This review (edited) was originally published in The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015.
By Joanne C. Hillhouse
Short Shirt is a master of the calypso art form. His titles – among them 15 local Calypso Monarch titles – testify to that. But you know what’s the bigger testimony: throngs packed into the Antigua Recreation Grounds for a legends show, belting out “Lament oh my soul!” (Lamentations) like they were in church and being touched by the spirit; total recall, word for word, notwithstanding that the song had contested and lost its bid for the crown 30 years, give or take, earlier. This happened some years ago and is testimony to not only Short Shirt’s five decades long dominance of the art form, but the enduring power of his songs. During his 70th year and year-long 50th anniversary celebrations, 2012 to 2013, there were two notable productions: one a documentary film by Dr. James Knight, the other a biography by Dorbrene O’Marde.
Both were important cultural and artistic pieces but the focus of this article will be the O’Marde biography. While the documentary was much more specifically the story of the Making of the Monarch, it’s something of a misnomer to call O’Marde’s Short Shirt book, a biography. Though Short Shirt is the impetus for this work and its main character, the book really positions him at the centre of a tale mapping Antigua’s social, cultural, political, creative, and economic transformation. Sounds heavy right? But, for me at least, it was a remarkably brisk read, as enjoyable as it was enlightening – its lyrical breakdown of Short Shirt’s songs comparable to what Ghanian-Jamaican-American poet Kwame Dawes does in his impressive book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius. O’Marde positions the Monarch’s songs in space and time, gives context tied in to not just the lives of Short Shirt and his writers – notably Marcus Christopher who is less than a week departed as I write this, Stanley Humphreys, and especially Shelly Tobitt, one of Antigua’s great wordsmiths – but the life, the heartbeat of the society from which they sprung. You get, through O’Marde’s exploration of the music, a sense of a society transitioning to self-ownership and all the birthing and subsequent growing pains that come with that.
The book was reader-friendly, for me, not just because I happen to be an avid Short Shirt fan, and a fan of his writers, but because O’Marde is not only in his element but clearly chest-deep in a subject he’s passionate about; calypso. That the former Calypso Talk publisher sees calypso as something much, much more than frivolity and fun is never in doubt as you read this book; but that he’s also having fun convincing his reader is also evident. And his skills as a writer and analyst are sharp, convincingly so. So that even when you find yourself arguing with him – as I do during his dismissal of one of my favourite Short Shirt battle songs, Uneasy Head (Kong), as ungracious sportsmanship or his takedown of Lamentations, which he’s publicly stated is among his least favourite Short Shirt songs – you feel like you’re in a heated but friendly calypso parley, and you’re enjoying the cut and thrust of the debate.
O’Marde’s first book after a well-established reputation as a playwright, the fictional book Send out you Hand, was weighted and slow by comparison – exposition heavy, the characters too often coming across as mouthpieces for the writer’s intellectual concerns rather than fully drawn people.
In Nobody, O’Marde invests more successfully in the characterization and humanization of his subjects, making them (Short Shirt, Short Shirt’s writers, and, in fact, calypso, more relatable, complex, and interesting) while at the same time tying them all, Short Shirt and calypso especially, in to the larger cultural and societal shift. For instance, writing on the roots of Carnival and its subsequent shifts: “The growing sense of working class entitlement could no longer dress up and perform to the upstairs penny-throwing sugar barons and the Syrians/Lebanese merchants as it did during the traditional Christmas parades. The stage and street performances – sponsored, policed, regulated – offered a more egalitarian space to build a national culture. The enduring image of the white woman jumping in a [steel] band is but metaphor for the classless and non-racial future dancing in the imagination of middle and working class Antiguans.” (p. 34) The white woman referenced calls immediately to mind the “pretty little Yankee tourist…from Halifax” here for a taste of Antigua’s Carnival in Short Shirt’s Tourist Leggo; though here, of course, she is meant to represent something beyond herself.
The deftness with which O’Marde makes deeper connections is just one reason why Nobody Go Run Me is not only a good read but a book that matters.
For the social and cultural historian, it is a gift, covering if not the birth per se then certainly the popularization of Antiguan calypso – from the days when “seasoned Trinidadian calypsonians controlled the calypso entertainment sector” (p. 32), to the days when the Monarch took Antiguan calypso, specifically Tourist Leggo from the Ghetto Vibes album to the kaiso ‘mecca’ and but for some legal wrangling would surely have come back to Wadadli with the win – let’s call those the halcyon days, to the plateauing and declining of what was once great: Short Shirt and Calypso and Carnival; and, yes, the tome suggests indirectly Antiguan and Barbudan society.
