Interview: Derry Etkins

Years ago, I reached out to Derry Etkins, a keyboard player from Guyana, to do an interview about his time with the band known as the Telstars. They only made one album,”Orbiting” on WIRL Records out of Barbados, which is an eloquent example of the influences artists like James Brown, Kool & the Gang and many others had around the world.

Etkins agreed and sent me a reply. That’s what you can read below. While there were things I wished he had elaborated on, his reply holds a lot of interesting information. Etkins was knowledgable and well-loved music teacher for many years, he sadly passed away on May 23rd, 2020. Rest in peace.

Guyana has strong ties to the Caribbean but is located in South America and borders Brazil, Venezuela and Surinam. How has this influenced the local music?

The Latin American influence was very strong in the 50s, when I was growing up. So strong was it, that on Saturday afternoons, from 5 to 6, there was Radio Programme called, “Musica Vanezuelana”. That programme exposed us to many of the Spanish styles.

Part of our History includes Madeiran Indentured Labourers (referred to as Portuguese). They brought mandolins, banjos, maracas and guitars to then British Guyana. I don’t know anything about the music that they might have played.

My two earliest exposures to bands were at a wedding to which my parents were invited, and, on the M.V. Makoria, a Ferry that plied the Demerara River. “The Rhythmaires” played at the wedding and, “The Ramblers” played on the Ferry. The Rhythmaires had an acoustic bass, a mandolin, guitars and bongos among their instrumental line up. The Ramblers had guitars and a banjo. I don’t remember whether or not they had a mandolin. Both bands had a heavy Latin influence in their repertoire. Neither had a drum set.

Calypso then was also Latin influenced, with only percussion, guitars, acoustic bass and maybe one or two wind instruments.

Drum sets started to appear in the 60s, as English and American pop and R&B grew from a trickle to a stream. The bands’ repertoire started to shift from Bossa Nova, Rhumba and other Latin styles to “The Shadows” and “The Ventures”, balanced by “Otis Redding”, “James Brown” and the like.

In terms of the Indian influence, I don’t see any in the current Guyanese offerings. What I do see is, that there are Afro-centric and Indo-centric offerings, with none influencing each other. In the mean time, it is said, that “The Muttoo/Mootoo Brothers”, apparently a popular Vaudeville-type act, traveled from Guyana to Trinidad in the 40s(50s?), taking with them, what has reportedly become, “Chutney Soca”. I can’t speak with any authority on that.

Guyana gained independence in 1966 from the British. How did that help shape the musical identity of Guyana?

In my opinion, Guyana never had, and still does not have, a “Musical Identity”. 

By independence, Guyanese bands had recorded a fair number of original tunes, but most of them were all influenced by music from outside Guyana. That has largely continued until now.

Over the years, various people have experimented with different grooves, but there was no widespread support. 

To commemorate our achievement of Independence, Tom Charles, with his band, “Tom Charles And The Syncopators”, experimented with a groove he called, “The Bhoom”. This was based on our Masquerade groove. He received minimal support from the likes of, Colin “Bumble” Wharton, with his band, “Bumble and The Saints”. 

Shortly after Independence, Terry Nelson, when he returned home after living in England, experimented with what he called, the “Afrindi Beat”. He set up a Recording Studio and pressing plant at Betterverwagting, and recorded many projects there., on his “Halagala” label. His efforts didn’t garner much support from the bands either. 

Just around the time of Terry Nelson, Eddie Hooper and Ivor Lynch, two songwriters experimented with “The Lopie”. That too, received minimal support. 

Guyana has its own version of calypso called Shanto. How would you describe the sound of Shanto?

I don’t know enough about Shanto to comment, since I was very young at that time.

What inspired you to play music?

My Father apparently played some guitar as a young man. For my fifth Christmas, he gave me a plastic ukelele. He tuned it, then proceeded to whistle and strum, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer to me. My Mother taught piano part time, so, there were these students passing through our home. What it did was, when I was seven, my teacher at the time, Mr. Mortimer, brought a friend of his, a Mr. Wiltshire, to our usual Friday after-school get together. Mr. Wiltshire played, and I had never heard the piano sound like that before. Seeing my fascination, he showed me three black keys and two white keys to play, while he played some mean, nasty, dangerous chords to accompany me.

My mom then “enrolled” me as one of her students. Fortunately, that only lasted for six months; she would lash you on your fingers if you made a mistake. 

Between then and high school, I played around with the mouth organ, the recorder, bottles with different amounts of water, tins of different sizes and so on.

In high school, I bullied two younger boys into teaching me to play the bass, one of them was strumming and the other picking. That became our school’s combo, “The Syncoms”. We later added a drummer, recruited another bassist and, because of my previous piano experience, I switched to organ. I first played a Welson single manual combo organ, then a Farfisa professional.

The big local guns of the organ at the time were, Wendel Bunyan, Alston Hall, Carlton McAllister, Vibert D’Ornellas, Trenton “Saggy” Jarvis and Geoffrey King

When was the first time you entered a studio to record?

I had my first recording studio experience in Barbados in 1973, when The Telstars recorded, “Orbiting”. That was at “Stereo Sound Studios”.

The only privately owned recording facility I knew of in Guyana was GEMS, run by Albert Seales, and later by his son, Ray. One of the local radio stations, “Radio Demerara” had a tough not purpose-built for recording studio but with excellent acoustics, and many “one-mic” recordings were done there.

