African-Guyanese traditions need to be revived and cherished

By Murphy Browne Wednesday June 27 2012 in Opinion
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Jane engage and she tink nobady like she

Jane engage and she tink nobady like she

Run a kokah dam someting bruk away

Run a kokah dam

Jane engage and she walk the village wid style

O run a kokah dam someting bruk away

Run a kokah dam

From Guyanese kwe-kwe song “Jane Engage”


Singing and dancing to kwe-kwe songs is an important part of some African Guyanese pre-wedding celebration. The songs are sung in the Guyanese Creolese language which is derived from several Central African and West African languages combined with the languages of the Europeans who enslaved Africans. The kwe-kwe pre-wedding celebration does not seem to have a corresponding ceremony in any present-day African nation which suggests it was probably derived from a combination of African ceremonies. After all, the Europeans who enslaved Africans went to great pains to ensure that they separated the Africans to make it difficult for communication in a common language. The Europeans were afraid that if there were many Africans from any particular nation on their plantation they would foment rebellion and the Europeans would be caught unprepared. However, African Trinidadian professor, Maureen Warner-Lewis, in her 2002 book, “Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures”, compares aspects of the Guyanese kwe-kwe to pre-wedding ceremonies in ancient Kongo (Congo.) Professor Warner-Lewis who is also the author of the 1999 book, “Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory”, where she traces remnants of the Yoruba language in Guyana and Trinidad, lists the music and songs among the evidence that links kwe-kwe to the Kongo celebration.


The songs sung during the kwe-kwe are varied, including instructions for the soon to be married couple, the relatives and community to support the couple, and also social commentary. The greeting song, “Goo nite aye” and “Come to my kwe-kwe”, invite the entire village to enjoy the celebration. “Nation ah whey yuh nation?”, another popular kwe-kwe song urging identification with African nations, is recognition of the scattering of Africans during slavery.


The kwe-kwe opens with the pouring of libation by sprinkling liquor (Guyana white rum or high wine) on the floor, around the doors and windows. There is usually a leader who will “call out” the song to be sung and will signal the end by instructing “bato, bato”. The singers and dancers are usually accompanied by the music of drums, shak-shaks and/or the sounds of clapping and the rhythmic stamping of feet moving to the irresistible beat of voices raised in joyful celebration.


Kwe-kwe with its accompanying dance and songs is a unique ceremony derived from the experience of Africans who were enslaved by Europeans in what was once British Guiana. African-American spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll, the African Central and South American cha cha cha, salsa, samba, mambo, meringue and rumba can also be traced to the African continent. During this last week of Black Music Month 2012, a search of the Internet shows that the contributions and influence of Africa and Africans to world music, art, dance and other cultural “norms” of today continues to be recognized and celebrated. Unfortunately celebrations like kwe-kwe are losing ground and the kwe-kwe celebration is not as popular as it used to be and there are predictions that it may become a museum display or reduced to occasional “cultural” performances.


African traditions in Guyana seem to be fading from the memories of the people who should be practicing and upholding these traditions. If we forget who we are, what will we become? The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, considered the father of modern Pan-Africanism, said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”


In the 1993 movie, “Sankofa”, an African elder says to an African-American fashion model who did not know that she was African: “Go back to the past, to the source”.


African Guyanese need to heed that advice because many of us do not know much about our history. We do not know about the sacrifices that our ancestors made to purchase the land on which they established villages. The Village Movement is a mystery to many of us, even some living in the villages that were bought with the blood, sweat and tears of formerly enslaved Africans after the August 1, 1834 Emancipation of Africans enslaved by the British. The villages on the Courentyne (Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar) where my father, his siblings, cousins and their parents were born, are villages established by their ancestors who saved the pittance they were grudgingly paid by their former enslavers after Emancipation. In unity, groups of Africans purchased the land where they once laboured without pay and established villages on the length and breadth of the Guyana coastland in Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. Today, even the commemoration of August 1 Emancipation Day, which was important during my childhood and youth in Guyana, is now mostly ignored.


In Guyana, kwe-kwe may have been reduced to a quaint celebration in a few African Guyanese villages but there is some good news. African Guyanese in Brooklyn, New York have been keeping the kwe-kwe alive with re-enactment of this African Guyanese pre-wedding celebration. On Friday August 31, as part of the annual Guyana Folk Fest in Brooklyn, New York there will be a “kwe-kwe-nite”.


Hopefully, this initiative will encourage Guyanese at home and abroad to make kwe-kwe, with its music and dance, part of their educational and cultural experience.


Nation ah whey you nation?

Nation ah whey dem deh?

Nation ah whey awe nation?

Nation ah whey dem dey?


  • Anna Belle said:

    I look forward to reading your column every Thursday.

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    Thursday June 28 at 8:44 pm
  • paul hughes said:


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    Thursday September 20 at 6:54 am
  • Murphy Browne (Abena Agbetu) said:

    Greetings Paul Hughes,

    Are you the eldest son of late Chief of Inspector Sylvanus (Vincent) Hughes and his wife Rita Hughes? If you are we are first cousins (children of siblings.) Even if you are not that Paul Hughes we are related because your last name is Hughes. I know because my late grandfather Joseph Hughes told me that anyone with the last name Hughes is a relative. That was my understanding until I moved to Canada and met a White woman with the last name Hughes and had to rethink what my grandfather told me. So now my philosophy is anyone from Guyana with the last name Hughes is my relative whether I knew about them before or not. So Paul Hughes whether or not you are Uncle Vincent and Auntie Rita’s son let’s stay in touch. Send me an e-mail at and let’s chat.

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    Friday September 21 at 2:30 pm

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