter party, People’s National Congress (PNC).  Sundry red flags about Burnham are ignored. Foreign investors prefer Jagan, most business owners in the country prefer Jagan, the British see Jagan as an honest, well-intentioned, widely admired if naive, slightly inept, definitely hen-pecked potential leader. On the other hand, they openly worry about Forbes Burnham. Even the U.S’s own intelligence indicates Burnham has demagogic, racist and opportunistic tendencies. But Burnham is a man who says he hates commies; so, all things considered, he’s our man.

  • CIA agents work behind the scenes to establish new political parties to splinter the Indian majority and take votes from Jagan. The CIA pays for posters, radio ads and election workers to promote Burnham and splinter parties.
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    Forbes Burnham (right), hosting Cuban president, Fidel Castro

    U.S. agents literally train Burnham to cheat in elections, eventually helping him go full Tammany Hall: tweaking the voter rolls, using absentee and overseas voting to fake votes, and centralizing ballot tabulations to fake the count.

  • Burnham, touchy about being perceived as a U.S. puppet, defies the puppet masters by establishing close ties with the Soviet Union and Cuba, and nationalizing most of the private industry. He tosses the Americans’ self-righteous directives about how to improve Guyana’s race relations into the Demerara River.
  • Burnham terrorizes Indians, deliberately driving many to abandon the country. He imprisons and kills journalists and political opponents. He effectively blocks most Indians from serving in the military, the police forces or in civil service jobs. He stacks government jobs and newly nationalized industries with PNC members. He steals from the treasury and enriches himself. And he enthusiastically runs the country directly into the ground until Guyana is the poorest and most obviously mismanaged in the entire hemisphere. Digging deeper, he censors the press, bans wheat and other foreign products, nationalizes all the religious and private schools, and even kicks out Kennedy’s precious Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Burnham continues to rig elections for decades, winning by larger and ever more ridiculously wide margins.
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    Forbes Burnham (right) with People’s Temple leader, Jim Jones.

    Burnham becomes increasingly weird and attracts other weirdos, including one Jim Jones from the United States and his hundreds of followers. Burnham provides Jones with land for his commune, and Jones’ People’s Temple members provide PNC officials with fun parties in Georgetown, sexual favors and votes for Burnham in elections.

  • Burnham finally dies. He tries to have himself embalmed and put on permanent display. Following his wishes, they dig up his body shortly after his funeral and ship him to Moscow so he can be fixed up like Lenin. But his corpse deteriorates too much in shipment, and he is finally sent back (over a year later for some reason) to be reinterred at his final resting place in the Georgetown Botanical Gardens.
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    Cheddi and Janet Jagan in later years

    With Burnham dead, renowned do-gooder, Jimmy Carter, manages to worm his way into Guyana for some more (this time more constructive) meddling. His Carter Center oversees the first truly free and fair election in Guyana’s history. Cheddi Jagan, now an older man, wins easily.

  • Contrary to JFK’s paranoia, and in keeping with most of the best intelligence the U.S. had on Cheddi Jagan at the time, Jagan governs as a rather conventional and pragmatic socialist democrat, immediately reversing course on many of Burnham’s most devastating policies. Industries are privatized, freedom of the press is reestablished, bread is legal again, the U.S. is wooed back as a partner, and Kennedy’s precious Peace Corps volunteers go back to work. But tribal divisions are now set in stone, and, before long, Jagan’s administration’s treatment of blacks begins to mirror Burnham’s treatment of Indians.
  • Kennedy’s aid, Arthur Schlesinger, publicly apologizes to the Jagans for his treatment by the Kennedy administration and concedes they greatly misjudged the situation in Guyana. The Jagans visits the Clinton White House. The U.S. offers Janet Jagan her citizenship back. Apparently, she no longer cares. She later becomes president of Guyana herself. (Cheddi and Janet Jagan are interred together in Babu John Cemetery, the small community graveyard of Port Mourant village, Cheddi Jagan’s birthplace. Both were cremated according to the traditions of his family’s Hindu faith).

Racial tensions are still raw in Guyana. Party affiliation still breaks mostly along racial lines. Political conversations with Guyanese can easily turn to discussions of “our people” and “those people.” The sad truth is: the United States government invested a lot of dollars and effort deliberately exacerbating that tension. Then we threw good money after bad propping up a demagogue who made life a misery for most Guyanese, buried any hope for racial conciliation, and really did a lot to run their country into the ground. Caught up in the hysteria of the Cold War, the U.S. often betrayed its own ideals of respect for democracy. Certainly the U.S. ruined any hope for a newly independent Guyana being governed efficiently by a broad multi-racial party. Guyanese still live with that legacy today. And it is in that context that an American company recently arrived to extract natural resources under a deal including royalty rates for Guyana that the International Monetary Fund dryly observed are “well below of what is observed internationally.”

Here, finally, is a clip of Forbes Burnham speaking to Caribbean reporters at a conference in Barbados in 1985. I recommend watching from 16:14 at which point he is questioned about accusations of election irregularities. His response is chilling and worth a watch. He deflects by accusing those in Guyana calling for outside election observers of wishing to be a colony again and failing to respect the sovereign independence of Guyana (“You can take a man out of a colony, but you can’t take the colony out of some men.”) He also points at rumors of voting irregularities in America (“ghosts voting in Cook County”) as if to say, Look, they do it, too. “I’m tired of these busybodies,” he shrugs, waving his cigarette. “Let them mind their own farmyards.” He is smoking and coughing all the while. He will die while undergoing throat surgery a few weeks later.

A footnote on Burnham’s nationalization of private education and its impact on my daughter’s school

One school was exempted from the nationalization of private schools: the international school where my daughter attends. The primary mission of the school, the school argued, was to provide an education for the children of U.S. diplomatic families. Moreover the school receives support from the U.S. State Department. The Burnham government therefore agreed to exempt the school, but also required that all Guyanese students attending be expelled.

In a country once dotted with old Catholic missions, Muslim madrasas and Hindu schools, the American school formally known as Georgetown International Academy is the oldest private school in Guyana.

Guyanese children were once again welcomed to enroll when the Jagan government allowed private education in the country. Many new private schools have since been established. But identifying them can be tricky. Nationalized schools retained their former names and remain government schools today, So many government schools around Georgetown bear Christian, Hindu and Islamic names. Some are still located adjacent to churches, mosques and temples.

A footnote on Burnham’s ban of wheat and its impact on one Kansas City company

When Burnham banned wheat products from Guyana, he ironically undermined a partially nationalized milling industry he himself had established – in cooperation with a Kansas City company. The National Milling Company of Guyana (NAMILCO) was established in 1969 to process imported wheat. Until then, flour had been imported from various sources and without a predictable supply chain or stable prices. Operating and partly owning the new NAMILCO was Seaboard Corporation of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. The public/private partnership proved successful and Guyanese enjoyed a stable and reliable supply of locally-milled flour for making bread and roti. However 13 years later, Burnham banned wheat in a fanciful effort to stimulate the local economy by cutting off colonial products.

Predictable events followed:

A thriving underground economy and runaway inflation resulted as business people procured foreign exchange on the black-market and smuggled products into Guyana. Customs and Police targeted flour for seizures as suppliers and consumers defied the ban. NAMILCO was asked to mill rice into flour which was intended as a substitute for wheaten flour but this failed since rice lacked the gluten vital to bread making.

Seaboard Corp maintained a skeleton staff at NAMILCO and experimented unsuccessfully with alternatives to wheat flour. Burnham died and the ban was reversed four years later.

