This is an article I (Joanne C. Hillhouse) did for the 2011 issue of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, edited by Professor Paget Henry of Brown University. The Review is published annually, and the article discusses the songs of one of Antigua and Barbuda’s calypso greats, Short Shirt; specifically his Ghetto Vibes album. PLEASE DO NOT REPOST WITHOUT THE AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.
“I am going to start with a song from what should be named the GREATEST CALYPSO ALBUM ever, GHETTO VIBES by Sir McClean Emmanuel – King Short Shirt. The song asks questions that humanity doesn’t have the answers for as yet. WHEN. He should have been named one of the top 5 calypsonians of the 20th century.” – Poster with the moniker CaribArts in a 2010 thread (OECS SOCA CLASH: VINCYLAND (WINDWARD) vs. ANTIGUA (LEEWARD)) at http://www.islandmix.com
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
Short Shirt’s Ghetto Vibes is one of my favourite albums of all time; not one of my favourite Calypso albums, not one of my favourite Antiguan albums, just one of my top five favourites period.
Incidentally, it came out in 1976 as a record on vinyl; before cassettes, CDs, downloadable music. I would have been all of three years old at the time, so obviously I couldn’t have had a first-hand experience of it; except it feels like I did, because I grew up singing, dancing to, and dramatizing Short Shirt calypsos – My Pledge, Press On, Lamentations, Star Black – and felt them deep in my soul long before the lyrics would begin to unravel themselves for me. That unraveling is still taking place. I didn’t purchase Ghetto Vibes until its re-issue on CD in the 00’s. By then, I’d purchased the Monarch’s Social Commentaries CD which included many of my favourites, several of which – Power and Authority, Inspite of All, When – can be found on the Ghetto Vibes CD. But a single download or even a Greatest Hits CD by the best of the best – think Bob, Aretha, Prince, Sparrow – can’t compare with a complete and artfully conceptualized full album, CD, whatever you want to call it – think The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Alannis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, Tanya Stephens’ Gangsta Blues, or my favourite soundtrack, The Harder They Come. Though I would have appreciated the inclusion of comprehensive liner notes complete with album credits – the lack of which is a shortcoming of many local, often independently produced, albums – owning the actual Ghetto Vibes CD remains a unique and mind blowing experience.
Did I mention I love this CD? Let me count the ways.
There’s the infectious joy of Tourist Leggo where the storyteller engages in that time worn Caribbean pastime of watching white people dancing, dancing badly. Sure, ‘tourist’ is not synonymous with ‘white people’, but let’s be honest that’s exactly what this “pretty little yankee tourist…from Halifax” is. And if we’re being honest, we’ve watched other ‘yankee’ tourists mangle the w’ine, all the while wondering if they’re dancing to the rhythm or the words. In Tourist Leggo, we find one such,
“…jumping without timing… in the steelband, dancing in the sun,”
with determined abandon.
“She blood run cold every time she hear a pan roll,
‘Cold’ is ‘Hot’ here in the way that ‘bad’ is ‘good’ and ‘sick’ is ‘delightful’ and ‘wicked’ is ‘so, so good’. So snicker if you want, but she’s having a better time than you, wall flower. Of course, you could join in, as the storyteller has, his ‘mockery’ all in good fun. The song, tonally, then doesn’t feel mean-spirited. Rather, it emerges as a celebration of the Carnival spirit, the spirit of the J’ouvert, which if you’ve ever been – to the J’ouvert, or Last Lap, or a Burning Flames Lions jam – is as seductive as the song suggests, bringing people – whatever race or cultural origin – together for the most fun this side of sex.
“…the girl said to me, ‘Shorty, what a glorious symphony
The music seems to fill you with rage
And make you feel like you on a stage.’”
It’s a strong opener, Tourist Leggo.
The music, from the first note, is joyful and buoyant and Short Shirt’s pre-emptive bellow lays the foundation for a rousing good time, while the superior ability of the lyricist is reflected in the tightly woven storytelling amidst the bacchanal.
The first few lines set the scene like the opening frames of a film:
Just as the band start parading.
Ah in Scot’s Row, jamming tight with a Leggo.”
Setting, place, time, characters in a few deceptively simple opening bars; and it bubbles over from there: “the place well hot and the music sweet” – leading to “insane” behavior – including, on occasion, a little “romance with a man”. Sorry, I had to go there; because isn’t one of the beauties of especially vintage calypso the little tease, the way they edge right up to the line? And isn’t Tourist Leggo one of the best examples of that?
