Tag Archives: Antigua calypso

Viva Grenada

This was Short Shirt’s (and/or his writer Shelly Tobitt’s) take on a real life even in a neighbouring Caribbean country. See also our song lyrics data base; and our song writers’ data base. All lyrics are transcribed from the song recording (thanks for this one to the youtuber who already had this one transcribed as I only had to do a bit of tweaking). Errors and omissions are my own; feel free to help me correct or fill in the blanks. – JCH, blogger


1.
March 13 of ’79, a most historic freedom time
The people of Grenada rose with dignity
Rose up from oppression
Rose up from iniquity and shame
From the darkness of desecration
Shaking off paralysis of corruption
Tyranny, violence, and subjugation
To shine out before the Caribbean
And strike terror into repressive regimes
Unscrupulous politicians are now trembling in their pants

Cho.
Stand up, Grenada
Stand up again, Grenadian
Don’t let nobody come in and dictate your course of action
All of them who oppose your revolution
Are political bandits just like Gairy in their own islands
Fight for your rights.
Protect what you have
You fought a good fight
Protect what you have
Don’t give in a single inch
Don’t retreat not even a pinch
Don’t compromise your revolution
For those scandalous, tiefing, oppressive political scamps in the Caribbean
No way
Never, I say
No way

2.
Some talk of legality
Constitutionality
But only to export their hypocrisy
For if you examine
The state of affairs in their land
You will find human rights violations
Total disregard for the constitution
Complex political persecution
And a wave of sanctioned violence
With the blessing of legislative criminals
And forced by sadistic gangs
Just like the mongoose one

Cho.

3.
God bless you, Grenada
May your freedom be blessed with longevity
And prosperous your economy
May he grant your leaders
Wisdom, endurance, and courage to go on
For your road may be long and rugged
Many are the problems to be confronted
Guard against corruption being repeated
And that rude awakening
That early dawn
Be an example to tyrants in other lands
No power, no weaponry
Can extinguish a people’s will to be free

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Calypso Joe: Vintage

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 the Anchors of Antiguan calypso – not the superstars covered in Over the Boundary but the reliable contributors known for their consistent play, providing a strong foundation for the growth of the art form. The first of these looked at Franco; in this post, I’ll share the section of that article focused on Calypso Joe – who in 2015 distinguished himself as one of the star presenters of Antigua and Barbuda’s first ever TEDx forum. DO NOT repost without permission or credit.

Joseph ‘Calypso Joe’ Hunte’s ‘Bum Bum’, became, in 1970, the first homegrown road march winner; and it can still get hips rocking with its old school shout out to the party loving side of any Antiguan.

“I say Ella le go me hand

Le me jump in de band…”

Coming one year after his entry into the Calypso arena, it’s significant for another reason. As current Calypso Association president Jerome Bleau wrote in a 1997 article, “it took Antigua and Barbuda 13 years of Carnival before it could throw off the heavy weight of Trinidad’s heavyweights. Prior to this period (i.e. 1970) the Trinidad road march song was automatically the road march for Antigua. Joe helped break the spell. It is historic.” ‘Bum Bum’ remains one of his biggest hits to date.

Apart from his pioneering role on the road, Joe claimed the 1971 Calypso monarch crown, the only individual not named Swallow or Short Shirt to do so in the 1970s. His winning tunes were ‘Educate the Youths’ and ‘Recorded in History’. Other well loved tunes include  ‘War’, ‘A Nation to Build, A Country to Mould’, and 1972’s ‘Life of a Negro Boy’- his performance of this on competition night and the crowd’s response ranking as his all-time favourite Carnival memory.

Bleau, in the previously cited article, also said: “Few Calypsos composed here match Joe’s in literary quality while he was a master of the catchy and patriotic line.”

“Every citizen to the cause of justice must rise

We must build together and not fractionize

Dedicated to your country’s cause with body mind and soul

We have a nation to build, a nation to build, a country to mould

We have a nation to build, a country to mould”

Guitar in hand, he’s become a familiar face on the hotel circuit and at other national shows, in his post-competition days, continuing to play his part in song.