The National Milling Company of Guyana remains in operation today as a subsidiary of the Shawnee Mission-based Seaboard Corp.

Bonus photos: My family paying our respects at Forbes Burnham’s final resting place inside Georgetown Botanical Gardens.

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While calypso singers laugh at them: Satire in the music of Guyana and the West Indies

Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers

– Bob Dylan, from “Desolation Row”


Calypsonians (from left to right) Lord Kitchener, Lord Superior aka Supie, and Lord Melody in Georgetown, British Guiana before a show in 1962.

The Culture and Style of Calypso.

I’ve said plenty about Guyana’s literature. I haven’t meanwhile neglected my favorite art form as a way of understanding my new home. Even before I arrived in this country, I heard hundreds of Guyanese songs on Spotify, Youtube, and on CDs summoned from the music collections of the Greater Kansas City area public libraries. And I guess it has taken me this long of being immersed in those sounds – calypso, reggae, soca, chutney, mento and more – to gather my thoughts well enough to have anything to say on the vast topic of the music of Guyana and the West Indies.

A librarian should be able to classify calypso and distinguish it from other styles of music, but I still find myself at a loss for where to begin. A song may be worth a thousand such words, and this song represents a revered master calypsonian, Mighty Sparrow, in his prime while typifying much about the whole genre.


The Mighty Sparrow (born Slinger Francisco, 1935.

Listeners will recognize the distinctive rhythms, the Caribbean instrumentation combined with a brass section, and the creole dialect. What may be less apparent but just as essential to calypso is the primacy of the calypsonian’s persona: the aristocratic sobriquet, the self-referential style throughout, the off-the-cuff immediacy of the lyrics, the swaggering braggadocio, the boasting of sexual prowess, the feeling for the listener that a larger-than-life character has your ear in a bar with a crazy story of something that happened to him yesterday. These are common tropes in calypso. But even more essential to calypso’s distinctive flavor – and I only began to notice this after listening for awhile – is the artistry of phrasing and clever use of meter. Calypso’s lyrical poetry only sounds slap-dash. Poets of the style utilize, as much as rhyme itself, the natural fall of vocal chords on certain syllables to create pleasing symmetry within verses. Within symmetrically-metered verse, they often gratuitously toss rhyming words in wholly unexpected places. And they add or subtract the number of syllables or modify the sounds syllables make to heighten the sense of controlled chaos. The effect can be jarring or invigorating. With or without steel pan drum accompaniment, the wild, playful rhythmic quality of a steel drum band pervades calypso phrasing.


Granada-born calypsonian, Mighty Bomber, performing in Trinidad.

For the casual listener, I believe the sound of calypso has a lot to do with the instrumentation and arrangements. But once calypso gets in your blood, a skilled calypsonian cutting rhymes over a strumming guitar is all it takes to get the distinctive vibe rolling.

Calypsonians clearly knew what they were doing with their poetry. The most revered among them sprinkled every verse of their songs with fresh innovations of rhyme and meter while accusing rivals by name of being derivative. (see eg. Lord Melody’s roasting of Mighty Sparrow in Cowboy Sparrow and Mighty Sparrow’s subsequent calypso, Reply to Lord Melody). Regional competitiveness and personal rivalries between the massive egos of Mighty Sparrow, Lord Melody, Duke of Iron, Roaring Lion, Mighty Panther and so many others drove them to push the style to new levels of mastery.


Calypsonians, (left to right) Lord Invader, Mighty Growler, Attila the Hun, and Roaring Lion at a show at Waller Air Force Base in Trinidad in 1943.

Calypso music provides a logical jumping-off point for delving into the music of Guyana. When Lord Kitchener issued his call to the four corners of the Calypso Kingdom, he sings “I have invited Jamaica, lovely Trinidad, Barbados, and Demerara.” Trinidad is ground zero for calypso. But African musicians from the British colony of Demerara (now part of independent Guyana) were, from the 1920s on, contributing in essential ways to the alchemy that molded calypso’s distinctive sound. And calypso is more than a place to launch into Guyana’s music; the Guyanese calypsonian is no shadowy artifact of history. She lives, he laughs, and still occasionally pisses off the politicians and scandalizes the pious (see below for more on the tradition of calypso in Guyana today).

Bob Dylan’s reference to calypso singers in “Desolation Row,” (in the same verse as he imagines a face-off between those allegedly higher-brow poets, Pound and Eliot) goes to the heart of the calypso style in another way: its comedy, and especially its satire. Calypso music, even narrowed to its golden age of 1940’s – 50’s, represents a vast, diverse body of work. But the comedy that pervades calypso is “the right handle to take hold of the bundle,” to borrow a phrase from a literary critic.


The Duke of Iron (born Cecil Anderson, 1906 – 1968)

For comparison’s sake, consider another style of music also born in the Caribbean but having today far more widespread global influence than calypso. I mean reggae music, of course. Calypso is, if not the mother, at least the senior auntie (see more below on calypso’s confusing family tree). But, unlike calypso, reggae music is so often moralistic, even preachy. Meanwhile the calypsonian jester – though often employing far more complicated arrangements,  rhythms, and lyrical subtleties than reggae attempts – rarely takes himself half as seriously as does the reggae evangelist. There are no taboos and few morals in calypso. Everything in the human experience is both open for discussion and fodder for laughs.

Perhaps because calypso’s roots are in the observance of Carnival, a time when celebrants purge themselves of carnality by giving those impulses free reign, calypso functions as a bacchanal airing of dirty laundry.  Reggae music offers humanity hope and redemption, while calypso singers laugh at them. Calypso is not exactly hopeless, for it is almost always a defiantly joyful sort of music. But where reggae is profound and spiritual, calypso is topical and carnal. Calypso grounds itself in the real world and its day-to-day problems. Calypsonians complain about the world mostly for the sake of finding it all so hilarious. Calypso grapples with heavy subjects, but usually with an attitude of at-least-we-can-laugh futility.


A Review of the the Comedy and Objects of Frequent Ridicule in Calypso with Examples

The political satire of calypso

Carmel_Mark_Sparrow_INT_5Here is the aformetioned, Mighty Sparrow, with a calypso No Doctor, No (The Situation in Trinidad) commenting on corruption in the local government and ridiculing lying politicians who promised him one thing in September and then “went and raise up the taxi fare.” He also laughs in a song Short Little Shorts at the colonial governor for legalizing Bermuda shorts just so he can ogle the girls who want to wear them. Lord Invader has an idea for how to address rising crime in “The Old-time Cat-o’-nine: Beat them bad and they bound to change their mind.” The rhythm of Mighty Spoiler’s delivery is on point in Magistrate Try Himself, a hilarious calypso that mocks the very notion of a fair and impartial judge. Lord Commander, in an epic take-down, mocks the entire criminal justice system – the cops, the judges, the lawyers and the business community which profits.  Commander sneers, “Police should be merry when somebody violate the law/Because that is what the government is paying them for.” Posted below, his “No Crime, No Law” is an explosive introduction to real calypso, a revelation for those who associate the style of music with Harry Belafonte’s polished, folksy crooning. It’s plausible to imagine Lord Commander’s blistering, machine gun delivery of this calypso set over a hip hop beat and titled “No Crime, No Law (The Situation in Ferguson).” (Here’s a webpage where you can play the track and read the lyrics together.) Later, below, I will consider the irony that this is the kind of music that was later repackaged as a sophisticated, carefree music for the cultural exposure of Caribbean vacationers.

