She hadn’t been to an Independence show in years but she was always up for an opportunity to see the big Three – Obsti, Short Shirt and Swallow – back on stage. To her, cut ‘way all the fat and that was Antigua music right there, and, with her at least, the sight of the three of them on a poster still had drawing power.
Different posters and different ads had been done for different demographics – one to lure the Party Monarch crowd, one to attract the church people, and then there was the one for people like her, a pensioner on paper but in her heart of hearts, somewhere way past her aching bones and slower gait, still a young woman who remembered pulling all-nighters from calypso monarch to j’ouvert, home to pick up the kids who would have been waked and prepped by her mother, God rest her soul, then back to j’ouvert where once the music hit them sleepy eyes would open fully.
Her daughter, Jolene, was with her, and her daughter’s daughter, Gemma, and the three of them being here together like this felt like the start of a new tradition. They had only just settled into their seats and before the teen could disappear into her cell phone and said teen’s mother start to gripe about Antigua time, the show started, right on time.
No announcement or anything either. Just, the lights went down, and from behind them somewhere, a voice that had Gemma perking up next to her, thank God because she wasn’t in the mood for annoyance and agitation this good night. Claudette Peters, voice gentle as a lullaby, sang, “God Bless Antigua, land so dear to me, where first I held a mother’s hand and learned to bend a knee…”
Upfront, on the stage, draped in all the colours of the flag, a choir, what looked like the Cathedral Youth Choir, joined in on the next line, and you know they never came at a song straight on, so there was something like blues and flavouring as they sang, “…where land and sea make beauty let every man be free…”
The concert had begun. Just so. And just so a still fell over the audience as the lyrics of the Bobby Margetson classic touched something essentially Antiguan and Barbudan in all of them. It wasn’t something Samantha could name but it was a feeling that made her want to laugh and cry at the same time and made her feel full like she’d just had a daddy-sized helping of fungee and snapper.
CP was on the stage with her old choir by now, the soca embattled voice a revelation on something requiring a gentler touch, and the crowd hummed along, dipping in and out as the memory of the words from many-a-childhood came and went.
“Please stand for the national anthem…” someone said over the PA system as the song ended, and there was shuffling and only some minor grumbling as they did just that. A section from the National Youth Pan Orchestra, off to the side, was their accompaniment as they sang first the first…then the second…wait, the third verse too?… with decreasing confidence from one verse to the next except on the last two lines “ever striving, ever seeking, dwell in love and unity…each endeavouring, all achieving, live in peace where man is free….never failing, all enduring, to defend her liberty.”
If they were feeling restless again by the end of the anthem, which recalled the rigidity of morning assembly, they were soon moving in their seats, some already on their feet as El A Kru siren, Tizzy stormed the stage, flag, as ever, in hand, singing the soca group’s super hit, Antigua Nice.
“Whoever programmed this show understand pacing,” her daughter leaned over and whispered but Samantha didn’t have time for analysis just then; the music was too sweet.
Like a whirlwind, Tizzy was gone, and the audience was re-settling when a choir, a huge choir made up of what looked like every choir on the island, entered singing, getting into position on stage, to the strains of an organ – the kind of instrument that called to mind cathedrals with their high ceilings and stained glass windows. They did a medley of songs perfect for voices broken into parts – descant to bass – Where land and sea make Beauty, Antigua Land – she kind of liked that one, the way the voices skipped like a child at play over the lines “thy hills and vales, thy flowerets in the dell”, even if the lines did take her back to reciting lines of English poetry in primary school.
Just at the point where it might have begun to overstay its welcome, the choir began its exit, and another unlikely voice sounded. Not that Tian Winter’s presence was unexpected given the posters and other pre-publicity paraphernalia, and, if there was any doubt the sound of screaming girls now filling the auditorium served as a reminder. He was probably the only reason some of them were there. Old folks digged on him too…she just didn’t see the need to scream about it. But who could resist the way his smooth vocals wrapped themselves around Island in the Sun like the folk classic was an old lover. It was a welcome reminder that though he was now a favourite of the rambunctious soca crowd, he was a crooner at heart. And boy did her old heart melt as he wandered through the crowd, pausing to hold her hand, on bended knee, staring into dimmed eyes like he was proposing. If she was only 50 or so years younger, I-sah, she’d be one of those screaming girls. He had something of Harry Belafonte about him in truth.
