Posts Tagged ‘Shadow’

Part of this essay was previously presented at the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute’s symposium on Lord Kitchener at Medgar Evers College (City University of New York), January, 2009.

 

abandoned-shoe

Ah tell she, “Throw ‘way de damned shoe!” And I throw ‘way meh shoe too,  She say, “Whole day I hopin’ I could bounce up someone like you!”

Calypso-Happy

A United Nations survey published in 2013 found Trinbagonians to be the happiest people in the Caribbean.[i] The findings attributed this feeling of well being to the satisfaction of several social and economic criteria, including the national GDP, personal health and life expectancy, perceptions of social liberty, love and family life, and the demonstration of personal generosity. As it turns out, in the following year (2014) another international survey, the World Giving Index, named Trinidad and Tobago the tenth most generous country in the world.[ii] It seems that Trinis are not only full of joy but like to ‘spread joy,’ too, to take the Trini idiom literally. Of course, these surveys were done before the recent downturn in the price of petroleum and T&T’s impending recession, but it is nevertheless remarkable that a country with a decades-old, major crime problem could be the happiest in the region. Editorialisations on the happiness surveys (e.g., one in Black Enterprise) mentioned matter-of-factly that Carnival (a factor not possessed by every country and therefore not on the U.N. criteria list) might also have had something to do with Trinbagonian happiness. I concur.

When the anticipation for Christmas paranging gives way to the festival itself, and when that excitement has no chance to subside on, say, New Years morning because it is overtaken immediately by the anticipation for Carnival, the nation’s festival calendar seems to be one of no small importance. And lest we should wonder what we’re going to do with the rest of the year (e.g., will we sink into a post-party depression?), the multicultural nature of the country ensures that there will be Easter, Phagwa (Holi), Emancipation Day, Indian Arrival Day, First Peoples Heritage Day, Hosay, Eid-ul Fitr, Divali and a number of other holidays to punctuate the year and keep the festivities going. Few of the religious holidays are sombre occasions. Trinidadian Muslims, for instance, may not be universal fans of Carnival, but if you’ve been to an Eid cook-off in south or central Trinidad, you’d know that Trini Muslims ‘like dey fête, too.’ They might not jump and wine but after five or six different helpings of sweet sawine from as many different mothers, aunts, cousins and sisters, you can barely move anyway. And it goes without saying that not only Muslims are invited to Eid celebrations, just as not only Hindus come to watch Ravana (Rawan) burn at Ramleela. Even on the most religious holidays, Trinbagonians put the ‘fest’ in festival. And the chief of festivals is the pre-Lenten Carnival, your last chance to ‘get on bad’ before retreating into austerity for six weeks.

But not everyone is an expert at letting their dreads down and loosening their inhibitions. Some take some polite convincing, some seductive cajoling to unhook the rusted latch on their caged party animal. Some even require instruction. Hard-drinking American film actor, Humphrey Bogart, used to call New Years Eve “amateur night”[iii] and just like those out-of-practice drinkers in Times Square, a large percentage of the people swelling the throngs at Carnival haven’t ‘bussed a wine’ in a while. They’ve been busy or preoccupied with work, children or school. Some have been living in basement studio apartments in Brooklyn, where they might hit their head on the ceiling pipes or break the radiator if they spontaneously attempted a jump-and-wave, so they stay truly out of practice, while settled out of town. Some amateur-class Carnival revellers have only recently strayed from attending church twice or thrice per week so they need step-by-step directions…unless they’ve been grinding on the sly like some of our outwardly upright citizens are known to do behind closed doors or under cover of night. Yet other erstwhile revellers have had personal problems, from dengue to tabanca, preventing them from unclenching their grip on the reins of finance or physical conduct.

In this essay, I compare and contrast two of the greatest Calypso anthems to Carnival’s unleashing of the exuberant beast, Kitchener’s “Margie” (1970 Carnival) and Shadow’s “Ah Come Out to Play” (1974 Carnival). Certainly, people had been singing about this subject of breaking away at Carnival long before grandmaster Kitch and the then upstart Shadow. And the electronic Socas of today seem to take it as their modus operandi to drive the listener into an adrenal (and perhaps narcotic-assisted) frenzy with their callisthenic instructions about waving things, and those computer driven beats with all the relentlessness of machine pistons.

It is not as if none of these new Socas have the spark of lyrical genius. In its celebratory 21st century way Lyrikal’s 2015 “Cloud 9” recalls the bacchanal travelogue of yesteryear. From verse to verse, Lyrikal extols the virtues of “living for tonight” and he means only tonight. In the morning, he doesn’t even want to hear about tonight, for it will be long gone. Tomorrow will be another ‘now’; not this one. If you take a picture of him tonight, living in the moment, he warns you not to bother tagging him when you post it on your social media tomorrow. He’s not interested in anything but tonight. The song explicitly rejects both past and future. This isn’t exactly what Zen masters mean by, ‘the here and now.’ It is not selfless serenity but hedonistic, somewhat desperate disregard of past and future; a reflexive and escapist, rather than reflective and empiricist, presentism. It is the wildness of ancient Greco-Roman festivals of the wine god from which we get the term “bacchanal,” especially of those usually housebound wives, cutting loose for the first time in a year. It is the reckless abandon of West Indian Carnival, which attracts participants from all over the world.

There are several ways to unpack Carnival in a song. You can gloss on its typifying events and behaviours, like in Calypso Rose’s “Going Down San Fernando” (1977); give us a slice of the action by reporting on a protagonist in the midst of the festival, like Blueboy (Super Blue) in “Ethel” (1981); you can state in abstract terms your opinion of, or approach to, Carnival, like Machel does in “Happiest Man Alive” (2014). Or you can write a piece of literature that potentially does all of the above and more in a fully developed narrative that enables us the listeners to live/relive Carnival through your scenario, thereby understanding experientially (as we dance to it in the streets and parties) and dialectically (as we turn its lyrics over in our minds) the meaning of the festival.

Explainer’s “Lorraine,” from the Carnival of 1982, is a good example of a song that does all three of the above, giving us a poignant narrative of a Trini stuck in freezing New York during the Carnival season who suddenly decides he is leaving for his island, even if that means leaving his woman behind. Over his shoulder and already out the door with his grip, he invites her to join him if she likes. The Soca isn’t just a story of longing about a shivering ‘Triniyorker’ émigré who decides to return home to Carnival and shake off his melancholy; it is also an exposition on the then-contemporary customs, requisite attitude, and even the meaning of the occasion. It is also a superb piece of music that cannot be resisted, with an appropriately exalting use of horns that tug at your heartstrings (and perhaps even your patriotism) while making you break a sweat in your Carnival costume. I do not doubt that occasionally its lyrics and music together have made pores raise on the arms of returning expats, causing them to mix a few tears with all that sun-flecked perspiration.

So with rich and timeless Carnival stories like “Lorraine” out there it might seem arbitrary to choose Kitchener’s “Margie” and Shadow’s “Ah Come Out to Play” as Carnival literary works of a piece, worth comparing closely. But I have thought about these two songs for a long time—together. While it is foolish to think or propose that in a body of work so vast as the libertine hymns to Carnival there should be any one or two ‘best’ Calypsos, these two are certainly exemplars of a particular sub-genre of Carnival Calypsos. We might call them, “learning to leggo” Calypsos as they explore that topic in intimate, psychological detail. Moreover, these two compositions relate to each other in interesting ways across a span of only three or four years, which makes them contemporaries (even though ‘Carnival years’ are like dog years for all the distance that is perceived between them in T&T’s busy festival round), even counterparts in a shared early ‘70s Trinbagonian zeitgeist. All of these linking factors prompt this analysis.

The two songs not only take gaining the ‘license to leggo’ (or the “Permission to Mash Up de Place” as David Rudder called it later in ‘87) as their theme, they take it as the topic of their literary narrative, and as their polemic stance. They also can be contrasted in terms of Kitchener’s attempt to convince “Margie” to ‘leggo’ versus Shadow being the one who is pulled into an escalating ‘leggo’ process by an unnamed female catalyst.

Margie

It might strike the reader as highly irregular to heap so much praise upon any musician other than Shadow here, on the Shadowlingo blog, but I would venture that the composition “Margie” is not only a masterpiece of the aforementioned ‘literary polemic’ sub-genre of Carnival-themed Calypsos but also an exemplar of the Calypso musical form itself. No discussion of this length could possibly approach this peerless opus by Lord Kitchener with the analytical thoroughness it deserves as a singular work, even in the illustrious career of a composer whom many consider the nation’s greatest. A more involved essay might attempt to place this superlative Calypso in its historical context within the revue Calypsonians strike and black power upheavals of 1970 and even the personal life of Lord Kitchener around the time it was being composed.[iv] But a brief and confessedly, loving treatment follows here, issuing naturally from the storyline in “Margie”’s lyrics, and from the beauty of its music:

Margie

From the album, Sock It to Me Kitch, by Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), 1970

 

Margie,

Girl you always makin’ row,

You could vex, yuh could please,

Yuh must listen now:

You always wanted me

to make you so happy.

Well darlin’, I find de solution

To your desire and ambition.

 

[Chorus]

Come leh-we lime,

As de people say.

Now is de time,

On Carnival Day.

Ah want yuh come in town;

Don’t you let me down.

Just throw on yuh morning duster,

An’ pick me up by Green Corner.

We only ragin’ as it is said,

And paintin’ de town in red.

We go make bacchanal for dis Carnival!

 

Darling,

There’s no time to frown your face.

You must twist,

You must jump,

You must shake your waist.

You must forget de past,

And leh we play we mas.

Remember you come to have yuh fun,

So let bygones be bygones.

 

[Chorus]

Come leh-we lime,

As de people say.

Now is de time,

On Carnival Day.

Ah want yuh come in town;

Don’t you let me down.

Just throw on yuh morning duster,

An’ pick me up by Green Corner.

We only ragin’ as it is said,

And paintin’ de town in red.

We go make bacchanal for dis Carnival!

 

Doux-doux,

Now that yuh inside de band,

You could move as yuh like,

‘Cause you wit yuh man.

So darlin’ make yuh play,

An’ start to ding-o-lay.

Let me see yuh body line

movin’ up like a ball o’ twine.

 

[Chorus]

Come leh-we lime,

As de people say.

Now is de time,

On Carnival Day.

Ah want yuh come in town;

Don’t you let me down.

Just throw on yuh morning duster,

An’ pick me up by Green Corner.

We only ragin’ as it is said,

And paintin’ de town in red.

We go make bacchanal for dis Carnival!

 

The lyrical content of the Calypso seems relatively simple as Calypsos go, especially given the social commentary and lexicographical feats of 1930s and 1940s Calypsonians such as Atilla, Radio and Invader. And let’s not forget that Black Power is on everyone’s mind at this time so to dodge a direct engagement with politics is a deliberate move. Nevertheless, there are three levels to the song’s text. Kitchener sings of a personal relationship in crisis, which encounters the stressing or potentially ameliorating conditions of a national holiday, Carnival, (which necessarily raises certain national issues through which the personal ones can be viewed in the song), and the confluence of the personal into the national unfolds not only as a Carnival narrative but also as an evangelical expostulation on the healing powers of Carnival. Indeed, “Margie” is no less than a polite Carnival polemic, revealed within a Carnival story, masterfully composed and arranged like a Carnival Road March.

In the first verse we join a romance that’s been in trouble for some time now between the singer and the namesake character, Margie. Kitchener implores her to put aside her reservations and grudges with the promise that she will be restored by Carnival, the warm camaraderie and reckless abandon proposed in the chorus.

The state of conflict established by the first verse and the ensuing resolution proposed by the chorus are both surrogates for the gender, class and religious differences within Trinidad and Tobago, which traditionally are suspended at Carnival (at least nominally). “Margie,” and indeed all adversaries with whom we live in close proximity are entreated to “Forget de past, and leh we play we mas” in an exhalting Tchaikovskiesque passage sung by Kitch and arranged by Clive Bradley.

From the first chorus Carnival is set up as a shining destination, the motive for getting Margie out of her unhappy home. Imploring Margie to join the festivities, Kitch’s Calypso almost seems to presage the ‘wave yuh rag’ jump-and-wave phenomenon with its instructions on how to be a Carnival reveller (especially in the chorus and third verse). We’ll lime, and rage, and paint the town red. But this Calypso also sets Carnival in a broader, systemic role as a stage upon which are satirized and solved the problems of people, groups, and indeed the nation: “I find de solution to your desire and ambition,” boasts Kitch, like a street vendor selling Carnival itself. The Calypso audaciously hawks Carnival as a tingling balm to Margie’s previously unstated intransigence, but it also addresses itself to Margie’s disappointed expectations of happiness with her partner these past few months or years. Even though nowadays, “Girl you always makin’ row” it is understood that “[y]ou always wanted me to make you so happy.” Kitch thinks that Carnival is the panacea.

Kitchener realizes that his “solution” to his domestic disharmony might seem absurd but thrusts it upon Margie anyway, disregarding her objections “You could vex, you could please, you must listen now” demanding to be heard. His ‘Carnival solution’ is of great urgency and import. And he argues for it forcefully. Note the progression in the first line of each verse from a formal “Margie” to an informal “Darling” to a loving “Doux-doux” as Kitch escalates his charm offensive.

The rhetorical footing that “Margie” takes from its very onset requires that the song take an unexpectedly sequential, even logical progression in its advocacy of Carnival’s irrational merriment. The Calypso proposes that Margie bury the hatchet at Carnival. The choruses explain to her how she might get herself into a Carnival situation, commencing at the famous/infamous Green Corner (which becomes even more of a landmark once it is immortalized in this song). She is assured that even if she refuses to fuss over her appearance in any way and turns up in her morning duster, she will be welcome. Of course, if she has to come and meet up with her man at Green Corner it means that he is running off to Carnival earlier than she is. This gives his invitation to Margie the not-so-subtle aspect of an ultimatum. It certainly gives urgency to his argument that Carnival is where the problems will be worked out—do or die, with or without all parties involved.

Moved by Kitch’s passionate presentation of his case, Margie seems to accede to his invitation so that by the second verse we hear him instructing her in the finer points of Carnival revelry, with the twisting; the jumping; and the shaking of the waist. Margie has joined Carnival. Finally, by the third verse she has thrown caution to the wind finding herself in the crush of “de band.” Kitch reassures her that on his watch, she can abandon her inhibitions with no fear of reprisals or untoward advances: “You could move as yuh like, cause you wit yuh man.” Thus as he basks in the success of his argument he takes the added step of ensuring a bacchanal without disaster. In his patented fedora, Kitch is the consummate gentleman.

The optimistic tone of “Margie” is impossible to ignore, despite the fact that the two people in the song are clearly working through an ongoing conflict. Its evocation of only the happiest moments of Carnival (there’s no mention here of inappropriate Harriman-like[v] class-bating, or of sending any Carnival ‘badjohn’ off to his “long funeral from the Royal Hospital”),[vi] combined with the soaring chorus evoke nothing less than a Carnival utopia. The hooliganism of Small Island Pride’s “Carnival Celebration” (1956) has been expunged and the infamous controversies between Carnival judges and the artistes (raised to epic proportions by Shadow’s “Jump, Judges Jump” in 1976) are rendered irrelevant. As the chorus calls a diffident Margie to the carefree action in Port-of-Spain, Kitchener weaves a complex web of conflicting, bittersweet emotions through his compelling argumentation, elaborate music, and defiant hope that Carnival is the ultimate solution.