Calypsonians often commented with jokes about international affairs as well. English colonial rulers are satirized by the calypsonians’ very assumption of lordly titles. Nazis and Hitler were ridiculed as in Lord Melody’s “Berlin on a Donkey” (not on Youtube) which tells the story of  a man who tries to go and tell Hitler what he thinks of him.” It begins:

I went to Berlin on a donkey/ One a Hitler’s boy try to stop me/ I give him the achtung as he wish/ He said ‘what you selling?’, I said codfish.

The absurdities proliferate from there. The refrain consists of gibberish made up of what an English-creole-speaking Trinidadian thinks German sounds like in order to fool the Nazi guard. But Hitler finally says to send back the codfish, so the calypsonian kills a random Nazi youth instead “because he insulted me donkey.” Russians are hated, not for their Communism, but because “they went and put that poor puppy in a satellite.” Lord Invader mocks, below, the American GIs stationed in Trinidad during World War II for their whoring with local girls and for chasing their rum with coke.

Even the British royal family were fair game for laughs. Here’s Lord Caresser from Trinidad, a British colony at the time, laughing about Edward’s abdication of the throne. (This song, sometimes titled “Love, Only Love,” got around. Caresser’s recording is the oldest, but don’t miss Lord Flea’s hilarious version, or that of Blind Blake and the Royal Victorian Hotel Calypsonians.)


Carmel_Mark_Sparrow_INT_3Race in calypso

Racial stereotypes are low hanging fruit for comedians. The calypsonians make fun of everyone around them,  their stuffy English rulers, the “coolies,” the “chiney men,” and, most of all, themselves. Lord Cobra jokes about a white man receiving a heart transplant from an African donor in the song Negro Heart. Lord Beginner has a calypso I can’t find on Youtube called “Straight Hair Girl” which mocks the African women who bleach and straighten their hair. Mighty Sparrow sings:

I envy the Congo man/ I wish I could go and shake he hand/ He eat until his stomach upset/ And I never eat a white man yet.

Kitchener’s chin is up as he faces the reality of his lot in the song If You’re Brown. He laughs at a mixed race woman trying to pass herself off as white in If You’re Not White, You’re Black. Lord Beginner is more hopeful but still humorous in this calypso about mixed-race marriages.



d38dbaf9bda08fb80fed369fa898a312--vinyl-cover-calypsoSex and the double entendre in calypso 

Calypso is like the porn bloopers of erotica. Sex is for laughs. Many are jokes about consent or the lack of it, as in Kitch, I Beg You To Take it Easy by Lord Kitchener. Sometimes the jokes are subtle; see all the that’s-what-she-said penis jokes in The Big Bamboo by the Duke of Iron. Or they can be extremely graphic as in this song about a housewife who admires an electrician’s screwdriver: “When she saw the size of the head/ she like it big, glossy and red” and begs him to “put in a good screw before you go.” Mighty Dictator’s calypso Mathematical Brother includes the bawdy lyric, “John Brown was 83/ He married Annabella she was just twenty/ He died of mathematics trying to see/ How many times 83 can go into twenty.” In the song Goaty (Mister Leave Me Animal), Mighty Sparrow recounts the afternoon he woke up to “hear me goat bawling out like Tarzan.” He “pushed his head outside to see what was happenin’,” and my gentle readers can probably guess what he saw a neighbor doing to his goat. Charlie Binger’s Six & Count Lasher’s calypso “Miss Constance” mines the metaphor of a footrace with a woman for myriad jokes about sexual endurance, premature ejaculation, condom problems, and more. Sadly, it’s not on Youtube, but here’s a sample of the lyrics:

I started off quite easy/ Confident of victory/ When the first lap ended/ I was feeling splendid/ But in the second lap rain start drizzlin’/ Miss Constance passed me as if she was flyin’/ I will never forget/ The way she opened up when the track got wet/ She wanted to lap me apparently/ So I got up and with a winning mind/ I made a terrific drive from behind/ The winner no one could tell/ We were coming in together when I hear the bell.

I could go on with examples like that all day, but finally here’s the good “Dr. Kitch” again. Lord Kitchener, by this time, was a renowned nightclub performer based in London with dozens of records and live BBC broadcasts under his belt. Princess Margret was a fan. (See below for more about the calypso invasion of Great Britain.) This is a song about anal sex.



Lord Kitchener in 1942. Born Aldwin Roberts (1922 – 2000)

Gender and misogyny in calypso

Women are mocked, objectified, worshiped and occasionally loved and respected in classic calypso. The song, Woman’s Figure, lists the desired measurements for waist, hips and bust if you wish to be Kitchener’s girlfriend. Roaring Lion prefers ugly women, at least for marrying (this calypso, recorded in 1937, was later popularized by an American rock-n-roll singer, Jimmy Soul, in the 1960s. Roaring Lion was not credited or paid. This kept happening to calypsonians. See more below on calypso’s unattributed appropriation below.). Wilmoth Houdini, in a frequently sampled calypso from 1931, thinks the sweetest women in the world are black. Lord Beginner appreciates women’s contributions to society in the song Housewives. The Duke of Iron sings “that the women of today are smarter than men in every way” in the song Man Smart/Woman Smarter, but the whole set up is really a vicious, back-handed compliment. Kitchener grapples with the question of who he would save first if his wife and mother were drowning. He decides, “I can always get another wife, but I can never get another mother in my life.” In a similar vein, Mighty Sparrow sings that men should “forget them jagabats and all them Jezebels and make sure your mommy okay.” (Here’s Mighty Bomber with a definition of jagabat if that’s a new term for some of my readers.) Yes, even when calypsonians are sweet about their mamas, there may be some sly misogyny in the subtext.

p1520848Calypso Rose won Trinidad’s Road March Song competition in 1977, the first woman to take one of calypso’s highest honors (after she won, organizers changed the name of a competition that had been running since the 1920’s from Calypso King to Calypso Monarch). She had been giving it back to men for a long time. In 1955, she recorded “Glass Thief,” probably the first calypso to criticize rather than relish gender inequality (regrettably not on Youtube). In a 1966 live recording of a calypso competition, the announcer invites her to the stage by saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we change the sex.”  He calls her “the only authentic female calypsonian in the world.” She takes the stage and rips into her empowering calypso, A Man is a Man.

A man is a man/ No mind what his profession/ You must use your discretion/ Know that man can give you satisfaction.

A man is a man/ If he have one foot or one hand/ Big belly man you must understand/ I am sure you could give me satisfaction.

By the way, though all of the men featured here have either long since died or retired, Calypso Rose is still doing her thing as an elder stateswoman of calypso. She even has a new record produced by Manu Chao. Here she is in 2016 throwing down with a taunt that dates back to Lord Executor in 1937 (“They say I reign too long, forgetting that me constitution is strong”).

Them foolish and petty men/ I don’t worry ’bout them/ They been trying to take me down/ But to the end I retain me crown.



Guyanese calypsonian, Lord Canary, born Malcom Corrica

Homosexual and transgender humor in calypso

Homosexuals are the object of more than a few jokes in calypso. Guyanese Lord Canary complains of being sodomized by a homosexual doctor in Dr. Beckles. (Lord Canary says rival Guyanese calypsonian, King Fighter, goes to the same doctor and “takes it with a smile.” Here’s the accused King Fighter with a calypso about a trip to Suriname.) Lord Invader has a story about a brief (but apparently enjoyable) dalliance with a transvestite in My Experience on the Reeperbahn. Before he converted to the Muslim faith and became the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan was a calypsonian who went by the name The Charmer. Here he is with a song making fun of a “certain person who wit dis modern surgery/ change him from he to she.” The Charmer is very curious to “get a peak” at the results of the surgery for himself.

charmerLouis Farrakhan, everybody:

He tried to live the life of a man/ But that was not in accord with nature’s plan/ So he underwent this operation/ And came back home to shock the nation/ But behind that lipstick, rouge, and paint/ I got to know: Is she is, or is she ain’t?


