By Valerie Coddett
Who is Valerie Coddett?
Some eight years ago I shared the 1952 and 1954 British Guiana music festival results on F-Book with a group of Guyanese friends/acquaintances who insisted I record the event. I was born in Bread Street, New Amsterdam (renamed Charles Place after Sir Charles Woolley, a former British Governor). The first seventeen years of my life were spent there. Having emigrated to the United States some fifty years ago, I am now attempting to portray my impressions of the New Amsterdam I knew. It is my hope that in sharing these stories, they will provide not only an Afrocentric view of New Amsterdam but a Truthcentric one as well. I have included other stellar personalities the soil has produced.
Growing up in New Amsterdam, music lessons were foremost on my agenda. Here in New York when attending concerts at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and other venues, I would reflect on time spent every year diligently preparing for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music Examinations that were held in Guyana. Ms. Edith Pieters, a prominent musician, taught me music. She was a gifted musician who also had a beautiful voice. Whenever she sang arias from Handel’s Messiah – He was Despised and Rejected of Men or I Know that My Redeemer Liveth – reality seemed to disappear as another dimension soundlessly entered the frame. On hearing O Perfect Love, a staple at weddings, expanded this dimension even further. Hers was a life lived in song. She is a capsule from Guyana’s past; a period in which music did not emanate from CD players and public transportation but from stages. “The environment is different now,” she said, “it does not facilitate learning. The most fulfilling thing is my relationship with the people I teach.”
I took lessons until Ms. Pieters left for London on scholarship in 1950. Thereafter, I lived in her home during most of my teenage years. She was my godmother, and I thank her for the good faith unselfishness shown toward me. I am not a practicing musician, but I play the piano for my own pleasure and to entertain friends.
New Amsterdam: the Eastern County
New Amsterdam was a town where everyone knew each other. Every morning in the marketplace the women pirouetted themselves in various postures, their attire shimmering in the heat of the sun, their mouths filled with the latest rumor. They would then wend their way to Main Street, the main artery of the town. The grocery stores, dry goods stores and cake shops all lined this main thoroughfare that stretched for six kilometers, its head connecting to the road leading to the lunatic asylum, its toe joining the road that led to the only burial ground.
Along this asphalt main road, the big lorries, buses and cars came noisily burgeoning down the left lane, their thunderous assaults sending pedestrians scuttling for safety. No sidewalks punctuated this scene, the pedestrians ending up on the grass growing brown with too much sunlight or on red sand bordering the seams. On one branch of this main trunk, at a higher elevation, the Mission Chapel Congregational Church that my family attended stood. It was constructed when the first Mission Chapel Church that was founded by Reverend John Wray was destroyed by the order of the planters who blamed the missionaries for the 1823 slave insurrection.
Mission Chapel Congregational Church a national heritage site.
The foundation stone of this structure was laid in 1841.
New Amsterdam Public Hospital designed by Ceasar Castellani, a Maltese architect.
Arranged like pavilion hospital with the wards end to end. This edifice was one of the most beautiful structures in Guyana. It was constructed in 1878.
The Strand, also known as the Waterside, stretched itself beside the Berbice river. At the junction where the Esplanade and Waterside Road met, a dense growth of vegetation fanned the landscape that hid the Berbice river that my father often crossed. Kingsley Coddett, my father was a teacher, later headmaster, at Blairmont Government School. He took the Blairmont launch every day to cross the river. One day he returned home soaking wet, and riding his bicycle. He had slipped and fallen into the Berbice river that ran along the bank of New Amsterdam.
There are numerous stories in our cultures and in our lives. In the town of New Amsterdam, there was an abundance of the gifted — voices uplifted in stirring song, in the written word, providing exultation to poetry, and those demonstrating skill at the piano.
Parents played a huge role in the welfare of their children. For those who were less privileged, opportunities arose in the form of scholarships from Government and other donors. To further education abroad, the Lutheran Church in New Amsterdam offered assistance to its members, based on performance and need.
It is from New Amsterdam that most of our country’s talented, prolific and most widely read authors hail – Edgar Mittelholzer, and two Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature: Sir Theodore Wilson Harris and Dr. David Dabydeen. From the ancient county, others of equal importance are Jan Lowe Shinebourne, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Peter Kempadoo, Beryl Gilroy, and two Fellows of the Caribbean Hall of Fame – Artists Bernadette I. Persaud and Philip Moore. Former President Cheddi Jagan came from the Ancient County, too.
The one mile zone that is New Amsterdam has also produced illustrious sons and daughters in other spheres of endeavor:
Dr. Habibullah Niamataly Ameerally, in 1962, was the first Rhodes Scholar for Guyana. After his training, he returned to Guyana where he served the community at the New Amsterdam Public Hospital from 1973 to 1978.