The emotional complexity and rhetorical thrust of the song “Margie” is more evident in the chorus than any verse of the Calypso. Indeed the chorus itself is longer than any of the verses,[vii] making it far less of a refrain and more of a thematic and dialectical device. It is an equal partner with the verses in the song’ cordial (White says, “sly”)[viii] inveiglement for Margie to join Kitch in the Carnival multitudes.

The beautiful, compound chorus has four distinctly different passages: the lyrics from “Come leh we lime” to “on Carnival Day” are characterized by a sweet verbal enticement on top of curiously melancholy combinations of musical notes (as if Lord Kitchener remembers all the Carnivals past with a sad, distant fondness…like in 1978’s “The Carnival is Over”); as these notes descend, the lyrics “Ah want yuh come in town” and “Don’t you let me down” act like a bridge to the rest of the chorus, where “Just throw on your mornin’ duster, and pick me up by Green Corner” are sung to a jaunty melody (whose phrasing presages “Sugar Bum Bum” by eight years) on top of a typical quadrille-inspired Calypso beat designed for “chipping” down the street; before the elated chorus soars to a crescendo.

All the musicians in “Margie” have distinct roles until just before this crescendo. In the first three quarters of the chorus, arranger-conductor Clive Bradley is merely answering Kitch with punctuating runs, rolls and bursts of woodwinds and horns, but at “We’ll be raging as it is said” the entire arrangement, including backup singers, joins the Grandmaster in the chorus’ final heraldic ascent. It is a kind of triumphant fanfare to Carnival.

Overall, the celebratory timbre of “Margie”’s lyrics; the sometimes melancholy strains of the music; the rhetorical, narrative progression of the verses; and the happy conclusion give “Margie” a certain nostalgic air, perhaps for the sixties just gone by—for this particular kind of Calypso is more in that mode, in fact like an ultimate, sophisticated perfection of the sixties style. “Margie,” its music and lyrics are crisp, and idyllic like a fanciful reminiscence; sweet and sad like a romance; yet hot and infectious enough to have swept the streets and fêtes of 1970. The mirthful celebrants sang along with it at the top of their lungs innumerable times. Indeed, its singular combination of complex yet dulcet music and deceptively simple lyrics made it fun to sing aloud, and a consummate challenge to play on pan (but that’s another story!).

No Calypso can be all Calypsos to all people. As Commandor says “You Can’t Finish Pleasing People.”[ix] Some Calypsos are more lyrical than others; some are more musical than others. Some are political; a few, very romantic; some exuberant and even erotic in their celebration of Carnival bacchanal. But for its simultaneously abstract and narrative approach to (of all issues!) conflict resolution; in its focus on Carnival as the culmination of both the ritual calendar of Trinidad and Tobago and Trinbagonian esprit de corps; for the superlative arrangement by Clive Bradley of one of Kitchener’s most ambitious compositions; for the tune’s ready, and intentional, adaptability to Trinidad and Tobago’s other great musical form, Pan; for its inspired synthesis of all the above; and for its serendipitous incidence at the historical apogee of the Calypso form[x] and arguably the Grandmaster’s Calypso (i.e., pre-Soca) career, “Margie” is the epitome of Calypso itself.

Ah Come Out to Play

Suffice it to say that “Margie” is a hard act to follow as anthemic Carnival dialectics go. But in his notorious song, “The Threat,” from the same year as “Margie” no less, Shadow was the man who vowed to overthrow Kitchener (and Sparrow). It is doubtful Shadow was directly tackling a three-year old “Margie” with “Ah Come Out to Play,” for the two songs take such different approaches to the same destination. But in those heady, experimental days where Shadow and Art DeCoteau had started featuring the bass (like a Funk band) instead of using it for rhythm (like Calypso, Rock or older R&B), Shadow made us come to expect a Margie-class slice of Carnival every few years (instead of once every decade or so) even from the people actively pioneering a new music, the one that would eventually become known as Soca. “Ah Come Out to Play,” however, was not one of the more experimental sounds on Shadow’s premier album. It is in some ways an unusual Calypso but still a Calypso all the same (i.e., not a Soca). This makes it directly comparable with “Margie” in terms of its music in addition to the lyrical content discussed here.

“Ah Come Out to Play” never won Road March like “Margie” did. It was crowded out of the number one spot by another song by Shadow, “Bass Man.” Need it be stressed how hot and bright Shadow was burning that year?

 

Ah Come Out to Play

From the album, Bass Man, by Shadow (Winston Bailey), 1973

 

It was Tuesday night,

Last Lap Carnival.

Meh head feeling right,

Ah bounce up this goal.

She say, “I drink up meh whiskey,

And I smoke up meh tampee,

And right now I’m searching for

A man to jump up wit me.”

 

[Chorus]

“But yuh dancin’ like yuh ‘fraid to touch me.”

I come out to play!

“Hold me tight around meh belly.”

I come out to play!

“Like yuh ‘fraid meh man go beat yuh.”

I come out to play!

“Me aint have no man, I tell yuh.”

“I only hope you aint have no woman in de band,

Cuz if you have a woman, dat go be real confusion.

I am in search of a man with your description,

And yuh got to play wid me from now until Ash Wednesday!”

 

I say “Doux-doux come,

Take a drink o’ rum.”

She say, “Meh shoe buss,

An’ I lost meh purse.”

I tell she, “T’row way de damned shoe,”

And I t’row way meh shoe, too.

She say “Whole day, I hoping

I could bounce up someone like you!”

 

[Chorus]

“But why yuh dancin’ like yuh ‘fraid to touch me.”

I come out to play!

“Hold me tight around meh belly.”

I come out to play!

“Like yuh ‘fraid meh man go beat yuh.”

I come out to play!

“Me aint have no man, I tell yuh.”

“I only hope you aint have no woman in de band,

Cuz if you have a woman, dat go be real confusion.

I am in search of a man with your description,

And yuh got to play wid me from now until Ash Wednesday!”

  

About half past nine

Now she start to wine,

Then she bawl, “Oh lossss!

Meh elastic burst!”

I tell she throw way the damned thing

the elastic was holding,

“We can’t stay to join it back,

We got to catch de Last Lap!”

 [Chorus]

 

As the song unfolds, Shadow describes a revelry that is actually escalating in the waning hours of Carnival. The sun has already gone down on Carnival Tuesday when our bard ‘bounces up’ this woman who is solemnly resolved to squeeze the last drops of joy and freedom out of the festival. We don’t know for sure what Shadow has been doing all day, whether he has been one of those furtive ‘amateurs’ or if he has been holding his own in the gyrating, glistening horde. But on this fateful Carnival Tuesday night he enters the hot orbit of the uninhibited woman who dispenses with whatever is left of his reservations.

At first our boy seems out of his depth. But as the verses process, as if up a Port of Spain street or across the Savannah stage, we get an image of two people increasingly egging each other on, and a Carnival jump-up that eventually goes so far out of bounds, and which has gone on for so long, that the yet-quickening revellers are beginning to fly apart like ragged toys. Their accoutrements become frayed, then undone, and are eventually flung from their bodies. Dared by the audacious woman, who asks him if he is afraid to get too close to her, Shadow accepts her challenge and starts matching her pitch.

The woman expresses some passing concern with whether Shadow has his own woman who might object to the solicited closeness but she’s not really, terribly concerned. “I only hope you don’t have no woman in the band,” is all she can manage with all due respect to whichever woman from whom she might be borrowing this man. But the loan is inevitable because come hell or high water, she’s ‘come out to play!’

Shadow never addresses her passing concern anyway and the two leave it at that.

The two cover some distance together, distressing their bodies and clothing in the constant motion (or is it in the increasing physical closeness?). When one of the woman’s shoes finally falls apart, Shadow tells her throw it away and in a reckless gesture of solidarity throws away his own shoes as well. Our boy is now emboldened. His pitch is now feverish. As she accedes and discards her shoes, along with her own remaining worries, either about the contents of her lost purse or the prospect of chipping barefoot (or at least hop-and-drop) on the hard, littered ground, Shadow brashly enters the breakneck inner circle of her orbit. Now we don’t know who’s pulling whom.

The music for “Ah Come Out to Play” is catchy as all hell, in the same way that California surf music or the theme song from the 1960s Batman TV show are. Ascending and descending scales, punctuated by bursts of vocals and/or horns at the end of each ascent or descent is a recipe for a song that sticks in your head (even against your will). In “Ah Come Out to Play,” Shadow’s voice does that. He ascends with “Yuh dancin’ like yuh ‘fraid to touch meh,” with a higher note for each syllable, and descends on “Hold me tight around my belly.” An “I come out to play!” is shouted at the end of each of those progressions. So the song is carried along on rising and ebbing waves of voice and music…with a shout at each crest, and a shout at each trough. Shadow and his unnamed female ‘co-tagonist’ provide the motion in this ocean.

The brass arrangements switch between sassy blares of the horns and staccato bursts that answer the hectic drum kit, tit for tat, just as Shadow answers the woman’s challenges to stop being so coy and come out of his shell. Drum rolls and crashing cymbals add drama to the already thrilling choruses.

A part of the music that the casual listener might not catch is the electric guitar, which strums innocuously throughout most of the song, simply accompanying the much more complex work of the bass.[xi] The bass for its part is deep down under the music, holding it together in the Calypso way even if not with typical Calypso phrasing, rather than the star of the show like in “Bass Man” (1973) and later Soca. But near the end of the song, the guitar stops strumming along and instead starts playing an ascending and descending progression similar to, but rather playfully riffing on, Shadow’s singing in the past choruses. The ends of these guitar progressions, too, are each marked by an exclamation of “I come out to play!” Thus the resolution ‘to party right!’ pins down each peak and each valley of the song. Shadow makes the woman’s vow his own. He, too, has come out to play!

By the third verse, the ‘Bacchanal lady’ as David Rudder might call her has begun to break out of her very clothes. The stitches of her costume or outfit have given way as she was breaking ‘way and in a brief, last show of concern for propriety she complains about her burst elastic. But now Shadow’s gravity has taken over their binary orbit. He doesn’t care about any elastic! He snaps her out of her moment of sobriety, commanding her to give the damned elastic the same treatment they gave their shoes. With the urgency of an office clerk running to catch the last timely bus to Port of Spain, Shadow explains that they can’t stay to work on her wardrobe malfunction. If they do, they might miss part of Last Lap—that ultimate, mad gasp of Carnival on the littered front steps of Ash Wednesday. Regardless of how Shadow had spent his Carnival Monday, and even most of Tuesday—whether as a mookish wallfower or full-fledged ‘dancer boy’ spreading joy—tonight he has finally thrown off the shackles of his inhibitions. In the waning hours of Carnival Tuesday he has finally attained something close to true mirth, maybe even a bit of happiness.

Why do I qualify Shadow’s potential ‘happiness’ here? Because Shadow is, well, Shadow; the man in black; a man given to contemplation and analysis. And we know that such analysis shines too much light on the ignorance that would otherwise be bliss. Deep thinkers like Shadow are not known for walking around smiling at everybody and feeling carefree. After all, Shadow admits that he wishes he could dump his conscience out in the sea! Yet throughout his career, Shadow has written Calypsos that encourage people to throw off their concerns, and just fête, dammit. In his early career he did this especially in Calypsos that remind us how short, puzzling or ironic life is so we might as well take a few pleasures now. In a gentle falsetto on De Zess Man album (1978), Shadow warns the listener to “Enjoy Yourself” because,

Since you born,

your time start to run,

moving like jet,

heading for Mr. Death.

Yet, despite these occasional but sufficiently numerous inducements to “Enjoy Your Life” as he named his album in 2007, Shadow’s songs seldom again approached the musical and lyrical giddiness of “Ah Come Out to Play,” although, admittedly the average dancer cannot keep up with the frantic pace of the music on the album, Constant Jamin (1975), and the lyrics of its “Shift Your Carcass,” a much more contentious song about a much less approachable female reveller, made it a 1976 Carnival anthem in its own right. However, “Ah Come Out to Play” is the one song by Shadow that puts him, in my opinion, in a very small club of Calypsonians who have written true odes to Carnival itself, songs which simultaneously function as compelling narratives and expository, polemical defences of the festival.

There are countless songs about Carnival and even more songs that were made just to make us dance at Carnival. “Ah Come Out to Play” is not just one of those. Rather it lifts the bonnet of Carnival, and shines a spotlight on an episode, a personal microcosm like “Margie,” that in itself captures the essence of Carnival as a national macrocosm. “Ah Come Out to Play” at once reveals Shadow’s genius, a genius that places him with the grandmasters of the Calypso/Soca mediums, but also an unexpected lacuna in his magnificent oeuvre. Shadow does indeed have several songs about Carnival, from 1973’s “The Prance” to 1993’s “Long Time Carnival (Pay de Devil)” and beyond, but few not only elucidate the festival through the simulation of a fully narrated episode or event but also unveil its vital personal, social and cultural function. Yes, “Ah Come Out to Play” does all that…as does Kitchener’s “Margie.” Listen to them again.

Ash Wednesday looms over “Ah Come Out to Play” as a kind of void beyond the fête, a place and a time when “Party Done!” to quote Angela Hunte and Machel (2015). The Ash Wednesday drain drives the spin of Tuesday’s Last Lap like a black hole’s gravity drives the rotation of a galaxy. As they circle the funnel of Ash Wednesday’s event horizon, beyond which they cannot even imagine, Shadow and the woman who ‘came out to play’ have already reached a kind of oblivion. They’ve lost themselves in the music and the chanting and the jumping and prancing and the chipping and the dancing. They don’t know each other’s jobs (the woman probably doesn’t even know she’ll be in a Calypso next year!) or even each other’s names for that matter. They are not just individual beings anymore—not after throwing off the morays, mindsets, and the very selfhood that makes them legally recognized citizens. Carnival is ‘the being’ now, the exuberant beast. And they are the composite cells and the shifting impulses that make that beast ebb and flow, prance and pummel. It’s not just the future that is inconceivable to them. They’ve ‘forgotten the past as they play their mas.’

We don’t realize at first quite the number of things that these two Calypsos, “Margie” and “Ah Come Out to Play,” are doing on lyrical and musical levels. Maybe while mulling them over at Maracas Bay the next, hung-over day we begin to get a glimpse in retrospect. Unlike Lyrikal, Kitch and Shadow never told us they were living only in the now. Instead their characters, actions and circumstances in these two songs demonstrated this ‘present-ness’ ineluctably while sweeping us along with them…

It is the conundrum of now-ness that if you are completely present in it, you are effectively quite absent, and cannot stop to tell us what’s happening in ‘real time.’

 

Epilogue: On Not Returning to the Scene of the “Learning to Leggo” Lime

The only reason Shadow’s seeming disregard of this lyrical territory after “Ah Come Out to Play” is even noteworthy is because Calypso is a medium inextricably connected to the festival of Carnival (for better or worse, as I have said elsewhere on the Shadowlingo blog) and so for the genius of Shadow to have been brought to bare on it so rarely in that “Ah Come Out to Play” micro-macro polemical way is unusual. Shadow has proven time and again how ably he can revisit a theme and make the sequel as good as or even better than the original, so to speak (a rare talent in itself). So to never again have put us on the ground, in the crowd to fully inhabit Carnival characters and their circumstances and thereby discover Carnival itself as we do in “Ah Come Out to Play” Shadow has surprised us. He has not returned to the scene of this particular Carnival lime.