Extempo Dueling and the Calypso Roast

Here’s Mighty Sparrow and Lord Melody making riotous fun of each other, fighting in the captain’s tower, as it were. The picong duel is a tradition in which two calypsonians extemporaneously volley rhyming insults at each other:

Sparrow, you shouldn’t tell me that at all/ I minded you when you was small/ Many a nights I mash your head/ When I cross to go on your mama in the bed.

For another must-hear example of the calypso precursor to the”rap battle,” see My Intention is War featuring Lord Invader exchanging free-style calypso insults with Mighty Dictator. The lyrics are worth examining at length because they so well demonstrate the fluency of the calypsonians’ language, their innovations of poetry, and how much American rap music owes to these old calypsonians of the West Indies.

Dictator, you insolent boobie, delirious mule/ Audacious slum monger you’re out of rule/ Your abnormal expressions worth no while hearing/ Descend at once, Dictator, and stop your sneering/ You gabilous squabbler illiterate ape/ Now you are one in a terrible scrape/ Dictator, you resemble Manuel Gogo/ A fowl thief from Tobago/ My intention is war.

Calypso singing is such a technical thing/ It was not made for one and every to sing/ How by the heavens can this songsters win/ Except by necromancy that is a sin/ My head is like a book that is well compact/ My tongue like a gun that yet never snap/ And I’m sorry for Dictator if he molest with Invader/ My intention is war.


Jokes, Caricatures and Confessional Comedy in Calypso

Countless calypso numbers are really the telling of one long joke, such as the song posted below, “The Bedbug Song” by Mighty Panther, which tells a joke about a man who decides he wants to be reincarnated as a bedbug so he can “bite dem fat ladies on der bumpers.” Jokes about bedbugs, fleas and other biting insects abound, often with sexual double meanings. The Naughty Little Flea is an extremely catchy, charming little song about a flea tormenting a dog. Muriel and the Bug celebrates a bedbug that “found his way to Muriel’s treasure/ that bug is really clever/ To find that area.”

Lord Melody’s “Wau Wau is Me (Shame and Scandal in the Family)” is a joke about a man who can’t find a wife because “When the papa see the gyal he shout, “Oh no/
That gyal is your sister but your mama don’t know!” Like any good joke, the song establishes a humorous pattern, only to blow it up with the punchline which occurs when the boy finally goes to his mama: “The mama she laughed and said, “Go man go/ Your daddy ain’t your daddy but your daddy don’t know!”

Many other songs recount a funny situation in the life of the calypsonian in a sort of confessional style such as this story about the time Kitchener’s girlfriend stole Kitchener’s wife’s lingerie in the song “Come Back With Me Wife’s Nightie”

Calypso songs are often full of caricatures in order to laugh at ordinary people. Here, in a favorite calypso of mine, Lord Cobra loses his girlfriend to a rival. But he has his revenge by immortalizing his rival’s over-sized schnoz in a calypso titled “Big Nose Harold.” The incorporation of banjo and what sounds like a gut-bucket bass for rhythm creates a marvelous vibe for this calypso. (The flip side of this 45, included in the clip, is a comical flaming of Mighty Sparrow, and another amazing instrumental arrangement.)


The wry and sardonic sorrow of the calypsonians

CaptureCalypsonians aren’t always trying to be funny. Lord Executor’s 1937 calypso My Troubles With Dorothy comes from a place of serious mental anguish. The strange, fermented harmonies of the chorus might be some of the saddest sounds humans have made. The song concludes with a bleak vision: a woman begging her man to beat and brutalize her. But each verse posits an absurdity or a bizarre bit of word play as if Executor is casting about for a way to laugh through his despair.

Now Dorothy a nice high brown/ Weighing two hundred and sixteen pounds/ And I the Executor featherweight/ She made me tremble like an earthquake

Adding to the odd experience of hearing this remarkable track: Lord Executor sounds a lot like Eric Cartman from South Park to me.

Many calypsos are conventionally beautiful pieces of music. But the prevailing authenticity and uncommon honesty of the form often slips in wry bits of unintended comedy. This Lord Invader song about Barbados is Exhibit A of how beautiful calypso music can be. “Barbados” is an almost formulaic song about longing to return to a lover and a place of former happiness. But in true calypso form, the chorus throws in a little surprise: Invader sweetly pleads with his lover there, “Please divorce your husband.”


The Calypso Tradition in Guyana Today

For a brief, comedic summary of recent Guyanese politics from the perspective of one frustrated calypsonian, look no further than Guyanese, King Parai, and his hilarious song Fight Down. The music video for the song features the ghost of Guyanese independence leader and former president, Cheddi Jagan, appearing to the calypsonian in a dream to dress down current PPP/C party leaders.

Another calypsonian from Guyana, De Professor, won the Guyana Calypso Monarch competition in 2013 with his song God Nah Sleep which satirizes the government and was later banned from the airwaves in Guyana as reported in a worthwhile New York Times piece that analyses the calypso tradition as it persists in Guyana.

A few weeks ago, an MP of the opposition party in Guyana, one Juan Edghill, created a commotion in parliament surrounding a dispute over a procedural measure. In the end, the police were involved, people got physical with each other, and accusations flew in all directions. Less than three weeks later, Youtube already hosts a couple of different calypso music videos offering opinions on the Juan Edgehill affair, including a song called “Juan and the Speaker” by Niomi Alsopp which was only posted eight days ago.

Both videos include “Calypso 2018” in the title and tags because they are official competition entries and will be performed live at events to be held as part of Carnival festivities, or Mashramani as they known in Guyana. Another less political 2018 entry laments the decline of the calypso tradition in Guyana. The woman, Abigail James, sings that both of her parents were calypsonians and vows to “do something to make calypso live.” But as her calypso’s title says, even she “ain’t singin’ no old time calypso.” And neither are many others of the best musicians in Guyana. Traditional calypso is not the style of music one hears on the streets of Georgetown these days outside of special events, or when I drive around with the sounds cranked up in my Rav4.

What one hears instead – blaring from houses, minibuses, at the market, almost everywhere in fact (Georgetown throbs with music at all hours) – in addition to globally ubiquitous hip hop and reggae, is soca. By some accounts a merging of soul and calypso, or “the soul of calypso,” soca is a contemporary style derived from calypso, reggae dancehall, hip hop, Latin American music, and Indian music. A pioneer of the form was Ras Shorty I, aka, Lord Shorty who from the beginning experimented with Indian instrumentation and Hindi lyrics set to a calypso beat, lending credence to the theory that Indian influences accounts for soca’s diversion from traditional calypso. The strong influence of disco in early soca seems apparent to me as well. Probably the best known soca song, Feeling Hot Hot Hot, is from 1983. But for the soca sounds one is likelier to hear on the streets of Georgetown today, I would offer the following example because this artist, Trinidadian Machel Montano, is the closest soca has to a Bob Marley figure, and he recently sold out the national cricket stadium in Guyana, the largest venue in the country. I’ve heard the song a few hundreds times whether I wanted to or not.

