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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.

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