If it is one thing we have been exploring on Shadowlingo is that Shadow has spent much of his career thinking about multivalent issues, profound questions, perennial problems, big ideas. This is perhaps why his considerable intellect has not returned as often as others might, and with characteristic Shadow aplomb, to the psychological interior of Carnival. For every “Carnival Scenery” (1976), “Shift Your Carcass” (1975) or “If I Wine, I Wine” (1984) by Shadow, there are two or three songs like “Mrs. Harriman” (1972) by Kitchener or “How You Jammin’ So?” (1976) by Sparrow. These numerous, expert and apropos celebrations of Carnival in the Carnival-pendant musical form of Calypso are but one reason among many why these senior Calypsonians continued to dominate the festival competitions well after the beginning of Shadow’s career. Shadow has had no special claim to being prolific in the ‘Carnival-themed Calypso’ sub-genre so dominated by Sparrow and Kitch, then by Arrow, Nelson, Merchant etc., and now by performers such as Fay-Ann Lyons, Alison Hinds, and Benjai. Even non-Trinbagonian Calypsonians such as Short Shirt (e.g., with “Tourist Leggo,” 1976) and relatively rare local female ones such as Calypso Rose (e.g., with “Going Down San Fernando,” 1977) can match the ‘King from Hell’ in this field—Carnival-themed hit for hit. And, as mentioned above, the younger generations, even more analytical artistes from Rudder to Bunji, occupy few territories as enthusiastically as they do this one. Yet, the ability to catch what seems like all of Carnival in the teacup of a song, to temporarily ensnare the Carnival ethos in the biography of two or three of its participants—rather than merely singing its praises or raising its broad themes like most do—remains the elite achievement of a few, not least of which is the man in black.

 

Sources

Anthony, Michael. “Kitchener: A man destined for greatness.” Express, February 23, 2000 pp 4-5. (Online:http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Biography/History_LORDKITCHENER_PeopleOfTheCentury.htm)

Bellour, Hélène, Kim Johnson et al. Renegades: the history of the Renegades Steel Orchestra of Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 2002.

McIntosh, Frankie. “Tribute to Clive Bradley.” In When Steel Talks online: http://www.panonthenet.com/articles/ny/bradley/frankie.htm

Neil, Ancil Anthony. Voices From the Hills: Despers and Laventille. New York: A.A. Neil, 1987.

http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Biography/History_LORDKITCHENER_PeopleOfTheCentury.htm

Noblett, Richard. London is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London 1950-1956. Compact disc liner notes. London: Honest John’s Records, 2002.

Oyewole, G. Godwin, “Lord Kitchener: The Grandmaster.” March 2nd 2000, at http://www.tntisland.com/kitchbio.html

Pareles, Jon. “Lord Kitchener, 77, Calypso Songwriter.” New York: New York Times, Feb. 2000. http://www.tntisland.com/kitch25.html

Slater, Les, “Lord Kitchener and Pan have a Thing Going” In Pan, Fall 1987, vol.2 No.1 (Online: http://www.panonthenet.com/articles/pan_mag/kitch_1987.htm).

Warner, Keith. Kaiso: The Trinidad Calypso. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1985.

White, Timothy. “Lord Kitchener: Once and Future Monarch of Mas.” Liner Notes in Lord Kitchener: Klassic Kitchener volume one. St. Philip, Barbados: Ice Records, 1994.

 

Endnotes

[i] Black Enterprise: http://www.blackenterprise.com/lifestyle/trinidad-and-tobago-named-happiest-country-in-the-caribbean/ (accessed, Jan. 22nd 2016); and Caribbean Journal: http://caribjournal.com/2015/04/24/this-is-the-happiest-country-in-the-caribbean/ (accessed January 22nd, 2016).

[ii] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/11/19/chart-the-worlds-most-generous-countries/ (accessed January 31st, 2016).

[iii] Humphrey Bogart Estate Facebook Timeline: https://www.facebook.com/HumphreyBogartEstate/photos/a.161316697241279.33530.156081931098089/502760566430222/ (accessed January 22nd, 2016).

[iv] Les Slater, personal communication.

[v] See “Mrs. Harriman” by Kitchener (1972).

[vi] From “The Road” by Kitchener (1963).

[vii] Chrosuses that are longer than verses are not in and of themselves rare. Calypsos as diverse as Sparrow’s lurid “60 Million Frenchmen Could Not be Wrong” and Shorty’s exhalted “Om Shanti, Om” both feature choruses that are longer than their verses, in the latter case, Shorty makes a portion of the Isha Upanishad a major part of the chorus.

[viii] White 1994.

[ix] From Calypso Atrocities, Cook recording 1959.

[x] After “Margie,” Soca would soon be born in the studios of Lord Shorty, Shadow and Maestro.

[xi] Unfortunately, it is an all too common occurrence that the album jackets of the day often did not name the studio musicians. On the Bass Man album, only Shadow (Winston Bailey) and Art De Coteau are listed as the composer and arranger respectively, and the Sparks as the backing vocals.

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"Suspicion" Collage by Lawrence Waldron (from sheet music of "Sugar Plum" [copied from the book Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso by Keith Q. Warner, 1982] and the cover of the album Music Fever, 1981)

“Suspicion Blueprint,” collage by Lawrence Waldron (from sheet music of “Sugar Plum” [copied from the book Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso by Keith Q. Warner, 1982] and the cover of the album Music Fever, 1981)

Cut-eye for Romance

Shadow has been critiquing romantic love, from one angle or another, for a long time. On countless occasions the man at the crossroads has waxed sceptical about the romance that otherwise sweeps songwriters away in waves of “fire and desire,” “hearts that never part” and a host of other sing-song platitudes seemingly composed for listeners so deep in love that they feel they are hearing these grand emotions described for the first time. From his first appearances in the Calypso tents in the early 1970’s to his Hummingbird Medal award in 2003, it is clear that Shadow never set out to make cliché love songs that provide convenient musical wallpaper for light listeners as they go about the more important business of their lives. Most of Shadow’s music is not of the sort that you hum along to in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, ignore as unobtrusive accompaniment to conversations in your gallery at high tea, or mumble the lyrics to in the refrigerated aisles of Hi-Lo.

Look, it’s not as if Calypso as a whole is famous for its sweet swan songs and swooning testaments to endless love anyway. Calypso is far too concerned with topical commentary and barbed humour to tread the well-beaten path of so many other Caribbean musics, from the heartbreaking old Cuban Boleros to today’s torrid Merengue and Salsa, and even a lot of that smouldering Gregory Isaacs-to-Beres Hammond type of Reggae. So the Calypso genre gives Shadow a head start in occasionally giving ‘cut-eye’ and, sometimes, a resounding ‘steupps’ to ‘this funny thing called love’ (a.k.a. romance).

Historically, when Calypso has taken up romantic love as a topic, it has often been with comical or salacious intent. Calypso means to leave the audience dying with laughter at “Mae Mae” on the beach or “Tie-Tongue Mopsy” on the couch, not dying to declare our own undying love from the galvanized rooftops. In some ways this reflects Trinidadian culture (and definitely Tobagonian culture too), where jocular words like “horn” and “tabanca” (both title topics of Shadow songs) evince the people’s overall light-hearted attitude towards cuckolding and heartbreak respectively, as well as towards a host of other compelling emotions best expressed behind closed doors for their elemental-but-temporary seriousness, inevitable-but-transitory gravitational pull, and embarrassingly obsessive qualities.

Well meh bumsee gone in,

And meh jawbone sink in,

And I can’t eat meh food,

And I don’t feel so good.

 

I am crying outside,

But inside wrong-side.

Tabanka on me

Like twenty jumbies.

—“Tabanka” (from the album Raw Energy, 1986)

Yes, we’ve all been there. Noting our weight loss and depressive demeanor, our friend might walk up to us, clap us on the back and ask, “Wha’appen boy. Yuh have tabanca or what?” Unless we want to be the butt of jokes at the rumshop or the corner parlour, we’d better think of a witty comeback, quick!

Despite, or perhaps partially because of, the host of ridiculing terms for a person (especially a man: from “cunumunu” to “mamapoole”) who has been done in by love or heartbreak (i.e., ‘defeated’ by a woman in love), both Trinidad and Tobago have known no shortage of crimes of passion. Sometimes involving sharpened cutlasses, Gramoxone poisoning, and increasingly, firearms, such crimes are driven by those same emotions which the culture otherwise finds so worthy of playful ridicule—as Shadow seems to heap on himself in the sadly comical quote from “Tabanka” above. So there’s culture, which doesn’t take romantic love too seriously, and then there are individuals who can’t see past romance’s jumbie spell.[i]

I singled out Tobagonians in parentheses above because of the patented “Tobago love,” as some people call it, which is characterized by a particularly low-touch, low-kiss modus operandi in which seldom is there ever a declaration of love to sweeten those thousands of dutiful acts that spring from the genuine emotion.[ii] As someone who was raised by a Tobagonian, I speak from experience, and quite frankly I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

But I have often wondered, in an anthropological way, why Trini culture is particularly low on physical and verbal displays of affection. Is it our unique confluence of stoic Indian (Hindu and Muslim) social moors, aloof Britishness (which even bids “one” to speak and write in a passive, often disembodied voice), and Nigerian and Chinese formalities concerned with maintaining propriety and “face”? We certainly abandon these conservative traditions when we buss a wine—with gusto—on Carnival. But isn’t it precisely these strictures from which we liberate ourselves that make the licentious behaviour of Carnival so sweet?

Indeed social rituals and propriety is a big concern in most of our component cultures, including that of the Amerindians (not only the gender-segregated Caribs and symbolically-thinking Arawaks but the diplomatic Waraos too, who are far from what European evangelists taught us to call “wild Indians” or “Warahoons” when they failed to capture and convert these adept canoeists by force).

So did the social formalities and often-renowned oratory traditions of these cultures combine in just a certain way to produce a complex Trinbagonian brew, which prizes clever speech (dubbed, “lyrics”, in popular parlance—appropriately enough) on all topics except the intimate? Or is this jovial, loquacious, performative but romantically aloof portion of Trini culture an aspect of our sense of humour (itself a sub-division of our overall temperament—one with its own related but separate history), which bids us affectionately cuss a man when we haven’t seen him in a long time, rather than hug him up tight?

As a Trini, I am still startled whenever an American unexpectedly ‘puts his or her hands on me.’ And I look at some other West Indians constantly touching each other and wonder why they are how they are and why we are how we are. Obviously, there are thousands of exceptions in our population of 1.3 million (a population that does not seem to have grown by much baby-making in over a decade, by the way). There are many Trinis who grab and hug and smooch each other with abandon but for the most part, a Trinbagonian is inclined to assume that you want something from him really badly if you put your arms around him.

So in this relatively low-affection milieu, where people sometimes watch you like “wha’ de ass?” when you hold hands or lock lips in public, Shadow has plenty company when satirizing or questioning romantic love. Virtually every Calypsonian has some episodic, jokey number about romance and lovemaking, from Bomber’s adorable narrative in “Joan and James” of 1964 to the disturbingly violent and (of course) hilarious “Severe Licking” by Byron (1973), not to mention Sparrow’s prolific career of suggestively, and sometimes bluntly, describing sexual adventures in which apparently “any port is for for a storm.”[iii] Shadow has more than ‘tried his hand’ at all the subgenres of the Calypso ‘love fiasco.’ In many cases he has excelled the sub-categories as only he could. From the outer smutty edges of the romance topic to the bittersweet pangs and silliness of unrequited love, Shadow has sung it all.

(I include this rare recording here mainly because many are unaware that Shadow has a “saltfish” song that more than rivals the Mighty Sparrow’s. The image on the YouTube post here is misleading since “Saltfish” is a single from 1972, not a song from the Zess Man album)

A hard, salacious but finely crafted “smut,” called “Saltfish,” from the dawn of Shadow’s recording career, and a subtler, but perhaps more disturbing “Garden Want Water” of 1987, with its pubescent female object/subject bursting at her seams, proved Shadow could sling it with the proverbial ‘best/worst of them.’

More squarely on the topic of romantic relationships, however, Shadow has been no slacker either.

In “I Love My Gypsy” and “Melvina,” both on his first album,[iv] marriage—legal or common-law—is a mistake.

He shuns the institution in the former song and comically describes the wrong decision to shack up with the namesake of the latter. Once she moves in, Melvina always has something better to do than show Shadow any affection. In 1978 he revisits the ‘big mistake’ love theme in his cynical “Sugar Plum” where it’s only when she wants money and other material favours that his woman gets all lovey-dovey. Thus Melvina withholding her favours in 1973 has turned into Joycie mamaguying him for money in 1978. And then in 1994’s “Stingy” Shadow again practically has to ‘beg for it.’ These songs are from a subset of a sub-genre of Shadow’s oeuvre, one in which he casts himself as the comical everyman unsuccessful in love. Another subset in this funny ‘Sad Sack’ sub-genre is the cyborg-cuckolded Shadow in the previous post about artificial intelligence.

Inversely, as the dark angel of ‘dreadness,’ Shadow savagely avenges himself upon unsuspecting lovers in 1974’s “King from Hell” and in a more mortal incarnation, does the same in 1978’s “Cry Me Blood.” In the 1976 and 1984 versions of “Way Way Out” a mellower, somewhat melancholy Shadow enjoys a subtler, more slow-creeping revenge against a former lover simply by putting her “way, way out” of his mind forever. He disappoints her when she attempts to run back to him when her alternative romance fails.

In this, one of Shadow’s most overlooked musical masterpieces, the exhausted protagonist finds freedom in the release from tattered romantic bonds, seems to relax his shoulders, turn his back and walk away peacefully. There is only the slightest hint of lingering attachment (in the memories of the pain recounted, and the need to explain his decision to break away).

The 1984 version of “Way Way Out” sees Shadow return to the original lyrics, perhaps a little less raw and heartbroken, but with a voice more gravelly, and more expertly nuanced. The mystery of the song for me is its balance, so delicate, between electronic and acoustic instruments (particularly New Wave-type synthesizers[v] vs. African drums, along with the full kit of then-traditional Soca studio instruments in between) that manages to sound so folksy and yet so polished, so bittersweet and quaint on one hand and so musically sophisticated on the other. In the spirit of the song’s lyrics, Shadow was more ‘on his own’ in the studio as well, doing the arranging for himself—without Art DeCoteau—on this and five other songs for the ‘off-season’ album Sweet Sweet Dreams.[vi]

As it turns out, even the first version of “Way Way Out” was on an ‘off-season’ album, 1976’s The Flip Side of Shadow, perhaps explaining the relative marginalization of this great song. Yet even in the 1976 version, “Way Way Out” was a return to an already established Shadow theme. The relief that Shadow seems to feel in the song’s “release” from romantic bondage is described in exactly those terms in “Release Me” off the 1975 Constant Jamin’ [sic] album. The scenario in “Release Me” is much the same as in “Way Way Out” but in the former song, Shadow begs for liberation rather than making the executive decision to ‘duss it’ as he does in the latter.

There is a colourful Trinbagonian idiom that says, “What she give him to rub, he eat.” The image of something offered just for the touching instead being taken for something to be devoured greedily is one that titillates the imagination—each person to his/her own level of prurience. Indeed the colour in this colourful saying is mostly ‘blue’, and not in the American sense. While Shadow never uses this phrase in 1982’s “Maurine” the whole “love” song seems to be a narrative exegesis on it.

