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Fighting for Survival: The Yoruba Singers

Many years ago, the Africans arrived in the Guianas in chains. The Akan people from the region today known as Ghana were the very first, setting shackled feet upon the South American colony in 1621. More would follow over the next two hundred years, plucked from the nations of Western and Central Africa: the Kongo, the Abuna, the Yagba, the Igbo, the Fula, the Effa. Also the Aku, Egba, Ondo and Ijesa, clans who would be collectively referred to as the Yoruba.

 

In the intervening centuries, the Yoruba have become noteworthy as one of the few African cultures to survive the cultural erasure of chattel slavery and colonialism virtually intact, putting down new roots in the New World. The Yoruba culture, language and religion have traveled from their source in present-day Nigeria and Republic of Benin to become Santeria in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic; Candomble in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; Trinidad Orisha in Trinidad and Tobago; and specialized cults for Yoruba gods like Shango in Guyana.

 

In 1971, a musical collective formed in the Kitty area of Georgetown, Guyana, bearing the name of this proud African tribe. The members dubbed themselves the Yoruba Folk Group, but they would in time come to be known simply as the Yoruba Singers.

 

“We were given the name by a spiritualist named Bertie Greene,” says Eze Rockcliffe, one of the group’s founders and its longest-serving member. “At the time, we were moving around performing in different places, so he said we traveling like the Yoruba tribe.”

 

The emergence of the Yoruba Singers came at a time of crucial change in Guyanan society. The colony once known as British Guiana had achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and became a full republic in 1970. The new Co-operative Republic of Guyana had, however, inherited the British established racial hierarchy that privileged Guyanans of East Indian extraction over those of African descent, and this led to significant social discord in the aftermath of independence. In the mid-sixties, a grassroots organization called the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE) had campaigned for the partitioning of British Guiana as the solution to the racial strife: one precinct for Africans, one for East Indians, and one for a voluntarily mixed population. When this proposition failed to gain political traction, ASRE co-founder Eusi Kwayana created a new group called ASCRIA—the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa. The new group dedicated itself to bolstering Afro-Guyanese identity and pride, showcasing the African cultural presence in Guyana, and building a cultural bridge between African descendants in Guyana and black people around the world. ASCRIA immediately took to recruiting black Guyanese youth and enrolling them in their African studies program. One of these youths was named Patrick Rockcliffe, who would take on the name Eze, an Igbo word meaning “king.”

 

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“I was born in a village called Perth in 1950, December 9th,” Eze Rockcliffe says. “My family moved to Kitty in Georgetown when I was five years old and I attended the Redeemer Lutheran School, and then the Guianese College of Modern Education. I never had tertiary education. At the age of 14, I became a carpenter, and then I worked for the government as a surveyor. When I was 19, I joined an organization called ASCRIA.”

 

“We joined ASCRIA to get a greater awareness of what was taking place on the continent of Africa,” Rockcliffe recounted in 2012. “A lot of African nations were starting to get independence in the fifties and sixties. There was also the Black Power movement in the US. So the movement to black consciousness was hot at the time. Cultural expression of dress and hairdos were paramount.”

 

ASCRIA’s had a community center located in the Kitty. It was there that Rockcliffe (with his brother Ken) helped found a new performing group, along with other members such as William “Syrup” Bascom, Rudy Brandt, Keith Profitt, Eddie & Cyril Small, Ingrid Baton, Felix “Jo-Jo” Terence, Gregory O’Mallo, Sam Robinson, Wilfred Lashley, Carlton Rogers, Marva “Malaika” Caesar and Volda Caesar a.k.a. “Abiola.”  Under the name “The Kitty Young Ascrians,” the new group began to develop unique presentations of Afro-Guyanese music, dance and drama.

 

The Kitty Young Ascians’ repertoire originally comprised mostly Afro-Guyanese folk songs performed primarily via intense vocal arrangements and a limited amount of instrumental accompaniment. Some of the members had experience playing in steel bands; Lashley and Brandt in particular had the deepest musical background. However, at first the only instruments were drums and an improvised flute fashioned from chromium-plated tubing.  They also offered original compositions. “We’d write relevant songs to the struggle,” Rockcliffe says, “especially the civil rights movement and so on. Everybody would chip in… everybody would be inspired by each other to write relevant songs.”

 

The group soon developed an avid following as the Young Ascrians traveled to various urban and rural centers, fostering a new embrace of Afro-Guyanese folk music, which had previously been a source of embarrassment for the more aspirational members of the community. “We did small concerts all over the country,” Rockcliffe says. “That was our organizational base.” These travels across the land motivated Bertie Greene to rechristen the Ascrians with the more spiritually profound Yoruba name.

 

“In 1971 we did our first official performance as the Yoruba Singers,” says Rockcliffe. “On the twenty-fifth of May.”

