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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Strange Fruit


Dr. Lester CN Simon

A most remarkable phenomenon is happening right before our opened eyes and I almost missed it. Concurrent with the government’s seemingly inescapable march into the den of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a mushroom of local talent, expertise and finance is exploding into a cavalcade of carnival music. Almost all of this music will soon disappear, probably before the money from the IMF is released. And almost all of this music will hardly be heard again, unlike the IMF. Am I missing something?

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, another remarkable phenomenon is awakening our ears. Jazz and classical musicians are joining forces. Jazz pianist, Herbie Hancock and classical pianist, Lang Lang are performing, together, with the Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Herbie Hancock reminds us that there was a time when classical musician would improvise, as in the cadenza portion of a concerto.

In the general discussion about the pairing of these two musical masters, something odd is being bandied about. Comments are made about the safety and security of classical music in contrast to the bubbling freedom of jazz. Herbie Hancock was exhilarated when Lang Lang abandoned that so-called safety and security and improvised a part of the music they were playing.

In making the contrast between security and freedom, we often ignore the fact that the freedom we take for granted is based on the security of years of strict, slavish attention to detail and study. Otherwise, freedom, with no apposite regard for its opposite (in the past and in the present), is rooted in raw, primal, wildness and becomes an oxymoron.

I wish to declare that the ease with which many of us are able to express ourselves so skillfully in music and the similar ease with which we abandon or destroy our musical creations at carnival, are all part and parcel of our inability to build a modern society and manage the affairs of this nation.

When we take our music for granted, we often do not spend the time and expend the energy to manage it like a business or to realize its true potential. Ask our four top calypsonians if their music sheets are kept in some local repository and they might ask you if you need a suppository. Musicians would scamper to find the music sheets to play at a concert to honour these same top four calypsonians, expecting these master singers to sing at such a concert. In fact, in deed and in honour, they should be invited to sit in the front row with their family whilst a national orchestra and singers regale them with the very songs through which these masters gave us so much pleasure and contemplation.

These days, it has become too easy to compose a song, if song it can be called. Some of these offerings will make “Sing a Song of Sixpence” sound like a platinum classic; others will force Dan the man to abandon the van, and yet others will force the grandchildren of Jean and Dinah, Roseta and Clementina to bet and lose their lives on something they are selling, round the corner posing.

Notwithstanding this criticism, the fact remains that time, effort and money are deployed and dispensed to produce what the artistes regard as works of art. If this process is not managed effectively by the artistes, by their managers and by other persons related in some way to the music, how can we expect them and their followers to suddenly become responsible, productive and efficient at work in the civil service?

It seems that we have to take a second, long look at our music industry and other art forms in this country. We must rescue music from the hotels in order to rescue our people. The way we organize an orchestra, a pan yard, schedule and manage a practice session, including ironing out all the kinks in the music and settling all the personality clashes, and still eat and drink and play and perform together, must carryover to the workplace.

Can it be that we have lost the wholesomeness of music in particular, and of the arts in general, that we see them simply as media of pleasures, and not also as tools to arm and fortify us with the discipline we need in the workplace? Can it be that music is so easy to us, and now even easier still, that we misunderstand what is meant when it is said that “music is the universal language” or when Beethoven said, “Music is the language of God”?

Music is not just the language that all people can understand and be moved by. Music, in all its requirements and facets, from idea to creativity, from production to marketing, from enjoyment to contemplation, is a gift from God. It is given to us to enable us to understand the world around us. Through its compulsory twinning of discipline and freedom, it provides us with the fundamental and universal tool required to run our lives, to run a business, to run a country and, yes, to run the IMF. Unfortunately, the IMF dances to calypso with a strange, discordant and irregular rhythm.

Sunday, July 12, 2009



Dr. Lester CN Simon

The question is on the table: Does Antiguan calypso music have a unique sound compared to Trinidadian calypso? If so, what is it? Many persons contend that there is a difference. The very same, many people find it difficult to outline the said uniqueness of the Antiguan calypso sound. I am in this group that finds it difficult to clearly lay bare the differences. I thought it might be useful to open up further, the discussion started by Cleveroy Thomas, the host of a Friday night program on calypso music on Observer Radio.

Let us begin by lauding the contribution George Jonas made by calling in to the recent Friday night program on Observer Radio. He underscored the role of the musician, the more rhythmic aspect of the Antiguan sound and, as we discussed off air, the role of dance and radio.

Our examination of the Antiguan sound should survive and surpass the harrowing application of universal parameters that can be used to examine any form of music, be it calypso, classical music or jazz. There are at least four such parameters. These are the role of music in society, the functions of music societies, the quality of musicianship, and the commercial underpinnings that tie those in the music business to the music.

