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Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Call and Response


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Sometimes in our lives, we get lucky. It is said that good luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So being lucky does not necessarily mean winning large sums of money. It can come from hearing a few bars of wonderful music, seeing a beautiful painting, or catching an overwhelming feeling in church. These moments seem to be in perfect harmony with nature. They represent a flash flood of ethos that causes the mind to become awash with respect for the limitless potential of the human spirit.

A few nights ago, preparation and opportunity collided when I heard the broadcast of an ALP political meeting in which a member of the audience urged the speaker to, “Talk as you like!” Most listeners have been concentrating on the words of the speaker and his superhuman feat of building a tamarind tree. My concentration was on the response of the audience. Taken together, the broadcast was a case of call-and-response that sits right up there with any fine piece of music that I would call simply classical.

In the opening pages of Calypso & Society, the author, Gordon Rohlehr referred to the work of the ethnomusicologist, Dena Epstein who wrote about the characteristic West African nature of the call-and–response musical form. Rohlehr noted that this musical element exists in Calypso and in folksong throughout the Caribbean. Indeed it has influenced Blues, Jazz, and other forms and styles of black music in the United States and the Caribbean. Some regard it as a defining feature of all black music.

Call-and –response is a musical style in which a leader sings a line (call) and a
chorus sings a line (response) alternately. At political and other meetings and in some churches, the response takes on the artful task of punctuating the speaker. The speaker has to be very mindful of the fact that he or she is the one in charge. If the speaker loses sight of this basic fact, the responding audience can become the caller, and the caller can be thrown out of rhythm, rhyme and reason.

The call-and-response interplay of the Tamarind Tree speech resonated because it was a classical involvement of the audience. This nexus between the audience and performer is the soul of our music. The music becomes participatory. You cannot watch this music from a distant, double-decker pavilion. Almost like little children clamouring for attention, fine music must be seen, not just heard.

When I listened to the political broadcast, I thought, here was a politician on the government side, organically involved with his audience in the very participatory way that the opposition party claims as its battle cry. Talk as you like! You have more words than he!

Some writers suggest that the interplay of call and response has been around for a long time. They claim that it might have been the first form of human dialogue and the derivation of language. Other writers see the concept of call-and-response as part of the drama of life. By this they mean: What life asks of us, and how we respond.

We are all currently engaged in the fervour of a very crucial call-and-response build-up to a general election in Antigua and Barbuda. Please be careful. Bob Barley said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. In the heat of the political battle, you may feel you are on a Sauline road to conversion. What with all the dazzling, bright lights!

When you think you are doing the calling, you may in fact be responding to the real call from Jah, Rastafari. Do you really think that you have more words than He? Alternatively, your call may be a response to being led down the garden path of the forbidden fruit by the real serpent, Beelzebub. And please do not blame Eve simply because it is evening time.

If you talk as you like, you may not like what you talk. But if your heart is right, your mind is pure and you really and truly love this beautiful country, all you have to do without fear is open your mouth and : Talk as you like!

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