“Oh land of peace, haven of rest…”
The sound of the classic King Obstinate tune, Believe, one of her favourites, drew all of their attention back to the stage where a group the big screen announced as Sanctuary was now in place. Like the earlier youth choir, they didn’t come at the song head on, and though Believe was special enough to her that she didn’t like it being tinkered with, she had to admit they were good tinkerers. She was smiling and teary-eyed by the end, and the hush around the room told her she wasn’t the only one. There were some songs that just made you want to forget all the partisan BS and do better for Antigua and Barbuda, and Believe was one of them.
“…believe in yourself most of all as one people, marching together …”
They next sang, Baba Blaize’s Antigua is My Home, a song that at first used to feel to her more like a tourism jingle than a calypso but which had wormed its way under her skin and into her heart. It was a love song to Antigua, and she realized now that her initial rejection of the song was her failing, a reflection of this idea, fuelled during the halcyon days of black power and Antiguan calypso, during tumultuous political times, when calypso was the voice of the people before there was such a thing as Voice of the People, that calypso had to be anti-establishment and combative. Maybe she had mellowed in her old age because the song’s chorus “in Antigua, we wake up to the sun…” felt like a spiritual salutation to her these days, an affirmation that she had lived to see another day, in a time of her life when, she couldn’t do nothing but accept it, her days were numbered.
The arrival of a dashiki wearing Fiah, singing “if progress is a must, let the nation come fus’”, was a signal that the programme was changing tide, and a reminder that calypso might have matured enough to wax poetic about the land that birthed it, but it was still bold enough to hold the powers that be-perpetually-messing-up-the-country’s feet to the fire.
When he left, pre-recorded music stepped into the gap, pumping Antigua Nice – what ah lively song, eh – and she wondered if Tizzy was coming back? But it was the old El A Kru that followed, the El A Kru of Lethal Batty and Helicopter days, or at least a recording of them as Antigua Dance Academy brought Africa to the auditorium dancing to “Born in Wadadli” “uh, nobody go, uh nobody go, uh nobody, nobody go run me”. Oh she hoped Short Shirt did that classic later in the show – one of those hip producers should do a mash up of that and this, old and new, that would be fun. They did it in America all the time, look at that Baby got Back-Anaconda mash up that was so popular with her granddaughter, Gemma, these days. She smiled to herself that she even knew that, and found herself wishing as the dancers leaped like gazelles and wined like they had wire in their waists that Gemma hadn’t lost interest in dance …and everything …as soon as she’d become a teenager. She missed her. Physically, yes, but also the way she used to jump into life with both feet, now she lounged around with her ears plugged, ever distracted by a virtual world when her real world was right there.
Samantha noticed her perk up again though when Onyan hit the stage with his usual spark and high pitched wail – “ah yah me baaaaaarn!” Burning Flames she mused to herself as she, like everyone else sang the chorus of the Stand up for Antigua song that had won him one of his still heavily debated calypso monarch crowns, was truly generation-less. She remembered that first year rocking left to right, her daughter with her, because she never left her behind, as the crush of people around them danced on weariless feet behind the band that had more magic than the Pied Piper. She’d lived to see both her daughter and granddaughter seduced by the music as if the jam band existed in some musical bubble where time lost all meaning.
But then came the part of the programme that took her back to her time, and she was so excited she didn’t know what to do with herself. She might be old now, but when Swallow’s soaring voice, a voice which bore no comparisons, launched in to One Hope, One Love, One Destiny she felt like she was in her springtime again. It wasn’t just his sartorially splendour, or the way he moved; it was also the sense of promise and possibility the song ignited in her, taking her back to a time when the country felt young and uncorrupted. She knew it was the deceptive romance of nostalgia, at least in part, but the musical reminder almost made her weepy, again, for what her beloved country had become in the decades since. She knew it was inevitable, everyone lost their way in their youth, but, oh she wished, she so wished her country would hurry up and find its way.
And as if reading her thoughts, Swallow launched in to Dawn of a New Day, and in spite of herself, her heart lifted.