…Whenever she kiss me,

I catchin malcodie.

And when she let me go,

Man I want to go, but I cyah go!

If she say “run!”

I runnin’ fast

Like de farmer jackass.

Like somet’ing wrong,

I feelin’ young,

And strong like King Kong.

 

Dis gyurl really have me

Actin’ like a monkey.

She really have me good

Like she put stupidness in meh food…

Of course the song ends badly for poor Shadow, as we might expect in a Calypso with clear tragicomic intent, especially one that has been describing the physical reaction to love in terms close to those of a pathology, (i.e., malcodie).

They tell me love

Does make you blind

But that was long time.

I see she with

another man,

he look like Tarzan.

 

He touching she bobots

and she bawlin’ “Robert…”

Suddenly, meh heart shake

Like a terrible earthquake.

This is one of Shadow’s first whole verses on tabanca—apparently in the circling approach to the 1986 song by that title. Also in “Maurine” is perhaps Dr. Shadow’s first known diagnosis of “goumangala” poisoning, the symptoms of lovesickness brought on my “stupidness” sprinkled or boiled into one’s food by a devious trap-door spider of a woman. But Maurine might just be a good-looking, rude-walking girl minding her own business! She might be oblivious to how some of her own charms affect the lovestruck Shadow. This is quite unlike the scheming antagonist (and her conspiring mother) determined to ensnare one of Shadow’s advisees in the 2001 hit “Goumangala.” This is ‘love’ acquired by the hook and/or the crook…with a few boiled panties and lizard skins as the seasoning that turns to a fish hook in your belly .[vii]

Also on the topic of eating inappropriately is the most unexpected yet troublingly realistic scenario described in 2003’s “Come for your Lunch” in which Shadow describes his growing belly as a “chicken cemetery full of rice, rice, rice.” In this song, after a lifetime of hardship, Shadow moves in with a wonderful, loving woman but soon realizes that she is literally killing him with kindness. Fearing not to offend the cook he must eat her heaping portions and thus, trapped in his happy ending, he slowly loses sight of everything below his waist as he eats himself to death.

For all his romantic fumbles we might be weary of taking advice from Shadow on love matters, but then we remember he sometimes plays the fool in his cautionary tales. So we would have been glad to sit for the sage advice he offers in the 2000-2001 Carnival season, if only his single weren’t so damned infectious and danceable! And in “Yuh Lookin’ for Horn,” rather than playing the fool Shadow plays advisor instead to a ‘young fella,’ warning him that marriage is not all fun and games and that he should seek “employment before enjoyment.”[viii] Indeed, Shadow has a lot to say on the topic of the home-wrecking “Horner Man,” and from several vantage points, whether the advisor’s, the victim’s or the perpetrator’s:

  • e.g., In 2000 as a threat to his young advisee’s future marriage
  • e.g., two years later, in “Horner Man Cryin’,” as a victim of a younger, better horner man—alas the horner himself is horned!
  • e.g., but also more than two decades earlier, back when the horner character made his first grand appearance in the Shadow discography, where Calypsonian cast himself as the villain in a single called “Horner Man,” saying he’d rather be the horner than the horned.

So by the dawn of the third millennium, Shadow was the wise veteran of the horner wars; the battle of the sexes; myriad skirmishes with the fickle, duplicitous, manipulative and treacherous in love; but also of the love-and-money reversals of 1976’s “When You Have Nothing,” a song in which love follows money in and out your door, “easy come…easy go.”

Yet all this horning, vengeance, mamaguying, withholding of affection and force-feeding treated by Shadow and others is par for Calypso’s gender-tense course. The problems with romantic love that Shadow reveals in these songs seem of a regular, if darkly comical variety. But despite its firm place in Calypso tradition, Shadow’s brand of romance-scepticism—like so many things about Shadow—seems to have a philosophical element not so evident in the work of his peers and forebears.

In fact, as we’ll see in the compositions discussed below, Shadow espouses a much higher love so that his attitude towards romance seems more akin to the philosopher’s and holy man’s challenge of the pair-bond and its primacy over more universal forms of love. Thus Shadow’s overarching commentary on romance engenders more than the Calypsonian’s typically mischievous barbs against romance’s confinement and emotional steeplechase.

So what is the source of 1970’s Shadow’s suspicion of romance or his critique of hasty weddings in the 2000’s? And what is this higher, greater love that gives him safer succor and deeper inspiration than a lover’s soft, doe-eyed gazes and clammy caresses?

Holy Men, Romantic Love, and the Higher Calling

For decades now modern scholars and some pastors too have been trying to promote the idea of Jesus as a husband with children but they’ve had a lot of problems getting it to stick in the popular imagination. Thus far no piece of archaeological evidence has succeeded in secularising (or ‘Protestantising’) the Saviour. Husband-Jesus certainly cannot be found in popular scripture. In fact the Jesus in the Bible shows signs of not having been a particularly devoted son either. He reprimands his mother on at least two occasions for making demands on his time while he conducts the far more important affairs of a holy leadership. Charged with delivering the world, Jesus as child, teenager or full-fledged religious leader seems no family man. Mother Mary, worried sick about her missing son, tries to reprimand him when she finally finds him arguing philosophy among the Pharisees. Young Jesus sets his mother straight,

“How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” [Luke 2:49]

This disregard for the domestic sphere, and everybody in it, often characterizes the holy man. In this aspect, the young Jesus, leaving his family behind to engage with (and overthrow) the religious thinkers of his day, is more like the holy men of the East, Africa and Native America than the biblical prophets before him, who often were family men with multiple wives; or the Prophet Mohammad after him, with his eight wives and their controversial range of ages as befits the medieval Arab (and the ancient Hebrew too).

It is the African and Amazonian shaman, the dreadlocked Indian sadhu, the shorn Buddhist monk and nun, and bearded Taoist sage who rejects the soft cushions of the connubial chamber (and the consequent patter of children) for the happy destitution of the wanderer meditating on ‘big stone’ up in the high woods… sleeping “in de dew and de rain” as it were. The Buddha often said “the home life is dusty and crowded. The holy life is wide open.” For that matter ancient Buddhist nuns (among the first female monastic orders in history) wrote joyful poems about leaving the day-long drudgery in the kitchen and virtual enslavement to their husbands for a life of study and peaceful contemplation without makeup or hair.

It is the sunburnt holy man in his Congo or Amazon rainforest hut, the bamboo shelter in China’s Four Great Mountains, the cave or rock shelter in the Himalayas or the Bandiagara Escarpment of the Dogon country that elects freely to be alone, even celibate, and is known for his fasting and other austerities all in service of some higher devotion. That devotion is often to something at once mysterious and universal.

But Shadow is neither celibate nor starving and has lived happily for many years with wife and children up in Mount Hope. So why has he used up so much ink contesting romance? The answer may lie in another question: doesn’t Shadow too have a higher calling like those ancient mystics and prophets? He is no holy man of old but hasn’t Shadow always envisioned himself as being on a kind of mission, and is ‘love-up and kiss-up’ anywhere near the crux of that mission? What is this mission, this higher purpose?

A Love Above All

In 1979, a more mature Shadow revisited an idea he had rakishly expressed in 1973’s “I Love My Gypsy.” Only then did the musician Shadow come right out and say what he cherishes above all,

A lady,

Calling me her turtledove.

She told me

“Give up music” for her love.

I said stop that! (chorus voices: “stop that!”)

I don’t want that! (chorus voices: “I don’t want that!”)

 

Miss Lady,

I don’t know what scene you’re on

But baby

You can take that love and run!

I don’t want that! (chorus voices: “I don’t want that!”)

So don’t try that!

 

(Chorus)

I love my music

And music is music.

The heavy vibrations

Controls my emotions.

Whenever I hear good saxophones jamming,

It really gives me a happy feeling.

Then when I hear the trumpets and trombones,

The world just seems to be my own.

—From “Don’t Try Dat” on the album If I Coulda I Woulda I Shoulda, 1979

This is Shadow’s ‘Love Supreme,’ his uncomplicated love beyond reproach, his peerless love for which he can willingly renounce all others.

The pair-bond that he rejected in “I Love My Gypsy” was seemingly cast aside in favour of becoming an immortal musical “hero.” But here, six years later, in “Don’t Try Dat,” we find Shadow cherishing more than the mere glory of his music fame from monster hits like “Bass Man.” In the later song, he even sets up romance and his music as antipodes and tells this love-struck “Lady,” this doting, would-be sugar-mama, ‘francoment’ that his lover is music, not her. What music can give him, ‘she cyah gih him.’

Now we are justified in our suspicions that Shadow’s numerous comical accounts elsewhere of failed romances and vexing sex antics might stem from some innate suspicion of quaint, cozy couplings and his reverence for a higher love, a higher pleasure, a higher principle.

Cross-referenced with all his philosophical compositions from the same period—songs like “Story of Life” (1973/1976); “Animal Kingdom” and “My Belief” (1975); “We Live to Die,” “You Have Nothing,” “Mother Wisdom,” “Do Good,” “Ladder of Success,” and “Everybody is Somebody” (1976); and “Through the Mirror” (1979) as well—“Don’t Try Dat” reveals itself as the anthem of a man with a critical ‘cut-eye’ turned on romance but a heart wide open to music.

Why is young Shadow willing to give up love for music? And what really is this thing that music gives him? Renouncing love for music might suggest an escapist running from something and/or a refugee’s running to something. Shadow’s litany of problems in romantic love include far more songs than those already cited here. Heartbroken Shadow definitely has something to run from. And his many descriptions of being soothed, moved, drawn in by music suggest he certainly has something to run to (and indeed may have no choice, when possessed by it, such as in “Music Fever”). Additionally Shadow gives ample evidence of his love and mastery of music (from 1973’s “The Revenge” to 1982 “Return of the Shadow” and beyond) indicating that he is at home here. Music is his wheelhouse.

Looking back at Shadow’s first three decades, in which he produced albums with names like Constant Jamin’ [sic] (1975); De Zess Man (1978); Music Fever (1981); several between 1986 and 1997 with words like “Energy”, “Tension” and “Pressure” in their titles; and Sound of my Soul (2005), all suggesting the consuming power and constancy of the musical wellspring beneath him, Shadow has placed his music above all other loves. In songs like “My Vibes are Heavy” he has described his music as if it were a natural gift from the cosmos. In 1997’s “Music Maker” he finds music in every single thing, from the birds to the rain on galvanized roof; from the toads and frogs in the night to the wind itself. In “Soca Boat” it is a discipline long since beaten into him in childhood (“Mummy beat me with music-stick”) and a mansion in which he is king. In 2001’s “Universal Language” he names music as a thing requiring no translation. And from 1974’s Road March “Bassman,” to 1992’s “Music (Dingolay)” and beyond, he has presented music as a mystery, whether from a dark netherworld behind his (carefully crafted) equally dark persona, or from a space-time both chronologically and conceptually prior to human culture.

Shadow has set music apart from other pursuits and passions, he has guarded it like a precious jewel. No mistake, music is sacred for the Crossroads Wizard. Music is not his job. It is not just his career. It is his calling. As a devoted renunciate, a babalawo/sadhu-man/piai-man, he is willing to forego all but his music. Declaring simply that “music is music” he is content to leave it a mystery, this natural force that plugs him into ancient, recondite rhythms, deep in the pile of the universal fabric, up in the swirling star-matter of the galaxy. The Shadow knows that music is a thing best understood from the highest and lowest of places.

Epilogue: One Love or Two?

As you read this essay, you might have anticipated at some point that the ultimate love Shadow holds up above all others is that universal, brotherly love espoused in his 1982 composition “One Love” (subsequently remade almost as many times as “Bassman”)—especially given the title of this essay. Indeed this interesting and important single, in my memory was a kind of summer theme of 1982 ringing out over the hills as simmering callaloo filled the house with the smell of coconut and we children, finally released from school, played and picked green mangoes and plums from the trees. Arranged by Shadow himself, like the Sweet Sweet Dreams album two years later, “One Love” used the same kinds of innovative synthesizers to produce an international sound quite unlike the equally unique, but more firmly Kaiso/Soca arrangements of Art DeCoteau.

“One Love” was Shadow, singing to the heavens, longing for world peace, echoing a then pan-Caribbean sentiment (largely attributable to Bob Marley and his song of the same name). At the time the region’s music often called for a kind of universal love in what turned out to be the waning years of (official) South African apartheid. But while we often hold this fraternal love up above all others in our religions, and we enlist music in the service of expressing it (whether on the pulpits or in the Tuff Gong studios), we seldom achieve it, often because of the emergent chauvinisms in our very religions.

Yet we catch ourselves tapping our feet even to a song we mean to resist. Infidels! It seems that despite this singular, universal love that Shadow espouses in “One Love” and a few others from his career (including 1976’s “Without Love”), the man in black has rightly identified that long before any of our religious or philosophical systems existed, there was already music (in the sky, in the trees, in the “rivers and seas”), and deep beneath our verbally professed faiths and richly cultivated convictions are some universal forces that move us unthinkingly. Some of these forces are called by quaint names like “rhythm,” and “harmony.” As a musician, you polish your training so you might do justice to the music that comes through you into the world. But music itself, even the music you compose existed long before you and can be found everywhere.

Even in the park,

in the dark

A blind man can find,

A melody

—from “Music (Dingolay)” (1992)

Endnotes

[i] And thanks to the AIDS epidemic and the narcotics-motivated crime wave of the past two decades, grief has overtaken the other unpleasant emotions that used to provide such fertile seeds of satire, and has reshaped the popular consciousness. As weeping mothers on the nightly news or just down the road have become a repeating motif, grief is no longer an emotion so easily memorialised while being satirised. It is no longer a storm to be weathered—it has become climate. Calypsonians, including Shadow, have dealt with these issues as well (stuff of other posts yet to come here on Shadowlingo).

[ii] Of course, many also attribute a dark side to this wordless, unaffectionate ‘Tobago love’ pointing out a tendency of domestic partners to stay together stubbornly (and not just for the ‘sake of the children’) even in situations that alternate treacherously between connubial satisfaction and domestic violence.

[iii] From the notorious “He Done Dey (Let Him Stay)” (1967?), a song which must have brushed up against more laws than just the censorship ones for the forbidden act (following a drunken slippage) that it suggests so clearly.

[iv] The Bassman, 1973.

[v] Judging by the sound, and by the equipment specified in the credits of Shadow’s next album, Mystical Moods, the synthesizers used are the Oberheim OB-8 and the Yamaha DX7, accustomed members in the arsenal of any 1980s New Wave band from Depeche Mode to Duran Duran.

[vi] Art DeCoteau would return to work with Shadow on 1984’s Mystical Moods for the 1985 Carnival season, and the famed collaboration would continue until DeCoteau’s death in 1987.

[vii] Shadow’s early years in Tobago made him at home with this name for a certain member of the anole (some say, gecko) species of lizard called goumangala on that island (and Grenada) where the creature is used in certain nefarious rituals with the intended outcome suggested in the song. Many Trinidadians, however, had to ask around or do research to find out just what “Goumangala” was, even if they did get the gist of the “Obeah Wedding”-type song. Even Google was useless at the time. See Anita Malhotra and Roger S. Thorpe, Reptiles and Amphibians of the Eastern Caribbean (London: Macmillan Education, 1999); John C. Murphy, Amphibians and Reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1997).