There will be errors; nothing is perfect. But students, who these days seem to think research starts and ends with Wikepedia, could learn from this book which draws from personal papers, periodicals -including Calypso Talk, academic papers, interviews, personal reflections, and when he thought they got it right, as with the definition of picong (p. 32), Wikepedia. As D. Gisele Isaac said in a review at the launch subsequently posted at https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com and in volume 27 of the Caribbean Writer, a journal produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, the book is “exhaustively researched” and with its extensive end notes, “so interesting and educational” in their own right, “you could easily say that this is two books in one.” (quoted from https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/d-gisele-isaac-reviews-nobody-go-run-me-by-dorbrene-omarde)
This is important, too, because, in a society in which so much is undocumented, the facts of the matter are often dependent on who you speak to – see O’Marde’s end notes re the facts surrounding the start of Carnival (P. 42) for a striking example of this ‘it depends on who you ask’ type of record-keeping. It’s unfortunate that we live in a landscape where even with the papers of record you are forced to ask, who’s record? Assuming there’s a record at all – I remember years ago suggesting a virtual (i.e. online) Hall of Fame, if a physical one was not financially feasible, to lionize our cultural icons; as I think of the life of someone like Marcus Christopher, someone too important to the art form to have such an invisible footprint, online or otherwise, the absence of this feels huge. That’s one of the reasons this book matters.
The book is important too for marking the societal shifts in modern Antigua and to some degree the wider Caribbean. For instance the birth of black power: “By Carnival 1969, Edris Thomas [Edris Silston of Edris Clothing Store] produced a mas’ troupe ‘Back to Africa’. The Point’s troupe ‘Africans from the West’ emerged around this time and continued playing the same mas’ for years. Calypso Franco was singing ‘Negroes have the ability’. Short Shirt sang ‘Hearty Transplant’.
“Across the region, the consciousness of calypso had already absorbed and addressed the Black struggles in North America, a racial consciousness it had previously espoused in the nineteen thirties through the work of Attilah, Houdini, and others in praise of Emperor Selassie and Ethiopia and in defiance and rebuke of Mussolini and Italy.” (P. 64)
O’Marde references Short Shirt’s foray into these weighty racial issues with 1970s era tracks like Christopher’s Black Like Me – “a stirring anthem of racial affirmation”; and Afro-Antiguan of which he said, “as powerful and relevant as ‘Black Like Me’ and ‘Antigua Will Redeem are, it is the acrostic ‘Afro Antiguan that deepened Short Shirt’s appeal to the revolutionary.” (p. 65). Interesting as well, re the latter song, is O’Marde’s observation that in it “the difference between ‘race’ and ‘nationality’, a concept that even very intelligent people in Antigua today find hard to grasp, is critically analysed. Antiguan nationals – in the main – are proclaimed to be of African race and heritage. The African Caribbean movement had found its spokesman, that artiste capable of translating its social theories and polemics to the language of popular culture; youth had found a message beyond the nascent Bird/Walter politics that would plague the country for generations.
“Antigua calypso had found its voice. It had proved its ability to fulfill its traditional African functions.” (P. 66)
In this moment, he seems to be suggesting, Short Shirt was Antigua, and possibly the Eastern Caribbean’s James Brown – “say it loud!”
The book tracks other themes in Short Shirt’s calypso; for instance, its exposure of the hypocrisy and rabid greed of imperialism in songs like the Anguilla Crisis.
At the same time, it exposes the artiste’s – and perhaps his writers’ – if not hypocrisy, then blindspots, when it comes to certain other issues; women’s issues for instance. The Shelly Tobitt-penned Lamentation, one of my favourite Short Shirt songs, has a line that makes me, a feminist, smile wryly every time I sing it; O’Marde speaks to that very line in his takedown of the classic track.
“It is dismissive in its lack of appreciation of the human development necessity of equal rights for women: ‘Female liberation/ ‘even’ women want their freedom/Riot and demonstration.’” (P. 84)
Though as relates to the blatant misogyny in this and some other Short Shirt tracks, O’Marde does attempt to give some context: for instance, he quotes these lyrics – “Me man – Darling, you woman/Honey, me master and you slave/And you ain’t go tell me how and where and when/you want/for is me who supposed to take” but then reminds that “these were the dominant male attitudes of the Antigua, and dare say Caribbean society in the male-female relationship…Feminism as a political ideology was in its infancy, not yet finding root in even the progressive elements.” (p. 61) The feminist in you might want to debate this point as this was the early 1970s and second wave feminism started rippling out as early as the 1960s, that plus, frankly, misogyny remains rampant in our modern Caribbean. But let’s move on.