Dr. Ewart A.C. Thomas, with a B.Sc Degree in Mathematics from the University of the West Indies and a Ph.D. in Statistics from Cambridge University, London, supports advancing the agenda of bringing the children of Guyana fully and confidently into the 21st century. Dr. Thomas is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, USA. For his success, he has acknowledged the contribution of his teachers, and given credit to his parents for creating a home with the discipline of homework. His father, Mr. A.N. Thomas, was Headmaster at Mission Chapel Congregational School in New Amsterdam.
Artist Frank Bowling, OBE was born on February 29, 1936. He emigrated to Britain and attended the Royal College of Art in London. During the early 60’s he found himself at the forefront of a new generation of British artists. He is now a member of Britain’s Royal Academy of Art, the first African American British artist to be elected a Royal Academician in the history of the institution. Throughout his career he has received high honors for his service to art: in 2008 the Order of the British Empire; a solo show in 2011 at the Royal Academy of art; an important group exhibition in 2012 at the Victoria & Albert Museum; and a display at the Tate Britain, London. He is an abstract painter whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and other prestigious public collections. It was reported that aspects of Abstract Expressionism, Process Art, and Color Field Painting reflected in his work might have been influenced by his mother’s craft as a seamstress in New Amsterdam. Her wooden house in New Amsterdam was located on Main and St. John Street. It has appeared in his work . . . reflecting architecture brought to Guyana by the Dutch and British that now blend to form Guyanese architecture.
Artist Philip Moore was born on October 12, 1921 in Manchester Village, Corentyne. He is a self-taught artist. His paintings and sculpture brought him renown. He was the first artist from the Caribbean to be invited to Princeton University as Artist-in-Residence. And, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he exhibited 43 paintings and 22 pieces of sculpture from April 9 to May 14, 1972. ‘Art should be taught in schools,’ Moore felt, ‘and the museum brought into the home. The more art available, the more people will understand themselves.’ (Spriggs, Studio Museum, Harlem).
Courtesy of the Author
In addition to being a painter and sculptor, Moore was a high priest who sang in his own church – a mystic, god man, preacher – he is one of Guyana’s most revered painters. His Tree of Life painting-sculpture seems to represent a journey, the coins as notches along the way. Leaf to branch, one climbs diligently searching for one’s position. Some may arrive at a notch more swiftly than others. He wrote poetry, too; a Renaissance man, our own Leonardo da Vinci.
Statesman Sir Shridath S. Ramphal, GCMG, OCC, was born in New Amsterdam on October 3, 1928. He was the Commonwealth’s second Secretary-General, and the first from the Third World. He also held the position as attorney-general and contributed to drafting Guyana’s independence constitution. He is the twelfth recipient of the prestigious Indira Gandhi Peace Prize, and the first from the Caribbean. The Indian ‘Nobel’ instituted in 1985 awards individuals who have done outstanding work for international peace, disarmament and development. A Chancellor of the University of Warwick, the Ramphal Building at that University is named in his honor. He held similar positions at the University of the West Indies, and the University of Guyana. James I. Ramphal, his father, was a Presbyterian schoolteacher and a pioneer of secondary education in the country. His father’s belief in the basic human nature within all made a deep impression on him.
Statesman Sir Lionel Luckhoo, KCMG, CBE, was born in New Amsterdam on March 2, 1914. He left British Guiana for London to study medicine and then switched to Law; was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1940. He became a Judge of the Supreme Court of Guyana, Ambassador and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Barbados. His astounding success with juries is unmatched. He obtained 245 consecutive acquittals in murder trials. The world’s most successful lawyer is also in the Guinness book of World Records. He was the brother of Guyana Governor-General Sir Edward Luckhoo. His father, Edward Alfred, became the first East Indian solicitor in the colony in 1899, and later Mayor of New Amsterdam.
Valerie Fraser Rodway, L.R.C.M., was born in New Amsterdam in1919. From childhood her musical ability was evident to her family. She became a prolific composer of national songs and produced a body of majestic work. She wrote music for the independence poem Let Freedom Wake Him by Martin Carter. Blessing the land gave rise to – O beautiful Guyana by Walter Mac A. Lawrence. Inspiration from poems by Vere T. Daly, A.J. Seymour and others contributed to a genre that celebrated rivers, waterfalls, flora, fauna and our first peoples. She received the Wordsworth McAndrew Award, and the Cacique Crown of Honor, one of the nation’s high honors.
