A bow to Trinidad

Anyone who writes will attest that one direction leads to another.  In my So it go notebook, for instance, there is this one direction that deals with the origin of the word “soca” and the reminder is there for me because the explanation we frequently hear is that when Lord Shorty combined calypso and American “soul” music in this new rhythm with higher tempos and more emphasis on drum track in the recording, he named it soca from that “soul” American influence and from the calypso origin.  I was always dubious about that explanation; for one, it seemed too pat, and also I didn’t hear a lot of “soul” in Shorty’s new genre.  As it turns out, although Lord Shorty has passed on, he addressed this matter in an interview with an American musicologist.  Here, in Shorty’s words from that interview, is the explanation. “The so comes from calypso and ka is to show the Indian influence – ka is the first consonant of the Indian alphabet.”  Maybe he had said that to other interviewers, I never saw it. That chat with the American was the first time I heard that explanation.  It’s puzzling that that perfectly logical clarification had not surfaced before.

It is worthwhile to note that originally Shorty had begun using dholak (double-head hand drum), and dhantal (narrow metal bar played with a small iron rod creating rhythm) in his music, but later, with soca established, he turned to using conventional drums and percussion to present that Indian influence. It is almost as if he had set out to create a predominantly Indian music, and along the way, perhaps for commercial reasons, he wove in the African influences so dominant in calypso.

Musing the above, however, led me to the wider direction of the truly astonishing contribution that Trinidad has made to Caribbean culture, and indeed world culture, with its various creations in the arts.  Carnival, of course, is the most obvious one, but there is also the singular contribution of a unique musical instrument, made from discarded material, in the creation of the steelband, now being played by natives of other countries as diverse as Sweden, Japan, Britain and North America.

The striking thing about this music, however, when one delves deeply into it as I did in my early music days in Toronto, is how this relatively small country managed to create a music like no other. Calypso was a truly a creature of many strands. There was the captivating rhythmic side of it with this African base, showing Latin influences in the drum patterns, particularly the high-hat cymbals; Indian flavours in the percussion touches and melodies; European influence (the English limerick so prevalent in early calypso and the melodic connections) and later, from Sparrow, particularly, the melding of American music structures into the Trinidad creation.

Riding above all that for me, however, was the unique Trinidadian qualities of humour, joy of living, and exuberance that imbued the music so naturally and so effectively from the beginning. Among Trinidad’s many artistic contributions, the musical one is the most impressive because of its originality.  To my knowledge, no other music in the English-speaking world has emerged to match that accomplishment artistically.  The making of carnival costumes was an extension of what existed before.  The development in steelband, brilliant as it was, owed a lot to percussion and drumming styles which had gone before.  Calypso was a new genre, coming out of nothing, drawing on other musics to some degree, but finding a particular combination, or direction, that had not existed before.  Apart from the captivating rhythmic combination in the music, the lyric approach was uniquely Trinidad, with the mockery of anything and everything, and the valuable lesson of being able to laugh at some of the more tragic aspects of private life and public strategies. It was an artistic explosion.

It is notable that the Trinidadianess I am referring to here is not, generally, a Caribbean thing; at least not quite in the way that the Trinis display it, and if one looks at the rest of the region, we see the hundreds of performers who have come out of Trinidad in that calypso/soca genre whereas the other countries in the region have produced only a handful – Gabby and RPG in Barbados; Becket in St. Vincent; Short Shirt, Swallow and Burning Flames in Antigua, King Fighter and Canary in Guyana – while the Trinidad torrent would take pages to reproduce here.

In all this, the fascination for me (and I freely so admit) is the question of how this came about.  What was going on in that relatively small space, with much the same mix of people and cultures in the rest of the Caribbean, that somehow resulted in this particular explosion in Trinidad, that was then, obviously, copied across the region?  The creators in the other territories were drawing big time on that Trinidad well.  The kaiso men in Barbados, in the early years before Cropover, were working in that mould, as were the ones in St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua, etc.  At the start of Tradewinds in Toronto in 1966, I was using that mould.  I was to modify it later, and bring other influences to bear, but the core, for me, as for Gabby and Swallow and Becket, etc., was Trinidad music.  I was heavily influenced by Sparrow, Kitch, Lord Nelson, Calypso Rose, Swallow, etc., but I was also reaching back into the early masters (Spoiler, Pretender, Mighty Cypher, Executor, Roaring Lion) whose work had landed on me like a shock that was leading me, or calling to me.  I have mentioned before the hilarious Grenada Excursion song by the calypsonian Growler that entranced me in my aunts’ shop at Hague Front when I was in my early teens.  It was a new music to me.  I had heard nothing like that before. Here was man taking a tragic incident and showing you a laugh-at-life aspect without offending anybody.  It was a light coming on for me, one that still shines, and it came solely from some music a Trinidadian man had written.

I remain fascinated by this musical surge, and, by extension, intrigued by the question of “why Trinidad”.  A musician friend of mine posits the influences (Venezuela; France; etc.) and he could be right.  In all of Caribbean history, and I would say world history, we have not seen a musical creation quite like that Trinidadian one that burst upon the region and consumed us all.  It has been a storehouse and a wonder for our creators.  A few weeks ago in Guyana when I wrote the parking-meter protest song Postpone, I was drawing on that storehouse.  Wherever we live, Caribbean people definitely owe the Trinis an elaborate bow.


Passion is required

Some time in the near future I will be doing a session with arts students at the University of Guyana (as part of my Artist in Residence work with UG) as well as a Moray House talk, sometime in May, on being an artist. 

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Not necessarily

From a youth with an interest in reading I was often struck by the confidence with which persons would express a thought or a position on something that sounded impressive at first but, on reflection, proved to be simplistic, if not downright wrong.

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Kaiso: Stay tuned

Following two recent columns in this space touching on the decline of calypso as popular music, I have heard from several readers in some very interesting exchanges on this subject. 

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We cannot keep growing forever, Donald

If you pay attention to random things you hear, you soon become aware of the very uncommon intelligence of the common people. 

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Laughter as medicine

As a voracious reader going back to my school days at Saints (Stanley Greaves had introduced me to the British Council Library to my delight), I remember once being struck by a comment from then US President John Kennedy which went something like this: “Mankind has two things he can draw on to deal with life’s many problems: one is God and the other one is sense of humour.

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