My Blog List

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Universal Language


Dear Editor

I am forced to write to correct a misconception some people might have got from reading the article, Why We Hate Steel Band Music published in The Daily Observer. Someone suggested to me that I was promoting classical music as being superior to other types of music, including our own calypso.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of classical music, like a lot of any type of music, is plan rubbish to my ears. The point I was trying to make was simply that one type of music can inform another. A lot of classical music was commissioned by kings and persons of high office. This did not start in Europe. It started in Africa. So if we borrow from classical music we are simply taking back what we started.

Here is a simple example of how music and art carry universal themes. I once heard a provocative, some would even say erotic, rendition of music called Nights in the Garden of Spain by the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Anyone could easily imagine from listening to the music, all of the nocturnal goings on in the garden, even though the composer was known to be a most pious man.

A few years later, I read a poem by Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, called Nights in the Garden of Port of Spain. It was the poetry equivalent of The Mighty Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah and the same nocturnal goings on that Manuel de Falla wrote into his classical music.

We are not as different as some of us like to think, we just look, talk and do a few things differently.

Dr. Lester CN Simon

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

School Daze


Dear Editor

This is an open letter to the most honorable prime minister, informing him that many of us would forego all the presents for Christmas, including the dollar barrel, if the government would work with us to usher in a fundamental and revolutionary change in education in 2008.

We have written, we have spoken, we have cursed and we have prayed about the unacceptable level of crime and about the equally unacceptable level of disinterestedness and hopelessness amongst our youths, particularly our school boys. When almost everything else has been tried and failure continues to stalk us, we have to consider structure or form to understand why our operations and results are so dysfunctional.

We are proposing a drastic reduction in the size and function of the Ministry of Education along with the decentralization of its functions to allow for the autonomous running of secondary schools. These schools should be run by boards comprising members of the community. Board membership should comprise people living and working within as well as without the environs of the school including parents and guardians of school children.

We need to feel and experience a more intimate sense of ownership of the elements of our development. Decentralizing the running of secondary schools will put communities in charge of crucial aspects of education and help to forge the necessary community spirit and expertise that running a school demands. Those who point to the fact that many parents do not attend PTA meetings should reflect on the proverbial chicken and egg question. People are not stupid. People first means education First.

We must stop the antiquated and unintelligent practice of promoting excellent teachers by moving them from schools to desk jobs in the Ministry of Education. This underscores the fact that were school boards in place and autonomous, the best teachers with the best results would have got the best job in the first place, attracted the best pay and remained in the best jobs doing what they love best. To those who will charge us with elitism, our response is as simple as the mind of an uneducated school child (an oxymoron): In times like these, we have to start at the top in order to show others where to go. That is why we are writing to you, Sir.

Who are we?
Dr. Lester CN Simon and a posse of potential thieves, thugs, vagabonds, duncy-head, crack-head, homicidal, suicidal, misguided, lonely and walking-jumbie youths in waiting.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Too Much Noise At My Head


Dr. Lester CN Simon

One of these days, someone will say there are a lot of people who hate steel band music. He has been holding back the bad news because he knows from personal experience that there are many types of music some people dislike; like country and western, or classical music. The keeper of this awful secret will let out the bad news because steel band music is not a musical genre. Steel pans are musical instruments. All genres of music can be played on the steel pan. The precise problem is that many people, including many West Indians, feel that music played on steel pans is nothing but a clutter of noise. He thinks he knows why.

It was round about 1966 when he consciously decided that classical music was the worse thing in the world and unworthy of his attention. He had recently acquired his first saxophone (from a cousin who introduced Andy Narell to steel pan). It came with a book of classical sounding music, which was as foreign to him and as distant from him as the premier moon landing a few years later.

Over 10 years later, he embarked on a journey to understand country and western and classical music. He was undertaking a music course and trying to come to grips with music theory and practice in all its forms. His epiphany came via the response to an interviewer who condescendingly suggested to a great jazz player that some musician played jazz like folk music. Charles Mingus responded that all music was folk music because horses don’t sing. Country and western music and calypso became thematically identical.