Also don’t forget, Guyana’s ethnic majority is East Indians whose ancestors arrived as indentured servants following the abolition of slavery in the colonies by the British empire. Traditional calypso arose among the Africans, but soca music is rooted and thrives among both Afro- and Indo-Guyanese people. A subset of soca, sometimes called chutney soca or sokha, incorporates heavier elements of traditional Indian music, sometimes placing them at the fore. Where but in a place where the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured servants are striving together to create a nation could something like this sort of music even happen?



On Calypso Misappropriation.

511sMErqMIL._SY355_I’m not usually one to complain about cultural appropriation. I generally approve of artists stealing and borrowing from whatever cultural sources inspire them. But the history of calypso offers some particularly egregious cases of whole songs being ripped off, sometimes turned substantively on their heads, and used without giving credit to the creators.

Calypso enjoyed a craze period in post-war United States. Harry Belafonte and  many other folk and popular  performers presented sanitized, commercial calypso music to wide acclaim. Hollywood produced several films with calypso in the title and featured in the soundtrack. A number of established popular and jazz recording artists – Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, The Kingston Trio, The Andrew Sisters, and many more – put out calypso singles or whole albums to tap into the commercial appeal. Even my favorite Beach Boys song is, it turns out, just another old calypso song. Maya Angelou recorded a calypso album under the name Miss Calypso. Weirdest of all, the movie star, Robert Mitchum, put out a calypso concept album titled Calypso Is Like So… (and if I’m honest I’ll admit some of it is not too bad).

The re-brand marketed calypso as sexy, suave, sophisticated vacation music. Not bad for humble bacchanal songs created by former slaves.

But very little of the acclaim and wealth accumulated in the American calypso craze found its way to the calypsonians of the West Indies, even though many of their compositions were becoming famous, often completely without attribution. Americans behaved as though all of calypso was a giant catalog of Caribbean folk songs existing in the public domain. But many of the songs they adapted were the intellectual property of men and woman who were still alive and working steady gigs to support themselves and families.

Calypsonians frequently borrowed and adapted from each other. Mighty Sparrow once warned his friend Lord Canary that he should move from Georgetown to Port of Spain because many young Trinidad calypsonians were claiming Canary’s material as their own. Canary stayed in Guyana and was proud that his calypsos were well-known in Trinidad. Calypso was mostly a labor of love, even for the biggest names in the West Indies. Calypso recordings are rare well into the 1950’s except for those made in London and New York. So songs spread to wider audiences only because calypsonians stole from each other. A widely-adapted calypso was a trophy for its creator. No one got rich from calypso until the American recording industry got in on the game.

feistadnewEven more offensive from my admittedly privileged vantage is the abuse American adapters inflicted on the songs themselves. Any casual listener to “Rum and Coca-Cola” by Lord Invader knows the song is about the corrupting influence of the large U.S. military presence on Trinidad during WWII. The song speaks out in a jesting way about the feelings of inferiority men in Trinidad felt due to U.S. military presence in their country. But the hit version released by the Andrew Sisters in 1945 and copyrighted as an original work by their producer is a chipper little song about a tasty new way to drink rum and a fun place to take a vacation. The disorderly claypso-patterned phrasing of the original verses mocking a powerful foreign military power is replaced with bland drivel and kitsch set in white-bread meter. The song sat at the top of the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. Coca-Cola Co. and rum distilleries embraced the free advertising. Millions of dollars were made. Lord Invader sued with the assistance of an American lawyer and was awarded a one-time $150,000 settlement with the Americans retaining the copyright and royalties.


The Calypso Invasion: The Migration of Calypsonians to London and a Colliding of Worlds.

Long before Americans developed a taste for watered-down faux-calypso, Londoners enjoyed a heady sampling of the real thing. A cadre of West Indian calypsonians – several of those cited here – made their way to England as part of a program to import laborers from the colonies.


Lord Melody and Lord Kitchener

The calypsonians thrived in London. They performed in pubs, and in live radio broadcasts of West Indian music hosted by BBC. In time they made records and developed a large fan base in London. A newsreel clip exists, posted above, of Lord Kitchener, himself, coming off the boat, claiming the title King of Calypso, and breaking out in song for the cameras. They were the glamorous bad boys whose charisma, sexual frankness and lack of reverence appealed to many young Londoners. The live broadcast recordings and albums produced by the calypso masters in the 40s and 50s signify a golden age of calypso. Because calypso was and still is a performance art, thriving mainly in competitions and festivals, without the London recordings, the documentation of calypso from this era would be much sparser. In those recordings we find the great calypso masters applying their wit and unique style to commenting, just as always, on anything that momentarily amused them.


Queen Sālote Tupou III

One such moment led to a very happy colliding of worlds for me. Sālote Tupou III, the reigning monarch of Tonga attended the coronation of Elizabeth II. When a torrential downpour opened up on her parade, Elizabeth and others in the parade took cover. But the beautiful Tongan queen carried on in her open carriage. Her regal bearing in the downpour provoked a great deal of commentary. The symbolism of the moment is seared by pride into the consciousness of the Tongan people. And, what do you know, a calypsonian was on hand to witness the moment and, of course, turned it into an amusing song. It’s a small world after all, made so, of course, by the far reach of the British Empire (although my Tongan friends would correctly point out, “Excuse me, fakamolemole, but we were never colonized.”)

For much more on this crucial period, and the evolution of calypso, I recommend the invaluable article “London is the Place for Me: Caribbean Music in the Context of Empire, 1900 – 1960.” by John Cowley. The full text is online at the link.


Calypso’s Family Tree: On the Evolution of Caribbean Musical Styles, Noting Guyana’s Role, and Touching as well on Guyanese Shanto Music and Jamaican Mento Music.

Calypso evolved from kaiso music, the oldest distinctively Caribbean style of music. The basic rhythms of kaiso and later of calypso were carried to the West Indies by West African Kongo people who had been abducted and enslaved. As in the United States, African slaves brought against their will to contribute uncompensated labor, also contributed a music that proved a high water mark if not the paramount cultural achievement of the entire region.

Among other African musical styles percolating all over the Caribbean, calypso benefited early from the cosmopolitan Carnival celebrations which drove its evolution, diversified its influences, and allowed for its wide distribution around the region and in important cultural centers. Lord Christo’s “Jacob from Panama,” a personal favorite, celebrates calypso’s diverse influences. In addition to the Latin flavors which are apparent in the style of the song, Americans Glen Miller and Charlie Parker are referenced in the lyrics as well. Included in calypso’s regular orbit were the other Carnival celebrations around the Caribbean including New Orleans. In addition to London, the city of New York – always a magnet and melting pot for every cultural innovation happening anywhere in the world – was instrumental as a place where West Indian musicians occasionally came and went to participate in Carnival-themed events. While there, early calypsonians were exposed to unfamiliar varieties of African music simultaneously taking root in the new world. In 1922, a West Indian musician from St Kitts even shared a New York City address with Sydney Bechet, the jazz clarinetist from New Orleans (Cowley).

Understanding all the influences and cross-pollination that occurred within Caribbean music can be a challenge. However, calypsonians are to be admired for never hiding their sources of inspiration. Instead, whenever they were genuinely impressed by some styling they wanted to incorporate, they very often wrote a look-what-I-can-do song about it.

Lord Kitchener was enamored with the American bebop jazz he heard in England and wrote Bebop Calypso in which he pays tribute to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and other jazz legends. Below is another explosive example of cross-pollination: Count Sticky and his Calypsonians have the opportunity to jam with a “chico from Puerto Rico” and his rumba band. The result is a 45 vinyl disc bearing three minutes of unclassifiable wonder. This is one of the best songs I’ve heard anywhere.

