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Creative edges of soca
I’m not hearing anyone argue that calypso or soca music is bubbling over with creativity. Yes, there are “good” songs every Carnival that suit the occasion. Like any Carnival, there are songs that compel masqueraders to jump and wine, but there is nothing that falls within the true realm of creativity as psychologists define it. There is no ground-breaking, new, definitive material that leads us in a whole new musical direction in the way that Sparrow, Kitchener, Shadow, Maestro, Shorty and David Rudder have done.
Looking back at calypso history, we could make an argument for Stalin as a stalwart of creativity because of his uncanny ability to take traditional calypso music designed to attack social injustice and turn it into something that addresses problems in an uplifting way.
Take Bun Dem, Stalin’s social/political commentary on injustice through the ages. Using humour and carefully crafted lyrics, Stalin parades political rogues through the ages in front of Peter waiting at the gates of heaven to judge who will enter. There, Stalin helps Peter make his decisions. Equally creative is Wait Dorothy. In one sweeping calypso, Stalin deals with frivolity and injustice by giving ordinary people the power to make meaningful decisions.
There are other calypso stalwarts for whom we could make an argument, creatively speaking, but the burning question is who among the current pack of soca artistes is distinguishing himself as having the potential to reach the real realm of creativity? There are three soca “stars” that fit the model for creative angst outlined by David Henry Feldman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner in Changing the World: A Framework for the Study of Creativity.
The authors say that creativity stems from friction or tension between the individual and his family, society or culture. There is a need for expression on a whole new level and at the same time there is the need for acceptance from one of those three domains. The truly creative person is willing to grind through all the criticism. Perseverance is a defining force. They are determined to succeed.
Close examination shows there is really no such thing as an overnight success when it comes to creativity. It is difficult to measure the beginning of the creative process, but the authors believe it takes about ten years for an earth-shattering example of creativity to surface. After that, a creative person might continue on the same path and make yet another major breakthrough ten years later.
With all of this in mind, here are the three singers who could tip the scales and carry soca music to another creative realm.
1. Machel Montano. Although he grew up, musically speaking, in a calypso tent, Machel Montano experienced vociferous criticism for his early soca/fete music which was judged empty and mundane. He persevered. Over the years, he has searched for that perfect blend of soca.
Like the pioneers of calypso who absorbed many foreign forms of music, Machel has ventured into many modern musical realms collaborating with reggae artistes. He has flirted with hip hop music. There is nothing that transcends “ordinary” creativity, but his unique position of growing up in the tradition and being a performer from the inside looking out and the outside looking in provides a potential launching point for a new, creative stage in calypso. It could be on the horizon.
2. Bunji Garlin ushered in a new phase of hip hop-infused soca by battling popular soca culture that did not welcome him with open arms when he first entered the business. He tackled prejudice, poverty and social stereotypes as he stood for the struggling, poverty-stricken areas of T&T with bold themes and bravado.
He is clearly still experimenting, but creative people with a history of friction with society always crave that acceptance deep down while they strive to reach for new creative heights that give them a sense of power over the people they feel are trying to define and control them.
3. Benjai. Of all the calypso and soca stars mentioned, Benjai is the one whose creativity can be attributed to musical friction, so to speak, with family. He comes from a family that is very much entrenched in traditional calypso with four uncles who are calypsonians or musicians including Trinidad Rio.
This is not to say that his family does not support or appreciate his creative endeavours, but Benjai has had to find his own, original musical voice in that he had to establish his own path and find a way to merge tradition with popular soca. He is in a good space, personally speaking, because he is searching for new personal heights that are not defined by anyone around him.
On the other hand, the next wave of real creativity could come from a totally unexpected direction. In a small studio somewhere in T&T, someone who feels totally rejected by the music fraternity or society in general is now recording, experimenting with a brand new sound that just might be the new wave of calypso. You can bet on it because that’s the nature of creativity.
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