In the course of some time spent this week with a visitor from Barbados, I heard a question I’ve been asked many times: “These songs you compose; where do they come from?” and while the answer to that is fairly complex, there are two fundamentals in play: One, fairly obvious, is that it is a gift a person is born with. Certainly, one can refine it and develop it by application and study, but the basic ability to compose music has to be there, in your genes; you came with it. The other essential is that one has to be an observer, someone who notices conditions or aspects in a society which form the basis of a composition (Bob Marley’s songs, for example, or Gabby’s) or a new way of conveying an emotion or a state (Cole Porter’s ‘In the Still of the Night’; Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’).
Qualities or styles will vary from one composer to the next, but the best composers all possess those two essentials – natural gift and observation.
When I wrote ‘Copycats’, for example (about our people trying to sound “Yankee”) I had come to Canada with my God-given musical sense and had noticed this tendency among Caribbean people to adopt a fake American accent. Gift and observation had come together, and the song was born.
With Christmas in the air, here’s another illustration of it. Over the years, being involved in a musical career, I would notice the sudden emergence at Christmas time of a specific music not heard at all in the rest of the year, and I was particularly struck by the subject of winter as a prominent ingredient in these songs. It occurred to me, early in my life outside, that while that was perfectly natural for a Canadian or an American, it made no sense for someone who had grown up in the tropics. We were wishing for a “White Christmas” when very few of us had seen such a phenomenon (except perhaps in the movies). Our rhapsodizing about “dashing through the snow” and “chestnuts roasting on the open fire” and “Jack Frost nipping at our noses” was ridiculous – we had never experienced such things; why were we singing them with such fervour? I had also noticed, in parallel, that there were only one or two “Caribbean Christmas” songs and the subject matter in those instances were cultural; the words “cold” and “winter” never came up.
This dichotomy remained so for me for a long time, and to avoid boring you with the details I will summarise it to say that while I appreciate the majesty of such compositions as ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘Ave Maria’, in their religious context, I lost all interest in that kind of peripheral ‘Christmas mood music’ with its frequent reference to wintertime, that comes to us in the Carribean on radio, in business places, and of course in our homes. Frankly, for me that latter music was a turn-off. In response, I wrote a Christmas song ‘Bethlehem’ (NCN plays it) which dealt with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem on a “bale of hay”. But the annoyance with this prattling about winter by Caribbean people remained, and then a few years ago, living in Cayman, I heard a Caymanian group perform ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’. Hearing these sincere Caribbean young people prattling about “sleighbells” and “Jack Frost” pushed me over the edge. The very next day, fired up by the experience, I sat down in my home and wrote a Guyanese version of that Christmas classic. It went like this:
Breadfruit roasting on an open fire
Stray dogs running everywhere
Dancehall songs being sung by a choir
And de smell of baked ham in de air
Everybody know when black cake bake and sorrel set
You done know seh season bright
Buju Banton, Gabby, and even Black Chiney
Dem ah rock de dance hall hard tonight
Dem ram goat in Mahicony dem tek a vote
Dem seh dem don’t want to end up as curry goat
De chicken in de yard ah start fuh cry
Dem know by Boxing Day dem gone to fry
So bring de cook up and and de pepperpot
De roast pork and de calalloo
Heineken very cold and XM ten year old
Merry Christmas, to you
Jerk pork roasting on an open fire
Yard dog sniffing up him nose
A female trader coming from Aruba
With two container full of Christmas clothes
Everybody, Christmas time, a friend behaving dread
Wit all dat brown rum in plain sight
De man fully blocked, but de drinking don’t stop
Hear him, “Take it easy, man… I’m all right.
Ah did some shopping in de US and ah glad
Ah fly direct, completely bypass Trinidad
At Timheri de customs man want to kill
Mi wid mi three suitcase, two box, one barrel
So ring mi friends to bring de egg nog fast
Cold Banks and Red Stripe such lovely brew
Watch me as I pass, DDL in mi glass *
Merry Christmas to you
As to why Caribbean people have this affiliation for winter in their Christmas music and decorations, I don’t profess to know. A long-time friend of mine blames it on the influences from our Christian religions (do people in India show these same wintry influences?) and she could be right. My irritation with it however is not as musician; it is a person who deals with culture and is troubled by what I see as a mindlessness with themes by our people. Obviously, as I go about and hear the Christmas jingles, for most Caribbean people, the choice has been made and it differs from mine. Mind you, I’m willing to listen to attempts to shift my position, but for now, at least, until snow is discovered in the Caribbean, I’m not dealing with any chestnuts; my refrain will be “Breadfruit roasting on an open fire…Merry Christmas to you.”