The oddest thing happened next, a dramatized reading apparently of King Obstinate’s Wet You Hand. It had them all cackling, to hear the melee rendered in such a cultured tone as though Crazy Ellie and Big Foot Maude were Jane Eyre or Janie Crawford, women on epic yet relatable journeys of self-discovery, which, she supposed, they were. She didn’t read much anymore with her eyes the way they were and she doesn’t think she’s had a story told to her, apart from neighbourhood gossip since childhood days of jumbie stories and anansi tales under the full moon, so it was nice to have the quintessential Antiguan calypso rendered in this way, a reminder, intentional or otherwise, that calypso, too, was literature. As a retired teacher, she could appreciate that.
But back to the music, and the arrival of the Undefeated himself. He was wheeled out to centre stage and the brass band, giving the young people a taste of the old Oscar Mason days of unparalleled live Antiguan instrumentation, struck up the opening bars of Antigua Independence. It had taken some time to get used to this stroke-slowed version of King Obstinate, a once vibrant showman, this year in pig tails and diapers, that year in an elephant suit, another year leaping from a coffin. But the voice was still strong and the measured presentation turned the performance into a history lesson – a history lesson punctuated by the “freedom forever” the audience couldn’t resist singing every time he returned to the chorus.
“Today, in memory of their task, we remove the colonial mask,” Obsti intoned and it took her back to to Independence Day, November 1, 1981, a time when tout monde sam and bagai had been exultant and purposeful in a way they probably hadn’t been since August Monday 1834. She sighed, Lord this show had her on a emotional roller coaster; she wasn’t sure she could take much more of this pensive introspection not when the reality had become so stark and depressing. But, what was it Jolene, had said about pacing, because here was Obsti, head nodding, foot shaking, as the music livened up and he prepared to lift everyone’s spirits.
And then he sang:
“Antigua and Barbuda ah wey me bury me nabel string
And at an early age in the cane field ah start to sing
I’m from a family of 13 and you know that’s a lot of mouth
So I decided to go away to help Papa out
But I’ll always come back to you
I’ll always come back to you
And if I can’t come back and cry
To nyam fungi
I’ll always come back to you
I’ll always come back to you”
She remembered now a Christmas spent overseas one year when Jolene was in New York studying. They’d stayed with her old childhood friend Hyacinth who hadn’t lived in Antigua since she was 17 and still sang that song like a promise every Saturday when she cleaned her apartment. In the cold and frigidity of winter in the frost bitten apple, Samantha supposed it was warm comfort, if a promise destined to remain unfulfilled. Hyacinth had in fact died in Uncle Sam’s country.
Long water was running down her face proper as she thought of her old friend, and she couldn’t even bother to be embarrassed anymore. They were all on some kind of journey in that room; music had that power.
Obsti ended with a sharp “you’re fuh me!” just after he was wheeled off, and she couldn’t help thinking that that was the point of the song: returning physically, like repatriating to Africa wasn’t necessarily to be taken literally, it was about claiming the space in the world where you belonged, in your heart and soul. Hyacinth had done that, and Obsti during his time away, and she could only hope that all of them in the room were doing the same.
The next song, by the artiste she’d been waiting for, felt like an extension of her thoughts.
“time for reconstruction in our little island…time to regenerate the morality of the state … no hatred no fear only peace and happiness” – a utopian ideal to be sure but Short Shirt’s call to “put our backs to the wheel” had the resonance for her in that moment of pre-first-term Barack Obama’s Yes we can.
“do a little more than your best is all we ask” indeed!
As with so many Short Shirt songs, she felt like dancing and deep thinking at the same time.
Short Shirt being Short Shirt paused, his signature towel around his neck, to grind one of his old rivals. “That one talking ‘bout he goin’ always come back,” he joked. “Some of us been here, all along. Nuh so?”
And though the dig wasn’t particularly sharp the audience roared, and propelled by that Short Shirt roared into Nobody Go Run Me, the entire audience singing along, no, shouting it, as though a dare to all the powers that be-malicious-and-down-putting-determined-to-squeeze-the-poor-man-for-the-benefit-of-the-rich, which, in modern Antigua could be red or blue depending on your leanings. Both camps were too fired up as they sang at the top of their lungs
“tell dem I say
I was born in this land, ah go die in this land
Nobody go run me from wey me come fram”
to see the irony.