Guyana played an early role in contributing calypso’s later infusion with jazzy, big band arrangements. As early as the 1920’s, performers from British Guiana in particular, among them a band leader from Demerara, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, were performing early calypso songs as part of a vaudeville-style revue before British audiences in London.

While in London, Snakehips Johnson, who was also a dancer, expanded his band’s repertoire to include American jazz standards and big band jazz arrangements of his own songs. He was a central and influential character in West Indian music for many years since most Caribbean players who made their way to London during the 30’s and early 40’s played in his band which was called Snakehips Johnson & The West Indian Orchestra. Snakehips Johnson was later an early civilian casualty in the London Blitz when a German bomb landed directly on the nightclub stage – in the Cafe de Paris – where he and his band were entertaining.

A calypsonian from British Guiana, Bill Rogers, born Augustus Hinds in 1906, performed all over the Caribbean and in England and the United States. He made several recordings with RCA in 1934, and won the Trinidad Calypso King competition in 1937. He began his career touring Demerara, Berbice, and Dutch Guiana with a group called the Merry Makers beginning in the 1920’s and throughout the 30’s with a vaudeville show that included calypso, dancing and magic. He is sometimes called the king of shanto, a distinctively Guyanese calypso-style he pioneered. As far as I can tell, shanto recordings from the 1930’s are sparse and more or less limited to Bill Roger’s own. His calypsos are rooted in geography with many references to Guyanese places, customs and foods. A great example is BG Bargee which is a local recipe (BG is British Guiana) for how to prepare callaloo comically set to music (the clip at the link helpfully includes the lyrics for the fast-paced song). The Weed Song is about a woman selling medicinal herbs on the streets of Georgetown (the song was adapted by Harry Belafonte). Below is a recording of a local broadcast exploring the legacy of Bill Rogers. Many of the remarks are insightful and the quality of the recordings of the included songs is better than anywhere else online.

(Bill Roger’s son, Roger Hinds, is also a local Guyana entertainer and won the Chutney Soca Monarch competition in Trinidad a few years ago.)

I’ve possibly implied above that I think calypso is superior to reggae in some ways. So I should clarify that and acknowledge that what Jamaicans did with calypso, even before they deconstructed it and created ska, rocksteady and reggae, is nothing short of amazing to me (as a point of historical interest, here is a song by Lord Lebby and the Jamaican Calypsonians which is the oldest to reference Rastafari theology in Caribbean music; lo, hear the sounds of reggae being born). This is possibly because what the former slaves of Jamaica were doing musically, with a style they called mento, was novel to begin with. Some argue that Jamaican calypso is really just mento re-branded as calypso in order to more easily sell it to tourists. Maybe so. Speaking in the broadest terms, Jamaican mento, which could be as old as calypso and has a similar West African lineage, evolved in greater insularity from other African Caribbean influences and away from the carnival tradition. When I listen to early mento, though the rhythms and style are reminiscent of calypso, the purity of the West African sound is closer to the front, at least to my ears. Paradoxically, I also seem to detect stronger European folk influences than are present in the calypso originating elsewhere. (This Jamaican song, which includes the terrific lyric “Mama don’t need no gin, no whisky to make her frisky” sounds like it might of come out of the hills of West Virginia but for the references to coconuts and “coolie rice.”) Based on my review of the literature, most historians seem to accept that calypso predates mento and that the former heavily influenced the latter. If true, this is only important because it would clarify that reggae really is descended from Trinidadian calypso rather than having evolved independently from West African music.

Interestingly, Jamaican mento/calypso musicians showed particular interest in Guianese Bill Rogers’ shanto sound and his catalog of songs recorded in the 1930’s. Jamaican Count Lasher recorded The Weed Song. Jamaican Lord Lebby covered his BG Bargee. Both performers’ work represent bridges between Jamaican mento/calypso to ska music, an early style of reggae. So Guyana’s home-grown style of calypso may have directly contributed to reggae’s genetic make-up via shanto’s apparent influence on mento.

Whatever the case, Jamaican calypso is immediately recognizable and distinguishable from calypso created anywhere else. The Jamaican mento/calypso artists were always doing their own thing. And I have to say, the Jamaican sound really appeals to me. I look forward to studying mento more closely and the Jamaican branch of Caribbean music’s family tree. Here is my favorite mento song so far. In fact, this again is another of my favorite songs, period. It’s titled, “Hold Him Joe (Me Donkey Want Water).”


Take it from me, calypso can really get into your blood. Like all great musical styles, calypso creates within a person an entirely new way of feeling, of being in the world. My study of calypso music has been enjoyable for the sake of learning to appreciate and enjoy a style of music obscure to me before and that I had hardly considered. I find myself missing calypso now if I haven’t heard some in awhile. And I have accumulated a whole host of favorite songs and performers many of which I compiled in this post. But other musical vistas open as well, and I look forward to learning more about the wonderfully diverse music of the Caribbean and the world.

I made a Youtube playlist of most of the songs featured here.

A footnote about Bob Dylan because it’s my blog and I can write about whatever I want.

Bob Dylan recorded a calypso in the late 60s titled “Joshua Gone Barbados.” The song was recorded in the Basement Tapes sessions with The Band but went unreleased until Bootleg Series Volume 11 came out in 2014. Even then the song was only included in the more expensive expanded box set of the release. I have it, of course. But the track is still rather rare and not on Youtube.

In true calypso form the song mocks the cowardice of “Joshua, the head of government,” who called for sugarcane workers to “strike for better pay” and then skipped town when plantation owners began brutalizing the cane cutters who had gone on strike. The song references a Georgetown, but alas, the song is not about Demerara sugar plantations. Georgetown is also the name of the largest city on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.

A lot of misery in Georgetown,
You can hear the women bawl.
Joshua’s gone Barbados,
Like he don’t care at all.
Yea, Joshua gone Barbados, just like he don’t know,
Poor people on St Vincent ain’t got nowhere to go.

Folk singer, Eric von Schmidt, wrote the song imitating the calypso style. You can listen to that if you like, but trust me Dylan’s version has a truer calypso vibe. Johnny Cash sang it, too and his version is quite nice.

One more song for the road.

I mentioned in an earlier post about being stopped at a checkpoint because police were looking for escaped convicts after a riot and fire in a large Georgetown prison. Here’s a Guyanese performer, Alabama, with a reggae tune about the situation and a plea to Guyana’s president: “Fix it, Granger/ Fix it, Brigadier.” Per my observation, reggae music is every bit as popular as soca in Georgetown, certainly more so in some neighborhoods.


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A playlist from Jah

While walking on the beach in Georgetown – along Kingston not far from the Pegasus – a glint in the sand caught my eye. There, half buried, I found a CD labeled by hand with a marker, Jah! Rastafari.

Guessing it was music, I put the disc in my pocket hoping it might still be playable.

Later I loaded the disc into my computer. My computer complained for awhile with some grinding sounds. I was about to give up. Then it found the files and began to play. I was amazed by what I heard.

The first track opened with a gentle piano melody and a man’s solemn voice speaking, “For out of the mouths of babes and sucklings art thou ordained strength to still thine enemies and their avengers.” Then that classic, always strangely comforting, off-beat reggae rhythm drops, and the band breaks into praising chorus. “For when we call him Rastafari, watch how weak they tremble; heathen nah like Jah name.” The melody of the song, “New Name,” is one of the most sweetly beautiful I’ve heard. I was hooked from the beginning.