The bellow that portends Vivian Richards, meanwhile, sounds more like a lion’s roar accompanied, as it is, by the aggressive beat, exuberance, and boastful stance that suffuses this song, echoing the spirit, reinforcing the larger than life mythology of its title subject. It’s very hip hop in that sense, and with respect to the name checking. And the chorus is a sing-a-long worthy of any cricket fan:
“No bowler holds a terror for Vivian Richards!”
It captures well the excitement of the game and of Richards’ technical ability, as well as the David v. Goliath rivalry between England and her former colonies – David armed this time around with more than a little caterpuller.
“England, here they come
This hunk of a man
This classical player and his fellow Antiguan
Andy Roberts wreaking havoc once again in your country
Vivian Richards wrecking bowlers boundary after boundary
Watch the score board ticking on
When Vivian batting, the machine must run
And people applauding for runs like bread
And another splendid Richards century again
Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles wrote in Spirit of Dominance, “Viv did not walk onto the cricket field in search of himself. Neither did he discover his consciousness within the context of sporting contests. He was sent in to do battle by villagers, not only those in Antigua, but all those from little places in this diaspora; people who have been hurling missiles at the Columbus project since it crashed into their history five hundred years and ten million lives ago…he was determined to tilt the scales, even if marginally and temporarily, in favour of those whose view of the world is from the bottom up.”
I’d argued in an original draft of this article that the song, focused on the particulars of the game, only hinted at the larger socio-historical impact of those runs and Richards’ role in the decolonization process. I’ve felt compelled to rethink that point in light of my first reader’s comment that having been there, caught up in the experiences that the song chronicles, the glory of all it suggested was deeply felt. She would have been 15 when this album came out. So perhaps age is a hindrance here with respect to my original critical assessment, and the larger meaning was in fact well communicated and deeply understood without having to be sledge-hammered home like a Tyler Perry film. Simply put, he who feels it knows it, and they knew it.
For those of us who came after, it is fiery, anthemic and enjoyable, and a record of the exploits of both Richards and compatriot Andy Roberts on the pitch at a time when it was rare to see a Leeward Islander on the Windies team – especially two with so many tools in their arsenal. In that, it serves one of calypsos functions in speaking for its times and celebrating the heroes of the folk – not unlike the third song, the syncopated (“who/tell you/to/mess with Harmo”) Hands off Harmonites in which the Point resident goes to bat for the area steel band, no doubt reflecting the sentiments of the people of that area, that Harmonites was robbed in the ‘75 Panorama finals.
“…something went wrong with the judging
Harmonites wouldn’t place so bad
Halcyon was first
Supa Stars second
Rising Sun was third
And Hell’s Gate fourth, I heard
But when it came to Harmonites,
they couldn’t find a place that night
slip them right down the ladder
second to last…”
A seemingly personal (and community) gripe, the song is significant as a chronicle of the lives, and particularly the injustices felt, by the people; not unlike Ivena’s Old Road Fight in the 00’s which I’ve always felt is the best record, better than the news coverage even, of the uproar surrounding the controversial Carlisle Bay development project. Like Tourist Leggo, Hands off Harmonites is also significant in capturing the spirit of Carnival; in this case in particular, the “pan rhapsody, flow, de tempo, and rhythm” of the only musical invention of the 20th century, the steel pan.
Interestingly, this pan ditty proves a natural segue to the CD’s larger issues, the concern reflected in the title, Ghetto Vibes, and perhaps the second biggest reason – after the quality of the lyricism – that I love it so much. See, as a child of Ottos, I, too, am a child of the ghetto and deeply aware of its concerns over victimization whether driven by class, economics, or politics. And in this song about the steel pan, vilified in its youth, the concerns of working class Antiguans begin to be spelled out.
“Just because they wouldn’t stand the exploitation
That you dishing out to the pan man
You want to stifle the sweetest band in the land
It seems the policy
Of those in authority
Is to crush anyone
Who dare to oppose their might.”
Man against the (political) machine, a battle understood all too well by those in life’s ghetto who experience firsthand the victimization and, conversely, the defiance of spirit in the face of it, that begin to take centre stage on the CD.
But it’s up to songs like Power and Authority and Nobody Go Run Me – easily my favourites on the album, especially the latter – to really drive those issues home.
Before we get to them though, there’s one more seemingly lighter topic – after J’ouvert, cricket, steel band music – and that is ‘love’ in the ‘boy lusts after girl’ track No Promises.
