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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Our Kind of Music


Dr. Lester CN Simon

Some of us have experienced the joy of instantaneously raising our hand in class to signal to the teacher that we knew the answer to the question asked. Some of us have also borne the harrowing effect of another pupil slowly raising their hand and delivering an answer that was so clear and bright, our only release was to go home quietly and pretend that we were that pupil. As we grew older we realised we must learn from each other to extend the boundaries of general knowledge.

The double compact disc, Pan In Education from Trinidad and Tobago is a watershed in Caribbean music. One CD is an audio version of 13 songs played by steel orchestras. The other CD shows the full musical scores as well as the score for each instrument in three formats for viewing and listening. Additionally, there is information on Caribbean rhythms, copyright issues and a bevy of data that allow this double CD set to be used in a classroom in the Caribbean or in any part of the world.

Pan In Education was the focal point of one of the presentations at a recent regional workshop in Antigua & Barbuda on Information, Communication and Technology (ICT). The title of the presentation was Pan In Education: A Sustainable Business Model for the Caribbean Music Industry by Simeon Louis Sandiford, managing director of Sanch Electronix Limited in Trinidad and Tobago.

The appearance of this double CD about steel pan begs the question about calypso music in general. Why is calypso less popular on the international circuit than reggae and what must calypso do to catch up? Somewhere amongst the myriad reasons must be the fact that if you line up 20 of the bests traditional reggae and calypso songs, the lyrics of the reggae songs will appeal more readily to the average international listener. Generally, calypso lyrics are more parochial. There are many more double entendres (double meanings) in calypso than in reggae.

The origin and purpose of calypso demanded a more subtle, indirect approach; and even though calypso can be protest music, reggae is more direct, more “get up, stand up, stand up for your right”. Reggae will walk straight and direct along Market Street from the market to the Police Station, calypso will take you all around town, allow you to enjoy yourself before you realise you are locked up in the same Police Station!

If we can package steel pan music for education in a classroom in some far off land, why can’t we package calypso for the average listener in the same far off land? We would have to use DVD instead of CD because in addition to music and data that are the confines of a CD, a DVD can also carry movies. The parochial limitations of calypso can be surmounted by displaying the lyrics, outlining the story and employing a glossary of Caribbean words and phrases using a standard source like the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage by Richard Allsopp. The same goes for the double entendres. We can also incorporate a movie of the singer performing the songs in a typical music video performance with sceneries of Antigua and Barbuda with information on the locations etc.

The marketing plan would be to get the average international person who is infected by the drama and beauty of carnival and calypso to understand what the mystique is all about. We can also include in the DVD a dissertation and demonstration on the art of dancing to calypso music for those hopping tourists who seem to be out of time all the time every time they go on the calypso dance floor.

An important past participle of calypso theme and strategy was used for the building of strong, narrative structure. Witty humour. Traditional reggae lacked this element terribly. It is a unique, marketable aspect of the verb and gerund of calypso composition. Have you ever heard a traditional reggae song that makes you hold your belly and laugh your head off until the lost tears of laughter make you dizzy from dehydration? As much as I love Bob Marley’s music, you will never hear a reggae song from that era about a lying competition or a theatrical discourse on the art of two women “cussing” on Greenbay Hill.

In recent times, reggae has ventured into humour and this has paid huge dividends with lyrics responding to, and countering lyrics of a previously released song. This genre comes straight out of the calypso tent and there are knowledgeable musicians and musicologists who will “tell you flat” that reggae came out of calypso; but that is another story, which itself is another genre of the calypso art form. Both calypso and reggae have surfed onto a wave of banality to the extent that you have to search hard amongst the haystack of odious garbage to find the solitary, buried, musical gem that pierces you like a needle.

As we bridge the digital divide we expect answers to questions about computer simulation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic into and out of St. John’s. We want to know about computer simulation of the use of the entire extended East Bus Station area as an atrium of the city. This is modern town and suburban planning which must extend to the whole of Antigua and Barbuda. However, within this enticing digital milieu, the fundamental things of life still apply. It is our culture that defines us and we must understand ourselves before we can export our culture with or without the digital medium of CD or DVD.

A crucial part of this understanding of national self must begin with coming to terms with the singular and central lesson of slavery. The cardinal lesson of slavery is that black people are a dignified race of survivors. Amen! Once we understand the historical significance of this, we can also survive in a dignified way the nonsense we face now including the enslaving nonsense that comes even from some of our very own. With the Caribbean being the melting pot of all of the races of the world, the raison d’etre of a West Indian and Caribbean person or personality is how all these races can survive and live together in social harmony. Indeed, in the Caribbean, we are the world.

So let us celebrate the hard work that went into the Pan In Education double CD. But we must use the same digital tools to extend to packaging calypso and other forms of our West Indian and Caribbean culture for export. The requirements for this successful venture are the same requirements that schools of business administration have been trying to teach corporate executives. When the tools of business are used for culture, the learning and mastering of the tools of business will be so much easier. Indeed, Pan In Education is a brilliant attempt to apply all aspects of a business from creating to manufacturing, to selling, and investing, to creating again, using music and steel pan.

The business of culture will help us to redevelop a business culture. This propagation of culture by first understanding national self and culture and valuing our cultural icons and sending out our minstrels and jesters and traders, is not uniquely North American. It is as old as the hills. It started in the home of all of mankind: in Africa.

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