O’Marde brings an activist’s eyes and heart to his discussion of the treatment of many of the themes in Short Shirt’s calypsos. So that when he discusses social and political movements like the Grenada revolution, he doesn’t, as another writer might, simply recount the facts of the overthrow, he writes “On 13th March 1979, the New Jewel Movement overthrew the supposed duly elected government of Eric Gairy” (p. 139) – the use of supposed here casting the legitimacy of the Gairy government into doubt and making clear that in the writer’s view they were no such thing. His entire handling of this subject – tone to choice of references – make clear that this is not just history but history with perspective – emphasis on the perspective, albeit a well-informed one.
Musicians and students of music will appreciate that O’Marde doesn’t just break down Short Shirt’s lyrics but what it is that makes his music so compelling. For instance, while there’s no love lost between him and Lamentations, O’Marde does show appreciation for “the power of the melody, the inviting call-and-response structure and Short Shirt’s vocal wizardry.” (P. 84)
He speaks as well to the lyrical and musical innovations Short Shirt – and especially the Short Shirt/Shelly Tobitt partnership brought to the genre. In discussing Starvation, for instance, O’Marde wrote, “the guitar work is steady and compelling. The rhythm is up-tempo. ‘Starvation’ represents the initiation of one of Short Shirt’s and Antigua’s contribution to the world of calypso – the social commentary sang at dance pace. There is no other body of work in calypso where social commentaries are so executed consistently.” (P. 93 – 94) – O’Marde, and this is not just a matter of opinion, has the cred in calypso to make such an assertion.
His voice on these issues – the crafting, the content – has the ring of authority; so that when he writes, for instance, “that is his amazing vocal power, his ability to reach any note – high or low – that he or Shelly, in their melodic creativity found; and to do it with stellar clarity; while dancing in costume in competition or in live performance” (p. 94), he’s not just fanboying.
The literary nerd in me appreciates his dissection, for instance, of how Tobitt transmutated the calypso lyrical structure. “Very few lyricists would write a line this envious greedy conniving blood sucking attitude in calypso. The simplicity of ‘Starvation’ is replaced here by long complex verse and chorus. Multiple rhyming patterns are engaged and a riveting but unusual melody is forced to the fore. Few calypsonians in the business could handle the lyrical and melodic complexity – at tempo.” (p. 95) He applies his own analysis, layers on another authoritative source by direct quoting a 1975 review in the Outlet – footnoted. And then he lets the record speaks for itself: “Short Shirt sang ‘This Land’ and ‘Lucinda’ to win the 1974 crown and the Caribbean competition.” (p. 95)
On the subject of the songs, another thing to appreciate about this book is its extensive quoting of lyrics. It’s ridiculously difficult – especially in this internet age where you can google lyrics to any song plus just about any trivia you want, and some you don’t, on that song – to find information on Antigua and Barbuda’s songs, calypso or anything of that nature, really. Neither the artistes, the fans, nor our young people, notwithstanding all the tablet and laptop giveaways, have seen fit to create content that could see our culture adequately represented online, the way users in places like America and Europe do for every minutiae they find of interest; my own attempts to build an online data base of Antiguan and Barbudan writers, including songwriters, at https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com has been slow going on the songwriting end, despite the fact that I’ve reached out repeatedly to songwriters and producers for information. We’re just slow off the mark on this. Slow, slow, slow. As such, I doubly appreciate the lyric share – and crediting in Nobody Go Run Me. I would love to see some of this content shared online, and would do it myself if I had the time. As it is, I’ve been able to use the book as a go to resource when blogging on song and/or song writer related matters.
Beyond the songs, Nobody Go Run Me, albeit it’s not a straight-up biography, does zero in on the man behind the myth. And though it mostly takes an academically sound approach in terms of sourcing, unlike some academic texts it gives equal weight to the anecdotal, mostly oral, evidence in painting a complete picture – e.g. the incident in Barbados (P. 92 and 93). “Oral history in Antigua and Barbuda is laced with tales of his physical encounters with man and woman, accounts which the Christian Brother Emmanuel denies or doesn’t remember…” (P. 93) – it’s implied in the tone and in his decision to relay some of these tales that the author is giving these denials the side eye.
