Kenny Phillips began learning to play the guitar at the age of 17 when his elder sister, Dr Diane Williams, brought home a guitar from her music class at Naparima Girls’ College.
You are here
Prize money stifles creativity
Creatively speaking, the worst thing to happen to calypso is government-sponsored Carnival calypso competitions. Any time I make this statement, people argue with me as though I have said something sacrilegious, oxymoronic as that seems. But it’s true, and I have known this ever since I read a book entitled Changing the World: A Framework for the Study of Creativity written by David Henry Feldman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner.
For the authors, creativity meant “the achievement of something remarkable and new, something which transforms and changes a field of endeavour in a significant way.” They concluded that true creativity stems from intrinsic motivation—the need to produce for its own sake rather than some external reward, is associated more with creative individuals, and that intelligence and education were only “modestly” related to real creativity.
Psychologists studying creativity realised that certain social and historical conditions support an environment for creativity. Injustice, for example, inspires creativity. That is how we get the Mahatma Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, Victor Hugos and the Charles Dickenses of this world. The authors also note the feeling among most creative people that they are marginalised from society.
They see themselves on the periphery of society—on the outside looking in—and they want to effect some type of change. Feelings of marginality result in creative people wanting to prove themselves. They want society to know they have worth and their ideas have worth. Creativity cannot take place if an individual is in harmony with his environment.
There must be discord somewhere in one of three realms: the family, the society, or the culture where the society reflects social networks and the culture represents belief systems. A brief examination of milestones in calypso music seem to support this theory of disharmony in one of three realms as well as the notion that true creativity can only come from people who have an inner desire to create change.
Piles of money offered as prizes cannot inspire creativity. Instead, prize money seems to do the opposite. It supports mundane music that falls within a certain acceptable realm so that it is eligible to win those prizes. When I think about how this research on creativity relates to calypso, I think of these calypsonians:
1. The Mighty Sparrow. Sparrow’s uptempo calypsoes ushered in the modern age of calypso as well as the modern age of calypso performance with his Jean and Dinah. His wild stage persona challenged the mores of society, the British model of proper behaviour. Sparrow was a rebel musically and socially who qualifies as a ground-breaking, creative performer. Most of Sparrow’s career has been dedicated to fighting the status quo.
His anti-colonial stand evolved into his anti-Government stand which was voiced through his music. When Sparrow fought for better prize money for calypsonians, it was a noble cause.
2. Lord Shorty. Twice in his career, Lord Shorty re-defined calypso music. He crossed cultural and social boundaries by blending Indian and African rhythms with Om Shanti Om, and he ushered in the soca age along with Maestro and Shadow.
Later in his career, as Ras Shorty I, he fused religion with soca to create Jahmoo music with classics like Watch Out My Children.
3. Shadow. Shadow’s scintillating bass lines, first defined by his Bassman, helped to define the drive and rhythm of soca music in its infant stages.
No calypsonian was ever so under-appreciated for his original contribution to music. Calypso judges refused to give him the calypso monarch crown that he deserved in his early career. Shadow is a vivid example of a talented singer who challenged what was musically acceptable. For most of his career, Shadow was a musical rebel on the outside looking in.
4. Lord Kitchener. In many ways, Kitchener harnessed the creative energy of pan and society’s bad boys to make a musical statement that earned him a place as the all-time road march king.
5. Blue Boy. Austin Lyons was another performer on the periphery of society who battled his way to the top, musically speaking, by synthesising and popularising Baptist rhythms used throughout calypso’s history. As an unknown fisherman from Point Fortin, Blue Boy tried and failed to get into a calypso tent until Shadow recognised his talent and took him into the Master’s Den in 1980 to sing Soca Baptist. He revolutioned soca once again a decade later with Get Something and Wave.
6. David Rudder blurred Carnival cultural boundaries by stepping out of the fete zone and entering the traditional calypso realm with his as His Baptist-infused Bahia Gyul and tribute to the late Rudolph Charles in 1986. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the sing-for-a-bottle-of-rum days of calypso. Calypsonians should be well-paid. The problem comes when the point of music is winning a contest.
Yes, calypso competition is a national tradition, but it just might have kept calypso music from reaching the heights of other music like reggae. Worse yet is having a calypso contest sponsored by the Government. This limits creativity.
• Next week: Three soca singers who could be on the verge of real creativity.