[viii] And in the song “For Better or Worse” on the same Just for You album, he expresses to no one in particular a more overarching critique of the rush to marriage.

This post completes a couplet on Shadow’s relationship to Trinidad and Tobago’s musical traditions, focusing especially on those traditions as exemplified by particular musicians. The last post was on Shorty and Shadow; this one is on Shadow and Spoiler, one of the few Kaisonians even remotely in Shadow’s lyrical vein. While several of the posts on Shadowlingo thus far have been excerpts from papers and other writings once intended for a book (before the project ran into delays in contacting Shadow himself and thus slid down behind three other book projects) the two posts on Shorty’s and Spoiler’s relationship to Shadow were written especially for Shadowlingo. They are a bit long. Read them in whole or take shifts in between ‘fives.’ Enjoy.

 

Image

Abigail Hadeed, “Mighty Shadow,” gelatin silver print (selenium toned), 1994

It has occurred to some followers of Shadow’s music that at least in Calypso’s theatre of the absurd, it’s showcase of wonders where other Calypsonians make only cameo appearances, Shadow is the only regular headliner today…but he is not without precedent in Calypso history. The immediate comparison that comes to some minds is with the Mighty Spoiler, the revered musical wordsmith of the mid twentieth century.

Calypsonians and writers have never ceased to lay wreaths at the feet of this lyrical trickster with the gift for comical fantasy: from (1) Bomber’s worshipful, Calypso Monarch-winning tribute to him and his thematic and lyrical style in “Bomber’s Dream” of 1964 to (2) Derek Walcott’s 1980s poem “The Spoiler’s Return,” in which the then soon-to-be Nobel Laureate adopted Spoiler’s persona to critique contemporary society[i] to (3) the actors and musicians of University of the West Indies Centre for Creative and Festival Arts reproducing and recording live several of Spoiler’s songs for their musical “Ah Wanna Fall,” which took as its title Spoiler’s famous refrain. There have been dozens of tributes to Spoiler in between these and since these.

Spoiler’s relatively short career, which spanned the late 1940s and 50s before ending in an alcohol-related death during the Christmas season of 1960, makes the loss of this musical sage-jester more tragic, and his unique contribution even more jewel-like in rarity.

Taken together—Shadow’s massive oeuvre and the considerably fewer recordings of Spoiler—the two Calypsonians definitely share a fascination with irony, dark humour, the dilemma and the absurd. They share these similarities across a decade-long divide, with the end of Spoiler’s career in 1960 and the beginning of Shadow’s recording career at the top of the 1970s. Very few other Calypsonians inhabit their recondite Calypso mindscape. The Mighty Dougla is perhaps their most notable cohort, in some cases spanning the divide between Spoiler and Shadow chronologically and thematically with 1960s songs like the absurd masterpiece “Lazy Man” and the keen social critique, “Split Meh in Two,” which proposes in its chorus and title an outrageous solution to a very real and outrageous social problem.

It is to Dougla’s great credit that he could indeed span the divide because out here on the margins of the Calypso galaxy the difference between these lonesome figures is at times considerable. While the two Calypsonians are both inclined towards heady flights of fantasy, the allegorical and satirical content of Spoiler’s songs is neither obvious nor consistent. It is evident that Spoiler, the older Calypsonian, from an earlier (and more censored) time, often opted to entertain, astound and even intrigue his audience with outrageous tales and lyrical acrobatics rather than trouble them with complex philosophical questions like Shadow does.

Still, even as much of Spoiler’s lyrics can be likened or even attributed to the idle, scatological humour and “ole talk” of the average rumshop (‘Spoil-O’ himself was a seasoned and infamous drinker)[ii] it is impossible to deny some more clandestine forms of social criticism and philosophical concern in his work. You can find the more shrewd, political side of Spoiler not through some strenuous binocular scrutiny of his lyrics but from just repeatedly hearing some of his distractingly amusing compositions. As your subconscious absorbs each song, or as your intellect sums it up, you realize things you hadn’t at first.

When Spoiler becomes a blood-sucking insect in “Bedbug” he is only interested in feeding on the well-fed, wealthy and/or powerful. With these instant, nearly effortless infusions of ‘blue blood’ from those with titles, he is able to gain title for himself. Thus the colonizing insect-Spoiler triumphantly crowns himself “King Bedbug the First.”

Spoiler’s political acumen is even less ambiguous in “Magistrate Try Himself” in which the audience is invited to consider the absurdity of government officials who find themselves charged with interrogating, investigating, reviewing or trying themselves for an offence or violation. We see how the inevitable conflicts of interest predictably end in either acquittal or very lenient convictions. Despite all the hilarious drama that ensues in the magistrate’s ‘auto-litigation,’ including his finding himself in contempt of court for courtroom shenanigans, the whole vain affair ends with the official ultimately giving himself several months to pay off a reduced fine.

This particular song, with its grammatically licentious “Himself tell himself” has often been directly quoted or paraphrased by Trinbagonian journalists as they cover precisely these kinds of government investigations of government bodies, sometimes with some of the same individuals on both sides of the investigation. Spoiler on occasion simply reflects the absurdity of his surroundings, with no need to make up more rumshop absurdities of his own.

As we mull over Spoiler, we realize that in songs like the aforementioned, and others such as “Funeral Undertaker” in which a racketeering Spoiler bribes medical experts to declare people dead so he can drum up business for his funeral home, the Calypsonian is quite a nimble commentator on corruption. He slips in under the radar of 1940s and 50s censors with lively, playful jaunts that remain just that until we sing them a few times and start thinking them over. On a second or third pass over “Funeral Undertaker” we find ourselves recalling not only all the published scandals involving funeral homes and their indelicate disposal of bodies and ashes, reuse of funerary materials and cemetery plots etc. but also all the profiteering that ensues from declaring a problem that does not exist, the proverbial ‘solution in search of a problem.” We consider how much business has been generated by false diagnoses of all sorts. We recognise Spoiler’s evil funeral home director from many walks of life.

But usually Spoiler doesn’t go anywhere near the corrupt politicians and businessmen of his day—not directly. His sly evasion does not make him like Shadow. For although Shadow in his early career often seemed notably disinterested in the more mundane socio-political and socio-economic concerns of his day he evinced a gradual evolution towards more frequent and direct commentary over the span of his career.

From around the early 80s with songs like “Keep off the Dope” (which advises young women to watch themselves around certain predatory characters at Carnival) to the present, Shadow has developed a clever, double-pronged method of social critique. While he has indeed tended to circumvent the usual partisan or advocate’s attack on the political and socio-economic scene he has opted to present particular narratives (i.e., micro views) of social, economic and political problems (e.g., a poor mother at her wits end in the infamous “Poverty is Hell” of 1993) and, complementarily, structural critiques (i.e., macro views) thereof (as, say, in 1984’s savage but abstract critique of PNM corruption and incompetence in “Snakes” (in ‘the Balizier’)).

Neither of these approaches, macro nor micro but direct all the same, is Spoiler’s modus operandi.

Spoiler’s approach is far more oblique. His famous courtroom conundrum of 1957 demonstrates this with a relatively minor issue—a traffic infraction. But the economies of scale issue that makes it so that a small community only has one magistrate transfers easily to a small nation that only has so many government officials to oversee and, if need be, sanction others:

Aha, well dis one is class

They charged a magistrate for driving too fast,

You mustn’t doubt me, dis one is class

They charged a magistrate for driving too fast.

But it’s one courthouse in the district.

He’s the only magistrate there to run it.

If you see how people pack up in de place

To see how de magistrate go try he own case

(Chorus)

Himself tell himself, “You are charged for speeding.”

Himself start to shout, “De policeman lyin’!”

Himself tell himself, “Don’t shout! Dis aint no sport”

And he charge himself for contempt of court.

But a courtroom scene by Shadow from 1985’s Mystical Moods is treated quite differently:

The Truth had a fight

On a Saturday night.

It was war in de town.

The Truth was shot down.

The witnesses failed

To appear in de court—

Bribes in their mail.

The case was thrown out.

(Chorus)

Money killed the Truth—oh yeah.

The triumph was cued.

Corruption was the Jury.

The verdict was “Not Guilty.”

…The case was a flop

Was a big cover-up

When the Judge saw Money

He became stupidy.

The Crown Prosecutor,

Corruption’s brother,

He didn’t waste time—

He sold de case for a dime.

(Chorus)

The song continues with personifications of the murdered Truth, insidious Corruption, and seductive Money, all making their appearance in the court, the latter two as major players able to sway the Judge, Prosecutor, Police witnesses and Jury. Eventually, even the Truth’s wife is paid off to keep her mouth shut after the burial of her husband.

No stranger to high comedy in his lyrics, Shadow in this case gives up a considerable measure of humour (as compared with Spoiler’s court) for a more definite political poignancy.

Spoiler’s indirect but highly comedic satirical approach possesses none of the accusatory tone of Shadow’s “Truth” or a dozen other of the latter’s compositions from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Rather Spoiler’s “Money in the Bank” is more typical of the senior Calypsonian’s oblique critical style. The content of this song is pretty much something we have all lived through in the banking collapses and debt crises of the 20th and 21st centuries. In it Spoiler complains that he cannot withdraw his inheritance from the bank because some “big shots” have piled their money on top of his in the same bank. So the wealthy have stayed his attempt to retrieve his money from the bottom of the stack. The scene seems ridiculous until we read it as allegory: ‘rich people have to get their money before I can get mine’ and ‘mixing my money with the monies of the wealthy causes me to lose my money in the mix.’ With a physical dilemma, Spoiler illustrates the pecking order in the acquisition and retrieval of money.

But reading Spoiler’s allegorical content takes far more effort than the Calypsos of Shadow’s generation. It’s easy to see how some of Spoiler’s listeners could simply dismiss the more satirical aspects of his Calypsos if they were either not inclined or not able to consider them on that level. As with the saucy Calypsos of every generation it is always up to you whether you want to read into the double entendre or just escape into a simple, amusing Calypso ditty to wile your time away.

Of course, the philosophical and political content in Shadow’s music is far more difficult to escape. You get the haunting feeling that you’re ‘wiling away’ at your own peril.

While their exploration and rhetorical use of fantasy is quite different, these two vessels were bound to pass each other close in the lonely Calypso night—eventually. The theme inside of which we find the closest connections and starkest contrasts between Spoiler and Shadow is their shared and abiding concern with alter egos.

As Alvin C. Daniel describes “[i]n many of his songs, Spoiler was bedevilled by evil twins and sinister doubles.” Spoiler’s twin brother is the subject and namesake of at least two versions of “Twin Brother,” and this brother might be the same fictitious sibling mentioned in “Funeral Undertaker.” In both songs, the sibling is buried under what Daniel might describe as Edgar Allan Poe-type circumstances, since on both occasions the brother is alive when interred.

Throughout the second version of “Twin Brother,” Spoiler suffers the consequences of his twin brother’s sins and trespasses:

If he playing football—I in de stand

I sit down with my woman named Lillian

And if he miss a ball

She will turn around

Telling me I is de

Worst footballer in town

Fed up with getting blamed for his brother’s wrong doings and being prevented from getting on with his own life, Spoiler hatches a dastardly plan.

We both had the flu in the hospital.

I play ah dead—they had a big funeral.

But they bawl like a horse when they discover

They make a mistake and bury my twin brother.

But when Shadow approaches his doppelganger, it is with a sci-fi twist, and it is not as a sibling but as its creator. Tired of contending with biased Calypso judges and the administration of the Master’s Den, Shadow says:

…Ah leave meh robot on earth and went.

Ah leave meh robot to run meh tent.

Nobody knew I went away.

They thought the robot was me.

When de rumour hit Port of Spain—

De Shadow is here again

(Chorus)

Ah come back to fix meh business

And to run some musical madness.

I know you will recognize me

By the beauty of my melody.

Run de beat,

Loud and sweet.

Aint no lie.

This is I!

The first time the chorus is sung it betrays that Shadow will soon have some trouble being recognised as himself and will have some problems to deal with. While the Master takes flight through the “astral plane” on his robot-facilitated sabbatical (note where Shadow goes on retreat!) things on earth begin to spiral out of control. From his lofty cosmic perch, Shadow receives word of impending disaster.

But I hear meh robot havin’ a ball—

He messin’ with alcohol.

I had to come back to town

Before something else go wrong.

(Chorus)

I told de robot to wear my gown.

The stupid thing start to malfunction.

De robot start playing saga boy,

Wearing disco clothes like Roy.

And the thing that really aggravate me—

The robot thought he was me.

He take meh girl Emily

And give she a big belly

–“Return of the Shadow” (from Return of the Shadow album, 1982)

From this song to “Crazy Computer” Shadow evinces a deeply fraught relationship with machines and artificial intelligence. This is a major, prescient theme of Shadow’s that we will be taking up in another post. But the salient point here (and also one we will explore in greater depth in that “A.I.” post) is Shadow’s errant creation of his own replacement.

When Shadow describes the cyborg as malfunctioning, we are left to wonder whether the “robot” might not be functioning too well. For Shadow is a rebel and the robot begins to rebel. Shadow goes his own way and so does the robot. And since the robot is fully functional in replacing Shadow temporarily, it takes the initiative and starts replacing him permanently. It also does so in some unique and autonomous ways, performing certain functions unforeseen by its creator.

Unlike the organic doppelganger in Spoiler’s “Twin Brother,” with shades of horror films and noir fiction in the twin’s dark end, Shadow’s twin is one that goes back to Isaac Asimov, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and even the Bible. For by the end of the Book of Genesis, God is sorry he ever created man—and sends the flood. This is the ambivalence, indeed the regret of “the creator” explored by Shelly, Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and countless writers of Star Trek, the Matrix trilogy etc.

It is also the ambivalence of the parent, one that parents are loathe to admit. Your friend is only half-joking when she makes a pathetic face and asks you if you want to borrow her kids indefinitely…and by the time those children turn into teenagers, parents are sometimes ready to admit their regrets about a certain amorous night fifteen or sixteen years previous that should have never happened!

On top of his creator’s/parent’s remorse, Shadow is at the end of his rope with his robot. For he has created, like Dr. Frankenstein, a rival, who approaches him in intellect, equals him in abilities, diverges/divests from him in individuality, and bests him in prowess. “Return of the Shadow” ends with the conflict between creature and creator unresolved, and with the creator’s woman pregnant by the creature! The masculine rivalry and other gender issues raised by “the machine” in this song and others by Shadow is also something we’ll take up in that same future “A.I.” post.

Obviously, Shadow has taken the doppelganger concept far beyond Spoiler’s wheelhouse—to and from the astral plane, back to the dawn of humanity and forward to the existential implications of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Image“Spoiler/Shadow/Mirror/Shadow,” cartoon by Lawrence Waldron

Looking into the eyes of a machine that looks just like you (and who has convinced, seduced and stolen your girlfriend) must be a truly uncanny, deeply vexing, profoundly frightening experience. But what if the thing that stared back at you was even closer to you—something everyone considered to be properly you?

I looked in a mirror, what did I see?

A man with a hard face looking like me.

I called on Priscilla to take a look.

Go call de neighbour I see a crook!

She turned and she said “Shadow dat is you”

But she don’t know I know that it aint true.

I in front the mirror, I know mehself.

That guy in the mirror is someone else.

(Chorus)

It is not me!

Just couldn’t be.

I in front the mirror,

De man inside.

Like you want to take my brain

for a ride.

