This week, amid the turmoil in Guyana over parking meters coming to Georgetown, I ended up, along with Mighty Gabby, on an NCN interview promoting the weekend’s Rupununi Musical Festival event in the city. Inevitably the interviewer asked about the song ‘Postpone’ I had just released on the parking meter issue. Only two days old, the song was popping up all over the place, including a push-cart vendor airing it at a street protest, and via several thousand hits on the Movement Against Parking Meters website. Against that background, we got into a discussion with Mark Watson on NCN who had remarked about the efficacy of music as a persuader in recent times. In brief, my point was that the song I had written on the parking meter controversy in Georgetown, is in the tradition of calypso music where a variety of topics in current life – some serious, some not – are addressed by the song-writer.
I had come into that calypso tradition at a time, as had Gabby, when calypso was the popular music of the day, and, as I said to Mark, although it was no longer the case – soca and dancehall now rules – there is still a place for that older form which is the perfect conveyance for protest music because that format, which involves humour, makes a more palatable approach to controversial topics. I seriously doubt we will ever see calypso once again reigning as the music of the day ‒ the reasons are too complex to go into here – but there will always be a place for a calypso on a topic of the day, in the hands of a practised professional such as Gabby.
Just this week, the Mighty Chalkdust won the Calypso Monarch title in Trinidad singing humorously, in his distinctive style, about the many ailments in that society. Indeed, in another TV interview on E-Networks, Mark Murray raised the topic of other writers in Guyana tackling issues through music, and while my position was, the more the merrier, it is also a case of calypso being the format of choice, for decades, on contentious or salacious topics.
Indeed, the Mighty Gabby, sitting next to me in the NCN interview, is a classic example. Easily the best writer/performer to come out of Barbados, Gabby has produced, along with other pithy songs such as ‘Emmerton’, a string of satirical calypso hits – ‘Boots’, ‘Jack and the bathing beach’, etc – achieving wide popularity, not only in his homeland, but all across the region. The tradition on important issues that Gabby is drawing on here, the same one present in many of my songs, is a part of Caribbean culture forever. Recall that some of Gabby’s tunes are over 40 years old and we still play them and absorb them. The point to emphasize here is that the calypsonian in his ‘issue’ songs, is generally not taking on minor matters. He/she is dealing with issues of the day.
When Sparrow complained about the ‘Police Pay Raise’ in Trinidad he was taking on the Trinidad government. Gabby, or other Bajan calypsonians, were on a similar tack on Barbadian matters. When Gypsy sang ‘Sinking Ship’ it was a fundamental alarm for the citizens of his country. When I wrote ‘Not A Blade O’ Grass’, at Pat Cameron’s urging, the issue there was a dangerous situation looming between Guyana and Venezuela, and indeed, the song was later used, with slightly changed words, in another border dispute between two Central American countries. Under all this, is my contention that the Caribbean song-writer (Jamaica/Trinidad/Barbados/ Guyana/etc) is very often dealing with very controversial topics, but, interestingly, doing it in a way that becomes acceptable, if not exactly embraced, by the very persons/organisations being pilloried in addition to the general public.
And that leads me to my final point: the song-writer dealing with serious topics – whether calypsonian or not – will find that, the quality of the music aside, the principal factor in the success of the song will be the public’s position on the subject; their stand on the concept you’re posing.
If you have read it correctly, the public will in fact be hearing something from you that aligns with their views and your song will be a hit, played all over the place, pirated and emailed to families and friends. But if your reading is wrong, trust me, the song will never get off the ground; it won’t last on the radio, and it will disappear like a stone landing in the river. On ‘Blade O’ Grass’, for example, the reading there was from the late Pat Cameron, not me. She was positive people would grab the song; I, living outside, had my doubts, but I had enough sense to realize she knew the public mood better than I, so I went ahead and wrote it based on her insistence.
In contrast, on ‘Hooper and Chanderpaul’, with its racial unity theme, I was sure Guyana was ready for that, and I was wrong; I was living in Toronto; I should have consulted Pat Cameron. On the topic of ‘Postpone’, however, now living here, every barometer I came across told me that the overwhelming majority of Guyanese would be in sync with the song, and the early indications are that this time I was right; Pat would be proud of me.
The song is alive not only here, but in New York, and Australia, and Toronto, and Orlando, and London, wherever Guyanese live and keep in touch with the homeland. So, yes, Mark Watson, there is still a place for calypso, but if you’re venturing into public issues using that approach make sure to understand the public pulse, and in particular, as the line in ‘Postpone’ says – “Take time to get it right.”