What mighty contests rise from trivial Things
-Pope The Rape of the Lock
…divers coloured fans, whose wind did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, and what they undid did
– Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra
Guyana’s major national festival Mashramani exploded in colour, spectacle, performance, revelry and music in February 2013 as the nation celebrated its Republic anniversary. The anniversary took on considerably greater significance because of its coincidence with other historical landmarks such as the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion. To give some emphasis to this association and to give some force to the Minister of Culture’s pronouncement that Mashra-mani is more than festive abandon, the Department of Culture presented a series of public lectures by three of the most outstanding Caribbean historians, Hilary Beckles, Alvin Thompson and Verene Shepherd, and the launching of a book by A J McR Cameron about the 1763 Uprising during the festival period. This gave some weight to Mashramani’s intention to be a definition of a nation and a people.
Indeed 2013 may be counted as another of a now long series of very successful Mashramani celebrations, since its definitive rise from mediocrity at the end of the 1990s. 2013 saw the participation of multitudes of a cross-section of the nation’s people matching the grandeur and numerical heights seen in 2011 and 2012. Some sign of health is returning to the carnival bands, floats and costumes, although the overall strengths of artistry and creativity, while climbing, still have heights to reach.
The Children’s Mashra-mani and Secondary Schools dance, calypso and dramatic poetry performances continued to show the way, indicating what creative designs and artistry ought to aim at in the senior competitions.
All of those mighty monuments of nationhood, the popular spirit, republicanism and achievement were somehow flawed by one minor blemish – a little event that triggered off multiple problems. There was a small note of discordance in the music that is supposed to feed the festival. It raised “mighty contests from trivial things.” Already there are problems with the Guyanese calypso that is supposed to be at the core of the festival and a deep-rooted national tradition. So the Guyanese calypso did not need the ban on the 2013 tunes imposed by NCN. The radio station prohibited the broadcast of songs performed in the 2013 National Calypso Monarchy, including the winning composition.
It was a trivial and unnecessary act that achieves nothing, and in fact, undoes what it seeks to do. We have commented, particularly in 2011 and 2012 about the poor quality of compositions and the questionable state of this art form in Guyana. There has been talk at ministerial level about action to revive this musical form. We also commented on the preponderance of attacks on the government noted in 2011 and 2012, which passed without making any mark. Although some of them were very popular in performance at the competition and were played on the radio, they made very negligible public impact and were unheard among songs that were really popular across the country, like Mahindra Ramkellawan’s Dem A watch Me.
The prohibition, then, has only served to give prominence to innocuous tunes that would have passed unnoticed. It blemishes the government’s record, and in fact does what it sought to undo. Like the fans waved by her servants at fair Cleopatra’s delicate cheeks, they inflamed that which they sought to cool.
The ironies involved in this are very much like those accompanying the history of censorship and the banning of literature and art. Censorship is nearly as old as literature itself and, paradoxically, literature has thrived on censorship. The imposition of prohibitions, and the harsh punishments which threatened the artist actually contributed to the making of literature. Throughout history, attempts by writers to escape censorship gave rise to the creation and development of many great forms of literature. From the very beginning writers learnt to disguise critical commentary about societies and personalities, and the application of various ingenious techniques developed in satire in the comedies of ancient Greek drama from the 5 century bc.
Many centuries later similar ingenious devices led to the invention of allegory. Writers learned to use symbolism; as the picaresque developed in early fiction, novelists resorted to the critical comments of fictitious travellers to strange lands; story-tellers removed themselves from responsibility for criticism by distancing themselves from their tales with the beginning “Once upon a time in a far away land…”
The calypso itself evolved through the rise of the satirical tradition in the Caribbean during the age of slavery. The enslaved used different forms to disguise social criticism, including imitation, ridicule of the plantocracy and resistance. The calypso survived political opposition, official prohibitions and legislation such as the Theatres and Dance Halls Ordinance in Trinidad while refining the art of disguise. But at the same time it developed as a defiant form of political commentary.
Even in very recent times under independent democratic governments in the Caribbean the calypso has had its battles. Among the well-known cases are the confrontations in Trinidad and Tobago out of which The Mighty Chalkdust emerged with such hits as ‘Ah Fraid Karl’ and Sparrow’s ‘Sedition, careful / Careful how yu talkin / Sedition, careful / Careful how yu walkin’ which were responses to bannings under Attorney General Karl Hudson Phillips’ Sedition Act. It was not just politics, as censorship sought to weed out sexual content as in Lord Shorty’s ‘The Art of Making Love’ in the middle 1970s. Another example was the case of Sugar Alloes who won the crown, but his ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’ was offensive to Prime Minister Panday and his First Lady.
In Guyana in 2013 Minister Robeson Benn’s objection to De Professor’s winning song was almost an exact reflection of a problem in Barbados in 2003. Controversy erupted over a calypso that was withdrawn from the finals of the Crop-Over festival because of the contents of its lyrics that were not vetted as they should have been. The organizers argued that they had to protect themselves against lyrics that were libellous or could cause offence. Then that same year in Barbados there was the very interesting case of the public calling for a ban on a calypso by the Mighty Gabby for insensitive lyrics which carried out a personal attack on his long-time rival Kid Site. Public pressure was such that Gabby withdrew himself from the competition. This was a case of censorship by the people.
Of course, forms of censorship in the Caribbean are relatively mild in contrast to what obtains in other parts of the world, where the response is not just the banning of a work but the death of its author. Nigeria under a series of severe governments before the return of former military ruler President Obasanjo is an example, and Nobel Prize Winner Wole Soyinka exiled himself from Nigeria to avoid threats to his safety. Islamic extremists sentence offending writers to death by fatwah, with Salman Rushdie being the most famous example.
Guyana, of course, is still far from those extreme forms of censorship, but as a democracy even this form is not tolerated. The government will hurt no one but themselves for attempting it. If NCN took it upon themselves to impose a ban no one will believe instruction did not come from the government, so if even for those reasons, it is ill advised.
The problem with Guyanese calypso, however, is larger than that and judging from the Minister of Culture Frank Anthony’s remarks, the government is aware of that. There is a need to address the fall-off in artistic skills and popularity, and this has been already placed on the agenda for dialogue with the stakeholders. Minister Anthony’s comment about the ban took the right approach, which was that the Culture Ministry had already cleared the calypsos without restriction. They had appointed a panel of judges and they accepted their decisions. It is a mystery then, why the government as a whole has not taken the same approach. One still hopes they will be at one with those sentiments and take steps to correct the grave error that was committed at the radio station. Surely they can set NCN right. Then they should seriously embrace whatever measures are to be put in place to deal with the large question of the survival and future of the art form.