As with all content 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, Oh Gad!, Fish Outta Water, and Musical Youth). All Rights Reserved. Seriously, a lot of time, energy, love and frustration goes in to researching and creating content for this site; please don’t just take it up just so without even a please, thank you or an ah-fu-she-subben (credit). If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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Over the Boundary: Ivena

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 Ivena (as it ran, so some of the info will be dated), the first (and to date only) female in Antigua and Barbuda to take the Monarch crown and, proving it was no fluke, to dominate the previously (and subsequently) male dominated Monarch stage. Per her moniker, the sub-head was ‘The Razor Lady’. DO NOT repost without permission or credit.

This is a picture I took with Ivena and her writer Best back when they were killing it. DO NOT publish or otherwise repost with out permission.

This is a picture I took with Ivena and her writer Best back when they were killing it. DO NOT publish or otherwise repost with out permission.

Diminutive in size, Ivena had a colossal impact when she shattered the glass ceiling that had long hung over Calypso, becoming, in 2003, the first female to wear Antigua’s Calypso monarch crown.  In all, she’s amassed three Calypso monarch crowns, five female Calypso queen crowns, a Leeward Islands crown, and a Caribbean monarch crown. For a time, she seemed unbeatable. “I was shocked to see the kind of passion that she sang with,” her writer Cuthbert ‘Best’ Williams told the Daily Observer in 2005, “and it’s really paying off, you know. People admire the passion that she sings with.” Of course, Calypso fortunes being what they are, she would subsequently fall in 2006 to main rival Singing Althea in the female Calypso competition, and fail to make the top three in the Calypso monarch competition.

Lena Philip announced her arrival in the Calypso Association’s 1999 competition during its rift with the Carnival Development Committee. “Her coming,” as Gisele Isaac wrote in 2006 “(precipitated) the most sparkling rivalry seen in ages, first on the female scene and then on the big stage.” That rivalry, of course, was between Althea and Ivena, and, at times it seemed, Ivena and everyone else who was trying to climb the insurmountable Everest she seemed to represent.

Of course, she herself had had to climb a few mountains to Calypso glory. She’s had to weather criticism of her vocal ability. Also, it was Empress, not Ivena who won the 1999, female crown – though Ivena went on to come second behind only Kublai and Zacari in the Calypso Association’s Monarch contest. She didn’t make the top three though in 2000, her first run at the ‘official’ female Calypso title. Two thousand and one’s unforgettable ‘Old Road Fight’, a ripped from the headlines saga, changed all that. It earned her her first female Calypso crown and a reputation of singing, with confrontational fervour, of and for the people.

“When de war drums roll
They calling old road heroes
— They calling Old Road heroes
Kublai Gracey Shaska – Baggas and King Larro
Young Gantone and Kubujah
Ras Waka and John Dyer
I say we fought that day in the spirit of Africa
Our ancestors, you know they were very proud
Ma Clemmie and Olive Humphrey was in de crowd
Lillian and daughter Nancy
Denon, Decade and friend Nicey
And soldiers like Miss Aggie
We will take over Wadadli…”

Ivena made no bones about her desire to be the first female monarch, but getting to play with the big boys did not come easily; and at one point the frustration saw her threatening to boycott the female competition in protest.

But, in the end, Ivena proved not only a fighter, but a victor.

She took on the power brokers.

“You find it hard
You can’t cope
Yet more millstone around your neck
And I hear Treasury broke
The economy is a wreck
Yet they borrowing more and more money
Pawning off all yuh land
Soon the whole ah de country
Might be sold to that blue-eyed Texan”
(Remember the Pledge, 2002)

Not only was the ‘Cry Cry Baby’ fair game but the then Prime Minister who came in for mockery in tunes like ‘I’m Angry’. As she told Dotsie Isaac Gellizeau in the November/December 2005 Essential, in which she was the cover girl boldly flashing her crowns, “to be a Calypsonian, you must have a strong heart.”

When old adversaries faded to the political sidelines during the 2004 elections, Ivena turned her attention to the new administration with winning tunes like ‘After Lester’ (in which she warned the new PM Baldwin Spencer, that she had her eye on him) and ‘Tell us What Castro Say’.