His about turn around classical music might lead to a similar turn for those who despise steel pan music. The vexing conclusion is that the main reason for your dislike of steel pan music lies primarily not with you but in a fundamental problem with many, but thankfully not all, steel pan music arrangers and players.

Despite becoming aware of music theory, he made a deliberate effort when he started to listen to classical music, to listen as he would look at a movie for the first time. Relax and see if he enjoyed it; if it made sense. To this end, he stayed away initially from the noise of the classical music symphonies. He started with the concertos, music surrounding a particular instrument. Loving the sound of the cello, he listened to many cello concertos. Fortuitously, the first one was Dvorak’s with the French cellist, Paul Tortelier. He swore he heard Tortelier played a run of notes in the allegro that was like dancing to calypso music.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of a cello pan or tenor pan concerto in steel band music. He thinks we need it. He does not refer to the cello pan playing a classical concerto. We need composers to write cello pan concertos for calypso music not classical music. This format will force the pan players to pay attention to the single most important thing that underlies the dislike for steel pan music by many West Indians.

His next stop was the classical string quartet. Here, he made a simple but amazing discovery. All four instruments of the string quartet have a similar timbre or sonority even though they have different ranges or pitches. The key to good string quartet playing is the interplay between the instruments so as to effect a musical conversation. Any composer, arranger or player of classical music string quartet or jazz saxophone quartet or steel pan quartet must understand that without this interplay and conversation, the result is nothing but cheap strings, noisy sounding brass and a cacophony of tinkling cymbals.

In steel pan music, we have a format near enough to the equivalent of the string quartet. It is the five-a-side format made popular by Moods of Pan. It comprises 4 pan players and a drummer. As he listened to Moods of Pan this year, he felt they should drop the drummer. We do need a drummer in the full steel orchestra with close to or over one hundred players. Steel pan music is in dire need of a steel pan quartet without the drummer, leaving the single tenor, the pair of double second pans, the triple guitar pans and the bass.

Such a naked steel pan quartet will force the arrangers and composers to rely on the interplay and the conversation that is at the heart of not just good pan music, but define the very soul of the only pan music worth listening to, particularly because of the nature of steel pans. This lack of interplay and conversation, leaving you with cluttering noises, is highlighted a hundred fold when you hear the full steel pan orchestra, unless you are lucky enough to hear the works of a master arranger. And they are few and far between.

Whilst mastering the interplay and the conversation, we must continue research into materials for the steel pan and the properties of the rubber for the pan sticks. If you think steel pan music is loud and noisy, ask some veteran steel band players if it is loud and noisy. Unfortunately, they would either say it certainly is not, or they would just look at you quizzically: Because they are deaf, or as we say here, “diff”, or “hard a hearing”. The ENT surgeon knows this. There is a lot of work to do to realize the potential of the steel pan.

Now, when he listens to some classical music symphonies or a classical orchestral playing Jerusalem by Parry, a quintessential English song, he can recall with emotional and motional quiver the days when his primary school teacher took them outside the concrete, multi-classroom jungle and sat them down on the grass. It was there that musical interplay and conversation defined what singing was all about.

To borrow a mixed metaphor from Professor Rex Nettleford, our steel pan musicians must harness and release the subterranean and submarine motifs of our ancestral folks to enrich our music with more interplay and conversation. In so doing they will help to remove the dislike for steel band music and summon the love and familiarity of all forms of our folk music, including the calypso of singing horses.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Christmas Play

A One Act Christmas Play
Dr. Lester CN Simon

Scene: The reception area of a small hotel in Antigua.

Jonathan: Joseph, I know it’s none of my business but I think you should do a paternity test on the child.
Joseph: There is no point in doing a paternity test. I know the child is not mine, in one way. But in another way, the child belongs to me and to all of us.
Jonathan: Yea right. So; since the child belongs to all of us, all of us want to know who is the real father.
Joseph: I know who is the real father and you know who is the real father.
Jonathan: Yes, but if you do the paternity test we can see what the DNA of the real father looks like. I made a call to the lab and they said that you and the child can do the test. The mother does not have to take the test since it is the father we are concerned about.
Joseph: We?
Jonathan: Yes, we. You said the child belongs to all of us.

