The “What is Life?” Triplet

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Uncategorized
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Calypso has often been praised for its topicality and its artful treatment of lofty ideas. There are probably more Calypsos about the American Civil Rights Movement, the moon landing and the election of Obama than there are R&B songs about these. For its witty, episodic treatment of events of the day Calypso is unsurpassed. And yet, when it comes to philosophical content even Calypso tends to flag, like most other musical forms. It is not easy to handle philosophical topics in popular music. So most composers avoid this unwieldy subject and choose instead to sing about love, politics, partying etc.

So even in Calypso, a musical form that’s not scared to go anywhere, the burden has often fallen to Shadow alone to approach the existential crisis, the ethical conundrum, the nature of the self, the purpose of life, the frustration of aging, the vexing and terrifying mystery of death, the philosophical questions of our time. Nobody asked him to carry this burden. The philosophical question is Shadow’s forte and seems to have always been his natural inclination.

But even though he was ready to tackle these things since his early career Trinidad radio was not, especially Carnival season radio in which Calypso finds only a temporary ally in its own homeland. No, radio was never ready for Shadow’s more philosophical compositions. Even when the music behind the lyrics was irresistible, countless Shadow songs ran vibes far too heavy for the airwaves of their day. Of course, a listener could always call in and request a song, but otherwise that listener might never hear that song broadcast again.

Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard “Conscience” (1981) on the radio.

In the age of YouTube, I see more and more of Shadow’s songs going up online. And Shadow himself doesn’t seem to mind. Sometimes he re-posts the YouTube uploads on his own Facebook page! In fact, it was from Shadow himself that I heard (way back when I was a young fella in school uniform visiting him) that sometimes a Calypsonian doesn’t have copies of his own music because he gave away, lent out or lost the very last copy he had. And those of us who know the publishing business in the Caribbean know, once somet’ing out-o-print, it done fuh true!

The Internet is also solving some of these re-issue problems. I don’t doubt that Shadow has sometimes been happy to hear some recording of his that he could still play on his guitar but didn’t have a copy of anymore.

So Internet has helped the philosophical Shadow come back to light for some of us who may not have Mr. Bailey’s entire discography on a hallowed shelf next to the audio components. Yet, you needn’t spend a whole morning searching the Internet to realise you cannot easily locate the contents of what is arguably Shadow’s most philosophical album of all, The Flip Side of Shadow. This was an off-season album, released in 1976 after the Constant Jamin’ album (released in 1975 for 1976 Carnival) and before the 1976 Dreadness album released for 1977 Carnival. Shadow was a busy man in 1976 and we got a full range, some would say a ‘full dose,’ of his unique intellect that year!

On Flip Side, Shadow revisited a masterpiece from his first album, a haunting song called the “Story of Life.” While the earlier version from the Bassman album has a livelier tempo, the Flip Side version breaks with the overall funky, international sound of the rest of that album to give us an old-fashioned Calypso melody as might have been heard from the previous generation of Calypsonians like Mighty Cypher and Lord Pretender.  This slower tempo, in some ways seems to resonate with the lyrics more deeply.

The “Story of Life” barely stops to struggle with man’s conceit that he is at the top of the food chain. Rather, it moves straight into a poetic exegesis on the circle of life in which worms are eaten by birds, birds are eaten by animals, animals are eaten by men, and men are eaten by worms, the same worms that are eaten by birds. Before you realize it the supposedly upward ascent through the food chain (from worms to men) has turned into a rotation that places men beneath worms. How did we end up on the bottom of the food chain?!

One might recall Shakespeare’s Hamlet making a similar point, though perhaps not as systematically.

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a King, and eat of the fish that

hath fed of that worm…to show you how a king may go to progress through the guts of a beggar. (Hamlet 4:1:27-32).

With the King in the middle, Shakespeare’s circle lurches back and forth, a little like a stubborn wheel. But Shadow walks us smoothly through the cycle until we come back ‘round again but this time lead on to the grand question, “What is Life?” We look inward to regard the samsaric round we are turning on.

As it turns out the food chain is not a straight line but a circle. And the circle is a turning wheel, so that what was on top can easily end up on the bottom. That’s when you realise the spokes of this wheel are the arms of the crossroads, where Eshu/Elegua reverses all fortunes…

The “Story of Life,” given its origins on the 1974 Bassman album, is the older of two songs on the Flip Side of Shadow that investigate existence itself. The other, “We Live to Die,” has a title that makes a much darker first impression. From the title to the chorus this song requires us to take a bold step in our own thinking. We don’t get to deny death today, to pretend it won’t happen to us until it finally does. In fact if you only listen to the chorus, you will come to some very mistaken conclusions about this song and about the man who composed and sang it. It is a mistake many people have made about Shadow.