The crown may have slipped, but it’s fair to say, at this writing, that we’ve not heard the last from Ivena.

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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Latumba and Liberation: an Independence Reflection

It’s Independence season as I post this, the 32nd anniversary of our Independence here in Antigua and Barbuda to be exact; and for some reason I’m in the mood for Latumba, that hoarse-voiced calypsonian of my early childhood. I think you’ll see why.

Culture must be Free is my all time favourite Latumba song. Perhaps because as a writer/an artiste, I aspire to live up to this ideal: “…I go sing what I see, I go mirror society, culture must be free, they can’t muzzle me”. Perhaps because of the poignancy of his perfectly imperfect voice and the potency and defiance in sentiments like “my heart cannot buy it, my conscience reject it” as he sang of offers to sell his soul for success. I related to this even before I knew/understood what it meant and to this day it breaks my heart the ease with which we and our leaders, and some of our calypsonians, sell our souls (and sell out our country) for a mess of pottage – short term returns at the expense of our long term sovereignty. In my imagination, Latumba, certainly the persona he projected in this narrative was above all that and one can hear the outrage in his voice as he sings of how “they lock teachers up in prison, and they beat them up without reason, innocently keep them in jail, and like slaves they refuse them bail…”. In that moment, what he’s saying to me is that some things are not for sale, certainly not his artiste soul. And “they don’t even bound to play my songs on none of them two radio station” – such a petulant sounding turn of phrase isn’t it? You can almost hear the childish “humph!” at the tail end of it and the childlike certainty of a world of right and wrong. Though I now understand that the world is all kinds of grey, the moral high ground that this song occupies is strangely appealing, certainly when it comes to the aspirations of freedom and fairness that are at the heart of our striving for Independence…and lately reparations.


The Love I Lost (which begins at 3:55) is perhaps my second favourite of his social commentaries, in part because there’s a memory at the edge of my memory of us kids acting out, in the way we play acted out the songs then, the “Papa stand up, Mama stand up, Sister stand up, and Brother stand up; we have got to unite, unite and fight, fight to regain what is our birthright”. Listening to it now, I realize it romanticizes some of our history, presenting Africa before our enslavement as a kind of Eden (where we lived in contentment and knew no fear and suffered no divisions tribal or otherwise). And while I understand that it was not perfect (nowhere is), it was our home and we were taken from it and it from us to such a degree that many of us still reject it and in some ways it returns the favour. What I appreciate about the song all these years later is how concisely and completely it narrates the history of what leaving did to us: “Then one day, we had to leave, for we were made slaves, yes we were made slaves, my country was conquered my people were captured, my sister was raped, my brother was raped. Then these proud people from that land so far which every body now knows is Africa, we were made to toil in the burning heat, in the sugar cane in the Caribbean…we were chained, chained and whipped, when we were tired, when we were tired. There was no rest, only our sweat to quench our thirst and wounds when we hurt… these proud people …have been brought to shame…have lost their country and have lost their name…” That rasp in his voice and the sadness it achingly captures (as he speaks not only of us who were taken but of those who stayed and were yet colonized while our continent was mined of all her riches, reminding us in doing so that we are part of the same family and part of the same struggle) will make you weepy if you let it…and especially if you consider how lost we still are 179 years into our Emancipation, 62 years into universal adult suffrage, 32 years into Independence.

Then there is Independence in which Latumba calls on Wadadli to arise (i.e. wake up, stand up not just exist “while all around us, the times are changing; men are determined to rise above their present status”).

“With our hearts and hands as one, our conviction must be strong, with a passion for the glory of our land,” he sang. How  have we forgotten this?

“The road may be dark, things may not be the way we’d like them to be, but let us push on, let us try,” he urged. How have we lost this sense of purpose?

I say this because while I know many of us love Antigua and Barbuda deeply, we can be too complacent and too motivated to fight for party over country when in reality no matter which party is in power this is our country; red or blue, her fate is our collective fate.

