Guyana’s Maestro sawyer shines in New York

Moses E. Josiah, from the Brooklyn borough of New York, plays inspirational music on his tenor saw in the subway under New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Friday, April 29, 2005. Josiah, originally from Guyana, has been playing the saw for 63 years.
AP Photo/Richard Drew

A predominant Guyanese crowd recently clamored to see and hear one of Hollywood’s finest but in their midst a world-class musician quietly and patiently waited his turn to shine.

His name was not even listed on the program. Perhaps only his fellow nationals noticed his quiet disposition. Some familiar with his gifted performances, referred to him as Maestro.

However, at the end of the formalities surrounding the Power of Dreams Award luncheon, octogenarian Moses E. Josiah positioned himself on a folding chair, opened a carrying case, removed what appeared to be a regular, carpenter’s wood saw and with a cello bow brilliantly illuminated Richie Rice’s Banquet Hall in Brooklyn Hall playing “This Little Light of Mine.”

Propped upward from his knees, the gritty-edged, smooth surfaced cutter became a magnet to curious patrons eager to source the mellifluous sound.

The sound of music wafted past noisy distractions to resonate on virgin ears that had never heard the soothing decibels emanating from a workman’s tool.

A musical saw player, a saw musician, a Sawyer, Sawist or just an innovative artist, this reporter mesmerized by the music searched for a proper identifier.

According to the 83-year-old Guyana-born talent, since 1987, he has been recognized by the Sawyers Association Worldwide as a Master Sawyer.

Their actual reason for distinguishing the Guyana-born native credits Josiah for “possessing the indispensable qualities of technical ability, musical artistry and wisdom required to uphold the dignified and honorable tradition of musical sawing.”

It was like hearing the sound of the steel pans for the first time.

As a matter of fact, Josiah claimed when he lived in Guyana, instead of a cello or violin bow, he used a felt hammer – akin to those used to play pan – to find the chords.

The music seemed new and enchanting, calming and peaceful. Josiah seemed at ease playing gospel.

In 2007, he released 12-recordings “Celebrating 60 Years of Ministry.”

Among them, church favorites: “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Jesus Loves me,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Sunshine In My Soul.”

On this occasion, Josiah neither mentioned his CD nor promoted his unique artistry.

As a matter of fact, Glover had long gone when he played his first note.

Guests had dined, chatted and mingled with the dozen honorees and most hurried to avoid the St. Patrick’s Day crowd.

But a few lingered and were treated to the tastiest after-party treat.

His mastery and focused attention proved the main ingredient to the soothing music that gave pause from the hectic diversions that competed.

A decade ago, lucky straphangers passing though the 14th St. Union Square subway station gawked at his prowess, talent and ingenuity. Changing from one train to the next some claimed to have heard the sound of music and followed it to find a “West Indian sitting on a chair.”

“This is an authentic instrument,” Josiah explained. “I have been playing it since 1947. I played for the Queen of England and throughout the years with the use of percussion instruments improved on it.”

According to the professed maestro, the art of playing the saw originated in West Africa.

Early in the last century, the instrument became popular in vaudeville shows. But its popularity waned in concert halls.

With his baritone saw, Josiah is keeping alive a long tradition and African heritage that celebrates a people and their innovative and creative talent.

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