I said it’s not me!

Just couldn’t be!

De dummy in de mirror is an alien,

A being from another dimension.

–“Through the Mirror” (from the If I Coulda, I Woulda, I Shoulda album, 1979)

In his lengthy but far from exhaustive essay on “the uncanny,” Sigmund Freud outlined this troubling and obscure emotion as a feeling that issues from an experience of something inanimate, un-sentient, and/or unfamiliar which projects to us the appearance of being just the opposite. In our experience of an automaton (i.e., robot, cyborg, well-constructed or moving doll), but sometimes also a mirror reflection of ourselves, we might feel unnerved.[iii] This is Shadow’s feeling in front of the mirror. He refuses to identify with his reflection.

Ominously enough the Spoiler song with which Shadow’s “Through the Mirror” has the strongest resemblance is a song from 1958 called “My Shadow.”

Compare Spoiler’s,

Partner, yes, I want to know—

Tell meh why meh shadow does get on so.

Oh meh darlin’, Spoiler want to know—

Tell meh why meh shadow does get on so.

Because when I wake in de morning

If I only scratch, meh shadow scratching

Ah go to hit him a day, I tellin’ you

And as ah lift meh hand, he lift he own too

 with Shadow’s

I called on the neighbour to come and see

The man in the mirror acting like me

He making my actions and wouldn’t stop

And speaking the truth

I getting fed up

While each song features disturbing encounters between the self and its dimension-less or other-dimensional counterpart, we join Spoiler already in his ongoing ordeal, whereas we join Shadow at the moment that he is first startled by his reflection. In the beginning of “Through the Mirror” Shadow stumbles upon his uncanny reflection one day so along with him, we are arrested by the encounter. But in the second verse of Spoiler’s “My Shadow” (after a first verse that is effectively a gloss on his ‘shadow problems’) we are given a convenient back-story of Spoiler and his life with his shadow:

Partner, from de time I small

Meh shadow wouldn’t give meh a break at all,

Oh me darlin’.

Sometime I will run

To see if I could get away—

He still stick on

Spoiler, however, does provide us with a similarly startling moment as Shadow’s first encounter, an unnerving confrontation from a time in his past when he tried to hide from his shadow:

Oh Lord, sometimes I’d go in the darkness,

Hiding from him, peeping through the crevice.

When I go back in the light,

If yuh hear meh squeal.

We were together in the dark

Standing heel to heel.

The two men draft plans to get rid of their respective doppelgangers. Shadow’s solution seems to hark back directly to his forbear, Spoiler—decapitation! Freud would have fun with this:

(“Through the Mirror,” 2nd verse)

The man in the mirror was confusing.

I thought of a plan to get rid of him.

I pass a razor close to meh throat;

I want him to kill himself like a goat.

I make a slash then I stumble back down.

If he aint dead now, well something wrong.

When I rose up to my great surprise

A Mister was watching me in meh eyes

 

(“My Shadow,” 4th verse)

Partner, but Mr. Wilfred—

He tell meh how to cut off my shadow head,

Oh, me darlin’!

He say half past nine

Go an’ put meh head on top de train line,

Oh Lord!

And when I hear de train coming

Don’t move meh head, just welcome de engine.

That’s all I have to do

And I feel he right,

So meh head on de train line

Tomorrow night.

The Spoiler song proposes a tragic solution to the stalking shadow—murder-suicide. For all the jovial and escapist lyrics Spoiler had written in his time, lyrics usually sung with a matching, strutting gaiety, these words take a surprisingly macabre turn. Backing up his contrastingly breezy delivery and expert comedic timing on the wicked lyrics was the innovative choice to use the Esso Southern Symphony Steelband as his sole musical accompaniment, a very rare choice indeed back in 1958. In this unusual composition we never know if Spoiler gets to carry out his dark plan because the song ends precisely at the mortal resolution to lay his head on the train track.

In “Through the Mirror” Shadow tries something similar, trying to cut his reflection’s (or is it his?) throat. But as the pore-raising “Mister watchin’ meh in meh eyes” afterwards confirms, his attempt on his spooky reflection’s life is not successful. From that decapitation verse onwards, the Shadow composition extends the uncanny confrontation, and Shadow’s ensuing personal crisis, beyond the narrative arc of Spoiler’s “My Shadow” but also beyond its thematic frame.

Unsatisfied with his wife Priscilla’s insistence that the reflection is him, a troubled Shadow calls a neighbour to witness the goings on. The mirror reflection continues to imitate, perhaps mock, his every movement. The neighbour is not impressed and reflects Priscilla’s sentiments, even scolding Shadow:

She turned and she said,

“Stop your stupidness,

Yuh better report to a psychiatrist!”

You think I mad, but neighbour you lie,

If he is me, tell me who am I?

In true Shadow fashion, and unlike Spoiler’s murder-suicide resolution, “Through the Mirror” ends with a question. If the reflection is me, then who’s this standing before the reflection?

While “theory of self,” the sense of one’s own existence and individuality, as demonstrated by children once they reach 18 months, and by some animals when they recognise themselves in a mirror, is considered a mark of higher intelligence, Shadow stubbornly doubts his reflection. Is this out of “stupidness” (i.e., having lower intelligence than a child or a chimpanzee)? Is Shadow’s crisis caused by some inherent mental deficiency on his part? Is it the result of mental disease? Indeed many schizophrenics do not recognize their own reflections. Suspecting something along these lines, Shadow’s neighbour commands him to dutifully “report to a psychiatrist.” Is Shadow suffering some dissociative disorder?

Shadow definitely teases us with the prospect of his ‘madness’ throughout the song. But at the end of “Through the Mirror,” his would-be psychosis gels into a philosophical rather than a psychological dysmorphia. When Shadow asks of his supposedly identical reflection “If he is me, tell me who am I?” he questions whether the man, the wife’s and neighbours’ notion of the man, the man’s notion of himself, and the image of the man are all one and the same. It turns out that apparently-psychotic, apparently-stupid Shadow is asking us one of the most fundamental questions we could ask: “which of these things is me—the body, the image, the idea?”

In fact mirror testing on primates and children to chart the emergence and breadth of their “theory of self” had begun only a decade before Shadow composed “Through the Mirror”[iv] so where was Shadow getting these advanced questions about the relationship of the self to the physical body, the mind and the image? Was he up in Laventille reading peer-reviewed journal articles from scientists at Tulane University? Or was he, like Spoiler before him, a home-grown, “organic philosopher” as my colleague and fellow Shadow fan Winthrop Holder often describes Shadow? Did Shadow hit upon this question about the self by accident, through hapless or clever rhetorical manoeuvres that can sometime produce emergent properties beyond the speaker’s own intelligence, or did he arrive at this kind of question through considering closely the nature of things?

One needs only stop and think to realize that the physical thing is not the same as the image of the referent thing, and that the image itself will spark ideas of the referent in our minds that are themselves yet further removed from the original, physical thing. And in art, as we make an image or sing a song about our idea of what we saw of the original thing, we are in effect making a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. This is why surrealist painter Magritte told us that we could not smoke his painting of a pipe because it itself was NOT a pipe.

Image

René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images: Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” oil on canvas, 1948

When Shadow insists that the “dummy in the mirror…is a being from another dimension” he denies the personhood of a mere image, a reflection. And when he asks at the end ‘if the reflection is me, then who is this standing in front the reflection?’ he points to our fragile, fraught relationship with the self-image we build out of that mirror.

And what of those chimpanzees and children (and dolphins and elephants as well) who recognize ‘themselves’ in mirrors (or rather, who LEARN to recognize themselves in mirrors after being left alone with the reflective/reflexive surface for days at a time)? While we take this “theory of self” as a mark of their and our higher intelligence, isn’t ‘madness,’ as variously defined, precisely what ensues when our sophisticated, delicate, reflexive construct of the self gets a little scratch, a ding, a dent, or worse yet, serious damage in it? It doesn’t even have to be genocide, slavery, rape or robbery; it can just be the suggestion that we are too fat, too short, too dark. So much can go wrong with our sense of self, precisely because it is a complicated, fancy, specialised thing with so many contingencies—so many working parts (or so many diaphanous illusions).

In fact, while psychologists, metaphysicists and mystics of all religious affiliations, and no religious affiliations at all, have questioned the reality of the self, and as philosophers too (many of them Eastern) have taken a crack at this question, other philosophers (many of them Western) have shouted them down, and in the mix, we common folks have consistently cherished the notion of the self as a healthy thing. Cogito ergo sum, right?! “I think therefore I am”…hmmmm.

Even as we give up quite a few megabytes of streaming awareness of our surroundings in real-time, here and now, to be up inside our own heads, being aware of ourselves instead, we consider this self-awareness to be a “higher” intelligence, rather than just a “different” kind of intelligence peculiar to certain species that can make use of it.

But after two verses of madcap antics in front the mirror, Shadow in the third verse of “Through the Mirror” goes and sticks a semiotic wedge in between two major boards of this higher self-awareness of ours: between (a) the body and any inherent self-notion on one side and on the other, (b) the image of that body produced by light and shadow in the mirror and the notion of the self that an external gaze (whether the subject’s or his neighbours’) produces from the mirror image of the body.

If your reflection’s right eye is on your right side, how could he be you? Isn’t an actual person’s right eye on your left side?

If we compare what Shadow is doing in “Through the Mirror” with what Spoiler does in “My Shadow” we see where the younger Calypsonian is obviously, and most likely deliberately, taking up a thread left by the elder. Shadow obviously grew up hearing, and hearing of, Spoiler. But in the same way that Shadow over the years has built upon and deepened his exploration of certain topics that he himself pioneered and/or adopted early in his career (e.g., aliens, robots, jumbies, sentient animals), Shadow takes Spoiler’s “My Shadow” as his jumping-off point and takes it to new and unprecedented philosophical depths.

Did Spoiler’s title have anything to do with Shadow’s selection of his very soubriquet? That’s another story, and a post for another day.

In conclusion, topically speaking there were few places Spoiler wouldn’t go, but analytically speaking there were many paths he would or could not cut. A suicide on the train tracks (i.e., cutting off your head to spite your shadow) or a greedy funeral undertaker who has his own brother declared dead when said sibling oversleeps are dark (and darkly hilarious) dramas, and are as disquieting as Spoiler ever got. If Spoiler ever commented on, say, the slow-rolling panic that accompanies aging and the approach of death, it was on some clever, chipper merry-go-round of a Calypso like “Fountain of Youth,” rather than on the round of samsara that Shadow gives us in many of his songs about aging and death from “Story of Life” (1973) to “Aging System” (1984) to “Scratch Meh Back” (2000). For Spoiler is from a time when the Calypso “blade” that David Rudder describes was buried deep inside the velvet of Calypso’s soothing exegetical glove. In Spoiler’s corpus of singles the pile of the glove was so plush in fact that you could forget the blade was clenched there at all. You were often too busy being massaged by laughter and delight to take up his critical theme, and noodle strenuously through to its cutting edge.

Spoiler’s was a time in which a lyrical wizard such as he was more inclined, and perhaps compelled by circumstances, towards the escapist rather than the dialectical. Still, some of Spoiler’s own elders, such as Atilla the Hun in the pre-World War II years were defiant and confrontational critics of the prevailing powers of their time, often getting banned by censors. So it is more likely that Spoiler’s more playful and pacific personality bid him steer around such controversy. In the years following the trauma of war, he also might have hesitated to be too harsh and divisive a critical voice.

What Spoiler never evinced in political directness or philosophical breadth he more than made up for in lyrical complexity. And several of the most famous songs by Spoiler are not only feats of verbal dexterity but of mental acrobatics as well. Some compositions such as “Talking Backwards” require not only great stamina in remembering and delivering the lyrics in rapid fire but also seem to have required the composer to see words and sentences backwards and forwards in his mind so that he could make them rhyme in either direction. In the minds of many, only the Mighty Dougla’s “Family Confusion” has ever rivalled the shear tongue-tying verbal steeplechase of “Talking Backwards.” Thus, more than almost any other Calypsonian, Spoiler turned the musical form into a kind of Olympic sport.

Relator almost triumphing in his struggle with Spoiler’s “Talking Backwards,”  “Money in the Bank,” and “I Went to College”

From their contrasting lyrical approaches to fantasy, irony, conundrum and the uncanny, we see that whereas Shadow often adopts the question as his rhetorical mode, Spoiler often adopted the puzzle as his.

We can only speculate how much further Spoiler would have developed certain motifs if he had lived longer. What would he have done with the aging motif of “Fountain of Youth”? Or the science fiction motif of “Mad Scientist” in which people of tomorrow conceive babies by wireless and make routine afternoon excursions to the moon and Mars? How much longer would he have chased, and been chased by, the doppelganger he had first confronted in Calypsos like “Twin Brother”? Spoiler’s mischievous humour might have given us increasingly preposterous scenarios around these and other fertile topics. Of course aging, death, machines, robots, sentient animals, aliens and doppelgangers are motifs that have been developed into rich, important, recurring themes by Shadow and with a distinctly different, less bombastic, and clearly more philosophical intent.

 

Endnotes

[i] For a transcription of this poem, see fellow WordPress site: http://fadograph.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/the-spoilers-return-derek-walcott/

[ii]Alvin C. Daniell, liner notes for Mighty Spoiler: Unspoilt, Ice Records Ice 950502 (CD), 1995; Keith Q. Warner, Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso: a Study of the Calypso as Oral Literature (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1985),114.

[iii] Sigmund Freud, An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1919), 222-242.

[iv] For a brief history of “theory of self” experiemts, see: http://nautil.us/issue/13/symmetry/what-do-animals-see-in-a-mirror

 

Let’s take up a loose thread from the earlier post, “Judges Jump to Conclusions.” In the recording and Dimanche Gras performance of “What’s Wrong With Me?” Shadow pulls out an old and familiar bone of contention from under his hat. But by 2000 he had sharpened this bone to a spike:

They took all my music,

Disguised it as Soca,

Deprived me of credit,

Which I owned as I suffered.

Few Calypso aficionados take this perennial claim of Shadow’s seriously. There are two versions of the Soca creation story and one of them has ossified into an uncontestable tablet.

The prevailing orthodoxy confidently maintains that Lord Shorty invented a music called “Sokah” around 1973, evidenced in his single “Indrani.” The narrative, and part of the apologetics, of this creation story come from Shorty himself. He described his intentional innovation of what many musicians of the early ‘70s passively characterised as the ‘dying art form of Calypso.’[1] Shorty set out to cross-fertilize the essential Afro-Caribbean structure of Calypso (albeit with no shortage of Spanish, French and Celtic melodies in the mix) with the rhythms and, in the case of “Indrani” and several other later compositions (including “Om Shanti Om”), Indian-inspired melodies as well. This was a stroke of genius on his part, and was something, arguably, only a Trinbagonian could do given the size and cultural import of the South Asian demographic in this birthplace of Calypso.