On Liberate Your Mind, Latumba begins, “how can we be liberated when we are so confused? This country is so divided; there are so many, many different views…shouting blame and crying shame, we all are guilty just the same”.

He urges us to liberate our mind and “rise to the occasion and demonstrate to the world that we all are one; that we in this little country could live in love and harmony, working for prosperity, prosperity, for you and me.”

Is this still too idealistic an ambition? Perhaps, there will always be differences of opinion and there’s nothing wrong with that (it’s desirable, even; checks and balances and all that) but we’ve seen how, as Latumba said, intractability can cripple the State (we saw it just recently with the government shut down in America, a pass to which our young democracy has not yet come …so perhaps things are not that dark). But at our worst wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep in mind that our common purpose is the forward movement of Antigua and Barbuda?

On a literary front, I love how these songs are constructed to tell us a story, make us feel, make us think, stimulate in us a desire to …move beyond who and where we are. It’s powerful writing in my view. And even if you throw out all the Independence (registration, and pre-election, and reparation) fuelled musings worth a listen just as words and music. There’s one other Do You Get the Picture that I’d love to listen to again and maybe share but Latumba’s music is hard to find.

Let’s end on an upbeat note, shall we; Latumba after all was well loved for his road march tunes like Carnival in LA, Supajam and…

Hit Man which not only made us dance (“when my music play, see them break away”) but served notice that small axe can chop down (or aspire to chop down anyway) big tree or the big three like Swallow and Short Shirt (“your time is up, I deeply regret”) and a country man can set the town on fire:

“They say I can’t dance
They say I can’t sing
They wanted to push me ’round
But just like a swarm of honey bee
Sweet and stinging I started singing

oiee
oiee
oiee”

For Latumba’s discography, go here.

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, 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 the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, are okay, lifting content (words, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright. 

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Feeling the GHETTO VIBES (from the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, 2011)

This is an article I (Joanne C. Hillhouse) did for the 2011 issue of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, edited by Professor Paget Henry of Brown University. The Review is published annually, and the article discusses the songs of one of Antigua and Barbuda’s calypso greats, Short Shirt; specifically his Ghetto Vibes album. PLEASE DO NOT REPOST WITHOUT THE AUTHOR’S PERMISSION.

 

(preamble)

“I am going to start with a song from what should be named the GREATEST CALYPSO ALBUM ever, GHETTO VIBES by Sir McClean Emmanuel – King Short Shirt. The song asks questions that humanity doesn’t have the answers for as yet. WHEN. He should have been named one of the top 5 calypsonians of the 20th century.” – Poster with the moniker CaribArts in a 2010 thread (OECS SOCA CLASH: VINCYLAND (WINDWARD) vs. ANTIGUA (LEEWARD)) at http://www.islandmix.com

 

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

Short Shirt’s Ghetto Vibes is one of my favourite albums of all time; not one of my favourite Calypso albums, not one of my favourite Antiguan albums, just one of my top five favourites period.

Incidentally, it came out in 1976 as a record on vinyl; before cassettes, CDs, downloadable music. I would have been all of three years old at the time, so obviously I couldn’t have had a first-hand experience of it; except it feels like I did, because I grew up singing, dancing to, and dramatizing Short Shirt calypsos – My Pledge, Press On, Lamentations, Star Black – and felt them deep in my soul long before the lyrics would begin to unravel themselves for me. That unraveling is still taking place. I didn’t purchase Ghetto Vibes until its re-issue on CD in the 00’s. By then, I’d purchased the Monarch’s Social Commentaries CD which included many of my favourites, several of which – Power and Authority, Inspite of All, When – can be found on the Ghetto Vibes CD. But a single download or even a Greatest Hits CD by the best of the best – think Bob, Aretha, Prince, Sparrow – can’t compare with a complete and artfully conceptualized full album, CD, whatever you want to call it – think The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Alannis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, Tanya Stephens’ Gangsta Blues, or my favourite soundtrack, The Harder They Come. Though I would have appreciated the inclusion of comprehensive liner notes complete with album credits – the lack of which is a shortcoming of many local, often independently produced, albums – owning the actual Ghetto Vibes CD remains a unique and mind blowing experience.

