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Recognizing our Cultural Enablers

The title cultural enabler gained substantial standing in 2006 when the Guyana Cultural Association of New York (GCA) presented awards under this designation. The acceptance of this category of awards was a leadership step for the organization. In that year, it was celebrating Guyana’s 40TH anniversary. GCA had also chosen CARIFESTA ’72 REVISITED as the theme for its 2006 Folk Festival activities. The decision to recognize enablers involved several months of debate. There was uncertainty by some within this group of cultural enthusiasts and others, outside of it. The organization gave the award to a wide range of individuals. This is noteworthy for the West Indian cultural community.

The debate about the Guyanese cultural enablers came to mind with the death of Ellis Chow Lin On in early January 2007. The tributes to him, as the one below, reinforce the merit of the cultural enabler appellation and celebrate another West Indian who crossed boundaries in acknowledgment of our common heritage. The esteem in which Mr. Chin Lin On was held during his lifetime, and his accomplishments, elevate his work to almost art form status itself. Such a view may well incur a put-down similar to the one expressed to this writer in the cultural enabler discussion last year.

A thoughtful, polite but vigorous discourse degenerated to a blunt, derisive remark in the vernacular: “duh is dey wuk”. It was expressed by a calypsonian, no less. What that conveyed was that the work of enabler individuals was not as noble as those promoting European or foreign art. Forty-odd years of independence across the West Indies show that some of our own are still unimpressed by the work many have done to present our indigenous art. The doubtful tend to easily recognize the social elite but not the common woman or man.

Calypso and popular music promoters and enablers, in Guyana, who were instrumental in nurturing the early career experiences of the likes of Sparrow and Melody were deemed to be only making a buck. While that could be acknowledged, there is a counter point. These social entrepreneurs had to have believed in the nascent or emerging artistry in order to make the investment in the circumstance of the developing careers. Many of the artistes have become legends while their enablers have died in obscurity. Mr. Chow Lin On did not.

Trinidad & Tobago 2007 carnival season began with the passing of a cultural enabler. One headline proclaims that Ellis Chow Lin On “made a big difference”. Considering the impact of his contribution the following quotes from the Guyana Cultural Association's Award selection criteria are most apt: his “work met a distinction…that can inspire others.” He was “recognized as a ‘doer’ whose actions led to something worthy”. Individuals such as Ellis Chow Lin On “represent exemplary models in their discipline.”

[Ron/eCaroh - January 2007]

'Uncle Ellis' made a big difference

Trinidad Express – Editorial
Wednesday, January 10th 2007

Catholic priest Fr Clyde Harvey might only have been half serious when he remarked recently that he had become wary of the Carnival season given the frequency with which cultural icons seemed to pass away at precisely this time. Certainly, Ellis Chow Lin On was such a one as was evidenced by the turnout of Carnival personalities who turned up to wish him farewell at St Finbar's Catholic Church yesterday.

The lives of almost all of them had been directly touched by Mr Chow Lin On who began by recording their music before going on to manage the careers, at least in part, of the likes of Calypso Rose, David Rudder, Chris "Tambu" Herbert and, most recently Shurwayne Winchester. It is not recorded whether he had any artistic influence on their work but it is certain that he guided them not only to fame but fortune, none of his charges suffering the penury that has been the lot of so many of our entertainment "stars" of a previous generation

A sign of the esteem in which he was held was evident not only in the Trinbagonians resident here but those who flew in especially for his funeral, including world-renowned American percussionist Ralph McDonald and the long emigrated Ralston Charles with whom he collaborated to form, under the musical directorship of the outstanding Pelham Goddard, the then "Manhattan Charlie's Roots".

This was the band that, as much as any and, perhaps more than most, changed the direction of local big band music in the 1970s by reinventing it in such a way that it drew young people back to calypso/soca and away from the slick "covers" of foreign artistes that had held sway for many a year.

Mr Chow Lin On never wrote a lyric or sang an original melody, as far as is known, but his contribution was a steadfast belief and confidence in every single one of the local art forms, his contribution and that of his brother, Aldwyn, in mas being worthy of attention all by itself as this country's celebrated mas man, Peter Minshall, may one revealing day bear witness.

But if "Uncle Ellis", as he came to be known in the industry, had a tangible and unidentifiable impact on the lives of his most famous "nephews" he also had an intangible and unidentifiable impact on many other "nephews" who never tramped the stage but who came to bear witness to the quiet guidance he gave them and for which they remained grateful, literally to the point of tears. As we mourn the passing of this Trinbagonian let our grief be assuaged by the knowledge that he had a very successful life, not so much in wealth accumulated-although he helped to make a number of people wealthy-but in that he made a discernible difference. Would that this could be said of us at our time.

Posted: January 23, 2007


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