Long before there was a Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn, and even before Carnival revellers took to the streets of Harlem in the late 1940s and 1950s, Trinidad bandleader Gerald Clark was...
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Repainting Sniper's portrait of Trinidad
Many years ago, calypsonian Mighty Sniper, apparently in a moment of patriotic fervour, sang a calypso titled Portrait of Trinidad. That calypso purported to project a rosy and attractive, even if possibly deceptive, image of Trinidad in particular and Trinidadians in general. Even today, some could be found who consider that calypso as “the unofficial national anthem of T&T.” Ironically, Black Stalin sought subsequently to set himself the task of repainting The Portrait of Trinidad in somewhat bleak and sober colours, albeit adding the caveat that “we can still make it, if we try.”
Far be it from me to either endorse or deny either perspective. Be that as it may, I’m left to wonder why the calypso “Sweet, sweet T&T/ O, how ah love up mih country/ No place in the world I’d rather be/ All this sugar cyah be good for me...I’m Trini to de bone” had not too long ago taken the country by storm? Did it find some resonance in the collective psyche and stirred up some nascent patriotic spirit? Could it be coupled, for instance, with Iwer George’s Ah Home! as a patriotic or nation-building song, promoting or celebrating the much-heralded but illusive “national unity?”
Dim-witted and devious politicians are only too eager to jump on the bandwagon and attempt to identify with and even exploit the popular sentiment thereby engendered. Lost in the wash may be the possibility that the songs’ popularity may well be due to the resonance with a certain sense of protest against dastardly efforts at stirring up divisiveness and fissiparous tendencies in the society. Which leads me to the perennial question as to the extent to which calypsoes and/or calypsonians inform and/or influence popular opinion and, in part, the fortunes of individual politicians and their parties.
Now whereas your run-of-the-mill calypsonian may be dismissed peremptorily as “a man of straw,” when a common threat is perceived, the so-called “calypso empire” is not so easily dismissed and sometimes can cut through the woolly obfuscation of politicians with succinct and remarkable clarity.
Fool that I sometimes am, I had to depend on the calypsonians to remove the wool from over my eye to recognise that “the intricacies” of “national security” can be simply explained in terms of “Ring de bell, Mr Wolf and macco dem—macco all ah dem!” Nuff said.
Given the emergence and even persistence of inflated, collapsible nonentities with inordinately bloated egos at the highest echelons, no one could reasonably deny the calypsonian his/her “deflating role.”
David Rudder opined that calypsonians can produce lyrics to make a politician cringe. Gypsy (in an earlier, not necessarily similar, incarnation) ad libbed that “calypsonians can sing songs that make governments strong, as well as songs that bring governments down.”
Whether the power professed lies in an ability to shape public opinion or an uncanny knack to read accurately the pulse of the public mood and “go with the flow” is a matter still up for discussion. But lest we get carried away with the calypso’s potential for good or mischief, we need to ponder the question as to what extent should the calypsonians be allowed to operate outside or beyond the law or even be a law unto him/herself. Last time I checked, the calypsonian was subject to the laws of libel and/or obscenity, like the rest of us. But there are probably historical reasons why the calypsonian is allowed a certain latitude. Perhaps it’s extremely difficult to bring the calypsonian to book where the mark has been clearly overstepped. Now, not many individuals feel strong or brave enough to test the proverbial might of “the calypso empire” and therefore feel that they’re better off “taking it on the chin,” so to speak.
There’s also the view that tolerating the excesses may be the price we have to pay for not curtailing the space we have to bring public figures to account when, as Sparrow once suggested, “they break the law, in the most wanton fashion, and have the law protect them same time.” Those who occupy public office, and abuse it—surreptitiously or otherwise—cannot complain if they’re up for public scrutiny, at any rate during the Carnival season. As the saying goes, “Yuh cyah play mas’ and fraid powder.” Now, it might surprise many to learn that all our prime ministers have been made to “walk the plank,” as far as our more insightful calypsonians were concerned. None more so than the venerable Dr Eric Williams. In that respect, I’m afraid that the calypsonians were ahead of some of Williams’ biographers. Granted that the Doc was for very long the “political darling” of calypsodom, that apparently did not give him immunity to some scathing and not-so-scathing criticism in the calypso idiom. Contrary to the popular notion that Dr Williams was monumentally indifferent to calypso criticism, there is ample evidence that he was as thin-skinned as the next fellow.
Even the dyed-in-the-wool PNMite Lord Kitchener, who had eventually treated somewhat sympathetically with the Black Power phenomenon, was visibly rattled when Dr Williams, reportedly, coldly accosted him with, “Mr Roberts, I see that you’ve been singing some interesting songs these days.” Was it a subtle hint that Kitch had fallen out of favour with the great man? I stood in my shoes and wondered!
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