I thought I saw an ad for a Short Shirt anniversary concert some time this week but I haven’t seen the ad since and when ever I bring it up no one seems to know what I’m talking about. So maybe I dreamed it. February 2012 ends with the launch of activities honouring one of Antigua and Barbuda’s best, Short Shirt, in commemoration of his birthday and his 50 years in the game. In any case, I never need an excuse for a Short Shirt posting. He is the Monarch (of Antiguan and Barbudan calypso) after all and at least the latter two-thirds of his hey day intersected in part with my childhood through young adulthood, so it’s all good. I worked on a publication for the Calypsonians Association which coincided with the 2007 50th anniversary of Antigua’s Carnival and this article was among several produced specifically for that purpose. It goes without saying that you don’t have my permission to re-post without attribution nor post for profit period without my permission. That said, read on, and meet one of the masters of Antiguan calypso.
ARTICLE CIRCA 2007 ON …
(by Joanne C. Hillhouse)
“We are three men who came a long way, and we supported one another by way of competition. Short Shirt had to come good, because I was there waiting for his tail. Swallow had to come good because Short Shirt was waiting for him, and the three of us supported each other….”
(Sunshine Awards Hall-of-Famer King Obstinate in a 2006 interview published in the Daily Observer newspaper)
Mclean Emmanuel, alias Short Shirt, has won the crown so many times – 15 to be precise – that in Antigua when you say ‘The Monarch’ everyone knows it can only be him.
Competing for the first time in 1962, after returning from the Virgin Islandswhere he had worked for a time, Short Shirt was eliminated. He made strides in 1963 when he snagged the second runner-up spot, before jumping to the head of the line in 1964 when he claimed his first title with ‘No Place Like Home’ and ‘Heritage’.
Since then, he’s won more Monarch crowns than any calypsonian, we believe, anywhere. The Monarch’s record of most consecutive wins may have been eclipsed, but no one has come close to touching him when it comes to most overall wins in the Calypso Monarch Competition. Add to that his seven Road March wins, and it becomes clear that he really is in a class by himself.
Short Shirt’s full measure, though, is not only in the numbers – impressive as they are. With dance-worthy music belying the weight of lyrics like…
“When will our dreams become utopia
When will our sorrow cease to be
When will the poor no longer hunger
When will mankind be truly free”,
…he spoke to people in profound ways, while infusing day-to-day concerns with epic significance. Lyrically lucrative partnerships with the likes of legendary Antiguan scribes, notably Marcus Christopher and Shelly Tobitt were key to this magic.
Short Shirt’s catalogue is deep, with many hits beyond the ones that won him the title. This includes ‘Lamentation’, a sustained wail of a song that is as relevant today as it ever was; more so in some ways. Consider any recent newspaper headline against lines like:
“Mankind can’t find no solution
I say we reapin’ the sour fruits of retribution
And I am now convinced we are violent, lord, vulgar animals
Oh Lord, oh lord
And is we who say we intelligent
We civilized and we wise
Yet we making all kinda bomb, blowing up everyone
Shooting one another with gun
And who ain’t got gun, use knife…”
Amazingly, this now classic tune lost the crown, but it remains a favourite. D. Gisele Isaac writing about the 2004 ‘Reunion of Kings’ show in the Daily Observer, commented, “The crowd did everything but genuflect when Short Shirt came onstage (opening with ‘Lamentation’). You had to have been there. You just had to be there. When every mouth in CarnivalCity– soprano, alto, tenor, bass – opens to sing ‘Lament, oh my sooooooooul’ and soars together on ‘Oh Lawd, Oh Lawd’, it is a spiritual moment.”
Of course, it wasn’t always spiritual; tunes like Shorty’s ‘Kong’ and ‘Send Yuh King’ testify his Muhammad Ali-esque swagger, and the keen rivalry between him and Swallow in the 1970s. More recently, his fleet footedness slowed by time, some have argued that he should have stepped down before being knocked from his perch; and his ill-fated return to competition a few years ago has been criticized. Few could deny, however, that on the strength of his vocal ability and onstage charisma, and the enduring relevance of his songs, he can be considered an icon of the game.
This is, after all, the man who sang, warningly and prophetically, in ‘Pledge’:
“True liberation does not only lie in constitutionality
We have gained nothing if all we do is pass
From bondage to a subtler task
Where foreign sharks with their fangs exposed
Surround us with promises of a brighter world”.
This is the man who reminded the powerful on their lofty perches, in 1979’s ‘Not by Might’ that:
“Wherever a people are oppressed and down trodden
They shall rise with a vengeance that will shake the world
The spirit of revolution will never bow down to a man
The quality of virtue increases beneath oppression
The more we are suppressed and denied our rights
To pursue all happiness and liberty
Is the greater our resistance to tyranny shall be…”
But Short Shirt didn’t only have great, deeply resonant, powerfully impactful lyrics, and music to make you ‘jam and w’ine’. As Dorbrene O’Marde wrote in 1988’s Calypso Talk, “He…has this tremendous performing ability – especially at competitions – to lift the ordinary, the blasé into the realms of excitement.”
One can infer further that when Short Shirt’s material was more than ordinary, he was unstoppable. His 1976 Ghetto Vibes album, coming from the belly and heart of the ghetto, comes to mind. This album contains alongside the defiant ‘Nobody Go Run Me’ and celebratory ‘Vivian Richards’, ‘Tourist Leggo’, the song that literally shook theSavannah. The year was 1977 and it was a simple but infectious tale:
“Carnival, jouvert morning, just as the band start parading
I in Scot’s Row jamming tight with a leggo,
Pretty little yankee tourist at that
She say she come down fromHalifax
And she never see Carnival
So she come to join in the bacchanal…”
The song would cause all kinds of bachaanal when it proved more popular than the homegrown hits with the Trini crowd; so popular in fact that protectionism reared its head. The July 13th 2001 edition of the Outlet chronicles this chapter, and in fact points the finger: “The campaign against non-nationals was led by the very venerable Lord Kitchener, the Grand Master of Calypso.” It goes on to reference another Trini calypsonian, Lord Blake’s, defense of Short Shirt:
“You are out of place, Kitchener
Listen to what I say
Yuh tell the brass band and steel bands
what tune they must play
who give you the authority
to condemn road march in this country
what the public say
dat is road march on Carnival day
You name could be Short Shirt/Swallow/Beckett or Arrow”.
Few outsiders can claim similar impact in the self-affirmed land of Calypso.
Having won his last crown in 1992, Short Shirt retired from the calypso scene for a time; and his life took a markedly different turn when he was ‘born again’. But, even his segue to gospel paid off musically with the Monarch putting out two well-received gospel albums – ‘I Surrender’ and ‘Jesus Touched Me’. And when he began putting out secular music again, he pre-empted his detractors in 2001’s ‘The Message’:
“Nothing wrong with the Music
The rhythm or the melody
Calypso is part of our culture
That I hold very dear to me
So before you criticize
What you don’t understand
Remember music a gift from God to man
So the only thing with any song, I say
Is the message that the words convey.”
Short Shirt, one of only two Antiguan Sunshine Award Hall-of-Famers’, message has been loud and clear over the years. As he said in a 1998 Antigua Sun interview, “we were out there trying to impress upon the government what they should do; trying to turn things around to make poor people better off.” One has only to think of the lyrics of fiery tunes like ‘Not by Might’ to appreciate the truth of this.