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OFF CENTRE: It’s a song, damn it!

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: It’s a song, damn it!

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Lemmuh finish, nuh. He didn’t use those words, but the schoolboy who was caught in, let’s say, a compromising situation with a schoolgirl in a classroom at one of Barbados’ so-called top schools was not above begging the inconvenient janitor to let him complete the after-school activity.
I begging too. I want to come to a conclusion.
Last week I dealt with calypso as an art form. That is what everybody and their mother calling it these days.
But let’s face it: not having personally passionate involvement with the artistic, many people in these parts aren’t convinced that you are doing anybody any actual good when you sing, write, paint, dance or sculpt love – or joy or hope or wonder or friendship or turmoil or gratitude or grief or self-belief or ambivalence or compassion or epiphany or longing or resilience or disappointment or connectedness or commitment or appreciation of nature or admiration or despair or stalwartness in adversity or . . .
The long, long (but nowhere near exhaustive) list was deliberate – so that you could see how many vital life experiences calypso practitioners hardly touch, in their obsession with social and political issues.
Not realizing that as art partners, validates and broadens us through simulations of life experiences – of life’s personal issues – by taking us inside them, we are better able to engage life that must deal with the high cost of living, bad governance, misfeasance, police malpractice, bad parenting, moral slide, racism, classism, crime, hypocrisy. And the 63 other things that “serious” calypso has been singing about for the last umpteen years and seeing no change and still planning to sing about again this Crop Over and the next carnival and the next one and the next.
Probably, believe or not, dealing with 27 of them in one song, while having absolutely no plans – them and other people who like to say that those kinds of songs are very important – to do anything truly influential about them.
Don’t you see that the places with the longest traditions of “conscious” and “social commentary” lyrics have the highest rates of crime, corruption, mismanagement, misbehaviour and low accountability – and they’re on the increase too?
We have unwarranted faith in direct verbal persuasion (which is what those songs attempt). Our own life observations, along with wide research by those who have had time to do it, has proven that again and again. Influential action is the thing!
In a way, the party songs communicate more authentically – but how long we gine wine on bumpers or stand the irritating repetitiousness and triteness or worse that many such songs pound us with nowadays?
Anyway, let me discuss calypso as song.
I can’t deal with everything here, but know this: melody is the thing that entices listeners and must stay with them – so it must be easily accessible, singable and memorable.
Most “serious” calypsos coming out of Barbados in recent years pose insurmountable challenges to listeners in grabbing the melody today and remembering it tomorrow – and this is music for the masses, yuh!
Often the verses and choruses are too long to sustain a mass audience’s interest and the melodic contour and its underpinning harmonic pattern evidence no easily discernible aesthetic cycle of the building up and release of tension within an appealing, coherent interplay of repetition and variety. Check out especially the major key songs of Trinidad’s Maestro for effective calypso melody. He was certainly a master of the climactic drive.
Of course, there are also considerations of hook and hook placement; maintaining the necessary balance and congruity between verse and chorus or any other elements the composer may introduce, such as refrain, bridge and climb.
More broadly, it must be remembered that mass-appeal song has these inherent aspects: it is accessed through the ear – the gateway to its effects (catchy melody, singableness, conversationalness); it is aimed at the individual – it is personal (it must create listener “ownership”; provide a pay-off; inspire the listener to care, stimulate “participation” – through being “inside” an experience; meet the craving for experiences; create a sense of intimacy; have a universal/broad appeal)); it is a music-lyric blend (implications for strong music/lyric fit).
It is a low-attention entity (easy grasp a must – so brevity, quick impact, immediacy, requiring emotive, sensory, experiential means: especially imagery, specific concrete detail and action; easy recall; appeal to remembered experiences; catchy melody); it is to be easily reusable (singableness; catchy melody; easy recall). Clearly there is overlapping.
It is only because we have almost indiscriminately imposed calypso on people (at least for a few months a year), at the same time foisting certain kinds of “artistic” judgements on them, with all the social conditioning that brings, that the failure of modern-day “serious” calypso to cater to the inherent aspects of mass song has not been nakedly exposed.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.