On September 6th 2013, I attended the launch of Nobody Go Run Me by Dorbrene O’Marde. The book is about the life and music of my favourite calypsonian, the legendary King Short Shirt.
I bought my copy during the launch, of course.
I’ve started reading it and I’m finding it to be a social and musical history beyond the individual artiste. It is the first of its kind for Antigua and Barbuda…and about time.
Below, I reprint, with permission, a review of the book written and presented by Considering Venus author and Calypso aficionado D. Gisele Isaac.
Nobody Go Run Me by Dorbrene E. O’Marde – Review Sept. 6, 2013, Museum of Antigua & Barbuda
A man to whom Short Shirt refers as “Two Pardners,” a wiry feller called Elton Ryan, told me how peeved he was, nearly 15 years ago, when the CDC invited me to conduct a calypso workshop. “Whah she know about calypso,” he asked derisively, “when she nah even come from Point?” Consequently, my being asked to speak here tonight, on this salutary occasion, is not only an honour and a pleasure, but a vindication. As old people would say, I have gotten my “satisfaction;” so, Elton, wherever you are, tek dat!
When, last Friday night, Dorbrene issued the invitation and when, on Saturday morning, he brought the book to my house, I cannot tell you how excited, yet anxious, I was. And when I began reading it, I knew I had been right to be both. The excitement came about from his having captured, in print, nearly all of the emotions that Short Shirt, calypso, and Antigua have inspired in me over the years, as well as most of the analyses and conclusions to which I had come. I felt that this work was a chronicle, not so much of Short Shirt’s life and times, but of the times and the lives lived within the span and sphere of his influence. And on its timeline, I could identify exactly where I came in, at around 1969, in the same way that a person lost in a shopping mall can look at the directional map and find the dot that says, “You are here.” My anxiety, however, came about from realizing that this is not a “storybook.” Even though Dorbrene’s feelings are present throughout, in a way that is surprisingly understated – to me – knowing how worked-up about issues he can get, this is not a book about “feelings,” either. It is an exhaustively researched piece of work that pulls from commentary; documented facts; personal conversations and persons’ archives; and social, political and religious review, all placed in a national, regional or international context, as applicable.
In fact, you could easily say that this is two books in one, since the end-notes and appendices are, themselves, so interesting and educational. Hence, my anxiety: Being no scholar, myself, how could I impress all of this upon the audience? I’m still not sure, but you know I am going to try, as I touch upon the highlights of my reading experience for you:
Though I am no longer young, I am yet too young to have known, firsthand, the art form known as Benna, even as I am old enough to remember its use to denote anything other than church music. Since I did not have the benefit of seeing or hearing Quarkoo in his heyday, Dorbrene educates me in the early pages of the book on those inputs and influences that made this art form Antiguan, but not necessarily unique, and paves the way, from Jamaica to Guyana for the coming of the Antiguan calypso and, eventually, the entry of Short Shirt.
Along the way I got lessons in history and sociology, as he showed what happened when first we began working for the Yankee dollar; the realities and brutalities of what it meant to be “a man” in the community of The Point; and proof of the fact that before LaTumba called for its liberation, culture and music were, indeed, free in Antigua & Barbuda. Free, yes, but hotly contested, too. For I also learned that our calypsonians, in their own country, had to fight to taste the honey in the rock called the tourism industry, having to tussle with the likes of Sparrow and Melody and Brynner, and bringing to birth the 1963 calypso Parasites, written by Marcus Christopher.
The beauty of all this research is that while I certainly knew Parasites, as well as No Place Like Home, Heart Transplant, and Carnival on the Moon – having heard them on the radio and learning the choruses, as a child – this was the first time, ever, that I was learning the genesis, the origins, of these songs. And in this regard, in the filling in of the spaces, the putting of meat on the bones, Dorbrene has done a fine job of educating his readers.
As I noted earlier, I entered this calypso milieu as a young girl – but not the type whose “skirt well short and she legs look plum’, plum’, plum’,” causing Short Shirt to appeal to the magistrate. No, I was a teenager listening to – and hearing – Awake the Youths. It was not so long ago that a friend and I were discussing what it meant to have grown up conscious in the 1970s; and we spoke, specifically, to this song; its message; its calling. This was a song that didn’t just speak to us in those days when everything seemed possible; it reached into us and took us out of ourselves. When Short Shirt sang “… they are the fruits of this nation and its salvation” and “that to save a dying world is their destiny,” I will tell you, Brothers and Sisters, that I got saved, there and then. For when it comes to “this land,” I feel like a fire is shut up within my bones.