Far from being the despairing, depressive song it might seem to the careless listener, even a brief analysis of the stark and provocative lyrics brings the realisation that we are being warned about something—and warning signs are never optimistic lest they be misunderstood and cause people to walk out into traffic or burn themselves. To the accompaniment of an organ that reminds you of a funeral, but which is far too jaunty in its tempo for quite so sad an occasion,“We Live to Die” warns us not to waste our life—our one, precious, fleeting life—and inveigles us “to see your neighbour as your picture in the mirror.” We come to terms with our temporality and precariousness, see the same condition in others and thereby are moved to compassion.

It is a hard, hard lesson to learn, and to listen to…for some. It slaps the optimist in the face and tells him to ‘get real!’ It draws the pessimist in, only to turn him around and give him a sense of mission towards his fellow human beings. And way back there in 1976, this song signalled the emergence of a highly sophisticated philosophical position that would continue evolving in Shadow’s thinking and in his body of work.

It’s easy for the faint of heart to reject rather than heed Shadow’s sober warning about the fragility and shortness of life and to retreat back into their haze of pleasant denial. It’s also easy to miss that “We Live to Die” is part of a remarkably consistent and vital philosophical position of Shadow’s, one which has dark foreboding expressions but lofty and exuberant ones as well.

Unlike other Calypsonians, Shadow contradicts himself very rarely. Other Calypsonians are singers first and foremost of self-contained compositions (sometimes singing songs composed by others). Their topics change regularly and so do their opinions within those self-contained, topical dramas. In this way you might find a master singer and composer such as Blakie xenophobically characterising Sparrow as a dangerous, armed Grenadian in “Send Them Back” in 1960 and defending Sparrow against Kitchener in “Kitchener Leave Sparrow Alone” a few years later.

But Shadow’s music reflects an individual’s journey with a discernable range of themes, many of them engendering dialogues between related songs composed  years, even decades apart. This makes Shadow’s music an intensely personal assemblage of works that are a sincere expression of himself and his thoughts.

So with that in mind, we might compare and contrast “We Live to Die” with the uplifting 45rpm single of the previous year, “My Belief.” In this life-affirming anthem of a song, Shadow is defiant and resolute. By the first chorus, he seems to be sticking out his chest and shouting from a mountaintop when he sings,

I believe in the stars

in the dark night

I believe in the sun

in the daylight

I believe

in the little children

I believe in life

and its problems


Rob me

Beat me

Cheat me

But you can’t change me…

The words “I believe in life and its problems” is a diamond of wisdom for the ages. The religions of the world all seek to mitigate human suffering with prayer, penance, puja and contemplation. But Shadow wanders right into the fray and honours the suffering itself, with no fear and no desperate, cloying desire to escape it. But some indigenous traditions of the world have this precise approach to suffering. These are the warrior traditions of peoples once called savages by colonizing Europeans. With these words of courageous, stubborn resolve Shadow embodies the spirit of the stately tribal warrior and embodies the West Indian saying, “what don’t kill does fatten” (maybe Nietzsche got that from us, hahah).

But on a cooler, intellectual level Shadow is also regarding problems as an opportunity to learn and grow. He endorses problems as something to believe in. I have often wondered what kind of remarkable human being would utter these words and mean them as Shadow obviously does as his voice climbs into a triumphant falsetto on, “I believe in the little children!”

Shadow believes the world will go on turning, the children will replace the old, that problems will sharpen and shape us well if we let them, and that life will go on. Contrasted with the brooding Shadow of a year later, this Shadow seems downright joyful. But he is happy like only people who have been through some real tribulation can be happy. It is a rich, toothy, bittersweet happiness like strong cocoa tea that makes you sweat when you drink it.

This triplet of songs (one originally from 1974, another from ’76 and another from 1975) excite discussion and debate within and among those who would compare and contrast them. They also illustrate just what a profound medium Calypso is. The existential grappling that’s going on in these songs by Shadow prove that Calypso is not just commentary, comedy, reportage and unadulterated glee, but that Calypso can also embody the philosophy, ethics and ideas of our people. And there is no more iconic exponent of this particularly contemplative branch of the genre than the man at the crossroads, the Shadow himself.


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