gall and gumption

Friday, September 14, 2007

The State of the Art

A few days ago I met a Caribbean diplomat who lives nearby. He's from a small Eastern Caribbean country. Smart man. We stood around and talked for almost an hour about Caribbean affairs big and small, about which he is much better informed than I am. My people tend to jump into conversation with strangers at the deep end, fearlessly. At one point in the conversation the subject changed from political personalities to cricket personalities with no warning. No cricket enthusiast would feel he needed to give any warning. One minute you're talking trade union leaders of the 1960s and the next minute you're wondering who is responsible for the state of the team.

I'm not sure that people here get how passionately people feel about cricket in the Eastern Caribbean. In Jamaica there is some of that, but Jamaica has other sports at which they've earned an international profile: football, of course, and track and field. This diversity, like so many other of Jamaica's advantages of scale, diffuses some -- not all -- of the intensity of feeling about cricket.

If you grew up in the Leeward Islands and played on the Leeward Islands cricket team, you can fairly count on having a street named after you.

Cricket is a game, but it's not exactly play. So much national and regional pride is bound up in it, for one thing. And for the other, the cricket audience is very sophisticated about the sport. They've been playing it and following it internationally for their entire lives. So the state of West Indies cricket is like the state of the culture. Partisan politics don't get into it, only because it has a politics entirely of its own and equally absorbing; the quality of the captain and the success of the team are indications of the health of Caribbean culture and morals. The great captains of the past are proof that back in the day we raised our children right. The unpopular captains of the present are proof that everything is going to hell in a handbasket and that's why we lost to [insert name of B-level team here].

You hardly see it outside of the region, but calypso has a similar presence. You can get some idea of it from this useful commentary at Caribbean Net News. The problem here in the US is that unless you are in the middle of a community of West Indians, unless you live on Flatbush Ave or Jamaica, Queens, all the calypso you hear is out of context. That's OK, of course, take your Sparrow and Kitchener on any terms and enjoy. But every year on every island a small war is fought around calypso. Every year, these characters are getting up on the stages at parish festivals and fairs for the first round in a competition to be crowned king. Nobody is anything so paltry as a lord any more. One day you're repairing cars and the next day you are King. The finalists and the winner will saturate the airwaves for the next year or so, people will talk about it, it becomes public opinion in a way that a newspaper pundit can only dream of.

Respect is the real currency in the Caribbean. And that's why calypso is so devastating. Calypso is a powerful subversive attack on public identities, on those accumulated carapaces of respect. If you are a politician with a reputation for tomcatting about at night, the chances are people know about it and turn a blind eye. It doesn't get above the level of gossip. When this information becomes the subject of a calypso, well, it has partly achieved that eternal posterity that Shakespeare wrote about in his sonnets. If it isn't actual eternity, that year will feel like eternity.

One calypso (coughcough"Man's Best Friend"coughcough), three responses. On an island which I shall not name, a clever song about what the men of that country will “pay for cat.” Although the song didn't name any names, any listener who was current on local gossip knew the parties. At least two of the song’s subjects are ministers of government. The rest are public officials or private citizens, all well known. The minister identified as “the one who jumped out the window” kept quiet. The one who was rumored to have “paid scholarship for cat” quietly plotted revenge; a year later he struck by sending an “agent” to make a rude on-air prank phone call to a popular female radio talk show host. A third party, a well-to-do, respectable, married private citizen, paid the calypsonian to re-record the song and include him by name.