Dr. David Dabydeen was born in Berbice on December 9, 1955, his birth registered in New Amsterdam. He is the author of novels, collections of poetry and works of non-fiction and criticism. His first book, Slave Song (1984), a collection of poetry, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Quiller-Couch Cambridge Prize. Other awards include the Guyana Prize for Literature, Raja Rao Award, and the Hind Rattan Award, (Jewel of India), for his outstanding contribution to literature and the intellectual life of the Indian Diaspora. In 2007, The Oxford Companion to Black British History co-edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones appeared. Lutchmee and Dilloo: a story of West Indian Life by Edward Jenkins published in 1877, ed. David Dabydeen (Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean, 2003) is the earliest novel of Indo-Guyanese life in a colonial society divided by race and class. His talent includes presenting or advising on serials for television, and documentary programs for BBC. Dr. Dabydeen was made Guyana’s Ambassador to UNESCO in 1993, and appointed as Guyana’s Ambassador to China in 2010.
Edgar Austin Mittelholzer was born in New Amsterdam on December 16, 1909. He was the earliest recorded author from the Caribbean region to make a living from his pen. His legacy still resonates 100 years later, for his books have now gained momentum. A flash back to the house on Station Lane a/k/a Coburg Street – standing next to the house of Mrs. Ruby McGregor, the music teacher – there lived the Caribbean’s first professional novelist who had made a living by writing about the vast expanse of savannahs, rivers and creeks as in Shadows Move Among Them . . . Then – on a dark and wintry day in New York I was re-reading My Bones and My Flute — the light being at a low level in the bedroom — when beyond the wall I heard the piano being played. I was home alone and got up to check. I must have imagined the piano accompanying the flute. An eerie presence then seemed to enter the room, it made me shudder; whereas his Kawyana books — kept out of sight from parents and delivering joyful reading to young adults — would have evoked a different emotion altogether.
Over the years Edgar Mittelholzer has attained tremendous stature. During his lifetime he never received one quarter of such high esteem. Posthumous recognition may glitter, but it is an afterthought. His sister Lucille Mittelholzer held the position of Director of the Brownie Girl Guide Association in New Amsterdam of which I was a member.
Joseph Oscar Fitzclarence Haynes (J.O.F.), Chancellor of the Judiciary, was born on July 18, 1912 at New Amsterdam. He was the son of Mrs. Ruby McGregor, the preeminent musician in New Amsterdam. After attending the Mission Chapel Congregational School, he became a Pupil Teacher. At the age of 20, he obtained a First Class Teachers’ Certificate and also passed the London Matriculation Examination. Appointments as a teacher at Scots School in New Amsterdam, and as headmaster of Mara Primary School, Berbice River, followed. By virtue of a correspondence course with London University, JOF read for his Bachelor of Arts and LL.B degrees. Having achieved these goals, he resigned his position in the Ministry of Education to pursue what was to be his life long career – law.
He was President of the Bar Association of Guyana from 1965 to 1968, and President of the Grenada Appeals Court. He spent much of his time ensuring that the right word was always used in the right place and in excising whatever grammatical or orthographic scars there may unwittingly have been to flaw his work. Justice J.O.F. Haynes died in 1988. As President of the Grenada Appeals Court, he left in limbo the appeal of fourteen defendants convicted in the 1983 murder of leftist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. (Google).
Musical Talent from New Amsterdam
New Amsterdam can justly boast of musical talent: Composers Valerie Rodway and Joyce Ferdinand-Lalljie; as well as ‘brilliance’ displayed by New Amsterdamers at the initial music festival held in British Guiana. This memorable palette consisted of Josephine Blair, Frank Beckles, Joyce Ferdinand-Lalljie, Cicely Hoyte, Edith Pieters, Anne Rambarran, Norma Romalho, Moses Telford and Vernon Williams. When Edith Pieters and her sister, Marjorie Barry placed first in the Women’s Duet performance, the British Adjudicator, Mr. Vernon Evans stated he could not tell where one voice stopped and the other began. The input of these talented individuals has been rarely documented, especially that of Mrs. Ruby McGregor – a personality of rare vintage. This once vibrant but unassuming community was a hotbed of the arts.
The first music festival was held in British Guiana in 1952. I came across newspaper articles describing the event in 2009. Those old columns seemed to emit a fragrance which wafted up my nostrils for I had participated by rendering a piano solo (second place). I shared the article with a Guyanese group on F-Book. This pivotal event placed the county of Berbice above the other counties. Some members of the group were aware of New Amsterdam’s standing in the music community at that time while others lacked knowledge of it. We relived life in the homeland, specifically New Amsterdam from that bygone era.
