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
For Latumba’s discography, go here.
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