The next track, a gorgeously haunting song called “Zion Land (We Want To Go),” creates an otherworldly atmosphere of longing with its three opening chords. I can’t decipher the combination of stringed instruments used to create the lush wall of sound underlying the track. The vocal harmonies, as well, grow richer as the song meditatively unwinds. This sublime arrangement transcends reggae. (The arrangement evolved over years of performing the song. The earliest version, also wonderful, typifies a more bare-bones reggae style.)

And then along comes the amazing and surprising third track, the song “Holy Mount Zion.” Certainly the first song to simultaneously remind me of Tongan church music, Algerian pop, and The Rolling Stones – all rolled together and seasoned with a vague, reggae vibe.

These songs were all creations, I learned, of a regionally known reggae artist and Ethiopian Orthodox evangelist known as Dadawah. He began recording in the 1970’s under the band name Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus.

After the first few tracks, most of the disc was too scratched up to play, but all of the file names were visible in my media player. So I went searching for the remaining tracks on Youtube. Some of the music is rather rare, but I was able to recreate most of the disc.

My dominant rational side knows I merely stumbled upon an interesting mixed tape CD probably littered on the beach by a Rasta after it quit working for him. But discovering this music as I did – on a shining parchment uncovered before my path by the ocean tides –  arouses my mystical side. I wouldn’t have discovered this wonderful music any other way. The universe wants me to be happy. And I got a sweet playlist from Jah.

Anyway, I’m no Rastafarian convert, but I do believe in these songs.

For those interested, see my one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist titled “A Scratched Up Disc Found on the Beach in Georgetown Guyana.”

Bonus track: Anyone who has been to a holiness revival meeting will know the old-time genre of “altar call” music. A vocalist softly croons or hums a melodious come-to-Jesus hymn while an evangelist, in a highly-stylized oratory, beckons sinners to come forward to pray. This beautiful song, “If Only They Know,” is essentially a come-to-Selassie reggae altar call. “For Jah door is open wide…/ So be wise and step inside/ And do not be like many men/ Have thrown their only chance away.” The organ on this track is magnificent. While listening, can I admit I feel almost persuaded?


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Birds of the Mahaica


Guyana enjoys top-tier renown among one important subset of tourists: bird watchers. The country’s undisturbed rain forests, wetlands and other ecosystems support large numbers of unique and unusual bird species.


Mahaica Tours offer a 5-hour boat tour of the Mahaica River, an offshoot of the Demerara. The tour focuses on spying birds (more than 150 bird species live in the wetlands surrounding the river), but also offers the chance to spot monkeys, manatees, and other mammals. The tour boat drifts down the river with the current for most of the tour, and then speeds back to the starting point. The tour launches from Unity Village, about a 45 minute drive from Georgetown. Expect birding tours to start early, shortly before or right after dawn.


The dark water of the Mahaica perfectly reflects the sky and trees above.

The beautiful Mahaica River is home to people as well. A few homes and small settlements scatter the banks along the tour; our tour crossed paths with boats carrying locals fishing or traveling to and from their homes on the river. Some of the houses upriver look like perfect slices of rustic paradise.


A home on the Mahaica


The tour company provides high-powered binoculars which are essential if you go to see the birds and not just the beautiful river and environs. I also came armed with a copy of Birds of Northern South America, the bible of birding in these parts. Both the book and the binoculars would have proved close to useless without our guide’s knowledge and sharp eyes.


Hoatzin bird

The tour can almost guarantee spotting hoatzin, the national bird of Guyana. Truly an odd bird, the species’ distinctive and solitary family line extends back some 64 million years almost to the dinosaurs. We saw dozens flapping clumsily back and forth along a long stretch of the river bank. Also known as the stink bird, the fermentation of their digestion process emits a strong, unpleasant aroma. Adding to the overall effect, the hoatzin’s noisy call sounds almost like a grunting pig. The hoatzin have endured through the ages despite being a large, mostly flightless ground bird probably because they smell like ass.

To note other frequently sighted species along the Mahaica: gray-breasted crakes, Rufous crab-hawks, silvered antbirds, black-capped donacobius, wing-barred seedeater, point-tailed palmcreeper, Moriche oriole, black hawk-eagle, boat-billed heron, pied water-tyrant, tropical kingbird, and green-rumped parrotlet.



Can you spot the monkeys? Can you spot the hoatzin?

The only creature we saw in greater number than hoatzin were monkeys, mainly the red howler monkey. As our boat drifted down the river, we observed a large group of monkeys sleepily rousing from the night’s sleep clustered together midway up a large tree. Then at the very top we saw one very wakeful monkey apparently on lookout and eyeing us warily.

I can’t overstate how beautiful and peaceful the Mahaica River is with or without the birds, primates and other creatures. One final picture to underscore the point:


A rainbow reflected in the Mahaica

Footnote on birding in Georgetown: One hardly needs leave the city for amazing bird watching in Guyana. Georgetown is a very green city with large, well-distributed tracts of park lands, including the massive Botanical Gardens, acres of which might as well be in the middle of the jungle. Over 200 species of birds live in Georgetown. Most common in my neighborhood are kiskadees. I’ve learned to identify scarlet ibis which I always see flying over the National Aquatics Center pool when I’m there with Sylvie in the early evening. The nearby Promenade Garden attracts flocks of parrots to roost each evening. A large hawk I’ve photographed and identified per the Birds of Northern South America as a black-collared hawk often hunts snakes out of a field next to our house.


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A road trip to Linden, Guyana

I recently became the proud owner of a Toyota Rav4, purchased online from JapaneseVehicles.com and shipped from Japan to Guyana. To celebrate its arrival, Wendy and I drove it to Linden.

I’ve learned a lot about Guyana from Georgetown taxi drivers. Many are friendly with strong political opinions. From them I’ve learned the driving norms of how to cut up to an intersection by using the oncoming lane, how to use sidewalks to avoid speed bumps, even how to greet beautiful women while speeding around them. Georgetown taxi drivers know every shortcut through the worst neighborhoods. A few taxi drivers are even reasonably cautious and might have working seat belts in their taxis. But will I miss them? Only a little.

The very day the Rav4 cleared customs, we steered her headlong into the jungle and went roaring down the longest stretch of paved road leading into the interior of Guyana.


The road to Linden.

Called the Soesdyke-Linden Highway, the road extends 45 paved miles into the interior running roughly parallel to the Demerara River and leading to the second largest city in Guyana and one of the few population centers away from the coast.

The road hasn’t seen significant repairs since 1999. Dips and buckles warp the pavement along most of its miles. Even though the road saves a boat trip, the highway can feel like riding the waves after all.

About halfway to Linden, we came upon a roadblock; men with big guns questioned us about our business on the road. Days before, several maximum security prison inmates had set fire to a Georgetown prison and escaped. So police may have been trying to prevent their flight into the interior. But I’ve also heard random checkpoints aren’t unusual on the the road to Linden.

I’ve previously noted that Linden (still called Mackenzie at the time) was once home to Henri Charrière, the famous escaped convict and author of Pappillon. He was there during one of the town’s boom periods, when demand for bauxite peaked during World War II. Although his memoir is short on details concerning his time there, we know he later fled British Guiana after his various business ventures – including a strip club in Mackenzie – somehow landed him in legal trouble with the British authorities. (For more on Pappillon’s adventures in British Guiana, see my review of Pappillon here, or wait with keen anticipation for the Pappillon novel I am writing.)


Crossing the Demerara at Linden.

Linden (so named in 1970 by then prime minister Linden Forbes Burnham) straddles the Demerara and may in some ways feel vaguely familiar to anyone who has visited a washed-up Rust Belt river town – like, say, Cairo, Illinois. Bauxite mining and logging are still important to Linden’s economy. But several looming abandoned industrial works now watch over the town. People from Linden are proud and determined nonetheless. Many seem to take particular pride in Linden’s rough-around-the-edges reputation. No sleepy backwater, Linden’s streets convey a bustling, lively character full of people doing whatever they can to make ends meet.