At the 1952 Music Festival, the British Adjudicator, Mr. Vernon Evans made comments on the musicianship of Mrs. Ruby McGregor – the “architect of music” in New Amsterdam – on the performance of Vaughn Williams Through Briars and Bushes by the New Amsterdam Musicians’ Society (NAMS), he acknowledged that it was singing such as he had never heard before; there was almost a feeling of being out of this world.
Music in the soul can be heard by the universe. Lao Tzu
Edith Victorine Pieters
Singers and musicians from New Amsterdam carried off three of four Adult Championship Cups when British Guiana’s First Festival of Music ended on July 20, 1952 at the Plaza Cinema, Georgetown. The reigning Champions were:
1) NAMS Choir (New Amsterdam Musicians’ Society) – best adult choir, New Amsterdam
2) Soprano Annie Rambarran – best vocal soloist, New Amsterdam
3) Pianist Norma Romalho – best adult instrumental soloist, New Amsterdam
4) Georgetown’s Maranatha Quartet – best adult vocal ensemble.
These were the best of 5,250 competitors in the Music Festival.
First places were awarded to the following individuals from New Amsterdam:
Adult Piano Duet – Norma Romalho and Cicely Hoyte
Under 18 Piano Duet – Moses Telford and Cicely Hoyte
Under 18 Piano Solo – Moses Telford
Under 14 Piano Solo – Deanna Sattaur
Soprano Solo – Annie Rambarran
Mezzo Soprano and Contralto Solo – Edith Pieters
Women’s Vocal Duet – Edith Pieters and Marjorie Barry
Mixed Vocal Duet – Annie Rambarran and Vernon Williams
Vocal Trio – Women’s Voices – Vireo Trio
Norma Romalho of New Amsterdam won the highest number of points awarded any individual competitor. Her performance of Beethoven’s Rondo – from Sonata Op. 13 – gained her 90 points in the piano solo competition.
Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us? A kind of
inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite and lets us
for moments gaze into that! – Thomas Carlyle
On conclusion, Mr. F. H. Martin Sperry, the President of the Festival Committee, declared the first music festival ever held in British Guiana to be an important educational and cultural movement. ‘Music, the greatest of all the arts, was often coupled with poetry but superior to literature in that it needs no language; a universal language for all and sundry without nationality, class, creed or color.
Norma Margaret Jean Romalho-Bacchus, L.R.S.M, was born in New Amsterdam, Guyana. She was the second daughter of Alphonso Ramalho and Leone Mendonca Ramalho. As a young child, she displayed a talent for the piano which was quickly recognized by her mother who also played the instrument. Her parents enrolled her with Mrs. Ruby McGregor, L.R.S.M: L.T.C.L: L.R.A.M. Mrs. McGregor imparted her knowledge of the keyboard to her gifted student, and in so doing bequeathed her legacy to a highly qualified successor to carry on the Berbice tradition of musical art. She achieved distinctions in every grade to and including the eighth grade; and having obtained the highest marks in the country, she qualified to be the recipient of the Phillip Pilgrim Memorial Harp Prize. In 1955 she was granted her L.R.S.M. from the Royal Schools of Music in London. At the 1954 Music Festival she obtained first place with Doreen McGregor in the pianoforte duet, and second place with Joyce Lalljie.
In 1956 she placed first with Moses Telford in a pianoforte duet. This brought an end to her competitive playing; she was appointed Berbice Representative for the Festival, replacing Mrs. McGregor who was leaving for the United Kingdom. Apart from her musical education, she also achieved her academic education at the Ursuline Convent School where she was the only student to write music as a subject at the Senior Cambridge Overseas Examinations.
In a 1962 Sunday edition, the Graphic Newspaper recognized her as one of the ten women in the country who made a sterling contribution to the nation as a whole. She played a significant role in the cultural life of New Amsterdam and Berbice. In 1966 she was accorded the distinctive honor to participate in the selection of the National Anthem for the new nation of Guyana. A scholarship was offered by the British Council to further her musical career in the United Kingdom; she turned it down and opted for marriage. Music runs in the family – her grandchildren Jonathan, Madeline and Natasha have brought joy to her musical heart. Jonathan plays piano and violin. Madeline plays both piano and violin, and Natasha is following her older siblings except that her string instrument is the Cello.
Mrs. Ruby McGregor, L.R.S.M., described as the chief architect of a glorious festive record, had played an exalted role in serving her community – a service which generations yet unborn would appreciate and strive to emulate. For her selfless devotion to the cultivation of music, she was honored at a public function at the New Amsterdam Town Hall by the music festival winners, and presented with an illuminated document and a check. Mrs. Annie Rambarran and Miss Edith Pieters were also awarded gifts for the part they played in the training of choirs. The Hon W.O.R. Kendall, Chairman of the occasion, was introduced by Mr. Randolph A. Coddett, and the presentation made by Mrs. Stella Merriman.
