Mashramani: A vibrant expression of Guyanese culture

By: Kesi Henry

Mashramani is a critical element of Guyana’s cultural pulse. It is an annual celebration brimming with national pride, unity, and shared progress.

This word, rooted in the language of the indigenous Arawak tribe, translates to “celebration after hard work.”

The basis of the vibrant festivities is to highlight and appreciate the massive developments that have stemmed from months of hard work. It celebrates the advancements made in areas such as mining, infrastructure, eco-tourism, and housing.

It’s a testament to the resilience of the ancestors of the Guyanese people, their spirit, and their enduring belief in a shared future.

Importantly, the celebration originated in the mining town of Linden, Region 10.

For context, since Guyana obtained Independence in 1966, the Jaycees were the producers of an annual Independence Carnival in the town, which was highlighted as the official event for the celebration of Guyana’s Independence in that community.

It was adopted and endorsed by government officials, and the population would travel in droves for the event.

However, in 1970, when the government announced that Guyana would become a Republic, it was decided that this Independence Carnival would be used to celebrate Republic Day (February 23).

Given the wider scope of the celebration, it was necessary to select a name that better encompasses Guyana’s cultural identity.

A Jaycees Republic Celebrations Committee was established, with Basil Butcher selected as chairman and Jim Blackman as deputy.

The search for a name to replace Carnival began and it was suggested by Basil Butcher that an Amerindian name be chosen. This was agreed to and several individuals including Mr. Allan Fietdkow, an Amerindian, were contacted.

On February 23rd, 1970 the Festival called “Mashramani” was dubbed a huge success as people from all walks of life converged in Linden to celebrate Guyana’s Republic Status.

The event saw a three-day celebration in the town, filling the streets with folk dancers, stilt walkers, children, and families in their vibrant costumes, displaying the diversity of our culture with calypso singing, and traditional dances to the instruments.

Seeing the pride and the turnout of the Guyanese people, David Singh, a government official, met with the Jaycees committee to discuss bringing Mashramani to the nation’s capital, Georgetown, which became the permanent grounds for the costume band competition.

Approval was given by then President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, and Mashramani was officially declared a national event.

Over time, it has morphed and expanded to match the changing times.

Dr Vibert Cambridge, in his book ‘Musical Life in Guyana,’ identified three discrete aspects of the celebration: the ceremonial, the festive, and mass mobilisation. The ceremonial aspect features the flag-raising ceremony and the National Awards.

The flag-raising ceremony is usually held at key locations that have deep cultural or historical underpinnings.

The festive aspects are rooted in the colonial centenary celebrations and include the Calypso and Soca Monarch Competitions, the National Steel Band Competition, the Costume Bands and Float Parade, and Indian Music Competitions.

The mass mobilisation event was known as the People’s Parade.

These events were spearheaded by the then Department of Culture, and in 1998, the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport was established, with Gail Teixeira appointed as the first minister.

The formation of the ministry was outlined in the People’s Progressive Party’s manifesto for the 1997 general election, which spoke to the promotion of a people-oriented, and culturally relevant development strategy.

Since assuming the position, Minister Teixeira sought to cultivate an inclusive and culturally nuanced celebration, grounded on strong foundations of unity and prosperity, and barring the political underpinnings that surrounded it.

“Her thrust was to get more people involved and hype the festival as a Guyanese thing and not a Burnham or Hoyte thing. She was attuned to the lovers of Mashramani, the persons who brought their families out along the route, who wanted a bigger and more inclusionary Mashramani. From 1998, Gail Teixeira became a visible part of Mashramani. On Mashramani Day, she would be at the front of the Costume Bands and Float Parade,” Dr Cambridge said in his book.  

Despite the many challenges and political complications that shrouded the true meaning of the celebration, Mashramani emerged as the premier cultural event that highlights the musical creativity of the Guyanese people.

The private sector also began to play a more seminal role in the festivities.

Mashramani remains one of the most anticipated national holidays and sees thousands of tourists from around the world joining in the commemoration, boosting Guyana’s tourism industry and national gross domestic profit.

This year, the celebration is being observed under the theme ‘Celebrating our peoples and our prosperity.’