It is probably fair to start by saying that music and dance were born at or around the same time, twin members of the arts, one might say. To the extent that a society advances from a more physical to a more aural and cerebral desire for music, so too would the music in that society become kinder and gentler to the dancing feet. Music societies are often the custodians of the status quo. They would put on concerts in which the dancing member of the twins (of dance and music) would take second place, if any place at all, to the music used in ceremonies and rituals, including church services.

The presence of radio is crucial because with or without the hosting of concerts by music societies, radio allowed for the broadcasting of music to large audiences. Indeed, whilst such broadcast involved dance music, it allowed for music that was aptly described as “for your listening pleasure”. It would seem that the emerging polar positions of dance music and listening music might lead to a hybrid popular music that was somewhere between these two poles. Clearly, those societies that maintained some semblance of dance in their ceremonies and rituals, including, in particular, church services, might develop different hybrid music forms from those in the societies that did not. Look at the mammoth wave that followed Superblue after he won his first carnival Road March singing Soca Baptist.

The quality of the musicians seems so fundamental, it is almost not worth mentioning. What is worthy of mention is that origin and nurturing of the quality of the musicians and the calypsonians. It has been said that although musicianship can be improved by playing at hotels, hotel music in a country whose lifeblood is tourism, diverts the musicians from their role in the development of local music. This means that rather than a regular diet of local music for the demanding and thirsty locals, all we get is a jam-packed primal offering for a few weeks around carnival time.

Unless there is proper marketing and sponsorship, or music societies assist in the financial and other management areas of national orchestras, the commercial aspects of music can determine the success or failure of top ranking musicians and artistes, The advent of music piracy has challenged the way we get money from exposing our music to listeners (and dancers) but the internet is pointing us in a direction to help head off some of the piracy. More importantly, the financial future of live music in dances or fetes or shows is assured.

So now we have looked at the four parameters, what are the developmental differences between Antiguan and Trinidadian calypsos? Do not entertain the thought that simply because Trinidad is the homeland of calypso, that Trinidadian calypso is superior. There are many examples (I hate to mention West Indian Cricket, these days) in which the master has been surpassed by the student. Indeed, some say that is how it should be. If at all Trinidadian calypso is superior, our analysis must prove this, although the concept of superiority in music might reside only in the biased ears of the listener.

It is said so often by so many persons I respect, I am beginning to think it might be true. They claim that calypso music gets faster, starting on a musical meridian from Trinidad (slower) to Tortola (faster). It begs the question about the entry and penetration of radio into Trinidad, compared to Antigua. I recall listening to calypsos on radio in the sixties. Some were quick and jumpy but most of them were more for listening compared to what I saw (hiding under the counter) in local dancehalls. Indeed, I vividly recall the wild big-people dances, in which, on one occasion, a kind gentleman man handed back a woman her blouse, which she had allegedly danced off onto the dance floor, all by herself.

Worse, I luridly recall the even more physical dances I would see at carnival time; dances that poor little, tiny me, in short pants, had to put up with. Imagine big people who would otherwise chastise you at church or at or after school, now singing and demonstrating and remonstrating about some part of the male anatomy standing up for what it wanted. That sort of public, primal wildness would make a good parson drink off all the wine, and send out the server to buy some more.

With the migration of Antiguans and people from other neighboring islands to the Virgin Islands, these islanders would want to maintain their musical roots. They would probably end up playing faster calypso than the calypso back home, if their local, calypso music was only for annual celebrations such as carnival, and they were starved of a regular diet of local, dancing calypso in concert and in competition with calypso played just for listening pleasure.

As a society moves towards calypso for listening pleasure, the skills of the writers of calypso stand out. I have to report that, whilst it might not be a uniqueness of Antiguan calypso, many of our calypsos seem to be recitations or poems written as such, and then an attempt made to put them to calypso music; or is it put calypso music to them?. Such inorganic and aplastic calypso becomes almost as angular, and in and out as the geographical shape of Antigua itself. This is probably why, with the resurrection of the jumpy, up-tempo music of the Burning Flames, Antiguans once again took part in that long lost ritual of following home your band at carnival time; in this case, walking and dancing all the way from town to Potters.

Hardly surprising then that the Soca Monarch show is upstaging the Calypso Monarch show. The role of radio in stifling debate, in general, during a dark period of our history, probably had some bearing on the paucity of well written calypsos with acute and biting social commentary, except for the token allowance grudgingly granted at carnival time.

The question is still on the table, or is it now on the dance floor? What is this unique Antiguan calypso sound? Whatever the original, authentic, Antiguan calypso sound is, we have to examine it more to identify it. Its identification is not just nostalgic because we are now into a pepperpot culture of music. It is precisely because of this merging of cultures, that we must always be able to identify our own, just as a good chef, can identify salt, pepper and sugar, so as to make it a little sweeter and a little hotter. And then you can ( in typical Antiguan twang), drink some ice water. Or, if the burning flames get too hot, you can obey the command to take part in the calypso baptismal order, and again in Antiguan lexicon, take a jump and “bathe you skin” in Country Pond water.