Did I mention I love this CD? Let me count the ways.

There’s the infectious joy of Tourist Leggo where the storyteller engages in that time worn Caribbean pastime of watching white people dancing, dancing badly. Sure, ‘tourist’ is not synonymous with ‘white people’, but let’s be honest that’s exactly what this “pretty little yankee tourist…from Halifax” is. And if we’re being honest, we’ve watched other ‘yankee’ tourists mangle the w’ine, all the while wondering if they’re dancing to the rhythm or the words. In Tourist Leggo, we find one such,

“…jumping without timing… in the steelband, dancing in the sun,”

with determined abandon.

 

“She blood run cold every time she hear a pan roll,

dang-dang-di-dang-di-dang-di-dang…”

 

‘Cold’ is ‘Hot’ here in the way that ‘bad’ is ‘good’ and ‘sick’ is ‘delightful’ and ‘wicked’ is ‘so, so good’. So snicker if you want, but she’s having a better time than you, wall flower. Of course, you could join in, as the storyteller has, his ‘mockery’ all in good fun. The song, tonally, then doesn’t feel mean-spirited. Rather, it emerges as a celebration of the Carnival spirit, the spirit of the J’ouvert, which if you’ve ever been – to the J’ouvert, or Last Lap, or a Burning Flames Lions jam – is as seductive as the song suggests, bringing people – whatever race or cultural origin – together for the most fun this side of sex. 

 

“…the girl said to me, ‘Shorty, what a glorious symphony

The music seems to fill you with rage

And make you feel like you on a stage.’”

 

It’s a strong opener, Tourist Leggo.

The music, from the first note, is joyful and buoyant and Short Shirt’s pre-emptive bellow lays the foundation for a rousing good time, while the superior ability of the lyricist is reflected in the tightly woven storytelling amidst the bacchanal.

The first few lines set the scene like the opening frames of a film:

“Carnival.

J’ouvert Morning.

Just as the band start parading.

Ah in Scot’s Row, jamming tight with a Leggo.”

 

Setting, place, time, characters in a few deceptively simple opening bars; and it bubbles over from there: “the place well hot and the music sweet” – leading to “insane” behavior – including, on occasion, a little “romance with a man”. Sorry, I had to go there; because isn’t one of the beauties of especially vintage calypso the little tease, the way they edge right up to the line? And isn’t Tourist Leggo one of the best examples of that?

The bellow that portends Vivian Richards, meanwhile, sounds more like a lion’s roar accompanied, as it is, by the aggressive beat, exuberance, and boastful stance that suffuses this song, echoing the spirit, reinforcing the larger than life mythology of its title subject. It’s very hip hop in that sense, and with respect to the name checking. And the chorus is a sing-a-long worthy of any cricket fan:

“No bowler holds a terror for Vivian Richards!”

 

It captures well the excitement of the game and of Richards’ technical ability, as well as the David v. Goliath rivalry between England and her former colonies – David armed this time around with more than a little caterpuller.

“England, here they come

This hunk of a man

This classical player and his fellow Antiguan

Andy Roberts wreaking havoc once again in your country

Vivian Richards wrecking bowlers boundary after boundary

Watch the score board ticking on

When Vivian batting, the machine must run

And people applauding for runs like bread

And another splendid Richards century again

Aiie!”

 

Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles wrote in Spirit of Dominance, “Viv did not walk onto the cricket field in search of himself. Neither did he discover his consciousness within the context of sporting contests. He was sent in to do battle by villagers, not only those in Antigua, but all those from little places in this diaspora; people who have been hurling missiles at the Columbus project since it crashed into their history five hundred years and ten million lives ago…he was determined to tilt the scales, even if marginally and temporarily, in favour of those whose view of the world is from the bottom up.”