The recurring sub-theme of ‘madness’ of the spirit – “I walk de whole ah de beach and I search like a crazy man but the only thing I found was shell and sand” – is there, lust/love proving just as maddening as the infectious music (in Tourist Leggo), and certainly as much a part of life in the ghetto, as anywhere.
While not dealing overtly with the concerns of the ghetto, the song does interweave the experience of the economic immigrant (the kinds of indignities chronicled in H. Akia Gore’s Garrote: The Illusion of Social Equality and Political Justice in the United States Virgin Islands):
“You catch me in St. Thomas
Darling, that was really mas
You and you Cruzan man
Had me dodging Immigration
For two whole weeks a cool off
Sleeping in boxes and trash cans all about…”
But this song, frankly, doesn’t hypodermic its way into my blood like Nobody Go Run Me, which I still feel in my heart and soul on my worst days, and which I’ve said before I see as the other side of the coin of a favoured literary classic – Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners – the latter dealing with the experiences of those who left, Short Shirt (and his writers) dealing with the sorrows of those who stayed.
“Night and day ah catching hell
People think I doing well
Just because I sing a few calypso
But that is my misery
Calypso don’t make money
And most of them don’t know
That I have my axe to grind
Just like any other man
Existing in poverty
And this giant ghetto land
But I intend to hang on
Tell them, tell them for me
I ain’t gonna eat lice
I ain’t gonna grow old sitting in the cold
Sorry for the extensive quote – but I relate to those lines on a deep in my belly level – and not just because I’m a walking around definition of struggling writer, twin to the struggling calypsonian, but because like the calypsonian I readily acknowledge that life is far from easy on this 108 square mile rock where my navel string is buried, but it is home. In that sense, it’s as much a love letter to Antigua as it is a lament about the fortunes of the poor and underrepresented.
“Tell them I say
I was born in this land
I go die in this land
Nobody go run me
From where me come from”.
Of course, the counterpoint to that, as the very tone of the song suggests, is the people of the ghetto may come from here but here routinely rubs them the wrong way – denying them the opportunity to progress, to own, to dream; limiting them…and yet, they hang on.
“Me mumma must nyam
Me puppa must nyam
Me woman must nyam
Me picknee must nyam.”
The unspoken intimation is that the struggle for them to “nyam” (eat) of the fruits of Antigua’s bounty is just that, a struggle; making this a sentiment as much heartbreaking as it is inspiring and defiant. When I sing this though, the defiance is what dominates; long and short of it, this song inspires and delights me – and not just because of the snippet of his trademark “brrr” that Short Shirt throws in for his fans.
As for Power and Authority, which precedes Nobody Go Run Me on the CD, I’ve often complained that too many of today’s calypsos feel like an essay – dry and prosaic; but that’s probably an insult to essays, because I’ve read some very stirring ones, rich with poetry and pathos. Part of the genius of Short Shirt and his collaborators – including the masterful Shelly Tobitt – was how elegantly they strung meaningful words and ideas together all to a moving backbeat. Power and Authority is a good example of this.
It asserts – borrowing a bit from British historian Lord Acton circa 1887 – its thesis upfront:
“Power rules the world today
And power corrupts they say
And absolute power corrupts you absolutely”
Then it provides its premise:
“It can change a man who has a heart of gold
Make him cruel wicked
Self centred and cold”
Then it supports that premise with specific examples:
“They prostituting the island
To all and sundry
They peddling my people’s rights
Exploiting, oppressing, less freedom, more suffering…”
And as he chronicles the hardships, the narrative voice – never omniscient and distant – once again aligns himself with the ghetto people:
“…coal we can’t even buy
Murder the price too high
Malnutrition killing the children
While we the adults starving
Yet the price is rising without control
Young man begging bread by the side of the road
And the Chamber of Commerce in this land
I tell you they don’t give one damn
The more we try to economize the more cost o’ living rise.”
The personalization and specificity work well here to make this tale at once unique and universal, time specific and timeless, relatable still, so that the hook –
“…when they have power and authority, they don’t give a damn about you or me…”
– could readily be taken up by sufferers in any impoverished community in the world at any time in history. Just ask the people feeling the brunt of the current down economy while politicians have their pissing contests and businesses guard their cash register passing on every cost to the consumer. The song clearly draws a line in the sand between the haves – who prosper no matter what, and the have-nots – who can’t seem to catch a break; not from the business class, not from the judges who lock them up for seeking a little herbal relief “while the social rich are free”, a reminder that economic deprivation is not the only hurdle for children of the ghetto.
