OFF CENTRE: And the spirit goes hungry
The deepest hungers of the spirit – in no particular order – are for connection to other human beings, connection to some supreme being, freedom, adventure (either in actuality or vicariously) and song.
Song, properly understood, then, is a thing of the spirit.
Interestingly enough, effective song offers, through simulation, some valuable form of all the others.
I relish song. I immerse myself in it. I study it – day in, day out. It is an unrelenting hunger of my spirit.
Last week you would have noticed how disturbed my spirit was that what is viewed as serious calypso mostly misses the mark. You may ask why I chose calypso. Well, its orchestrated elevation in many Caribbean countries has marginalized other local forms.
It has long troubled my spirit that the “serious” calypso of a now free people is enslaved to notions that are no longer consonant with the now. The slave was primarily concerned about social change. After all, he/she was mere chattel – so their core persona was social change agent in (desperate) waiting.
But now our core personas are husband/wife/lover, father/mother, sister/brother, son/daughter, friend, religious person, neighbour, worker, relaxer – and a slew of critical life experiences emanate from these main roles. So songs must meet people there.
Now, too, people say calypso is an art form. Note: the original serious calypso had no such pretensions. It was rudimentary activism or an inner circle kind of dropping remarks.
By any definition, an artwork is a sensory, emotive, aesthetic thing, fundamentally implying that it is depictive, experiential and appeals to the sensibilities – a thing of the spirit. And all this creates fellow-feeling, connectedness to others. Are these things found in what people say is the heart of “serious” modern-day calypso – the lyrics?
“Serious” calypso mostly trades in statement of ideas – a mind thing. But art is the illustration (depiction) of ideas. Comment/telling/statement and verbal depiction are worlds apart. The more you directly express ideas, the farther away you move from art – because you are thereby crowding out its essence. And the spirit goes hungry.
The best art, yes, stimulates reflection on elevated ideas, but it does not itself state the ideas. Orwell, to use a novelist considered a great influencer of Western thinking, did not state in his novels what he wanted us to think. He depicted, experientialized, emoted, evoked, and so on and let the receiver express the ideas.
And when the experiences, and the sensory and emotive details hit their soul mark, we reflected, and the statement of ideas came from us and we tried to improve our lives and those of others. The spirit did not go hungry.
We are already long on people expressing views – columnists, writers of letters to the editor, callers to talk shows, people discussing things on any number of radio and television programmes, town hall meetings, reporters at CBC-TV8 sharing thoughts on cricket, preachers, politicians in and out of Parliament, various other people making speeches every day – at this workshop, that seminar, some other meeting.
There is no shortage in the expression of opinion in the Caribbean.
But we are short, short, short of true verbal (especially oral) art – and, Lord mek peace, calypso gone and join the long, winding queue of opinion spouters, and leave American songwriters and movie and TV producers to take care of our experiential needs and our need to mystically fellow-connect.
Unfortunately, many Caribbean people have this foolish idea that engaging social issues is automatically superior to delighting in a tender, heartfelt relationship with a loved one, being lost in wonder at a child that is on the way, reminiscing with others about good times, empathizing with a cancer victim, sparking optimism in another, “standing alongside” someone in their life-discommoding shake-up, joining with somebody in a life victory, and a myriad of other real-life engagements.
These latter things are what good songs (like good people) do – and shout no social message. People have a far greater need to enter into experiences (directly or indirectly) than to engage ideas.
Many calypso composers (encouraged by ideologues) leave these very people in need, viewing them primarily as crusaders for social causes. And the spirit goes hungry.
So, people would say that Sparrow’s Education A Must is, lyrically, a better calypso than his Maria. Their reason is that the former has a social message, in this case directly saying things they like. But where is its lyric art? Where is its experience, emotiveness, sensoriness, its depiction, its appeal to the sensibilities – its feeding of the hunger of the human spirit?
Killer-of-sacred-cows Sherwyn! Some people saying, “Blasphemous!” Not only off-centre – off his rocker!
Lemme tell wunna something: I am zealous about social change – in a bariffle of areas. Much of my life has been a tale of overreaching, wrong-headed pursuit of it. Like today’s “serious” calypsos.
More next week – if they let me live.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.