Thus from (1) a vexed concern about the impending “death” of Calypso, (2) a heady inspiration to unite chief musical genres of Trinidad & Tobago, and (3) the convenient opportunity (or providence) of being able to reach for these traditions within himself as a native of strongly Afro-Indo Princes Town in southern Trinidad, Lord Shorty genetically engineered a new music. He called the music “Sokah,” with the prefix “So” representing “the soul of calypso” and the “kah” representing “the Indian influence in the music.”[2]

Now this latter reference to “kah” has always been a bit mysterious to me because Shorty never tells us what “kah” means so much as what it connotes for him. When pressed on this cryptic “Indian thing” in “kah” he offered that “kah” is the “first letter of the Indian alphabet” (in fact it is the first consonant of the Devanagari system, which you often learn after you’ve learned how to write your vowels). So we can match the “So” that is Calypso’s “soul” to the “beginning” that’s suggested by “kah” to denote a new direction, a new soul, a reincarnation, if you will, of Calypso music.[3] It is precisely because of Shorty’s philosophical description (augmented by other musicians, journalists and scholars), and perhaps more importantly, his naming of Sokah, that he is given credit for inventing this music. And what a music it became!

Lord Shorty (later Ras Shorty) with Robin Ramjitsingh and Bisram Moonilal_early 1970s Image from the brilliant folks at Zocalo Poets (http://zocalopoets.com/2014/02/28/kaiso-calypso-soca-pepper-it-tt-style/)

Lord Shorty (later Ras Shorty) with Robin Ramjitsingh and Bisram Moonilal, early 1970s
Image from the brilliant folks at Zocalo Poets
(http://zocalopoets.com/2014/02/28/kaiso-calypso-soca-pepper-it-tt-style/)

This new Sokah music was as exciting as it was controversial. Calypso purists seemed content to watch Calypso die pure (which it never was, what with musicians from Roaring Lion to Kitchener having often laced it with Jazz and Classical music) than witness this Frankensteinian resuscitation by dhantals, dholaks and other Indian instruments seemingly patched together with the European and African ones already in use. Inversely, some Indo-Trinidadians were unsettled and offended by the mischievous and lascivious description of the female protagonist in Sokah’s flagship song, “Indrani” and felt this Afro-Trinidadian, Shorty, was belittling “their” women and by extension the Indian musical traditions he was referencing in the tune. But musicians had taken notice of Shorty’s new sound.

For its part you could call the troublesome new music a hybrid, because hybrids are simply the product of mixture but cannot themselves produce offspring. If you want another hybrid like the one you’ve produced, you have to create a new one from similar ingredients and mix them from scratch. This Sokah was a hybrid, not a new species. Inspired people have continued to make the same kind of hybrid all the way up to contemporary masters like Mungal Patasar and Pantar, and some Soca-Chutney composers, mixing similar Afro-Indo ingredients from scratch and getting their own hybrids. One might say that even Shorty himself was attempting a second Sokah hybrid from scratch, when he seems to have come up with something else. After his 1974 album ,The Love Man, received harsh criticism for his continued use of Indo-Caribbean innovations (complex musical structures that were also stressing out his musicians), he dropped the Indian instruments themselves, replaced them with Western ones, but kept the Indian-inspired rhythms and melodies they had been playing. The yet newer sound on only some of the songs from his 1975 album Endless Vibration was a strikingly international sound, somewhat akin to the Afrobeat we could hear from Osibisa and Manu Dibango, but still unmistakably West Indian.

Although songs like “Om Shanti Om” (from the 1978 Soca Explosion album) would revisit the earlier Afro-Indo musical experiments of “Indrani,” much of the new sounds on Endless Vibrations and the following 1976 album Sweet Music were not those of the hybrid formula Shorty first called “Sokah.” Now the music was a funky, disco-oriented music that journalists themselves had to come up with an explanation for. It was writers listening to this new international dance music who reinterpreted the meaning of the word “Sokah” and changed it’s spelling to “Soca”—the “So” kept to mean “Soul” (which was what Trinis called Rhythm & Blues and Funk music collectively) and “ca” simply designating Calypso. The new funky Calypso sound and it’s name were interpreted, reinterpreted, or as Shorty sometimes insisted, misinterpreted, as a combination of American Soul music and Calypso.

Complicating the situation further was the fact that in 1977 Shorty himself put out a super funky album with an enormous crew, and with him talking in a quasi-American accent (part of a monologue style popular among R&B artists of the time). The tremendously influential album was called Sokah: the Soul of Calypso and its name, while making no reference to Indo-Trinidadian music (or the mixture or mélange of T&T musics supposedly at the heart of Sokah) referenced instead the precise two components that journalists had identified as the two main ones in the new music: “Soul” and “Calypso.” And by 1978, Shorty had abandoned his “Sokah” spelling and, seeming to say ‘oh to hell with it,’ called his 1978 album Soca Explosion. On that album, again, he returned to the Indo-Afro-Caribbean formula of “Indrani” in “Om Shanti Om” and “Come with Me” but in other songs like the irresistible and savage attack on Dr. Williams, “Money is No Problem” and the psalm-like challenge to Reggae’s Rastafarian, bible-quoting dominance of the airwaves “Who God Bless,” the international Afrobeat style continued to reformulate the meaning of the word “Soca.”

It seems that while Shorty was still figuring out the exciting thing he was doing, how he should describe it, and what he should call it journalists and indeed the public were making some decisions of their own. Soca for them was a crossbreed of Soul and Calypso, Indian music optional.

It was this international Afro-Disco Calypso that inspired Maestro, Merchant, Lord Nelson, Black Stalin and even seduced Kitchener out of his traditionalist watchtower. This “Soca” was not a hybrid. It was a new species, able to reproduce in the minds and studios of dozens of Calypsonians. Even Kitchener’s and Sparrow’s! The prominent bass-lines and lyrical, often staccato horns blowing in unison were joined by spacey-sounding synthesizers, organs and other electronic instruments. People happily crowned Shorty the inventor of this music, tracing it right back to him, even though they had essentially discarded his definition and his name for the music. Soca was the new music of Trinidad & Tobago and indeed the Caribbean, with Antigua’s Short Shirt and Montserrat’s Arrow among the major disciples and descendants blossoming across the Lesser Antilles, all mastering the new funky arrangements.

After Maestro’s sudden death in an auto accident in 1977, grieving fans called for his recognition as a co-author of Soca, introducing the second tablet of Soca’s otherwise monolithic history. But Shorty himself recounted his friend Maestro’s original skepticism about “Sokah,” which he says did not alleviate until the Indian rhythms and melodies were finally being played on Western instruments. Only then, says Shorty, was Maestro eager to copy his arrangements, employ some of his crew and even use some of the same vocalisations on songs like his 1976 “Savage.”[4] Indeed you can sing entire phrases from “Savage” along with the tune of Shorty’s “Sweet Music” of the same year but the melodies and horn arrangements are quite different installments in the same genre.

The disagreement over whether Maestro helped invent Soca partially stems from the popular, and somewhat justified, tendency to trace the new music back not to 1973, the year of “Indrani,” but back to 1976, the year that both Shorty and Maestro came out with records that were almost entirely the new funky Afrobeat Calypso—the former with the album Sweet Music and the latter releasing the album Maestro ’76 and the 12-inch (or “disco”) single “Savage.” To boot, the following year, Shorty and his Vibrations International orchestra released the aforementioned Sokah: Soul of Calypso, featuring the exegetical song, “Vibrations Groove” in which the musicians systematically assemble a Soca tune one part at a time, demonstrating what “Socah” is, a la Soul singer King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” of 1967. And the same year, 1977, Maestro releases an album entitled Anatomy of Soca in which he defends the new genre saying that music can’t be made “for the old folks all de time” (in the song “Soca Music”).

If you’re a Shorty exponent, you see Maestro swooping in and reaping the benefits of three years of experimentation by Shorty. If you are a Maestro advocate, you see those three years as prologue to an essentially simultaneous invention by two musical geniuses, one that may have been inevitable anyway, given the importance of R&B and Funk in Trinidad “blocko parties” of the time.

And in the midst of this controversy stroll the Shadow watchers who contest this whole linear chronology. They bid us to recall where Shadow was and what he was doing during this whole “invention of Soca” period. What was Shadow doing in 1973-1976 exactly? What is the foundation of Shadow’s claim to Soca? Why does he seem to describe Shorty as a Johnny-come-lately to the new music in his song “Dat Soca Boat”?

…He said he is de Soca king

[That] I can’t make with de Soca king

I call de mental hospital

“Come quick to avoid a funeral”

 

A man came in my house to beat me

He came in my house to fight me

I belong to de house of music

He is either crazy or real sick

 

But I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat

(Chorus: I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat)

Just don’t want to sink dat Soca boat

(Chorus: I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat)

 

I doin’ my own thing

Don’t know why they molesting

I am musically ‘sick’

Mummy beat me with music stick

If I tackle de Soca

De boat might turn over

(“Dat Soca Boat” from If I Coulda, I Woulda, I Shoulda, 1979)

Is Shadow’s claim completely groundless? Is the battle for the watershed of Soca threatening to become a Battle Royale?

Now follow this carefully:

(1) if what makes Shorty’s and Maestro’s music “Soca” is more so the cross-pollination of “SO-ul” and CA-lypso (and not Shorty’s Indo-Caribbean instrumentation that mostly goes missing by 1976), and

(2) if what makes “Soul” music itself what it was to Trinis at that time in the 1970s (i.e., Funk), which was characterised by the pioneering decision to put the bass on top of the rest of the music, essentially having it play rhythm and melody at the same time, and

(3) if this unprecedented melodic bass-line is precisely what Shadow did with “Bassman” back in 1974, then hadn’t Shadow fused Soul and Calypso in 1974, not 1976?

And add this:

If Shadow is universally praised for his originality, if not his downright strangeness, and as journalists such as Bukka Renie (2000) have declared “he copies no one”[5] and yet his musical oeuvre is considered “Soca” today, then what is Soca exactly? Is Soca what we have been defining it as, according to Shorty, who took 3-4 years to define it before Maestro walked away with part of it?

When exactly did Shadow join Soca’s ranks so seamlessly by just being himself? Or maybe we should ask, “when did Soca come and join Shadow’s programme (‘already in progress’) so seamlessly that when we look back on Shadow’s career we call it all “Soca”? Because we do indeed see Shadow as both a Calypso and a Soca artiste going all the way back to that weird, infectious song with the walking bass-line and lightning-fast staccato horn bursts, called “Bassman.”

Put yet another way: if Soca came and met Shadow “doing his own thing,” encompassed Shadow’s music seamlessly, and neither Soca nor Shadow were completely transformed or overthrown by the encounter, can Shadow be described as having ‘adopted’ Soca or did Soca adopt Shadow? Perhaps we should consider whether the category of Soca itself was not expanded by Shadow.

And what of Shadow doing the same thing to Calypso what Funk did to Rhythm & Blues? Don’t Shadow and Art De Coteau hone in on that bass-line, turn it into melody and rhythm at the same time and put it front and centre in the music (which we hear musicians doing in the aforementioned “Memphis Soul Stew,” in which we witness Funk trying to break away from R&B)?[6] It is true that Shadow and De Coteau didn’t reevaluate and elevate the drum kit in the same way as Funk does, but neither does Shorty or Maestro.

So Shadow didn’t just put a little bit of Superfly in his Calypso (i.e., he didn’t just adopt Funk as a flavour), he fundamentally changed Calypso’s use of bass (and horns) by reevaluating Calypso’s structure in much the same way that Funk reevaluated R&B’s. Shadow adopted the mechanics of the Funk revolution rather than simply importing/adopting its finished products.

If we insist upon the orthodoxy that places Lord Shorty (and secondarily, Maestro) at the watershed of Soca between 1973 and 1976, and for sake of simplicity exclude Shadow and Calypso/Soca arranger extraordinaire Art de Coteau with their early 1970s experiments with melodic bass lines, Sci-Fi-sounding synthesizers and those rapid-fire, staccato brass arrangements, Shadow still remains a masterful innovator and precursor of the 1976 So-Ca (i.e., Soul & Calypso) phenomenon. In the end, the 1973 Sokah of “Indrani” is not the funky, Osibisa-esque Soca of 1976-1982, which swings back and forth like a pendulum between the hectic abandon of the Disco dance floor (e.g., Maestro’s “Bionic Man” of 1976) and the theatrical grandeur of a blaxploitation soundtrack (e.g., Black Stalin’s “Vampire Year” of 1981). And we cannot deny that starting in his 1973-1974 studio recordings Shadow and Art De Coteau pioneered an experimentation with Calypso that became part of the history of that same funky music other people called Soca. Art De Coteau, after all, arranged for several of the Soca giants. We can also observe that this Soca confluence happened without Shadow needing to make any adjustments to his steady programme of innovation during that period.

We might see Shadow’s music as a branch of Calypso that punched a separate and earlier hole in the perimeter of that category, not far from the hole through which the new species, Soca, would sprout later in 1976. Maybe Shadow’s innovation and Shorty’s weren’t exactly the same but today, after virtually everyone has tried their hand at Soca, it is hard to tell the two legacies apart.

If you think I am being unnecessarily harsh on what I must call ‘the runway narrative of Shorty’s creation of Soca,’ my contestation is not of Shorty’s account of events nearly as much as it is a rejection of the way Caribbean scholars construct history. Our former colonial masters have taught us a history that is essentially a story of wars and great men—processes, women and the Global South be damned.

If you read any history of, say, the gingerbread house, a fascinating example of the cosmopolitan nature of our Trinbagonian and Caribbean culture, you will swear that a Scotsman, George Brown, was responsible for the whole phenomenon of openwork architecture, in Trinidad at least. Countless Indo-Trinis installing Mughal-inspired openwork jalis (transoms) in their houses (like the ones at Lion House in Chaguanas), numberless Africans building porches around their houses, and the British and French Orientalist adoption of Chinese pavilions bringing those to Trinidad, Haiti and Martinique are not nearly as interesting as the biographical story of a man, George Brown, who ‘revolutionized’ the architecture of Port-of-Spain with his mechanical fretsaw. All those Africans, Indians and Chinese (and even a fair number of Frenchmen and Spaniards too) are subsumed beneath the billowing trouser legs of one George Brown, a fella who basically edited and selected from a vocabulary assembled by thousands of nameless masters before him. The stories of steel bands, firms, trade unions, political parties and indeed the whole nation of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago are told (and taught) in much the same way.

This is “Great Man” history. And this is the history we tell of Shorty and Soca. It is the kind of history that Shorty and Shadow themselves grew up with so they too have entertained contentious views of their roles in Soca history.

Shadow has also entertained us with several Calypsos on this controversy, including the two mentioned in this post.

I for one love to watch a thing “begin” because it is trying to watch something “begin” that you realize there is never a precise beginning moment at all. The microscopic, sub-atomic grain of a process as it unfolds renders a “beginning” more like a shorthand designation of a general time and place than like a hard truth. And as Western scientists and Western religions argue over how the universe “began,” I am always struck by their tacit assumption that a beginning is a very real thing, rather than a quaint, somewhat ethnic, literary device that gets a story going.

I am still looking for the “beginning” that holds up to analysis. The creation of Soca is one such contested beginning, with Shadow a little earlier than or simultaneous with Shorty depending on who you ask, and with Maestro arriving just as the DJ turns up the speakers in the blocko party. Everyone else seems to arrive at the party to find the three of them already there…diggin’ Rhythm & “Blues in [their] shiny shoes.”

Endnotes

[1] Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now vol. 1 (Arima: Book Masters, 1995), 63-64.

[2] Jocelyn Guilbault, Governing Sound (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007), 173-174; Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now, 65.

[3] Jocelyn Guilbault, Governing Sound, 173. In fact, the explanation Shorty gave Guilbault when she asked him in 1997 about the significance of the latter half of this “Sokah” spelling is the fullest I’ve found in the sources I’ve located.

