My son Tony, who writes for an ad agency in Ottawa, Ontario, is working on a book about Tradewinds, and I have had some interesting exchanges with him on a range of topics that fall under that remit. A musician and a singer himself, several of his questions relate to the subject of song-writing and he often comes up with matters that relate to the creativity process from an unusual angle. The book is a work in progress and more questions will surely come, but here are a couple that have already landed on me.
Recently, after I sent him a copy of the song ‘Postpone’ I wrote that dealt with the parking-meter controversy in Georgetown here, he asked: “Do you think that as a song-writer you are getting more comfortable with contentious subject matter as you age? Seems like with Tradewinds’ tracks you generally steered clear of controversy (Blade of Grass being the obvious exception … and that song was one of the few that someone else encouraged you to write) or things in the news (an exception to that being Brother Jonesie.)”
I said to him: “Interesting question. Basically, when I set off on the Tradewinds thing, I had seen, from living outside, our failure to recognize value in ourselves in the Caribbean, our ignorance of our history and of examples of excellence among us; I had consciously decided to try and correct that, so confronting controversy was not big on my radar, as opposed to a Bob Marley or a Jimmy Cliff. In retrospect, as musician friend George Jardim pointed out after the songs became popular, most of what I was dealing with was actually sociology, often with a humourous slant, but there were also songs that were about relationships and patriotism. Looking back, although I did venture into issues somewhat (Guyana Coming Back; Hooper and Chanderpaul; Who to Blame; Where Are Your Heroes) it seems I generally left issues to other people, and wrote in this cultural sociology vein.”
But his question led me to relate that just a few weeks ago, at a UG function at the Pegasus honouring an accomplished Guyanese academic here, the Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith referred to artists in a community who are, in his words, philosophers making points, and he referred to my song ‘Where Are Your Heroes,’ Caribbean as an example of an artiste raising a vital issue. I wasn’t on the programme, but I stood up uninvited (I’ve been dubbed an icon, so I can take some liberties) and told the story of playing the song at a concert in the Cultural Centre, and that when I introduced it, a man in the balcony shouted out, “Guyana ain’t got no f…in heroes.’” which had drawn big rumblings in the theatre crowd, and two security people moved to put him out. From the Cultural Centre stage I had said “Leave him alone, it’s okay.” And to the person, I had said,” I don’t know your name, Sir, but let me tell you that you’re wrong. In fact, we have a lot of heroes; we just don’t know about them.” As I concluded to Dr Griffith at the Pegasus gathering, I said I was glad to see occasions like the UG one where we’re trying to rectify that omission.”
On another occasion, my son had asked: “The lyrics from your song ‘That’s Cayman’ reminded me of another topic I’ve been wanted to address: geography … or songs ‘of the land’ … seems like you have frequently referenced the physical environment of the W.I. as much as the cultural … e.g., in Blade of Grass, A Little While From Now, etc. … though it strikes me that while the cultural/sociological observations are the ones that get people talking, your songs are about geography as much as anything, no?”
I replied: “They are. I don’t know that you can separate them; at least I can’t. When you’re writing about a people and their achievements you’re drawing on a cultural reservoir with all that that means, so you’re bound to end up naming places and people and incidents and characters (Play De Ting; Sink de Schooner; In Guyana) and inevitably landscape. So it’s about a host of stuff, including, of course, my own sentiments about people, and, yes, places I love.”
A recent exchange with my close buddy Vic Fernandes in Barbados touched on that; although it was about Cayman, it pertains to the general song-writer impulse question. He had asked me about aspects behind the creation and I had replied: “A big part of it is my natural curiousity about how things work (been so from a kid) which leads me into a lot of cultural areas, and to landscapes I have in my heart. I recall a song I wrote in Grand Cayman, called That’s Cayman, sort of musical snapshots of the country, which became popular on radio. They were playing it one day and a Caymanian phoned up with that frequent ‘foreigner’ gripe, and said ‘Dave Martins shouldn’t be singing that song; it should be a Caymanian.’ I told the host, ‘Ask him what’s wrong with these Caymanian artistes he’s talking about? How come it took a foreigner like Dave Martins to come here and sing about Cayman? Were the other guys all blind or asleep?’” It’s the same with the parking meter here. The host of the local ENetworks TV show asked me in an interview why my song was the only one that came out over something that had the country in huge turmoil for weeks. I said “Well what artistes write about is based on personal choices.” In other words, they are propelled by different interests. Also, I’m from a time when kaiso commentary was part of the popular music of the day, and in calypso every subject under the sun is material for a song – politics, geography, cost-of-living, superstition, fashion, even parking meters, you name it.
How song-writers write is a maze of complexity; even more complex is the matter of why they write.