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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sing A Song


Dr. Lester CN Simon

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a nation of displaced people, dispossessed of the good fortune of frequent moieties of cultural expositions, will expose themselves in the want of wanton annual competitions. Hence, all the talk about the Female Calypso Competition has forced me, belatedly, into a confession about all carnival calypso competitions in Antigua and Barbuda in general. They make me sick.

Almost every time after playing in the All Star Band for the final Calypso Monarch competition at carnival for the past twenty years, I would drive for miles or sit with or without friends for hours until and beyond J’ouvert and wonder if we would ever get it right. Getting it right is not just about the judging, as atrocious as that can be at times. It is about the entire season of calypso from idea to song to performance.

The decision of the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) not to have a Queen of Calypso Competition this year is correct, but the reason is based on a false premise. The CDC chairman stated that the Queen of Calypso Competition started in response to an uneven playing field between the male and female calypsonians. The notion that the skills and talents of female calypsonians have now matched those of the males, is rooted in a misconception about the acquisition and nurturing of skills and prowess in artistic endeavors. Competitions by their very nature are not the best breeding grounds to develop an artiste. Calypso tents are indeed fine-tuning events but they can only do so little for the overall development process.

Calypsonians, males and females, need regular rudimentary training in music in all its parts, and in literature. This requires access to places and people who are part of institutional building, literally and developmentally. Such a national institution will be an invaluable tool for the majority of hopeful calypsonians and musicians. It will also serve as a useful target for the mavericks who like to rally against the establishment.

With all the music we were exposed to at the Jamaica School of Music (Afro-American Department), we realized very early that the soul of Jamaican music in the seventies was coming from artistes, like Bob Marley, who were far removed from the music school. Nonetheless, when our music teacher did an arrangement of Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock) by Bob Marley, we instantly recognized why she had used a particular chord that was much more dissonant than the one used in the original. Whilst Bob Marley’s road block comprised a few policemen, Melba Liston’s arrangement had police, soldier and every security personnel you could imagine, as well as ambulances with outriders and a throng of obstructed quarrelsome Jamaicans.

On a recent visit to Chicago, I visited the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue. It was built in 1885 and carries an old timer elevator operator. In this ten storey building one could attend a performance, conduct private lessons, practice, engage instrument repair technicians, hang out in music shops, mount exhibitions etc. As fine as that institution is, I wondered what part it played in the development of the avant-garde musicians grouped together as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in which music and drama were rolled into one holistic performance. It was out of this same group that a member, the late trumpeter, Lester Bowie, came to Jamaica and taught us how to really play a wind instrument by leaving the established classroom and taking to the hills overlooking Kingston.

It was in that regular creative environment that someone (guess who?) responded to a perpetual student in an extempore calypso competition on campus, thus: “My competitor studying on campus so long, for him and he alone I sing this song, by now he must have so much degree, Fahrenheit and Centigrade have to hide from he”. This did not come overnight, it came from hours of seeing the humour in the simple and the complex things in life. It came out of inventing silly jokes like the one about what would happen if a Rastaman were to walk into a bar in the wild, wild, west and shout, “Jah!”

The new Friday evening program on Observer Radio on calypso by Cleveroy is a movement in the right direction. It is in consonant harmonic concert with Serpent’s “Klassic Kaiso Korner”. We do not need a ten storey building like the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. However, last year when I walked into the wooden, two storey building hosting our Culture Department on lower Nevis Street, I could barely hear myself talk or think whilst a single tenor pan player was practicing. The CDC can cut and cut all it wants, it must come to a comprehensible, unambiguous position in conjunction with artistes and the Culture Department about the way forward in the development of our arts.

Maybe, just maybe, the demise of the Queen of Calypso Competition will give birth to a call for a new, serious way forward. Indeed, just as the nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, was used as a coded message by the notorious pirate Blackbeard to recruit crew members for prize-hunting expeditions, so too may the song and dance about the loss of the Queen of Calypso Competition be a coded, calypso, clarion call not to enounce the questionable leveling of the playing field, but to create a lush calypso playing field of which we can be proud.

The CDC and the rest of us must disabuse ourselves of the puerile, popular notion that cultural expressions are perennial, flowering pastimes. Being a calypsonian, female or male, or a musician or any kind of artiste demands an active and passive opening of the mind, the eye and the ear every single, blessed, cultural day.

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