I think it would be relatively easy today to distinguish those who grew up on Short Shirt’s political commentary from those who only know his dance music. As has been said before, and as is quoted, extensively, throughout the book, songs like The Pledge, Cry for a Change, Power and Authority, In Spite of All, Hands off Harmonites, and the title piece of this book, Nobody Go Run Me, speak to a universality of feeling, of experience, that transcends place and time.
I met a man recently who told me that, growing up, he always knew when his mother, a Trinidadian in Canada, was on the warpath. And when she began to sing, “Nobody go run me from whey me come from,” everybody knew to keep out of her way. And, as the examples cited in the book bear out, these songs’ timeliness and timelessness transcend even political affiliation, for here at home they have been used to lick both the wild goat and the tame, Government and Opposition, in and out of office. Same people!
Dorbrene told me last week to speak my truth, and so I must say here that there are a few places where I veer sharply away from his analysis and conclusions, apart from his interpretation of For Sale. And one of them is his treatment of Lamentation, which he calls “but a woeful surrender of the revolutionary spirit.” Short Shirt lost the competition singing this song, in 1973, and I found it ironic that Dorbrene’s comment on that loss is “that the crowds at the Antigua Recreation Ground … did not think [it] either appealing or relevant.” He adds that by the 2007 Caribbean Monarch Competition, which Short Shirt won singing Lamentation, “the crowd had already made it an anthem.” What Dorbrene’s statements say to me – although I’m sure that is not what he intended – is that is long, long time crowd reaction and not criteria determining the crown… . Anyway, on the basis that Lamentation is true to its title and theme; is rich in imagery and use of language; and is brilliantly sung, I give it its place among Short Shirt’s and calypso’s greats.
And, just briefly, the other place where our paths diverge is in Dorbrene’s revulsion at Short Shirt’s playful dig at King Obstinate in the gender-bending/homosexual song Patricia. I can almost see Dorbrene recoil when he references the term “this little lad,” and asserts at the end of the sentence, “No!” But this is revisionism, at best. Rather than see it as debauchery, from a 2013 perspective, I think it is quite okay to acknowledge that this was simply 1960s sensibility – or lack of it – and that the singer was simply “singing what he see.”
I think that to judge yesterday’s calypso content by today’s so-called enlightened standards would mean going back to Two Women Cussing on Greenbay Hill and having Ellen-man not pelt a thump, and putting Maud’s false teeth back in her mouth… . What I think is more important to acknowledge is that the very existence of Patricia and Josephine proves that, before homophobia was inflicted upon Antigua & Barbuda, our society sought not only love and understanding, but unity.
Growing up Caribbean, I knew well – and Dorbrene documents it even better – that not in Antigua & Barbuda, not even in progressive Trinidad & Tobago, was the female agenda on anyone’s front burner, politically, socially, or otherwise. All that was expected of us, essentially, was that we be sex partner and mother. This is borne out in Me Man, You Woman, and underscored in Lamentation when Short Shirt sings, “Female liberation/Even women want their freedom,” and follows it up a couple lines later by asking, “Where will this end if it keeps on?” Hence, one of the things I grappled with over the years is how to reconcile my deeply rooted love for calypso with my stance as a feminist.
Well, in Dorbrene’s book, I met up with several of the women who’ve influenced and brought joy to my life, and they told me how to do it. I’m talking about the elusive Elaine; the feisty Miss Yvette; the party-girls like Lucinda, Angela and Jennifer; the exuberant but graceless Tourist Leggo. In them, as one- or two-dimensional as they might have been drawn in song, I discovered that there really is no dichotomy, no contradiction, in being a calypso-loving Caribbean feminist. For in these women I found identity and wholeness. In the midst of a national mindset that might have seen women and girls only in limited ways – whether as “sweet little girl” or the “little girl I love so bad” – I recognized defiance and triumph in how they managed to take those so-called weaknesses and make them strengths.
That is why I cheer for Elaine, who despite Short Shirt’s perennial lust, still “got away twice;” and why I revere the Virgin Islands girl who caused him to “walk the whole a de beach and search like a crazy man,” even as he whined, “No promises; come, gimme um right away;” and why I admire Miss Yvette, who decided that she was going after what and who she wanted, or it was bacchanal from Newgate to Nevis Street; and why I celebrate all the women who gave free reign to their sensuality as they “pushed back” their “wire-waisted” selves in the fete or “limboed down to the ground… .” After all, if life was hard for men, imagine what it was for sisters; and they deserved a break, too.
When I was an undergraduate in New York, I had a professor who once told me that he would like to meet my parents, the people who had raised me to have “such amazing confidence.” Well, if I thought he would have understood – and if I could sing even a little bit – I would have sung for him one of my favourite Short Shirt lines: “Well, I am sure if you are black like me… .”
