Monday, 27 September 2010


My first encounter with Godfrey was the morning after reaching Aishalton. We arrived in the middle of huge centenary celebrations commemorating Father Cary Elwes’ arrival in the Deep South Rupununi. There was Culture Show mania in the air, and where Culture Shows are, there Godfrey will be also. He had written several songs (music, and lyrics in both English and Wapishana) celebrating the occasion. These songs follow the zeitgeist of Rupununi roads- they flow with the contours, get caught up abruptly crossing a creek here and there, and meander off-road whenever it feels easier or more pleasant to do so. He has a strikingly good ear for a melody, and isn’t in the least confined by musical conventions such as a fixed time signature. He isn’t even restricted to singing a song with exactly the same tune or rhythm each time through. Which works perfectly well for a soloist, but is a little challenging for the choir, whose rehearsals take on a kind of chewing-gum bewilderment. He plays the guitar well, and the keyboard uniquely. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard ‘Amazing Grace’ played in 3/4 on the ‘auto tunes’ setting, and simultaneously in 4/4 in generous fistfuls of chords over the top? It’s a memorable experience.

Godfrey was also my first Wapishana teacher. He follows the old and trusty pedagogical method of drilling (endless repetition), but offset with startlingly complex digressions. We might learn words for fruit, for example, giving us ‘suzu’ (banana), and then Godfrey would teach us ‘suzu suzu’, literally ‘banana banana’ but actually the fork-tailed flycatcher... although Godfrey does not know the English for fork-tailed flycatcher, so a considerable portion of the lesson is spent in a describe-the-bird guessing game. We then get caught up in an exhaustive list of small brown Rupununi birds for which we now know the Wapishana but not the English. Or what the bird looks like precisely. Or what it sounds like. Let’s hope they’re mostly onomatopoeic. We never did get further than three fruits.

Both of these incarnations could be profoundly annoying, but in practice they are rather loveable because they so clearly spring from enthusiasm and the desire to create. Godfrey does everything with all of himself. It’s physically perceptible. He holds his head at a permanently engaged angle- tilted slightly to the side and back, like a walking sunbather or an expectant baby bird. Everything is wide open; his eyes, his smile, the gap between his teeth. He cannot sing or play quietly. There is a sparking and a glitter about him. If he were a Viking, he’d be called ‘Godfrey the Vigorous’.

Godfrey is not reliable in the normal usage of the word. This affects his character as a teacher; after sitting sweltering in the community centre for a few hazy afternoons, the Wapishana classes drifted off to nothing. He has recently left his stable job at the hospital, after decades, only three years before he would have qualified for a full pension. Most people scoff at that, accuse him of having no foresight, of being injudicious. I suspect that the opposite is true: I think he has taken a hard look at the future and made some big changes. He has been ill lately, and perhaps that has sharpened his focus on how he wants to spend the years he has left, and it’s not at work. I have always rated reliability highly, probably because I myself am reliable to a fault, but with Godfrey, what is reliable is his verve, his creative flux. Sure, he’d be a terrible manager, but so what? If we lose the odd beat per bar and a few words for fruit in the sparky eclectic hotpotch of a Godfrey creation, it’s probably worth the sacrifice.

1 comment:

  1. Love this one, the music sounds "interesting" and the man even more so :-)