Marcus Christopher Tribute

Marcus Christopher will be laid to rest here in Antigua next Thursday (5th March) during a service scheduled to begin (according to what’s been communicated to me by the family) at 2 p.m. at the Ebenezer Methodist church (with apologies, I got this wrong, the funeral date was actually Friday 6th February) – tributes should begin earlier than that. Here’s hoping the literary and musical community especially come out to show their support. I first met and interviewed Marcus in 2002. I recently had to dig up that article as his family gathered press reports on him in preparation for his funeral. I wanted to share the scan but the quality’s not that great and I haven’t had time to type up the article in full nor do I have an accessible Word copy of it (it might still be on floppy disks somewhere). But I’m taking some time this morning to type up some excerpts as I was determined to make this my Wadadli Pen Blog Post of the Week over on my facebook page because as song writer for some of the greats of local calypso music and the greatest of the greats, locally or otherwise, Short Shirt, Marcus was someone I knew before I knew him. In local calypso and literary circles, his legend as one of the pioneers of the art form was his calling card. I may have been a little intimidated when I first met him, but I found him to be a really cool dude, someone without airs, someone still very much active in the arts, still encouraging other artistes. My own personal anecdote is not so much the moment he showed up to the midnight launch of my book Oh Gad! observer-launch-coveragebut the phone call some weeks later, when he called to talk me through all the reasons he loved the book. It was surreal, as this is someone whose own craft, embedded in the Antiguan psyche, pre-dated me. However, him taking the time to reach out to another artiste was just him; he was just that kind of generous to other artistes. I remember when I reached out to writers to submit for the Antigua and Barbuda Tongues of the Ocean issue Marcus was not only one of the first to respond but gave me more than I could use (given how the publication is structured). Here’s hoping his 300 plus songs will soon be published per his dying wish. RIP, Marcus; and may your songs live on.

Excerpts from A Portrait of the Lyricist… (published in Observer’s 2002 Independence issue):

“Before Marcus Christopher started writing calypso lyrics, he was a trumpet player in various local bands. This musical background gifted him with the know-how to link poetry and melody to create winning tunes for the likes of Short Shirt, Canary, Latumba, and Zemakai…

“Christopher would go on to not only write tunes that helped to popularize the art form and make kings of mere men, he would help take calypso from its infancy to maturity as part of the calypso sub-committee for Carnival from the 1950s to the 1970s, the early days of Antigua’s Carnival.

“Today, he still writes abundantly, and has lyrics aplenty stored on his desktop computer and scribblings of unfinished pieces on scraps of paper around his home office; and he is still a big fan of the art form that drew him to put pen to paper.

“(about writing his first calypso) The year was 1953, and there was a bit of folklore, he said, about ‘a sort of phenomenon that happened that year. Somebody hued a mahogany tree and found the imprint of the crown going through the whole trunk. It was displayed at John and Francis Anjo. So in that song I mentioned something like that.’

“One of his first big tunes in the Carnival era was 1960’s ‘Slapping Hands’, sung by Canary. This told the story of a girl being tormented by invisible slapping hands, and reflected a much talked about, real life (depending on whether you believe that sort of thing or not) drama taking place in society. That and another Christopher tune, ‘Gem of the Caribbean’, of which he is very proud, took Canary all the way to the top of the Calypso heap that year.

“(Gem of the Caribbean excerpt) They rushing here in a haste/buying up land is a big race/so friends, you should understand/soon your romancing spots and things will be gone…so now you had better hold on to a piece/stake a claim, is the land where you born.’

“Canary’s name isn’t much bandied about today but he won the crown twice, 1960 and 1962, and was, said Christopher, his favourite artiste.

“He recalled in 1961 when Zemakai, who ultimately was crowned king that year, came to him for a song about Radio Antigua. ‘He said, ‘bossman’ [I want to do a song about Radio Antigua]. And I said, ‘what you want to do, you want to criticize them or you want to boost them?’ He say, ‘no man, I want to boost them. So we’re talking and I did it right there on the spot. I told him ‘I don’t have any chorus and I don’t want you to sing any chorus here.’ Because he didn’t have the best voice, right. I told him ‘what you going to do, you going to announce like the announcer. That thing went over so big… Zemakai was so good that night Canary got scared.

“No retelling of Marcus’ career, however, would be complete without a glimpse into the Short Shirt chapter…

“‘When he entered (first) he didn’t win,’ Christopher recalled. ‘But I heard this guy singing, you know, and I was impressed. So I spoke to him and told him that I thought he was quite good and I’m willing to help him out. I gave him a song the next year and he came second. A song called ‘Parasites’.’ His rankings improved, but he didn’t win right away. He claimed his first crown in 1964 with two Christopher tunes, ‘No Place Like Home’ and ‘Heritage’. The latter tune raised concerns about the lyrical content of the art form, a debate that still rages today.

“(Heritage excerpt) ‘I mean calypso is a noble art/in this culture, vulgarity shouldn’t have no part/it is a thing of which I am very proud/and when I sing, I respect the crowd/I am living now to make history…’

“His last big song for Short Shirt, 1970’s ‘Technical School’ challenged listeners to truly examine their fortunes, amidst economic advances, in the land of their home.

“(Technical School excerpt) ‘…when I think about places like Friars Hill/that’s the place I used to go/with my father to plant potato…we can boast of our own il refinery/but who are the big men that work down there/only foreigners/who are the technicians/only foreigners/who are the hewers of wood and carriers of water/local Antiguans…’

“He said, ‘I took them [calypsonians] from a stage where they never even got paid when they sang in elimination…All that stuff I had to fight.’

“…he’s proud of the gains he was able to help secure for the artistes. He is proud, too, of his role in elevating the spirit of competition with innovations like the Calypso King of the Caribbean competition, which attracted artistes from across the region.

“And though he is toying with the idea of compiling [his] works into book form for publication, he remains concerned about legislative protection locally for artistes’ work.”

I end on this quote because it illustrates that Christopher was still mindful of the work still to be done, not just for himself but for the art form; still.

Marcus Christopher accepting a copy of Nobody Go Run Me from Dorbrene O'Marde (Photo courtesy Colin Cumberbatch)

Marcus Christopher accepting a copy of Nobody Go Run Me from Dorbrene O’Marde (Photo courtesy Colin Cumberbatch)

Me with Christopher at the Oh Gad! launch.

Me with Christopher at the Oh Gad! launch.

Launch photos by Eustace Samuel. Do not repost without permission; all rights reserved.

Launch photos by Eustace Samuel. Do not repost without permission; all rights reserved.

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, Oh Gad! and Burt Award finalist Musical Youth). 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.

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