Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood
I hear how they planning. To celebrate fifty years of singing calypso, Sir McClean “King Short Shirt” Emanuel is being honoured. A potpourri of activities is being put on buffet, ranging from informal to formal events including magazine publication and awards as well as invitations to calypsonian from near and far. Excellent; well deserved. But there is something lacking in the way a king should be honoured, especially a calypso king.
To begin to understand how a calypso king should be honoured, we have to remind ourselves that calypso is our life in song in all guises and disguises. The presentation of this life-art has changed over the years since the King started singing, and some attention to a uniquely and originally Antiguan format should guide us to the way we honour one of our calypso kings.
In 1983, I came back home after some 13 years of absence. I was initially shocked when I watched the 1983 carnival calypso show on television. In addition to a calypsonian singing (Children Melee) on stage in front of a band, there was a theatre of characters all over the stage, acting out various parts of the song being sung, with props and costumes galore. To my returning eyes, this was not a calypso show at all. This was a spectacle of nonsense; an orgy of confusion.
But it soon occurred to me that there was a reason for this novel presentation. Gone was the BBC radio drama that glued us to the radio like clammy cherry on corn meal paper in an exercise book. Gone was the regular sustenance diet of theatre plays. Gone was the hot and sweaty dance hall with live bands. Maybe some of the past had deservedly disappeared so that a young searching teenager did not see when adults behaved like little children; like the time when we sneaked into a dance at Princess Elizabeth Hall and saw someone hand a grown woman a piece of cloth from the dance floor, and say, “Miss, look you blouse.”
Now, everything was rolled into one big production. The calypsonian had taken our life in hand and whilst echoing it in song, all forms of art were mixed into a spirited jamboree. It seems to me therefore, that the way we honour a calypso king is not just to let him get up on stage and sing, if sing at all; not just to invite his peers to his court to sing; if sing at all; not just to hand out awards, the handing out of which we almost always make mockery.
We must invite the King and his entourage to sit down, observe and enjoy his majesty. We must call on our composers, arrangers, musicians and artistes. We must take the songs of the King and embellish and transform them musically and dramatically; such that the King hears and sees his works in indigo and tangerine, black and blue and white with slices of lemon green, dashes of bright yellow and drops of bright red and burgundy.
But to do all this, we have to revalue our musicians and we musicians must reinvent ourselves. We were once in the service of kings. We were commissioned by royalty and noblemen to compose and perform music. In modern times, the record companies became our commissioners and now we struggle to play at hotels and fight over meagre wages with less meagre principles, weeping by the rivers of Babylon.
If the King and his peers have to sing, why not do what Jamaica did with Beres Hammond a few years ago (and John Holt before him) by adding a sinfonietta, including viola, cello, bass clarinet and bassoon, asking our Venezuelan and Chinese musician friends for assistance, along with local musicians who play some of these instruments, adding the unique touch of steel pan. The King’s “Lamentation” is lamenting for this.
If music is our life in song, we must complete the circle by transforming our music to showcase the very life from whence it came. To do this, our composers and musicians must learn to compose, arrange and play in ways far more complex than what now passes for excellence. There is a direct connection between the lack of music orchestration and arrangement, and what passes for verbal discourse, dialogue and discussion in our society. This is so because one cannot regularly and seriously compose and orchestrate banality and the audience cannot listen and appreciate sterile, pedantic nonsensical sounds forever. Music, like any other language must be a story, a tale; and it must be logical, or even deliberately illogical. It is like human form; it must have a head, a body and a tail or a foot. Music make us reason and reasonable.
Recently Mr. Rick James has called for the replacement of the Carnival Chairman with an Artistic Director. Apart from the fact that artistic people do not often make good managers, the suggestion is a reflection of the lack of art forms in the land and the unreasonable expectation that all our art forms must be wrapped up and boiled down into Carnival, since they are lacking or diminishing or dead otherwise. If Carnival were a woman, some of us would be arrested for unlawful cultural knowledge for the myriad things we put into and take out of her.
When will we rescue our musicians? Why don’t we have a musician in the commission of the Governor General? Where are the families and businesses that can invite and pay musicians to play in their chambers? Where are the musicians to station themselves at vantage points in our city and play their hearts out for us natives? Before we came over here, we showed the world the value of music. Long before Bach spoke to us through his first recorded work, “Air on a G String”, we were talking music to each other through the air, without a string; wireless before cable. And so, the police band can get vexed with me till their grey uniforms turn blue. When they really play, they must arrest our ears and hearts with bars of music instead of incarcerating our souls behind bars of iron.
Only when we begin to reconfigure our calypso, which is our folk music, back into the lives of folks, can we breathe extended life into this art form, complete the circle, and push the cycle of creativity and really honour a calypso king with a spectacular cavalcade of his music. And when we do that and allow the King to see and hear his music and his life transformed by arrangers, musicians, dramatists, singing-meeting orators, artistic directors and dancers, into dimensions he never imagined, he will have a very difficult choice.
At the grand ceremony, either the King will have to be manually extricated from his throne at the end, or, some time before that, as he sees and hears his life and our lives in conjoint retrospect, and in an assured artistic, cultural future, he will jump up from his throne and run away, like a pleasured child stuffed with pockets of confectionaries. And then, as he himself sang, “A motor car without load, couldn’t stop shorty down the road.” (Sing the chorus).