 

The Yoruba Singers were regular featured players at the Green Shrimp performance space, but they took a step from the realm of folk troubadours into the world of popular entertainment when they were offered an extended contract with the fashionable Wig & Gown nightclub.  With their colorful African garb, indigenous instrumentation and rustic ambiance, the Yoruba Singers stood apart in the Georgetown nightlife scene that was dominated by bands such as Johnny Braff & The Rockets, The Cannonballs and The Mischievous Guys, who specialized in slickly commercial foreign pop, calypso and “soft” reggae in the vein of Jamaican crossover stars such as Ken Lazarus, Boris Gardiner and Byron Lee & The Dragonaires.

 

“We had lots of bands,” says Rockcliffe. “We had about thirty-seven bands in the country at the time. But we, the Yoruba Singers came different. Everybody else was playing a lot of pop music but we were different with our African-oriented music. Within two years, we became very popular and started touring. In 1973 we went to Suriname. That was our first tour. And then we cut our first album.”

 

That debut album, Ojinga’s Own, released on the Bluegrass label, showed the evolving sound of the Yoruba Singers, with their basic drum-and-flute sound beefed up to fit in with the contemporary jazz-funk idiom that set a new standard for originality and sophistication for Guyanese popular music.

 

The reputation and influence of the Yoruba Singers continued to spread across the country, imbuing a new dignity to the Afro-Guyanese folk canon, to the point where other bands such as Combo 7, The Dominators and The Rhythmaires followed the path they had blazed, and African folk medleys began to rival the prevalence of calypso medleys at festivals.

 

The Yoruba Singers continued to tour the Caribbean and record (often issuing singles on the Green Shrimp imprint), producing hits that would become evergreen classics in Guyana: “Black Pepper,” “Danger Water,” and “Crereta.” In 1976, the group traveled to Trinidad to record an album with legendary artist and producer Eddy Grant. That particular record never saw the light of day. (“Only one single came out, but Eddy Grant never released the album till this day,” Rockcliffe says. “I don’t know why. I saw him a few years ago and asked him about releasing it but he said he will have to look at the contracts. He still owns the rights to those recordings.”)

 

By 1977, the Yoruba Singers had performed in much of the Caribbean and looked forward to finally hitting the stage in their spiritual homeland, Africa. Nigeria was staging the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77), a pan-African celebration gathering black people from every corner of the globe to share their music, dance and drama. It would make perfect sense for the Yoruba Singers to participate in this event in Nigeria, the land of the people from which the group derived its name. The Guyanese government, however, had other ideas.

 

“We didn’t go to FESTAC 77 because of the name ‘Yoruba,’” Rockcliffe says.  “The authorities thought it could be a little controversial. I don’t know why! I thought it was foolish but they thought because of our name, and the fact they have such a large population of Yorubas in Nigeria… They thought it might lead to some sort of confusion. So we missed that.”

 

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In 1981, The Yoruba Singers released what is widely viewed as their most accomplished opus: the album Fighting For Survival, recorded in Barbados and released on the Interculture label in 1981. This album served as a kind of summation of the group’s progress over the previous decade. The track list is selection of calypso, jazzy funk, reggae and afro vibes. Some of the standout tracks include a new arrangement of Rockcliffe’s “Bleeding With Hate”—one of the earliest items in the group’s repertoire from the Kitty Young Ascrians period—and “Abiola,” an impassioned tribute to the group’s popular vocalist Volda Caesar, murdered by a jealous lover in 1975. In the intervening years, the album has been frequently described as “Afrobeat” and the Yoruba Singers mistaken for a band from Nigeria.

 

“Funny enough, we were not actively listening to much contemporary African music at the time we recorded this album,” Rockcliffe says. “Not as a group, anyway. Of course we all enjoyed Babatunde Olatunj, Fela Ransome-Kuti, Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba and all that, but we did not set out to imitate them in any way. We were just expressing our own African heritage as black musicians from Guyana.”

As of 2018, The Yoruba Singers have been consistently active for forty-seven years, making them the longest-running band in Guyana. Eze Rockcliffe, the last member of the original lineup still standing, looks back on a career of highs including shows at Madison Square Garden (the first band from Guyana to play that venue) and a Medal of Service awarded to the group from the Guyana government in 1990. The band soldiers on, even as the 1970s era of pan-African pride and cultural consciousness is long bygone. “As a band, we still play the hits we are known for, ‘Black Pepper’ and all that. People expect to hear those when we play. But as a band today, to survive you have to play what’s on the radio. You got play some soul, you got to play jazz, you got to play soca, you got to play reggae, you got to play ordinary pop music. Everything that’s popular on the radio you got to play. To survive.”

But sixty-eight year-old Eze Patrick Rockcliffe has no intention of throwing in the towel anytime soon. And so long as there is breath in his body, the Yoruba Singers will keep fighting for survival.

-Uchenna Ikonne, September 2018

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