I am grateful for Dorbrene’s treatment of race in this book: how he puts the burgeoning race pride of Antiguans and Barbudans and, indeed, Caribbean Negroes (yes, Negroes; it’s a word that I love) in the context of the dawning self-value that was taking place in this region and further afield. In that regard, Short Shirt and his writers take their place – apparently for Dorbrene and certainly for me – with James Brown, telling us to “say it loud,” and with Nina Simone asserting the divine privilege of being “young, gifted and black.” Still, it is one thing to hear it “out there,” in accents you understand but that are not your own. It is quite another thing, a marvelous and self-affirming thing, when, as a little girl in a Third World country, you learn to sing, “Black, beautiful, proud Afro-Antiguan….”
Calypso rhythms delight me, excite me, get me drunk, make me stay on a dance floor for hours without food or drink. I might be the only Caribbean person to admit this heresy, this blasphemy, but I find Jennifer to be infinitely sweeter on the dance floor than Tourist Leggo. And I laugh when I see people in the movies making love to orchestra music and Kenny G symphonies; because I know that sex demands the pounding excitement of say, Rock Me or Push, no pun intended.
But it is the language, the words, the pun, the simile and the metaphor, the personification and the symbolism, that call to me.
My attraction to calypso as a little girl; my infatuation with it as a young woman; and my everlasting love for the art form as an adult are all rooted in my definition of calypso as “literature in song.”
From the day I heard him sing the words “It’s so nice to hear them shouting bad language; come, I’m on my way; I’m going home,” I identified and empathized with Short Shirt, for I knew, and still know, that nothing says “home,” Wadadli,” “The Rock,” like our language.
In the biography, Dorbrene writes admiringly that Shelley Tobitt penned the words and Short Shirt rose to the challenge of singing lines like “this envious greedy conniving blood sucking attitude” – at tempo, no less. And I bow down to both writer and singer, again, for the lines, “Don’t compromise your revolution/For dem scandalous tiefing oppressive political scamps in de Caribbean; no way!”
In fact, I once stood up in restaurant, a dinner fork in hand in place of a microphone, and sang to the diners, word for word, back to back, Viva Grenada and Not by Might. (I wasn’t drunk; but I was coming from a funeral and was very conscious that life with calypso was a gift.)
I plan to shut up just now, but I cannot touch on language without speaking to the mastery and virtuosity of Unity – what Dorbrene dubs “Shelley’s I-rhyme-when-I-feel-like and I-structure-how-I-feel-like,” and telling you how that description delights me almost as much as the freestyle of the song itself. I feel a sense of a reverence, I must say, for their treatment of the line, “They beating Bach and Mozart just like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra,” and how they marry it with the localized “Bim-bum-bam, biddim-biddim-bim. Bass man beating de bass drum…”
Dorbrene also comments that “Black/African people expect to ‘see’ music” and adds that “Tobitt writes for blind people; for people far away;” for those who had never witnessed our Carnival. And when you’re talking about the song Fantasy, I say the blind never had it better. For me, Fantasy belongs in the Top 10 of Short Shirt’s greatest.
And lastly, I could virtually hear and see Dorbrene shaking with laughter as, on page 90, he analyzed the song Fighting, one of my favourites because of the spirit, the anger, the vengefulness Short Shirt portrays in the song. You know the story: How he accuses a pack of vengeful Swallow fans and Willikies villagers, toting cutlasses and razor-blades, of attacking him over by Intrade. The joke to Dorbrene – and, no less, to me – is the menacing picture the lyrics paint of “Chairman Reginald Knight with a half-a-plank and pacifist Dr. Ivor Heath (of all persons) with a big half-a-chain wrap round he arm….”
I am sure that neither the writer nor the singer meant it to be humorous, but the very irony of it makes the calypso hilarious. And while Dorbrene doesn’t specifically mention it, the second best part of this song is the onomatopoeia employed in the “Buddup, buddup, ping! Bottle and stone dem a fling!” No other art form can take that kind of license… .
Listen, I could stand here all night and talk about Dorbrene’s book; the life and times of Short Shirt; and the life and times that his premier writers, Shelley Tobitt, Marcus Christopher,
and Stanley Humphreys captured; about his predestination, evidenced by his Lamentation ethos and his epic The Fyah Coming After, for a career in gospel. But I have to stop now. We’ll continue the conversation, I am sure, later.
Meanwhile, Congratulations and thank you, Dorbrene, for a fine work.
I can feel the love you put in it. And, as my good friend and yours, Val Hodge, would say, “It sweet me bad.” Thank you.
This was written by D. Gisele Isaac. All rights are her own. Do not repost without permission.