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OFF CENTRE: ‘Serious’ kaiso – whey de lyric art?

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: ‘Serious’ kaiso – whey de lyric art?

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Almost two years ago I wrote in this column about the weaknesses of a competition orientation in calypso (see Up Against The Competition – Really, August 23, 2012).
And while I would never dare to say that Mac (Fingall) is now tagging with me, he took on the calypso competition in the last SUNDAY SUN. He says it stifles creativity.
I say it is inauthentic, fails to line up with the nature of art, miseducates the people, installs and elevates a pseudo market, and, perhaps worst of all, is an ally in cultural tyranny.
I wouldn’t be being honest if I did not say that the competition does get help from other things: manufactured seasonality of taste, government sponsorship and oversight of “culture”.
There is also the self-determining fervour of post-Independence people which too often seeks to corral everything (including art which knows no such master) to the arguments of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-establishment, anti-bad governance, anti-something or the other.
Add in academics who don’t want to enter into art as art and song as song (as real-real listeners do) but want to turn a song into social and political treatise.
And if all of this is swirling around you and if art as art has never truly found its place in your society, and if you have been virtually schooled in the one-dimensionalness of intellectualism, and if “this is wha’ I come along and find” and “this is we way” are your non-negotiables, the competition nearly does not need any help in going in the wrong direction.
With this suspect culture conditioning, we  have a recipe for turning art/song on its head in the service of interlopers.
One devastating consequence is the prevalence of wrong mindsets (and consequent practices) in relation to calypso.
The popular view of lyrics is one such casuality. People often talk about a calypso having “powerful lyrics” – referring to its comments. But they have not even touched on the essence of song lyrics.
Listen, a song lyric is a musical entity primarily on an aesthetic, emotional, experiential mission – not an intellectual (in the sense of rationalistic) one.
It is simple, really. For a set of words to become a real song lyric (as opposed to even a poetry lyric), those words must become music (specifically melody and rhythm).
Just by themselves the words I’d like to run away from you, but if you never found me I would die/I’d like to break the chains you put around me, but I know I never will do not yet constitute a song lyric. Only when those words (made popular by Shirley Bassey) take on the character of music do they become a real song lyric.
Poetic execution
And I am not talking about words being simply placed against a background of music. For instance, the works of Linton Kwesi Johnson often have his words layered over music, but the music is merely ornamentation for what is essentially poetic execution (in terms of diction, phrasing, shape, general structure). Johnson is firmly into “reciting” poetry.
Not so with song lyrics. The words both become music and must work with music. They become notes whose placing creates intervals and melodic contour and rhythm and musical motifs and cadences and ingredients of tension and release and resolution in a melodic, rhythmic and song form drama.
This transformation means that the words of a song lyric now have certain requirements “on their hands”. Obviously, they must be singable, and be a good fit with the metre and other aspects of song form.
Your lyric now has to accomplish something else too: it has to have qualities that make it striking when up against the tendency of music to pull one away from conscious engagement of the lyric – in other words, it has to at least equal music at its own game.
That means the words and their putting together must also be arrestingly emotive, experiential (including sensory) and aesthetic to fit with the nature of music – of art generally.
So you see, it is not the statements or “message” per se that makes something a good lyric – after all – please get it – the words of a good lyric are musical/artistic and therefore emotional, experiential, sensory, aesthetic entities, not rationalistic things. The litmus test, therefore, is the potential they have for creating something emotional, experiential, aesthetic and so on in the listener.
From an artistic perspective, therefore, one of the worst things you can do in a song lyric is to use words primarily as intellectual tools. And direct comment, the modern-day stock in trade of “serious” calypso, is definitely intellectual.
Unfortunately, in what people think of as “serious” calypso, we now have all this overwhelming intellectualism passing as “strong lyrics”: all this statement of opinion, all this “cleverness” with its clearly intellectual ends, all this “rape” (forcing itself on/into music) – jooking and jooking in a direction other than the artistic (the ministering to imagination, the appeal to memory, to the emotions, to the senses, depiction of experience, creating transport, a sense of immediacy, connection and so on).
The poisons in the water – the Pic-O-De-Crop competition included – mek a man forget all he know in his bones about song that moves millions and millions – and fall prey to cultural tyranny that makes him aim at fooling thousands and moving few. Win the car, the money, the acclaim and the song dead, dead, dead. Except in the heads of those who would themselves pervert art.
But next thing yuh know, people in rum shops, round water coolers, in offices, pun telephones, behind microphones talking down the wrong road ’cause they, too, jump in bed wid pseudo song.
Who gine kill this 800-pound gorilla?
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]