[4] Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now vol. 1, 74.

[5] Bukka Renie, “Shadow’s Lament: Am I Ugly?” (http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html)

[6] Circa the mid to late 1960s was when pioneers like James Brown finally made an entirely new genre out of the increasingly clarified “Funk” category. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funk

Image

People around Shadow have heard him speculate for years that the Calypso judges just don’t like his looks, and by that he has never meant his macabre skeleton costume or the ominous persona he has built around his black suits and hats. Rather, in a career spanning over forty years, one in which he has been crowned Calypso Monarch only once by judges of either the old CDC (Carnival Development Committee, or the “Carnival Destruction Committee” as Black Stalin once called them) or the new National Carnival Commission Shadow has been wondering whether it is because he is “ugly” that the judges have repeatedly snubbed him. He has mentioned the ugliness issue in many Calypsos, not always directly naming himself. In “Winston” (1973) a relative tells him ‘francoment’ that he’s ugly but in “Deceiving” (1978) he admonishes us not to judge books and people by their unattractive covers. Direct or indirect, Shadow has considered in song that people think he is ugly.

Bukka Rennie confirmed it in 2000 when he mentioned in his “Shadow’s Lament” article that, “There is a quite special home in Maracas where we “lime” every year on the day of the calypso semi-finals and this year as we viewed the TV broadcast, Shadow came on and began this song [“What’s Wrong With Me?”] and there was this lady who sat up front, a distinguished professional, quite petite, brown and dainty, who unconsciously answered Shadow’s question, “Am I ugly or what?” with the following utterance: “Oh most definitely, you are!” (http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html)

With Shadow’s constant use of the question as his philosophical mode and with the sneaking perception (whether his or that of brown, dainty others) of his “ugliness,” it is hard not to draw parallels between him and Socrates, pioneer of the famed, questioning Socratic method, denizen of Athens not at all famous for his handsomeness.

“Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates’s time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man’s political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant.”

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (First published online Fri Sep 16, 2005; substantive revision Wed Mar 19, 2014,http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/)

The description of Socrates echoes Shadow’s own description of an ugly man in the song “Deceiving,”

A man walking in town

and he have a nose bridge like King Kong

People will watch him scornfully

To me that is stupidity.

He was born with his features

So don’t give him no horrors.

Just take it light

The man aint ugly for spite.

 

So don’t let the looks deceive you

No no no no no no no

Looks might keep you far from what’s true

Yea yea yea yea yea yea yea

 

The cover of the book could be so scornful to your eyes

Yet the letters on the pages form the words to make you wise

 

That is the truth

and the truth is the fact

You could try like a brute

but you can’t get away from that.

Socrates’ appearance was judged by the physiognomic standards of his time. The ancient Greeks were among the first cultures to approach eugenics on a national level, trying to breed themselves into superior health, intelligence and beauty. Mostly unscientifically, the popular imagination of the Athenians especially associated a person’s physical features with certain aspects of their personality. In that way the length of your chin or the breadth of your forehead, the thickness of your lips or the shape of your nose was believed to say something about your character. The 19th century pseudo science of phrenology[i] (which purported to predict/decipher traits like criminality and sexual promiscuity from the shapes of heads and faces) has its roots in the arbitrary catalogue of human features provided by Greek physiognomy.

Greek statues still embody these physiognomic aesthetics from their high nose bridges to their full but small lips. Even those expressionless Classical faces and conspicuously tiny sculpted penises have something to say about the elevation of the intellect over the bestial urges that was aspired to in Greek art, society and genetics. But in bronze and marble statuary, these seem far more innocuous than the prejudice and ridicule a person with Socrates’s flat, broad nose and large eyes might have suffered on the street.

One wonders if the philosopher did not develop the arrogant demeanour for which he is infamous to cut down on the number of direct confrontations he might have sustained otherwise upon simply entering the agora, that famous marketplace of ideas. My own experience as a ‘black male’ in America is that if I walk around acting like I own the place, I am harassed less often by police. Other people’s prejudice is tempered just a little by one’s own arrogance or pretence thereof. Of course the down side of this “don’t you dare” attitude is that once your detractors have been denied the opportunity to insult and humiliate you in public they start plotting behind your back to ‘get you good, once and for all,’ and this is precisely what happened to Socrates. He would face increasingly serious accusations from people in power.

In the Apology Plato speaks to some of these accusations brought against Socrates:

“dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause. These are the accusers whom I dread; for they are the circulators of this rumor, and their hearers are too apt to fancy that speculators of this sort do not believe in the gods.”

From the Apology by Plato (transl. Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html)

The accusers’ panicked concern that a person who interrogates everything on earth or in heaven is a threat to state and religion is the dark side of these ostensibly contemplative Athenians betwixt their marble colonnades. And their manic response to Socrates has sometimes earned them a place as the errant theocracy in literature and art, including the famous painting, “Death of Socrates” by neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. In the painting Socrates has chosen to administer his own execution rather than trying to escape or letting an executioner carry out the killing. He is about to drink the poison proffered him at the behest of the Athenian judges, but not before he delivers one last exegesis. After this final lesson the scheming clerics and politicians finally get their way and the wise, “ugly” seeker they could countenance no longer dies in the arms of his students and colleagues (a despondent Plato pictured at the foot of the bed). Yes, the ancient Greeks sometimes didn’t know what they had, and sometimes they even killed their philosophers.

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787 Oil on canvas 129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in)

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
Oil on canvas
129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in)

The relationship of the philosopher to authority is not always predictable. Some philosophers such as Aristotle and Confucius align quite nicely to the state’s (including the theocracy’s) concerns. But the great questioner is very predictably the recipient of either benign neglect or a public hanging or something in between, depending on when and where they live.

Shadow lives in a highly plural, cosmopolitan and fairly prosperous republic, one built, fuelled and subsidised by deceptively ‘endless’ fossil fuel resources, so his battle is not for his life. He doesn’t even have to defend his musical life, because as long as there are audiences (and if I am not mistaken about him, even if there aren’t) Shadow will keep on making music. But on stage on Dimanche Gras night, he has usually lost the fight for his due recognition. This is not to say that in a society where “every creed and race find an equal place” (as our national anthem concludes) that there aren’t a myriad of prejudices regarding race, gender, religion and a host of other socially constructed/inflected categories.

With little doubt, we can imagine that Shadow has internalised certain popular notions about features such as his own. In a tragicomic Calypso from the very earliest part of his career, Shadow recounts being insulted, harangued and tortured as a child by family members. As he goes running from his mean nenny (which can be a grandmother, aunt or godmother depending on how a family uses the word) to his grandfather, the old man rebuffs him:

Go from me,

yuh so ugly,

you lookin’ like a blight,

get away from my eyesight

From “Winston” (from the album Bassman, 1973)

 

Calypsonians and comedians are known to treat their ugliest biographical details as so much raw material atop which they apply varying layers of poetic license. So the precise level of truth in this pathetic childhood autobiography remains a little uncertain. We do know that the young Winston Bailey grew up in Tobago with his grandparents.[ii]

Everyone in T&T has seen this country’s physiognomic version of ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Who do we consider beautiful? It’s a compliment to be called “red.” And in the end, that reddish brown is the majority colour in the nation. If you’re too black they’re going to call you “tar baby” and all kinds of nonsense in school. And having gone to at least one elite school in Trinidad, I can attest that I have seen white children occasionally get some of the same treatment for their ‘ghostly’ pallor etc., though it is never as vociferous as what the dark children get. After all, there is a massive propaganda machine, namely American movies, that counterbalances any excessive criticism of Caucasitude by presenting millions of glamourous images of the European phenotype to Trinbagonians. In fact the only group that gets teased (in childhood) and stigmatised (in adulthood) nearly as much as darker people are the Chinese in Trinidad. There is a rainbow of Chinese nicknames, insults and innuendos.

Brown is best in T&T. It is the Trinbago version of Greek eugenics, much like the mestizaje that Latin Americans celebrated in the 19th and early 20th century during their periods of independence—an elevation of racial mixture above racial ‘purity’ that sounded well enough, except that it always privileged European institutions as rational, above First Nations and African ones, even when the cultural boons from these darker ancestors was staring them in the face…in their religious, artistic, musical and other cultural foundations.

So it is quite possible that Shadow’s West African phenotype has indeed had something to do with the benign neglect he has received from Calypso judges and some other captains of culture. Judges might have seen him as a unique voice, a classic in his own little sub-genre, but they were not going to honour him with the Calypso Monarch crown if they could help it. Wasn’t there some more accessible, marketable, sweeter, prettier singer to be the face of Calypso for the next year?

In 1974 when the crowd was convinced that the relative newcomer, The Shadow!, had won the Calypso Monarch competition, when even Sparrow himself was prepared to bow out gracefully after he saw Shadow work the crowd, the judges gave the crown to handsome, sweet-voiced, and somewhat surprised Sparrow anyway.[iii] There are people who do not recognise the Calypso judges as political players, but just like saying you don’t like or follow politics is itself a political position, not recognising the politics at the Savannah doesn’t magically make the politics disappear.

Every Calypso monarch has been a political appointment, as the very term “monarch” might imply. And in 2000 when Shadow finally won the monarch, it was after he had, like Gandhi with the colonial British, shamed the judges into doing the just, right and overdue thing. They practically had no choice but to make him king that year—because Shadow had stopped threatening them with infernal tortures like in “Jump Judges Jump” (1976) and “Tell Them” (1981) and resorted instead to his most sage lyrical tactic, the question.

 

Am I ugly or what?

Bad lucky or what?

I have rabies or what?

Do I eat babies or what?

 

What’s wrong with me?!

 

At the end of each verse Shadow repeats the question “what’s wrong with me?” four times, with the four-woman chorus on stage answering in call and response “We don’t know” to each interrogation. In the second half of the performance, Shadow begins to hold his mic out to the audience (and the judges) after each “What wrong with me?” so that they might answer…or consider the question more deeply.

It seems the judges stopped “eatin’ their chicken and drinkin’ stink rum” (from “Tell Them, 1981) just then. It was time to get back to work!

A sidebar here: note all the references straight back to the biographical “Winston,” as Shadow mentions running away from home, and as he asks whether his birth was a blight or a mistake. So from “Maybe I was unwanted, I don’t know” in “Winston” to “Maybe my birth was a mistake” in “What’s Wrong With Me?” Shadow returns to the question of why “people in authority” don’t seem to know what to do with him and cannot seem to appreciate what he has to offer. It is a sentiment well known to philosophers.

 

“The people in general are happy as if enjoying a great carnival.

Or, as climbing up a tower in spring.

I alone am tranquil,

and have made no signs,

Like a baby who is yet unable to smile;

Forlorn as if I had no home to go to.

Others all have more than enough,

I alone seem to be in want.

Possibly mine is the mind of a fool,

Which is so ignorant!

The vulgar are bright,

And I alone seem to be dull.

The vulgar are discriminative,

and I alone seem blunt.

I am negligent as if being obscure;

Drifting, as if being attached to nothing.

The people in general all have something to do,

And I alone seem to be impractical and awkward.

I alone am different from others.

But I value seeking sustenance from the Mother [the Tao].”

From Chapter Twenty of the Tao te Ching/Dao te Ching, by Lao Tze (I have combined my favourite English translation by Ch’u ta Kao with the Arthur Waley version here)

Like Shadow’s occasional trips into melancholy, Lao Tze’s twentieth chapter (or the ‘Lao Tze Blues’ as I have taken to calling it) has a completely different tone than the rest of his famous book. He seems sad and a little self-pitying, but in the end he tells us it is because he is not easily satisfied by what satisfies other people. He seeks bigger answers to questions the people don’t even ask (or might be discouraged from asking so they have festivals instead).

Shadow’s plight is that he practices an art that is celebrated mostly during one such escapist festival. And this has been a major source of the tension between him and the judges, his music and that of others in a competition, and between him and those judges. Judges are perfectly ready to hear a song with a “message.”[iv] But if Shadow’s music can ever be said to have something as quaint as a “message,” it is a message judges cannot understand.

In fact, at the Calypso competition of 2000, Shadow was asking this question “What’s wrong with me?” in earnest. He was not just being Socratic. As a gifted person he has had trouble putting himself in the tiny shoes of the essentially conservative and somewhat technocratic Calypso judges, people charged with recognising and, some would say, preserving the merits of the musical form. Certainly it’s enough to make you doubt your own value if year after year you put in a Herculean effort on your compositions, arrangements and performances and receive little official recognition, sometimes not even making the Calypso finals. The judges have been a constant vexation for Shadow as he has sometimes wondered whether he should even return to the Savannah to submit to the apparent whims of these experts.

But does Shadow suffer from low self-esteem as a result of the judges’ repeated snubs? He certainly gives in to speculation and doubt in some of his lyrics, and the angst has made for good, sometimes darkly hilarious poetry and music (I’ll be posting about ‘gizzards and coconut shells’ in the future). But in Shadow’s “very consistent,” indeed stubborn, adhesion to his signature style in music and dress, to his philosophical interests and supramundane fascinations, and his return on most years to the rigours of the competition, we see a bard quite assured of his musical mission. And it is no secret that Shadow shows up on any stage first and foremost for the fans. He is not the disinterested modern genius who couldn’t care less (or pretends to not care less) whether people appreciate his contribution or not. Shadow thrives off the energy of his audiences. But he has always been haunted by the judges’s lack of wisdom.

The whole reason I brought up Socrates today is because across the ages from each other here are two men who have had some serious problems with judges. One was executed. The other has spent his career in a kind of exile (and let us not forget that official recognition comes with great sums of money with which one can pay musicians and buy studio time). The two philosophers here have been regarded by the arbitrary standards of their times as nuisances for not looking right, not acting right, for asking too many damned questions and for not having a clear “message.”

 

For it’s concern with Shadow’s 2000 “What’s Wrong With Me?,” this post has ridden in on the coattails of Bukka Rennie’s article “Shadow’s Lament.” I dedicate this post to Bukka Rennie, for since the early 1970s he has been an unparalleled connoisseur and herald of Shadow’s genius.

 

Shadow_mic_Socrates

 

[i] For the wild and wacky world of faces, races and theories without bases, you can peruse the nicely illustrated Wikipedia pages on Physiognomy and Phrenology (some would say a Wiki is all they’re worth): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physiognomy and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology).

[ii] For convenience see Debbie Jacob’s 1995 Caribbean Beat article on the then “Uncrowned King” of Calypso: http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-16/shadow-uncrowned-king#axzz2y1EJY7is

[iii] For a very brief account of that and other similar episodes, see the online article “Shadow: The Man and His Music” from the Tobago News: http://www.thetobagonews.com/news/Shadow___The_man__and_his__music-118628809.html

[iv] For the controversy over Shadow winning without a “message,” see Bukka Rennie’s aforementioned 2000 article “Shadow’s Lament: Am I Ugly?” online, http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html

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.

Arranged by Art De Coteau

Musicians (as listed on the LP, De Zess Man, Zess Music CR 143)
V. Phillip, 1st Trumpet
K. Brown, 2nd Trumpet
J. Alexander, Trombone
Boucaud, Saxophone
L. George, Tenor Saxophone
C. Davidson, Piano
Gordon, Guitar
K. Coombs, Drums
Bobby, Congas
Reynold, Cow Bells
Angus, Bass
D. Boothman, Clave
P. Goddard, Synthesizer

Album design: Art Cyrillo