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Highway Robbery

Published: 
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Peter Minshall’s mas king (or queen?): The Dying Swan—Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova, performed by masquerader Jhaw-Han Thomas. Minshall transforms the Moko Jumbie (which leaped across the Atlantic from the West coast of Africa to the Caribbean) into a ballet dancer. “Europe, Africa, male, female, traditional mas vs beads and bikinis — so many collisions were choreographed into this creation it was thrilling,” writes cultural commentator Annie Paul in a recent blogpost. Others disagree. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Well Georgia Sam, he had a bloody nose

Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes.

He asked poor Howard, “Where can I go?”

Howard said: “There’s only one place I know.”

Sam said: “Tell me quick, man, I got to run.”

Ol’ Howard just pointed with his gun,

And said: “That way, down on Highway 61.”

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King:

“I got 40 red, white and blue shoestrings

And a thousand telephones that don’t ring.

Do you know where I can get rid of these things?”

And Louie the King said: “Let me think for a minute, son.”

And he said: “Yes, I think it can be easily done.

Just take everything down to Highway 61.”

Now the fifth daughter on the 12th night

Told the first father that things weren’t right.

“My complexion,” she said, “is much too white.”

He said: “Come here and step into the light”; he says: “Hmm you’re right.

Let me tell the second mother this has been done.”

But the second mother was with the seventh son

And they were both out on Highway 61.

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored

He was tryin’ to create a next world war

He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor

He said: “I never engaged in this kind of thing before,

But yes, I think it can be very easily done.

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun

And have it on Highway 61.”

(Bob Dylan—Highway 61)

I was headed for Sandy Grande on what must pass as Highway Uno, when a laughter-cracked northern English accent rose from the BBC World Service, recalling the recording of Bob Dylan’s seminal 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Genius, like most things in life, is easily forgotten or taken for granted—until we get a slap in the face with a wet fish. Taking the bends on the Valencia bypass more than 40 years after Mr Zimmerman took popular music by the throat, I finally discovered how like Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk—both famous for hitting the recording studio with no sheet music or rehearsals—Bob blew the gates of Eden wide apart in no more than six days of explosive creativity. 

Apart from the fabled guitarist Mike Bloomfield (who would be dead from a heroin overdose at 37), none of the session musicians on Highway 61 had played with Dylan before. Some of them, like the Nashville guitarist roped in at the last minute to play on Desolation Row, hadn’t even heard of him. Dylan arrived with no lyrics but a headful of ideas and a creative will strong enough to realise his visions. 

He’d already started shedding the labels fabricated by folk music purists and music producers for whom the artiste was probably the lowest form of life. Compromise was not a word in his extensive vocabulary and very few people, either in the music industry itself or amongst those who consumed its products, could get their heads round his—probably the same response William Blake, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Baudelaire or Gabriel Garcia Marquez met with initially.

But Dylan literally plugged himself into the mega voltage, trampling down barriers (which existed only in the minds of the mindless), liberating musicians and poets to explore indefinitely and in the process voicing the dreams and nightmares of millions. 

Dylan reminds me of our own enfant terrible grown old but still as acute and creative as back in the days of Mancrab. The storm in a shot glass over his Anna Pavlova “Dying Swan” presentation is yet another timely reminder of how we ignore true creativity, mostly because it’s so startling we are left disoriented and fall back on standards of mediocrity.

To the criticism that Pavlova has nothing to do with the Caribbean, I would counter that its conception fits very well in the process of creolisation, which more than anything else defines Caribbean or Creole culture. 

We are as ethnically mixed as we are culturally; hybridity is our purity, if you like. Our Creole languages, like our musics, are fusions of European, African, Asian and other elements. 

Minshall brilliantly taps into dance traditions of Africa (mokojumbie) and Europe (classical ballet) with his pointed comment not just on the mas but our society itself, with his dying swan motif. 

Instead of carping at creativity, attempting to corral it (or should that be control it) with meaningless labels, we should celebrate it. 

Beyond all the consumerism, violence, greed, superficiality which characterises our “greatest show on earth”, Minshall again reminds us of the creative possibilities of Carnival (the undying swan) at a time when we’re caught heavy-footed in a swamp of destruction. 

 

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