Over the Boundary: the Monarch

This is a throwback to an article I did for the Calypso Association 50th anniversary magazine in 2007. In the interest of increasing awareness of the accomplishments of some of our iconic calypsonians and increasing appreciation for the art form, I figured I would share some of that issue with you. This particular article looked at a quartet of repeat-repeat-repeat winners. in this post, I’ll share the section of that article focused on King Onyan (as it ran, so some of the info will be dated), who came from the soca/party world as one of the original Burning Flames to create sparks on and off the stage in the calypso world. The previous excerpts from this article focused on Queen Ivena, King Onyan, and King Swallow. DO NOT repost without permission or credit.

“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 Islands where he had worked for a time, Short Shirt was eliminated. He made strides in1963 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 superior
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 Carnival City – 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 the Savannah. 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 from Halifax
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.

FYI, here’s a short cut to some other calypso related links on the site: this is a report from the launch of the book on the Monarch King Short Shirt by veteran calypso writer – Dorbrene O’Marde; an article on that book being short listed for the regional Bocas prize and why it matters; an article on Antigua’s King of the Road – Swallow; an article on Marcus Christopher – the late great calypso writer and key figure in the development of the art form and of Carnival locally; a piece on pre calypso pioneer Quarko; an article on Short Shirt’s documentarian and the birth of his film; a piece on Short Shirt’s 50th; the site’s evolving songwriters’ data base – dominated by, you guessed it, calypso writers; an article on King Obstinate; a reflection on Latumba; a review of Dorbrene’s book by D. Gisele Isaac; a video retrospective – King Obstinate; an article on bandleader and key figure in the development of the art form – Oscar Mason; Lesroy Merchant was, among other things, a calypso writer – we remembered him here on the site when he passed; Short Shirt article; my review of his classic Ghetto Vibes album

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 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. And using any creative work without crediting the creator will open you up to legal action. Respect copyright.

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