I’d argued in an original draft of this article that the song, focused on the particulars of the game, only hinted at the larger socio-historical impact of those runs and Richards’ role in the decolonization process. I’ve felt compelled to rethink that point in light of my first reader’s comment that having been there, caught up in the experiences that the song chronicles, the glory of all it suggested was deeply felt. She would have been 15 when this album came out. So perhaps age is a hindrance here with respect to my original critical assessment, and the larger meaning was in fact well communicated and deeply understood without having to be sledge-hammered home like a Tyler Perry film. Simply put, he who feels it knows it, and they knew it.

For those of us who came after, it is fiery, anthemic and enjoyable, and a record of the exploits of both Richards and compatriot Andy Roberts on the pitch at a time when it was rare to see a Leeward Islander on the Windies team – especially two with so many tools in their arsenal. In that, it serves one of calypsos functions in speaking for its times and celebrating the heroes of the folk – not unlike the third song, the syncopated (“who/tell you/to/mess with Harmo”) Hands off Harmonites in which the Point resident goes to bat for the area steel band, no doubt reflecting the sentiments of the people of that area, that Harmonites was robbed in the ‘75 Panorama finals.

“…something went wrong with the judging

Harmonites wouldn’t place so bad

Halcyon was first

Supa Stars second

Rising Sun was third

And Hell’s Gate fourth, I heard

But when it came to Harmonites,

they couldn’t find a place that night

slip them right down the ladder

second to last…”

 

A seemingly personal (and community) gripe, the song is significant as a chronicle of the lives, and particularly the injustices felt, by the people; not unlike Ivena’s Old Road Fight in the 00’s which I’ve always felt is the best record, better than the news coverage even, of the uproar surrounding the controversial Carlisle Bay development project. Like Tourist Leggo, Hands off Harmonites is also significant in capturing the spirit of Carnival; in this case in particular, the “pan rhapsody, flow, de tempo, and rhythm” of the only musical invention of the 20th century, the steel pan.

Interestingly, this pan ditty proves a natural segue to the CD’s larger issues, the concern reflected in the title, Ghetto Vibes, and perhaps the second biggest reason – after the quality of the lyricism – that I love it so much. See, as a child of Ottos, I, too, am a child of the ghetto and deeply aware of its concerns over victimization whether driven by class, economics, or politics. And in this song about the steel pan, vilified in its youth, the concerns of working class Antiguans begin to be spelled out.  

“Just because they wouldn’t stand the exploitation

That you dishing out to the pan man

You want to stifle the sweetest band in the land

It seems the policy

Of those in authority

Is to crush anyone

Who dare to oppose their might.”

 

Man against the (political) machine, a battle understood all too well by those in life’s ghetto who experience firsthand the victimization and, conversely, the defiance of spirit in the face of it, that begin to take centre stage on the CD.

But it’s up to songs like Power and Authority and Nobody Go Run Me – easily my favourites on the album, especially the latter – to really drive those issues home.

Before we get to them though, there’s one more seemingly lighter topic – after J’ouvert, cricket, steel band music – and that is ‘love’ in the ‘boy lusts after girl’ track No Promises.

The recurring sub-theme of ‘madness’ of the spirit – “I walk de whole ah de beach and I search like a crazy man but the only thing I found was shell and sand” – is there, lust/love proving just as maddening as the infectious music (in Tourist Leggo), and certainly as much a part of life in the ghetto, as anywhere.

While not dealing overtly with the concerns of the ghetto, the song does interweave the experience of the economic immigrant (the kinds of indignities chronicled in H. Akia Gore’s Garrote: The Illusion of Social Equality and Political Justice in the United States Virgin Islands):

“You catch me in St. Thomas

Darling, that was really mas

You and you Cruzan man

Had me dodging Immigration

For two whole weeks a cool off

Sleeping in boxes and trash cans all about…”

 

But this song, frankly, doesn’t hypodermic its way into my blood like Nobody Go Run Me, which I still feel in my heart and soul on my worst days, and which I’ve said before I see as the other side of the coin of a favoured literary classic – Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners – the latter dealing with the experiences of those who left, Short Shirt (and his writers) dealing with the sorrows of those who stayed.