And as he sings – stepping out on behalf of the people, speaking truth to power in a way calypso does so well –
“…think it over, my friend, think if over, again; think it over, don’t vex with me Shorty, I just singing as a see…”
– the ‘essay’ wraps up its argument.
When two songs down from Nobody Go Run Me and perhaps ideally switched in the track order with Inspite of All (I’ll explain why later) is perhaps the most universal of these songs; not generic, mind, but approaching the theme of discord in the world in a much broader fashion, using repetition, rhetoric and alternating rhyming lines as its main recurring devices.
“When, when will we learn to live together?
When, when will we learn to love each other?
When, when will we learn to trust our brother?
When, when will we live one for another?
When, when will mankind turn from their evil?
When, when will the children rise and shine?
When, when will crime violence and corruption?
When, when will they leave the hearts of mankind?
When, when will our dreams become utopia?
When, when will our sorrows cease to be?
When, when will the poor no longer hunger?
When, when will mankind be truly free?”
Contextually, the song works as a prayer, reminding this Catholic lifer vaguely of the structure of the prayers of intercession; so that punctuating this questioning we have the soul baring introspective direct plea to the Lord, a plea that emerges as a primal “screeeaam!” – an acknowledgment that the pain is almost too much to bear. In God’s presence, there is freedom finally to admit one’s weakness, how overwhelmed one is by circumstances.
And yet, the people of the ghetto, don’t live on their knees.
And this is one reason I think When could easily be reversed in the order with Inspite of All – the latter, a shift away from the woe to “just a glimpse, just a glimmer, just a gleam” of hope. It’s a weird kind of hope; a hope born of common circumstances and common purpose:
“The oppression we bear will forge us as one
Yet in spite of our hardship and misery
And poor economic condition
We must struggle on.”
It is a hope that comes with the reminder that “we, the people, ourselves” are more than the sum of our material condition, that “we, the people, ourselves” – not the politicians or big world forces – must choose our own destiny. Perhaps now more than ever we need the calypsonian to remind us of this. Because here the calypsonian assumes another persona – shifting from ‘mere’ storyteller to fellow sufferer to truth teller to, finally, prophet moving ahead of the pack and shining a path. He assumes the Moses like persona which defined politicians of the era and the time preceding it – Bird, Bustamante et al. And as he does so, it’s not hard to understand why politicians/the establishment feared calypsonians enough to ban, overtly or by exclusion, their very powerful voices. As Ghetto Vibes proves – or perhaps merely reinforces – these are not mere court jesters; they are Martin Luther King/Malcolm X, or so they seemed in moments like this, dreaming a dream and daring to speak it out loud.
“Rise, rise, rise, rise
People open up your eyes!”
An awake and alert electorate; is there anything more scary to a politician determined to keep his followers bathed in a sea of blue or red, and swallowing the pork whole? Well, for the time, perhaps the song’s anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, socialist undertones ran a close second.
But the calypsonian speaks directly to his people, talking past and around the politicians, as he issues the reminder that the politics of division is as self-defeating as the ‘divide and conquer’ policy that pitted ‘field slaves’ against ‘house slaves’ – never mind that they’re both slaves. Caribbean people – especially Caribbean working class people – live by their folk proverbs and the calypsonian borrows from one of these to drive home his message:
“The same stick licking the wild goat
The same stick licking the tame
Everybody drifting in the same boat
We all sinking just the same…”
Effectively, he’s telling them to forget the politicians and work in the interest of Antigua and Barbuda – and speaking of timeless, isn’t that message still relevant?
Book ending the well executed CD are two Carnival tunes, shifting the tone closer to what it was in the beginning, though, for the listener, with a greater sense of what this seeming revelry represents in the lives of the people; escape, freedom, expression…the intangibles of life so often denied them, reinforcing once and for all that they are souled beings with purpose and beauty, pride and hope. For there in the Carnival, in the Fantasy, they can elevate themselves and “dance dance dance dance” assured that with a little hug up and a little music “everything go be alright”; at least, for the moment.
It is this sense of journeying through the highs and lows, passions and circumstance, the vibrations (or Vibes) of ghetto life – its inner and outer rhythms – that make this CD so enduring. Well, that and Short Shirt’s assured and impassioned delivery track to track, and the relatable tenor of the writing – which borrows liberally from the local vernacular while demonstrating Shelley-like command of verse.
I’ve often said that with the limited exposure to Caribbean books in my youth, I learned a lot about writing from calypso. Well, Ghetto Vibes is a superior ‘text’, cover to cover, and I remain an eager student, turning the pages.
Copyright Joanne C. Hillhouse. AGAIN, do NOT repost without permission.