The address to Mrs. McGregor focused on her dynamic leadership and the achievement of the Berbice artistes at the First Festival of Music held in British Guiana. These feats had never been accomplished in the realms of song and music in the history of the Ancient County. Described as the most energetic, assiduous, helpful and successful teacher of music, her name would go down to posterity as one who had rendered a great service to her community. [Berbice Weekly Argosy, July 30, 1952].
Edith Victorine Pieters, LRSM, L.T.C.L, has been an integral thread in the fabric of music education for more than half a century. As Music Mistress at Bishop’s High School, she was more than a classroom teacher – an organizer – founding the Music Club, school orchestra, and launching annual programs for school concerts. She also trained successful participants for the music festivals. On retiring, she continued to contribute even more to music education … as Music Coordinator of the Music Program for the Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (IACE) of the University of Guyana, and in preparatory work for music examination to be made part of the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC).
For her lifetime achievements in the field of music, she received several awards including the Philip Pilgrim Memorial Harp for distinction in piano performance (1952); the Ministry of Education Award for long and meritorious service; the Wordsworth McAndrew Award for her contribution to music education (2003); and the national award of the Golden Arrow of Achievement (AA) (1988). She has contributed to the lives of many of Guyana’s outstanding musical talents.
In 1958 Ms. Pieters relocated from New Amsterdam to Georgetown to teach music at Bishop’s High School. Under her tutelage, I was the first student to sit the GCE Music Examination there.
Mrs. Joyce Ferdinand-Lalljie, L.R.S.M , L.T.C.L. Her musical ability was first recognized by her mother, Edith Ferdinand, who was an organist at St Patrick’s Anglican Church and Mission Chapel Congregational Church in New Amsterdam. Later, Joyce became a pupil of Mrs. Ruby McGregor, the architect of music, under whose guidance she excelled. Albert E. L. Isaacs in the Chronicle 1951 Christmas Annual Magazine, described her as one of the “Big Finds” of local radio. Her genius was shared with the people through Berbice Calling, a radio program produced by Olga Lopes-Seale on ZFY. The Guiana Times voted her ‘Musician of the Year’ for 1951.
. . . Excerpt from Guyana newspapers in its 1951 chronicle – expressed elsewhere at the time – Professor Rudolph Dunbar and the Philharmonic Orchestra – Grand was the Mendelssohn Concerto in G minor with Joyce Lalljie filling the role of piano soloist. In simple grace and dignity, she commanded the rapt attention of the 1200 patrons, while Professor Dunbar held the orchestra well under her playing. The twenty minute spellbound silence was broken by thunderous applause which lasted fully three minutes after the conductor brought the item to a grand finale. Mrs. Lalljie, presented and congratulated by Professor Dunbar3 bowed simple acknowledgement of the patrons’ appreciation of her performance.
Joyce Lalljie (also known as Joyce Ferdinand-Saunders) was also the preeminent female composer. Her output covered viola, flute, voice, and pianoforte. One of her compositions, Janie Gal, was featured in One Hundred Years of Classical Music in the Guianas: Selected Pieces for Pianoforte, a publication edited in 2002 by Herman Snijders and Joycelynne Loncke. Other classical composers included were: Philip Edward Theodore Pilgrim, William R.A. Pilgrim, Hugh Sam, Valerie Rodway, Joycelynne Eleanor Loncke, Paschal Jordan O.S.B. and Patricia Adora Loncke.
In 2005 at a concert held in Barbados at Frank Collymore Hall, Joyce Lalljie
performed her own composition – Kaie – based on A.J. Seymour’s Legend of Kaiteur [https://vimeo.com/40919097]. Thunder emanates from Kaiteur Falls. Its beauty is evident in the music.
Courtesy of the artist
1. Music Festival Articles – The Daily Argosy July 20, 1952; July 21, 1952.
3. Professor Rudolph Dunbar – http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/rudolph-dunbar-talented-international-clarinetist.
Text from: Valerie G. Coddett: Artistic and Other Encounters.
Old Buildings in New Amsterdam
All Saints Scots Church was founded circa 1820 through the assistance of the Public Treasury.
In 1838 the present structure was built when the Scots acquired a plot of land to erect
a church and later a school to cater for the population of New Amsterdam
View of Peter Chung Tiam Dry Goods & Provision Store
New Amsterdam Prison
New Amsterdam Postal Service in the 1940s
The Governor’s House
A view of Strand, NA, in the 1950s
Waterworks in the 1950s