In a recent column, I reproduced an article by Guyanese Hubert Williams, once a leading journalism light here, dealing with a recent show in Barbados, put on by the Barbados/Guyana Association, where I performed along with The Mighty Gabby and Red Plastic Bag. Hubert’s very incisive review contained some very interesting observations, including the following sentence: “Yes, today’s calypso offerings, bereft of compositional quality, poetry and deep musicality as they might be, are nonetheless winning rich prizes and wide public acclaim, regrettably, mostly among the youth. So much of the current crop of our calypsonians are like today’s team of West Indies cricketers. They have fallen far from the dizzying heights achieved on a global scale by their predecessors. Those who recognise that our music, much like our cricket, is travelling deeply into the dumps seek solace in nostalgia… and that is why so many Barbadians and Guyanese resident here flocked to the Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Conference Centre last night for the performances by Gabby, Dave Martins and Red Plastic Bag.”
While I am grateful for such warm praise, I have to warn the more erudite among us, such as Hubert Williams, who see the current music as disappointing and hope for a return to what was, that I don’t hold much hope for their aspirations. Our popular music, traditionally, has been largely for contemplation or consideration of this and that, with dancing a secondary part of the equation; that was the purpose in times past, in the era Hubert refers to. But times have changed, as they always do, and now the purpose of popular music, generally, is for partying, or getting on, as the Bajans say, “wukkin up.” So with the function different, the product is different. Bass and drums, essentially rhythm, have come to dominate the music to achieve that “dance-ability”… that is the main course, so the things that examiners like Hubert yearn for—clever lyrics, insight into issues, raising subtle points—are going to be less prominent; different priorities have come to the fore.
This week I was in line at Giftland paying my phone bill, and the mall’s PA system was playing recorded music. It was a long line, and the music being played there reflected perfectly the shift in popular music. In every one of the songs played, the structure was the same, offering very simple arrangements and scant lyrics, and, significantly, with the drum track dominating the music and influencing even the vocals with short phrases sung, as the musicians say, staccato and showing the same emphasis on beat. Again and again, as one listens to the songs, the impulse to dance is clearly the principal intention of the music. On a few occasions, a reggae tune from the Bob Marley era was played, but they were few and far between. Indeed, the Marley material served to illuminate the point because that style of reggae has given way to the dancehall and riddim compositions that make up Jamaican music today. Notice that no popular singers are emulating the Marley style today; his kind of reggae has given way to a more punchy and energetic music, that stirs music patrons to “party,” and there is a similar shift in the music of Trinidad away from the melodic Sparrow fare to the up-tempo soca of artistes, such as Bunji Garlin and Machel Montano mirroring the faster pace and higher energy of life today. In Barbados, Antigua, and St. Lucia, there is generally the same shift.
I frequently hear comments that the kind of songs that come from that earlier era of which I am a part (the one with the likes of Sparrow, Black Stalin, Chalkdust, David Rudder, etc.) will become popular again down the road as the new generation, not having heard them, comes along. It is a warming idea, and one or two songs may break through, but a big wave? I doubt that. The world that produced those songs has faded, and the influences back of that music are similarly not around, and since there is no indication of the influences returning, the songs will remain unknown in the ensuing times. Popular music is a reflection. Many of us refer to it as influencing mankind to do this or that, or behave one way or another, but in fact it is the other way around; the behaviour or the attraction the music reflects is already present in the society and it is those forces that have an impact on every aspect of our lives determining the pace at which we live, the technologies we embrace, the devices we acquire in our homes, and the music that propels us or entices us. Our successful artistes, be it in music or movies or painting or fashion, are the ones who see those influences and present them back to us in their work. Bob Dylan didn’t seduce Americans into rejecting the Vietnam War; they had already reached that position; as one of them, Dylan knew that, so when he sang Blowin’ in the Wind, or the song The Times They Are A-Changing, he was telling people their own story. My song Is We Own was not news to Guyanese – they were already there. When Lord Shorty turned away from conventional calypso to the more up-tempo party-driven soca rhythms, he was reacting to what he was hearing and seeing in the Trinidad masses. Some prominent Trini band-leaders felt Shorty was out of his mind—calypso had a long and glorious tradition; creating, in fact, a world music and even an instrument to play it—but Shorty had read the public pulse correctly. Be assured that what Shorty was hearing was being heard by other writers and band-leaders and promoters in the country; the difference is that most of the crowd hearing the message were not propelled to do anything about it, but Lord Shorty was and soca was born. Following in those footsteps today, Machel or Kes or Bunji produce their fete music with a very clear picture of what the public wants from them. None of the American songs from the era before mine, from the likes of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams and Nat Cole and Jerry Vale, have been embraced by succeeding generations. The songs came in their eras, flourished for a time, and then were replaced. There have been one or two examples of a remake of an old song becoming popular again, but the incidences are rare and insignificant. Once a society moves on from an involvement—dress, popular art, utilities, manners, etc.—it doesn’t revert.
Where and how the music will change I have no idea, but change it will. No matter how frantic the crowds are for today’s dancehall and reggae formations, that’s the pop music of this generation. Other forces of change are forming – we are already seeing artificial intelligence and robots operating and those are just the early waves; other more substantial ones are ahead, and what we exult over now will be cast aside by our descendants tomorrow. I share Hubert’s disappointment, but I don’t have any comfort for him, except to say that the current change is not the last. Pop music is a reflection—that means change is unavoidable.