A politician who goes after a calypsonian inevitably comes out the worse for the encounter. The politician is protected by the libel laws, and the calypsonian sends as much damage as he can in the politician’s direction short of prosecutable offense. To prosecute a calysonian for calypso would expose the politician to even more ridicule and scorn. So what they do is they find other charges. Thus in St. Kitts two of the island’s most popular calypsonians have been charged, at different times, with physical assault, by the same politician. This strategy works rather well. It shifts the ground of the conflict to “Did King So-and-So actually hit the minister? Well, I wasn’t backstage, he could have been drunk, he’s got money worries, the minister is setting him up, why can’t these musicians behave?” It begins to look like a public argument in which the calypsonian got out of control. Artists are volatile people, ministers are not. Subject to a public indignity and a night or two in jail before the charges are reduced or dismissed, the calypsonian doesn’t get off altogether. It is really a pretty crude confrontation about respect; it is the Big Man syndrome. And the politician is then able to say that he is an open-minded person. And you have to hear a Caribbean government official when he gets on the subject of how negative and irresponsible this or that song is. Why, when so many positive developments to sing about – the new wing at the hospital – why do they want to wallow in lies and filth? It’s hurtful, man, it’s not hurtful to me personally, God knows I have to take my licks and these things can’t touch me personally – kisses teeth looks appalled and scornful at the mere suggestion, No, man --, but it’s hurtful to the country.

When you hear this speech, malice is slowly and quietly cooking somewhere.

The writer notes the emergence of Soca, which he doesn’t like.

During the Sunday night competitions the pace of the second song began to quicken. But instead of embracing the evolution of the music what happened was the creation of another genre of Calypso – Soca; with its own competition – Soca Monarch. So artistes such as Inspector in Grenada, Iwer George in Trinidad and Andy Armstrong in Barbados now had no reason to compete on Carnival Sunday nights, because they had a more attractive and more lucrative option.

Instead of having to compose two very powerful songs, one was now required to come up with just a hook, wrap some meaningless lyrics around it and suddenly you could have a title and a good pay day.

In the meantime fewer people attended the Sunday night competitions as the Soca Monarch competition became more and more appealing to an increasingly younger audience who didn’t require much to hold their attention.


In fairness to Soca which is as he describes it – little more than a punchy beat and a hook (“Feelin Hot! Hot! Hot!” Who Let the Dogs Out?”)– I only point out in passing that at any calypso competition you will hear calypsos that are so appallingly bad that they will make you want to rip your own ears off and mail them back to the manufacturer. I don’t know any Caribbean music that can be bad in the way calypso can be bad. But that tells you two things: how impressive a good calypso is – most calypsonians aren’t educated past high school – and how low the barriers to entry are. You probably can't become a good calypsonian without writing and performing a few stinkers. Part of the problem with any art is that if it’s bad for a spell, you think you have entered the Age of Lead. No, nothing can compare to the days when we had [insert name of choice here], the world is going all to hell, etc. And then a good song happens and the lost art of calypso is lost no more.

A singer can get up on a stage and sing two songs, one a piece of rubbish, the other one with something that takes hold. He can climb the heights of the competition, he can sell CDs – some calypsonians I know sell their CDs at the side of the road – he can be crowned King and hear his own voice singing his own song five times a day on the radio for months, he will be part of all the ensuing fun, he will step out of obscurity. People will never forget that he was a King. His song may even go beyond his own shores for success, picked up over the radio or carried by him to regional competitions on other islands. This is, with a few exceptions, what calypso has always done. Only a very, very small number of calypsonians have gone on to international fame. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Local and regional success is about what it always was. Outside of the competitions and the carnival festivities, calypso insinuates itself into public conversation. This is what it did when it was nothing more than the secret taunts sung by slaves. This movement of language, of comment and observation doesn’t just happen in music; it happens in speech and in dance and manners. The mockery makes its way to the target.

Calypso’s best advocate has been calypso itself. You can’t legislate great calypso into existence. You can, however, create a more or less nurturing environment. And an atmosphere in which there is a low barrier to entry, where there are reachable rewards and chances to grow and reach for bigger prizes, where there is public recognition of achievement, and where the artist is not working in isolation, where there is real mentorship, all this helps.

Artists have to fight for their art. Soca offers advantages and opportunities that calypso just doesn't have at its disposal, mostly. But relative poverty never hurt calypso before.

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