The tone sometimes edges up against snide – “The lows, like his failed attempts at competition during the last decade, he scrubs from his memory or dismisses as inconsequential aberration of judges. ‘True? I didn’t make finals that year? No!’” (P.218)
Still, Short Shirt is given a fair shake in this book. O’Marde is generous with respect to the artist’s talents and accomplishments but also clear on his blindspots, failures, and contradictions. The fading, retirement, conversion, and return of Short Shirt are all covered. Writing of his return from retirement, O’Marde observed, “this is the calypso protest tradition and stance that Maclean Emanuel re-joined in 2001 – one that he as Short Shirt, helped create, one that he led for three decades. But first he had to explain the apparent backslide that allowed his return to calypso and the ‘decadence of Carnival’. Brother Emanuel had to release Short Shirt.” (P. 200) Of course, fans of Brother Emanuel’s gospel could credibly argue that the message may have been re-directed but the calypsonian was never caged. But his comeback CD The Message and particularly the title track and the Handwriting song was a welcome return to form for the beloved calypso icon. That would be the post-return peak – at least so far – the offerings since being uneven at best.
The book delves into the complexity of the musical marriage and divorce of Short Shirt and Tobitt – those who’ve always wondered will appreciate the gossip-but-not-just-gossip-ness of O’Marde’s excavation of this touchy issue. It’s clear that O’Marde had deep access to both the artiste and the writer, the notoriously reclusive Tobitt speaking to issues he hasn’t spoken of since the break-up. Even so, there is still no clear resolution: “Short Shirt affirms that Shelly Tobitt is the best writer he worked with and mourns the loss. ‘I love Shelly up to now…up to now I don’t know what I did to turn him against me. It couldn’t be about one song or money.” (p. 146)
Other complicated Short Shirt relationships such as the one with “frivals” like King Obstinate are touched on. Sidebar: O’Marde’s treatment of Obsti songs like Children Melee, Fatman Dance, Elephant Walk, Coming down to talk to You, songs he describes as “vacuous” (p. 162), in fact his categorizing of the calypso of the late 1970s/early 1980s, when I would have been introduced to calypso, the calypso of Short Shirt, Latumba, Obsti, does take the shine off of some of my fondest childhood calypso memories – but never let it be said that he is a not a critic with bite, and he is right to call out the ways politics (or the appropriation of calypso by political interests) had begun to blunt “the sharp edge and excitement of the calypso in Antigua”. (p. 183)
At some point in each biography/autobiography, you grab hold of an insight beyond the individual and their story, an insight to life. It’s not always reassuring. And this quote, O’Marde extracted from Short Shirt is a sobering reality check for any artiste trying to create and make life in this small place: “I am still a struggling man…after fifty year man…everything gets ploughed back into producing my albums…feeding my family.” (p. 218) The struggle is real – even for one considered by all to be the best among us; sobering indeed.
And speak of sobering, though we perhaps no longer live in an Antigua and Barbuda where “Hotel managers and owners and their trained snarling dogs were determined to keep the beaches free of Black people.” (p. 35) or are perhaps less obvious about it, as we consider the economic paradigm in which we do live, the deals ‘we’ negotiate that maintain the hierarchical status quo, and the erosion of rights we have come to take for granted – beach access for everyone, for instance – the book, deliberately or not may inspire reflection on how much has really (not) changed.
That in mind, because this is a thought provoking book, you might find yourself reflecting, after closing off the last chapter, on the players who have attempted to step into the void, but failed not because they didn’t have a good song or even a good run; but because none since has shown the epic depth, reach, span, and consistency of the man who inspired the book Nobody go run Me. Because of Short Shirt’s impact on all these points – for all those who would, as some have, question why Short Shirt and not this or that other one – a book on the Monarch is long overdue. And for all the reasons given in this article, Dorbrene O’Marde was just the man to do it justice.
Writer’s Note: In between the time I drafted this and came back to edit it, Dorbrene O’Marde’s Nobody Go Run Me became the first ever Antiguan and Barbudan book (one of only nine overall and three non-fiction in 2015) to be long listed for the OCM Bocas prize previously won by Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Monique Roffey and Robert Antoni making him already a winner whatever the final outcome.
REVIEWER’S BIO: Joanne C. Hilhouse is the author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight – and its 2014 edition Dancing Nude in the Moonlight: 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings, Oh Gad!, Fish Outta Water – a children’s picture book, and Musical Youth – a teen/young adult novel and finalist for the Burt Award. Her creative and journalistic writing has appeared in other books and periodicals, and she blogs online at http://jhohadli.wordpress.com and https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com
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