Wendy with a coworker in Linden.

We met up with a co-worker of Wendy who lives in Linden. Many like her support themselves here by commuting to jobs on the coast. Fleets of public transport mini-buses ply the Soesdyke-Linden Highway daily carrying workers and professionals to and from Georgetown. The co-worker took us on a tour of the Mackinzie Market, and introduced us to her family who operate a clothing store out of a stall in the market.

We wandered the market and the crumbling, punchy streets of Linden admiring the pluck and industry of the locals. We visited the worthwhile Linden Museum of Industrial and Socio-Cultural Heritage. And we popped in at the Linden Branch of the National Library.


Having a cold one in Linden.

Later we walked down to a stretch of the river bank where river taxis were taking fares to cross to the other side. The Demerara is narrower here than at Georgetown and the small boats charge around 75 cents for a round trip. We crossed and I had a cold GT in a rum shop on the opposite bank.

The pavement ends in Linden but a dirt road carries on deeper into the jungle: through the Iwokrama Forest, across the Rupununi Savannah, and on to Lethem and the Brazilian border. Someday I’ll see for myself where it leads, perhaps all the way to the city of Manaus in Brazil. But on this day, we enjoyed a few more leisurely hours exploring around Linden before turning the Rav4 around. We made it back to Georgetown in time to meet Sylvie’s school bus.


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Guyana’s breathtaking Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls in a day

The premier tourist destination in Guyana is Kaieteur Falls located deep in interior jungle on the Potaro River. Were Kaieteur more accessible, it would undoubtedly be a world famous waterfall. No photo I’ve seen begins to capture its grandeur. Skilled writers stumble over themselves, spouting ecstatic gibberish trying to describe the experience of encountering Kaieteur as it is, where it is, one of the greatest waterfalls in the world surrounded by the jungle-covered Pakaraima Mountains. Simply, there can be no substitute for the experience itself: the thunder and spray, the rush of air, the rainbow flashes, and the mineral-earthy aroma of a mighty river leaping mid-air, then roaring down a dense jungle valley.


Harry on a recent visit to Kaieteur.

British novelist Evelyn Waugh trekked overland to Kaieteur in 1932 when getting there necessitated a caravan of pack animals and indigenous guides. He described the fall in his travel memoir Ninety Two Days. Travel writer, John Gimlette, visited the fall in 2012 for his book, Wild Coast. Filmmaker, Werner Herzog, filmed much of The White Diamond on site at Kaieteur in 2004. Prince Charles visited in 2000. Prince Harry was there a few months ago.

Aside from these famous visitors, what is Kaieteur’s claim to fame? The highest? The biggest? Ranking the size of waterfalls is a tricky business. Judging the length of drop can be subjective since many of the highest waterfalls descend in a series of drops, or their waters tumble over rocks on descent. Another measure, the volume of water, varies by rainfall amounts and is hard to measure with any precision. These caveats aside, Kaieteur can competitively claim to be the largest single-drop waterfall by volume at peak rainy season. Admittedly then, several waterfalls are higher. Other rival waterfalls have a lot more water. Certainly most waterfalls on this scale have roads leading to and away from them. But none in the world offers quite this water combination of volume and free fall.

For me, the real charm of Kaieteur involves its remoteness, the magic of its isolated location surrounded by miles of undeveloped rain forest. Kaieteur (pronounced kai-tchewer) can be accessed overland by boat and hiking on a 7-day guided expedition, camping in the jungle along the way. Or one can fly from Guyana’s Correia Airport at Ogle directly into Kaieteur National Park and enjoy an easy 15 minute hike from the landing strip to the fall.

But even flying requires patience and persistence since the small planes demand a fully-booked flight to make the trip. Tourism is a steady and growing industry in Guyana, but remains a trickle at times. Selling out nine passenger seats on one of these flights is far from a forgone conclusion on any given day. Our flight was booked through Dagron Tours based in Georgetown. I visited their offices to pay in cash as required, our party’s names were added to a list, and we could only hope enough people happened to have the same idea for the same weekend.

We learned the trip was a go on the day before the flight. Dagron provided return transportation to and from the airport. We boarded a Trans Guyana-owned Britten Norman BN-2 Islander.

Twenty minutes flight inland and the coastal wetlands swept up to the Pakaraima foothills. Soon we were flying around peaks and between bluffs. Kaieteur came into view.


The plane touched down at a landing strip in the national park less than an hour after takeoff.

We hiked to three different lookouts of the fall, each closer until we were standing near the edge of the fall in a space that felt like the edge of the world.

I won’t attempt my own ecstatic gibberish here. Kaieteur is beautiful, thrilling and an overwhelming experience.


The plane circled several times around the fall when we took off again. For thrills, the pilot flew the plane so low over the edge of the fall it seemed our landing gear might touch the edge, then dropped altitude down into the misty canyon beneath the fall! While swooping down, I noticed the plane seemed surrounded by, or rather inside of a rainbow.

Our itinerary included an afternoon stop at another set of waterfalls, the Orinduik Falls on the Ireng River which runs along the border between Guyana and Brazil. The same airline offers Kaieteur/Baganara packages. Baganara is a beautiful, relaxing beach resort on an island in the lower Essequibo River. For reasons noted below when discussing Orinduik, Baganara as a second stop-over might be a better option for most travelers.

Flying between Kaieteur and Orinduik, the jungle below thins away, and the mountains smooth. The plane followed the Ireng River’s path through rolling hills of savannah. Nestling between these hills were Amerindian villages and meandering foot paths connecting the villages.


Flying low along the Ireng River – the border of Guyana and Brazil – on the approach to Orinduik.

Upon landing in a grassy field, we were greeted by several small Patamona children who had waded across from a village on the Brazilian side. The children led us to the falls and joined us in swimming in the Ireng River. Indigenous people of the Patamona tribe occupy area villages on both the Brazilian and Guyanese side of the Ireng and cross freely between the countries. This struck me as a beautiful freedom for them since if the country belongs to anybody, it belongs to them. Despite this being an international boundary, no discernible border security infrastructure – or even so much as a road – exists for miles surrounding Orinduik.


Patamona children join us for a swim in the Orinduik Falls.

The Orinduik Falls are wide but no higher than around 80 feet. They fall in a series of steps. The water beneath the falls forms shallow pools with easy currents. We splashed in the cool, cascading water and climbed around on the rocks over and behind the falls.


Swimming at Orinduik Falls.

While there, we were attacked by scores of biting kabouri flies, a common pest in savannah lands. A bite from a kabouri fly stings and can bleed, itches fiercely for weeks, and can take more than a month to heal. Kabouri are extremely aggressive, bite through fabric, and are apparently rather tolerant of deet. Everyone in our party suffered at least dozens of these bites, some were covered.

The flight back to Ogle from Orinduik was close to two hours. We flew through a rain storm. I happened to be in the co-pilots seat for that leg of the trip: the pilot was next to me – cheerful and unperturbed – filling out his flight logs while the plane bounced invisibly along through dense clouds on autopilot all the way back to Ogle.

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An evening on the Georgetown seawall

On any given evening around sundown, many Georgetown residents walk out to the seawall to enjoy the evening breezes and views of the sunset over the ocean.

These photos were taken near the Seawall Grandstand. My daughter had just procured bubbles from a street vendor.

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