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OFF CENTRE: It’s a mismatch!


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: It’s a mismatch!

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Sometime over the Easter weekend, me and a song got nailed.
You might say that that was quite appropriate – it was Crucifixion time, after all. Anyway, I survived, muttering: “Looka my crosses!” The song was not so lucky.
CBCTV8 was playing a song by an a cappella group. It went something like this: As the deer pants for the water / So my soul longs after You / You alone are my heart’s desire / And I long to worship You / You alone are my strength, my shield / To You alone may my spirit yield / You alone are my heart’s desire / And I long to worship You.
Obviously, a song of intense desire for God; a song of heartfelt worship. Based on Psalm 42:1.
The song began serenely enough, several-part harmony evoking a sombre mood. But as the group went on, they upped the tempo, till I’m sure they were going at something like prestissimo pace.
Listen: The song was rendered at such a tempo that no self-(dis)respecting wuk-up could keep up. By the time those guys were finished, it was not so much a deer’s consuming thirst for water as it was a deer’s frenzied sprinting to save his skin (literally) from a wolf or puma.
Dem fellows took a Caribbean hammer and nailed that song to a cross(over) so that it could not come down and save anybody.
It was a mismatch. A clash of music and lyric.
We not infrequently spoil the beauty or gravity or poignancy or gentleness or sobriety of lyrics by just pelting any old beat/rhythm/groove behind them. It is as though we start by saying: “I is a Caribbean man, so whatever the situation, there gotta be some rocking reggae or waist-grabbing soca.”
Come with me: one day, I walking somewhere in Port of Spain and I hear this diabolically incompatible mix of music and the lyrics of Crown Him With Many Crowns: an infectious, yes, but wickedly over-the-top soca rhythm that catspraddled the majesty, the obeisance, the “exaltative” (not the merely celebratory) tenor of the words that were the hands and hearts reaching beyond Earth-bound selves – and butt up pun some self-indulgent Mad Hatter arranger who didn’t give a damn ’bout anything but Caribbeanness.
Ras Iley’s 1990 calypso Exposé does it too. The lyrics suggest a bemoaning of the practice of females baring the private in public, but the way the song is dressed up musically squashes any sense of seriousness.
The driving rhythm and joyfully rendered refrain of “dey panty expose, dey panty expose . . . . All o’ dey panty expose” is not an underscoring of any weighty concern but an enticement to a happy-go-lucky attitude.
If only such anomalies were few and far between or related just to discord between the music and lyrics of songs!
Unfortunately, in these parts, a widespread misunderstanding of the arts engenders mismatching. We talk a lot about culture and art, but so much of what is presented as oral art, in particular, is a collision of means and medium, failing to do justice to the intent and nature of the particular form.
An insidious statement fetish has taken hold of those who want us to accept their works as art. They even call some songs “social commentary” – the latter word should be a dead giveaway that they are not aiming at the means or ends of art.
People, a song is not a pamphlet. A poem is not an essay. A play is not a sermon. A story is not a lecture. The former types are considered art; the latter, so-called transactional communication.
Art is fundamentally depictive, representational, sensory, emotional, connects with the imagination, strives for immediacy and personalness, relates to our sense of beauty, seeks to create “transport”, trades in the affective domain. (And the external elements associated with these forms – rhyme, rhythm, aspects of format, and so on – are not their essence.)
Transactional forms, on the other hand, major on stating ideas and information.
The “selective recreation of aspects of reality” (Brian Yoder) is not achieved by the statement of ideas: how do you recreate reality in that way?
The mismatch robs receivers(?)/participants of the vital benefits of art: aesthetic development, vicarious involvement, emotional engagement and what Joni Mitchell calls “emotional nourishment”, simulation, enjoyment, sensory apprehension, development of the imagination, empathy, theory of mind and so on – affective values, which are derived precisely because of the means of art and are very important to human existence.
But who has taught you the intent and nature of the arts and practised you in entering into art works through their own peculiar means and for their own peculiar ends?
We have neutered the blinking things!
In the Caribbean, the mismatch is the product of a straining after intellectual standing, which is thought to come almost exclusively from rational engagement of “issues”. But that en even half de story of real, unmismatched life.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.

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