What leads up to you joining The Telstars?

After high school, I played with “The Gradu8s”. The Telstars’ management team was planning a trip to Brazil, but some of the members didn’t want to go, so they approached members of another band, “The Dominators”. Neither of the organists from the two bands was interested, so, they approached me. I had just gotten wind of a plan by The Gradu8s to fire me for the second time, so I accepted.

The members of the Telstars when I joined were:- Aubrey Cummings, leader, lead vocals, guitarist; Monte Douglas, lead vocals; Phil “Bumpy” Dino (Philip Devonish) lead vocals; Ray Seales, tenor sax; Terry Jervis, trumpet; Gerald Couchman, drums; Barry May, bass; Billy Stevenson, percussion and myself on organ.

This was the third incarnation of The Telstars, that I know of. I was very young when I heard of the first one. I don’t know if there was one before my time.

As a unit we only toured Brazil and Barbados. We should have gone to Trinidad on the way to Barbados, but there was major unrest there at that time, so, we cancelled that leg of the trip.

Bunny Best was the Caribbean Sales Manager for WIRL in Barbados, and had an established relationship with GEMS in Guyana. After our Brazil trip, Bunny Best and Ray Seales were talking and the idea of a recording came up.

Why did you name the Telstars album “Orbiting”?

I’m pretty sure Telstars were named after a satellite and while we were in Barbados, and looking for a location to take photos for the album jacket, someone suggested that we go to the satellite station in St. John, one of the eastern parishes. During the shoot, idle talk led us to talk about satellites in orbit, and one thought led to another.

The Telstars had three different singers. What was the reason for that?

The three singers had different styles. Bumpy was more of the funky, stage-performer type, while Monte and Aubrey both handled the ballads, calypso and reggae.

The Orbiting album has some really heavy funk tracks on it as well as a Kool and the Gang cover. What were your main inspirations for making the album?

Our taste was quite eclectic, and we saw the formation of that incarnation of The Telstars as an opportunity to “indulge” ourselves. Further, in those days, audiences accepted whatever was played, as long as it was played well. What was “danceable” they danced to; what wasn’t, they sat or stood and listened to. Each of the bands of that era had their own repertoire and following. Our influences, like those of the majority of the other bands, were largely American. We just liked the more musically sophisticated material. Monte and Aubrey were songwriters, as evidenced by a few of the tracks on thee album.

Actually, we influenced the radio DJs. Dennis “Pancho” Carew was the most popular DJ at the time. We had the habit of playing “Side B” of the popular tunes, and making them popular. The DJs ended up playing them. In a few cases, bands ended up buying the same 45rpm TWICE, not realizing, that the “new” song they were looking for was “Side B’ of the one they already had. That was one advantage of having Ray (Seales) as a member of the band, since his Father owned GEMS Record store.

What happened after the Orbiting album came out?

During the recording period, Bumpy broke his leg in an automobile accident; Terry (trumpeter) was offered a job in a Barbadian band; I stayed “to kill time”, and to keep them company before going back to Guyana to school. The other members returned to Guyana, recruited new members and continued. There was no release party, that I know of.

Some years later, Aubrey returned to Barbados, other members emigrated to different places. The music “industry” such as it was, had started to die, by then.

Bunny Best of WIRL managed to record many different groups from all over the English speaking part of Caribbean including Guyana. How would you describe Bunny Best and WIRL’s importance to Caribbean music from the 1960’s to 80’s?

Bunny Best and WIRL were the live-blood of the music industry in the North Eastern Caribbean. They recorded several artistes and, very importantly, helped school them in the intricacies of copyright.

How was the Telstars different than some of your Guyanese peers?

The Telstars were the bridge between the older and younger bands. We were more progressive and eclectic in our approach to our music and to our arrangements. We listened to people like Quincy Jones, The Temptations, Manu Dibango, Kool and The Gang; quite a variety of influences.

You joined Four Friends after The Telstars for a handfull of 45’s. Who were your three other friends?

I was a freelance session musician on those projects. Ray Seales was instrumental in getting me involved. The leader was Victor “Barney” Smith, lead vocals and guitar.

I was living in Barbados at the time, having played with “The Outfit” and “The Pan Am Islanders” (formerly “The Tropical Islanders”).

Many years after the Four Friends, still in Barbados, I bought some toys and set up a home studio, where I produced and recorded Calypso. Now, in Tortola, I teach music at the Primary and secondary levels. As far as the studio goes, the focus is mainly on original experimentation with Guyana’s Masquerade groove.

How was the music scene in Barbados different than the one in Guyana?

Barbados is a tourist destination, with lots of hotels hiring bands to perform. This environment was conducive to making a comfortable living as a musician, performing at least four times during the week, at various hotels. Some private promoters held their own parties as well, so, particularly during the tourist season from the May to October period, bands could perform on the weekend as well, if they wanted.

The environment in Guyana was not tourism based. Most bands only performed on the weekend. Occasionally there would be Sunday afternoon shows where bands would perform. 

Quite a few American artistes had visited Guyana during that time. Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Percy Sledge and Brook Benton come to mind.

'Interview: Derry Etkins' have 1 comment

  1. 31/12/2020 @ 11:27 AM Lord Investor

    Thank you for sharing this great interview, and shedding some important light on the obscured history of the Guyanese music scene. Very interesting, among much else, to hear about the different efforts to establish a typical Guyanese groove. May your blog live long!


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