THE TUNES OF THE LANGUAGE
Dr. Lester CN Simon
I deliberately stayed away from the last music recital put on by The Music Society of Antigua and Barbuda. And I will continue to stay away until the members show some sign of being seriously interested in the development of music in Antigua and Barbuda. Truth to tell, I wanted to say this since the second recital. I hope I can exercise them into action by saying so in print and in public.
It is very hard to sit idly by and see the young musicians of the Antigua and Barbuda Symphony Orchestra go through the same, terrible mistakes others went through decades ago, with even more dire consequences today. The way to develop young musicians in the West Indies to play classical music, or any type of music, well, is to expose them to what Derek Walcott refers to as “the tunes of the language”. He minted this phrase in the October, 2008 edition of Gramophone, self-described as, and arguably, the world’s best classical music magazine.
When we refer to the tunes of the language, which tunes and which language are we talking about? Walcott notes that melody in speech in the Caribbean is very strong; so strong at times, he posits, it can become incoherent. Yes, we talk with tongues and we can talk in tongues. Walcott makes the fundamental point that in the Caribbean, we often parody the melody of our speech in our music. We do this simply by following the tunes of the language. If you didn’t know before, now you know the reason why some of our calypsos sound very inorganic, aplastic and artificial. We seem to get lost sometimes, not knowing which language and syntax to use.
The cardinal point about leaning to play music well is that there has to be a clear, direct, constantly provoked and nurtured connection between the language we speak and the music we play. For far too long, rhythm has been closeted as the underlying, regular, repeated pattern of the music. We are ignoring the rhythm of the melody, despite the lessons learnt by the bass players in early soca music. This is partly due to the misguided escape from or freedom from structure but it is also because of a wanton disregard for the rich melody of our languages, dialect and English. The central task of West Indian artistes is to wade through the melodies of our dialect and the English language separately and then alarm themselves and others with the similarities, connections, conjunctions and annexations.
Simply put, the dilemma of the young West Indian musician is that of trying to grasp the technique of the instrument as well as the technique of the music language, at the same time. The young artiste is in a straight jacket during music practice because the language of the music being played is markedly different from the music of the language showering down outside. This is not a request for solitary immersion in dialect. West Indians speak English but even when it is grammatically correct, it is still different from the sound of the languages of the Anglo-Saxons.
We must use the rhythms of the languages that the young musician speaks, dialect and English, as prototypes for short musical phrases. We then extend these motifs to build larger musical blocks. These become the cementing tools to grasp the rudiments of music. Then, the relative familiarity of the musical language will allow more concentration on the unfamiliar physical techniques required to play the instruments. Indeed, groups of young musicians will soon be able to converse musically in toto, or in tandem in response to a central caller.
It is very dangerous and counterproductive to assume that all the qualities of life come out of or are registered within just one type of music, classical, jazz, calypso, fado, or whichever. Young musicians should be decently bombarded with all forms of music, and associated languages, to see the simple and complex elements of life manifested in all cultures. Some may ask about a slower, more reflective, instrumental type of calypso, for example, to help nurture our more sedate or pensive moments. If our music is lacking in some regard, professional musicians must be relieved of the constant, sterile jamming at hotels and bars just to make ends meet and commissioned to compose new bars of music that we will make us meet, measure and treasure.
One of the serious problems stifling the young musicians is the blind arrogance of some of their music teachers. Walcott refers to the absolute need for structure and he notes how adherence to structure is seen by some students in “advanced” cultures as being old fashioned. So now, someone will break out and, according to Walcott, they will put two squiggles on a canvas and call it a painting. Gesundheit! Or, as we know from the brutally loud, unstructured sounds that pain our inner ear, some so-called musicians will knock up a few words and declare the airwaves pregnant with a song.
It gets worse. Whilst some music teachers are loose and carefree to a reckless degree, others are so old fashioned and steadfast to a fault, they see structure and form only in classical music. It is as if a person’s entire wardrobe, from hat to shoes, tops to bottoms and undergarments were all of a single colour with only varying hues or dyes. A nice, modal concept yes, but other and different niceties add flavour and richness. Even the blues do not have to be blue. Someone once remarked that after a scintillating musical performance, when he tried to don his hat he could not find his head. We must go one step further such that there are no other heads amongst the exiting, wondering audience to fit the wandering hat.
The way out for West Indian music teachers requires going back to our rich, manifold roots. Walcott warns that going back to your roots is not an academic notion; it is a real thing. But herein lies a peculiar West Indian trap. West Indian roots are heterogeneous with black, dicotyledonous taproots. We still have an appointment with reconciliation amongst ourselves before or even as our different languages and music are stripped of the bows and arrows that are used to defend the archers and offend targeted others. And those who serve up classical music only, and its attendant language, as dominant high culture are seemingly afraid to abandon their security blankets and present the full diversity of classical music with reference to the collage of musical colours from progressive, classical composers, traditional and contemporary.
Walcott is important not just because he is a Nobel Prize-winning poet. He was important to us long before that. His understanding of Caribbean ancestry and the path he has skillfully negotiated between being Caribbean and conquering the English language is the prototypic journey for all West Indians. Walcott says he is writing his first opera. He is interested in the outcome of joining great language with great music. He refers to the poetry in music and the music in poetry. We must invite him to our annual calypso opera on carnival Sunday night.
The need to remain rooted in the local whilst soaring all over, which is the essence of music, can lead to collusions and collisions of images that will exercise and exorcise your hats, socks, garments, and undergarments even. Imagine, if you will, a devastating hurricane that destroys many homes arcing the western and northwestern shoreline areas of the city. Imagine further, one such hapless, homeless person standing amongst the ruins contemplating the future. Until the uplifting arms of music can come to the rescue and signal a future, the only response to this widespread devastation will be: “What’s the point? Not a single villa left. Not even a farm. Just an empty, opaque, colourless bay”. So many uniquely local musical motifs that we can identify with can be composed and translated. There are so many tunes in all the languages we speak. The calypsonian is right: Play yourself.
And. Last lick. If they are barefaced enough to respond and attack me, my response will come chapter and verse from Shadow, Sotto con brio (subdued, with spirit): “I didn’t mean to treat them rough. But they punish me (and the children) enough.”
Note: There are communities around the city called, The Point, Villa Area, Grays Farm, and Green Bay.