Obsti was wheeled back as the song wound down, and he and Short Shirt mock sparred which was comical considering the circumstances. Then Swallow was there, the three men embracing and cameras flashing, nobody knew when it would be the last picture of them together so every outing was an occasion. Other performers from the night were also now filing back on to the stage but that wasn’t the audience’s only indication that they had come to the climax. That came in the form of the disembodied announcer, amped up like he was a hip hop hype man, or an emcee at a political rally, “on your feet! On your feet! For Antigua and Barbuda’s unofficial anthem.”
Before Samantha had time to wonder which song that could be, the music for Pledge sounded, and, oh yes, nobody needed prompting to sing, dance, salute, throw their arms around each other, celebrate Antigua and Barbuda after that.
“…if you really want to show your appreciation raise your voices with me and this pledge let’s sing along, we pledge to be good citizens from now on, casting away victimization, corruption will cease, nepotism decrease, throughout the whole nation, our country then will be not just a society, but a just society let this be our pledge!”
But though they said the right words, she couldn’t help thinking that somewhere along the way they had all lost the script.
“…please beware my country men of the trappings of false liberty”
Had they heeded?
“…for true liberation does not only lie in constitutionality”
Did they remember that?
“We have gained nothing if we 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”
Were they not still falling prey to that?
But yet, even weighted by these questions, and she didn’t suppose she was the only one, she couldn’t stop dancing, as long as there was life there was hope, wasn’t there, and Antigua and Barbuda was still a-small-country-becoming in a big world. She might not live to see it mature into all it could be, but for now she could sing of the possibility.
“Gird up your loins
Ever vigilant be
To curb injustice, graft, and vagrancy
The rights of each one must be recognized
So that none will feel they’re ostracized
Equal opportunity for everyone
Each giving the other
A helping hand
We want no more exploitation
From either foreign or the local man
We need our land
For our children
So Antiguans and barbudans lets pledge to maintain our freedom”
And they sang
“we pledge to be true, citizens from now on”
It was a nice dream.
A dream that followed Samantha into sleep, where she stayed, having lived the last independence concert of her life.
Jolene would later buy a DVD of that Independence concert, and she and Gemma would watch it every year on special occasions like her mother’s birthday, Independence Day, Heroes’ Day. Whether together or apart. It became a ritual of sorts; and every year, though the island was as hot as it ever was, they’d both swear they felt a chilly breeze blow through, pass between them just enough to raise gooseflesh and remind them that Samantha was still with them.
Author’s note: This is a rough draft of something I wrote on impulse as Antigua and Barbuda ventures into its 2014 Independence season. Song posts have become synonymous with Independence on this blog, probably because music is such a big part of my life. Always has been. And Antiguan and Barbudan music an intrinsic part of my childhood memories, especially so. I overheard part of a radio dialogue today, something about Antiguan and Barbudan artistes not being enough of a draw for a show, even during Independence season in Antigua and Barbuda. My brain sputtered at that and my spirits flagged because surely that couldn’t be true, and if it was surely we weren’t accepting it without a fight. Antigua and Barbuda may be a melting pot these days but surely our Independence should still be about us. These feelings prompted a post in the You Know You’re Antiguan… facebook group…a post that asked simply what’s your favourite song by Antiguans and Barbudans, about Antiguans and Barbudans. The responses came in fast and furious. I had hinted that I might do a blog post but I wasn’t sure what I’d be posting exactly. In any case, I recorded all the songs and determined to include them in whatever I wrote, assuming I wrote anything. Foreday morning this tale of a fictional concert came to me and I went with it. I enjoyed revisiting these songs through Samantha’s eyes – if any of your favourites are omitted don’t blame Samantha, blame me; I’m the one who either couldn’t remember or couldn’t find one or two songs. But most of them are here and with them a reminder of the beautiful and profound music that has come out of Antigua and Barbuda over the years. It took a few hours to write; it’s unedited (so blame me for any character inconsistenties, proofing errors or other flaws) but I was eager to share as my little contribution to our little island. It goes without saying that this is a fictional tale, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, with the exception of the artistes themselves who are, of course, real and belong entirely to themselves and in a way completely different no doubt than imagined in this tale. Finally, I would apologize for the length but ah aryu fault that with the ton ah song-song. And since me lub Antigua music bad sorry-not-sorry. Looocal!
As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.