“Night and day ah catching hell

People think I doing well

Just because I sing a few calypso

But that is my misery

Calypso don’t make money

And most of them don’t know

That I have my axe to grind

Just like any other man

Existing in poverty

And this giant ghetto land

But I intend to hang on

Tell them, tell them for me

No dice

I ain’t gonna eat lice

I ain’t gonna grow old sitting in the cold

Not me…”

 

Sorry for the extensive quote – but I relate to those lines on a deep in my belly level – and not just because I’m a walking around definition of struggling writer, twin to the struggling calypsonian, but because like the calypsonian I readily acknowledge that life is far from easy on this 108 square mile rock where my navel string is buried, but it is home. In that sense, it’s as much a love letter to Antigua as it is a lament about the fortunes of the poor and underrepresented.

“Tell them I say

I was born in this land

I go die in this land

Nobody go run me

From where me come from”.

 

Of course, the counterpoint to that, as the very tone of the song suggests, is the people of the ghetto may come from here but here routinely rubs them the wrong way – denying them the opportunity to progress, to own, to dream; limiting them…and yet, they hang on.

“Me mumma must nyam

Me puppa must nyam

Me woman must nyam

Me picknee must nyam.”

 

The unspoken intimation is that the struggle for them to “nyam” (eat) of the fruits of Antigua’s bounty is just that, a struggle; making this a sentiment as much heartbreaking as it is inspiring and defiant. When I sing this though, the defiance is what dominates; long and short of it, this song inspires and delights me – and not just because of the snippet of his trademark “brrr” that Short Shirt throws in for his fans.

As for Power and Authority, which precedes Nobody Go Run Me on the CD, I’ve often complained that too many of today’s calypsos feel like an essay – dry and prosaic; but that’s probably an insult to essays, because I’ve read some very stirring ones, rich with poetry and pathos. Part of the genius of Short Shirt and his collaborators – including the masterful Shelly Tobitt – was how elegantly they strung meaningful words and ideas together all to a moving backbeat. Power and Authority is a good example of this.

It asserts – borrowing a bit from British historian Lord Acton circa 1887 – its thesis upfront:

“Power rules the world today

And power corrupts they say

And absolute power corrupts you absolutely”

 

Then it provides its premise:

 

“It can change a man who has a heart of gold

Make him cruel wicked

Self centred and cold”

 

Then it supports that premise with specific examples:

 

“They prostituting the island

To all and sundry

They peddling my people’s rights

Exploiting, oppressing, less freedom, more suffering…”

 

And as he chronicles the hardships, the narrative voice – never omniscient and distant – once again aligns himself with the ghetto people:

“…coal we can’t even buy

Murder the price too high

Malnutrition killing the children

While we the adults starving

Yet the price is rising without control

Young man begging bread by the side of the road

And the Chamber of Commerce in this land

I tell you they don’t give one damn

The more we try to economize the more cost o’ living rise.”

 

The personalization and specificity work well here to make this tale at once unique and universal, time specific and timeless, relatable still, so that the hook –  

“…when they have power and authority, they don’t give a damn about you or me…”

– could readily be taken up by sufferers in any impoverished community in the world at any time in history. Just ask the people feeling the brunt of the current down economy while politicians have their pissing contests and businesses guard their cash register passing on every cost to the consumer. The song clearly draws a line in the sand between the haves – who prosper no matter what, and the have-nots – who can’t seem to catch a break; not from the business class, not from the judges who lock them up for seeking a little herbal relief “while the social rich are free”, a reminder that economic deprivation is not the only hurdle for children of the ghetto.

And as he sings – stepping out on behalf of the people, speaking truth to power in a way calypso does so well –

“…think it over, my friend, think if over, again; think it over, don’t vex with me Shorty, I just singing as a see…”

– the ‘essay’ wraps up its argument.

When two songs down from Nobody Go Run Me and perhaps ideally switched in the track order with Inspite of All (I’ll explain why later) is perhaps the most universal of these songs; not generic, mind, but approaching the theme of discord in the world in a much broader fashion, using repetition, rhetoric and alternating rhyming lines as its main recurring devices.

“When, when will we learn to live together?

When, when will we learn to love each other?

When, when will we learn to trust our brother?

