GUEST COLUMN –Exposing truth about our music
FIRST IT was Dancehall Soca. And then Soca Butterfly: Admiral Bailey and Byron Lee’s brilliant fusion of soca and dancehall rhythms and lyrics. These songs are clear proof that the spirit of both soca and dancehall music is really the same. It’s all about celebrating the vitality of the body, getting on ‘bad,’ oscillating and gyrating around the bottom line.Long ago, in the 1990s, I went to the Calypso Tent at Jamaica Carnival largely to see the ‘Clash’ between Sparrow and Carlene: the King of Calypso and the Queen of Dancehall playing the royal mas. I managed to see all the angles and the curves. First, I was out front. Then I had to go backstage. Carlene was definitely the winner. Sparrow might claim that age is only a number. But Carlene certainly had his number.Then a Trini friend of mine wanted to know if Carlene and Sparrow did go for cane after the clash. Now you see how far some people can go? They not talking simple soca butterfly now. Is the real ting. Real big time clash. Well, after listening to Gypsy, the ex-tempore King of Calypso, I know for sure that sometimes when you go for cane it can come in many varieties. Sometimes it’s sweet and juicy; then it can be dry. Sometimes cane grows thick-thick; and sometimes it is nipped in the bud. Sometimes cane is really a big bamboo. And sometimes, according to Sparrow, it’s saltfish. Eaten raw, raw, raw. It all depends on your taste. You have to know what you’re looking for when you go for cane. Like Gypsy, Sparrow was in top form at the Calypso Tent. Ready to tackle a sweet piece of saltfish, big bone and all.
You have to give it to the calypsonians. Not necessarily your cane or your saltfish, but your respect. Calypsonians have mastered (and mistressed) the art of slackness. In fact, some people wouldn’t even call what they do ‘slackness.’ Not at all, at all. You have to use fancy French letters like double entendre. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘double entendre’ in this way: ‘A word or phrase having a double sense, especially as used to convey an indelicate meaning.’ For cane! But what exactly is an ‘indelicate’ meaning? What is ‘indelicate’ about going for cane? Well, according to the OED, ‘indelicate’ means ‘1. Wanting in, or offensive to, delicacy or propriety; coarse, unrefined.
2. Wanting in fine tact.
3. Of food: Coarse.’ So what the double entendre does is to cover up the indelicate in such a way that a whole lot is left exposed to the imagination.Which sounds like a fair description of Carlene’s costume as she dared Sparrow to rise to the challenge of her barely covered double entendre. The power of (verbal) strip tease comes from uncovering just enough to titillate, a tit at a time.
But there’s something basically dishonest, I believe, in all this verbal covering up and letting off. The double entendre conceals a double standard. It’s okay if you think it, not if you speak it. But since the thought is mother to the deed, the real issue isn’t whether you speak it or think it. It’s really IT. What is wrong with IT that makes IT unspeakable? For some nice and decent people, sexual innuendo is perfectly acceptable; explicit reference to sex is not. For these people the problem with Jamaican dancehall DJs is that they haven’t mastered the art of double speak. Unlike the calypsonians, the DJs don’t often speak with a forked tongue. They talk quite openly about punani, not saltfish. But even those Jamaican songwriters who know how to talk about sex in code can’t get away with IT. Lovindeer is a brilliant lyricist who has perfected the art of innuendo. One of his very amusing songs is about a man on a bus who remembers his own shortcomings every time the conductor shouts out the destination, ‘Shortwood’? That’s a great cover-up. But this song won’t be played on the radio in Jamaica. Sexually suggestive calypsos have long enjoyed unrestricted airplay in Jamaica. Is it because imported saltfish, like everything else, is always better than the local variety? It’s only quite recently that the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission has begun censuring calypsos in response to accusations of prejudice against dancehall lyrics. Quite frankly, it’s time we cut out the foolishness of the double standard, pretending that soca is less ‘slack’ than dancehall music. Single or double, bare or covered up it’s all about sex. And though I would admit that there’s an added layer of pleasure in the wit of the double entendre, the real pleasure when you go for cane is the naked meaning of the act.Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.