Another worker enters.

Mizpah: Good afternoon. I see you two are busy chatting away as usual. Might I remind you that we are here to work? Look at how untidy the place looks. The reception area must be immaculate. It is the first place where the visitors stop.
Jonathan: That’s the very same thing we were discussing, Mizpah: The conception of immaculate reception; or is it the reception of immaculate….
Mizpah: Jonathan. I think you should leave Joseph alone and mind your own business.
Jonathan: But Joseph said it is everybody’s business; just like tourism.
Mizpah: Yes, and knowing your big, long mouth, the beach is just the beginning too.
Jonathan: Precisely. Imagine how many tourists we would get if the child not just walked on the beach but walked on water and came to one of our celebrity weddings and turned water into wine.
Mizpah: Pity you will not come forth after you drop down dead from all this foolish, ungodly talk.
Jonathan: What’s so wrong about Joseph and the child doing the test? The mother doesn’t have to know.
Mizpah: The mother is the legal guardian of the child. The lab cannot legally and ethically do the test without her consent.
Jonathan: That’s even better. All three of them can do the test. We will find out who the father is and who is the mother. You know what that means Joseph?
Joseph: Since you are the expert and you will tell me anyhow, tell me.
Jonathan: We might just find out that no DNA at all came from the mother. If none of the DNA in the child came from the mother it means that the entire DNA of the child must have come from the real father.
Mizpah: That would mean that the real father exists as male and female. Looking at such a DNA test result would be like looking into the very soul of....……I can’t even think about it. Drop the whole argument. Nobody is going to harass the young mother to consent to any DNA test. She has had enough to bear already.
Jonathan: I notice whenever arguments come up about man and woman business, you Mizpah are always defending women. I have to start watching you day and night.
Mizpah: Start watching me? I look like your daughter? Listen, Jonathan. Mind I don’t put my tongue on you.
Jonathan: Please Mizpah. Don’t threaten me. I am not one of your female friends. All I am saying is that good King Wenceslas is not the only one looking out. Do you hear what I hear? Your chestnuts are roasting on an open fire.
Joseph: This thing has gone too far; much too far.
Mizpah: Well talk to your friend Joseph. I work here during the day. Only shepherds watch their flocks by night; so tell Jonathan to just drop me at the foot of the cross.
Jonathan: It’s just a joke. Let’s get back to work.
Mizpah: You insult me and then call it a joke? Joseph; please talk to your friend, otherwise when I am done with him, he will want more than two front teeth for Christmas. I don’t understand you men. Every time women defend each another, it’s one big argument about power and sexuality. All I am saying is to let the young mother rest. She carried so much for so many. Nobody is doing any DNA test for paternity, maternity, fraternity or anything else. Nobody. Tell him Joseph.

After an awkward moment of silence.

Mizpah: If women don’t look out for each other, who will? My name, Mizpah, means watchtower. You read in Genesis that God said, “Let us make man in our image”. What do you think “us” and “our” mean? They must mean male and female. And yet, throughout the ages, the role of women, from biblical times to now, has been played down. Deliberately. Do you know there is a Gospel of Mary and that there are other Gnostic Gospels? Do you know there was a big, historical quarrel between Christians, with some calling themselves orthodox and branding other Christians as heretics? There was a deliberate attempt to wipe out virtually all the feminine imagery of God from orthodox Christian tradition, as the brilliant historian, Dr. Elaine Pagels noted. The revered Gnostic texts were omitted from the selected, canonical collection called the New Testament. Do you know that?
Jonathan: All I know is that Nietzsche, the philosopher, wrote that there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.
Mizpah: And who brought him into this world? And who was there to the very earthly end at the foot of the cross with him?
Joseph: Enough. Let the whole thing rest. Please. All I have to say to you Mizpah and to you Jonathan is simply this: Mary Christmas. Mary Christmas to you.