When, when will we live one for another?

When, when will mankind turn from their evil?

When, when will the children rise and shine?

When, when will crime violence and corruption?

When, when will they leave the hearts of mankind?

When, when will our dreams become utopia?

When, when will our sorrows cease to be?

When, when will the poor no longer hunger?

When, when will mankind be truly free?”

 

Contextually, the song works as a prayer, reminding this Catholic lifer vaguely of the structure of the prayers of intercession; so that punctuating this questioning we have the soul baring introspective direct plea to the Lord, a plea that emerges as a primal “screeeaam!” – an acknowledgment that the pain is almost too much to bear. In God’s presence, there is freedom finally to admit one’s weakness, how overwhelmed one is by circumstances.

And yet, the people of the ghetto, don’t live on their knees.

And this is one reason I think When could easily be reversed in the order with Inspite of All – the latter, a shift away from the woe to “just a glimpse, just a glimmer, just a gleam” of hope. It’s a weird kind of hope; a hope born of common circumstances and common purpose:

“The oppression we bear will forge us as one

Yet in spite of our hardship and misery

And poor economic condition

We must struggle on.”

 

It is a hope that comes with the reminder that “we, the people, ourselves” are more than the sum of our material condition, that “we, the people, ourselves” – not the politicians or big world forces – must choose our own destiny. Perhaps now more than ever we need the calypsonian to remind us of this. Because here the calypsonian assumes another persona – shifting from ‘mere’ storyteller to fellow sufferer to truth teller to, finally, prophet moving ahead of the pack and shining a path. He assumes the Moses like persona which defined politicians of the era and the time preceding it – Bird, Bustamante et al. And as he does so, it’s not hard to understand why politicians/the establishment feared calypsonians enough to ban, overtly or by exclusion, their very powerful voices. As Ghetto Vibes proves – or perhaps merely reinforces – these are not mere court jesters; they are Martin Luther King/Malcolm X, or so they seemed in moments like this, dreaming a dream and daring to speak it out loud.

“Rise, rise, rise, rise

People open up your eyes!”

 

An awake and alert electorate; is there anything more scary to a politician determined to keep his followers bathed in a sea of blue or red, and swallowing the pork whole? Well, for the time, perhaps the song’s anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, socialist undertones ran a close second.

But the calypsonian speaks directly to his people, talking past and around the politicians, as he issues the reminder that the politics of division is as self-defeating as the ‘divide and conquer’ policy that pitted ‘field slaves’ against ‘house slaves’ – never mind that they’re both slaves. Caribbean people – especially Caribbean working class people – live by their folk proverbs and the calypsonian borrows from one of these to drive home his message:

“The same stick licking the wild goat

The same stick licking the tame

Everybody drifting in the same boat

We all sinking just the same…”

 

Effectively, he’s telling them to forget the politicians and work in the interest of Antigua and Barbuda – and speaking of timeless, isn’t that message still relevant?

Book ending the well executed CD are two Carnival tunes, shifting the tone closer to what it was in the beginning, though, for the listener, with a greater sense of what this seeming revelry represents in the lives of the people; escape, freedom, expression…the intangibles of life so often denied them, reinforcing once and for all that they are souled beings with purpose and beauty, pride and hope. For there in the Carnival, in the Fantasy, they can elevate themselves and “dance dance dance dance” assured that with a little hug up and a little music “everything go be alright”; at least, for the moment.

It is this sense of journeying through the highs and lows, passions and circumstance, the vibrations (or Vibes) of ghetto life – its inner and outer rhythms – that make this CD so enduring. Well, that and Short Shirt’s assured and impassioned delivery track to track, and the relatable tenor of the writing – which borrows liberally from the local vernacular while demonstrating Shelley-like command of verse.

I’ve often said that with the limited exposure to Caribbean books in my youth, I learned a lot about writing from calypso. Well, Ghetto Vibes is a superior ‘text’, cover to cover, and I remain an eager student, turning the pages.

THE END.

 Copyright Joanne C. Hillhouse. AGAIN, do NOT repost without permission.

 

 

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