Bukka Rennie

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Shadow and Blake Revisited

31, May 1999
Listening to Mr Trump strut his stuff about "putting T&T on the map" was not all that painful. In fact, that is what we expected of him. What else could one such as him say given the deception that is today an integral part of diplomacy.

What really hurts is the willingness with which so many of us gobble up the poppycock thrown our way, so greedy are we for validation and certification and measurement from abroad, from "foreign". It is as if we are forever destined to await "Columbus' doomed-burdened caravels" to be discovered and re-discovered ad infinitum.

This failure to define our own way of seeing and doing; this refusal to place confidence in our own "obeah" as Best and Leroy Clarke would say; this willingness to see only through the "eyes of the other" as described by the literary pundits such as Ramchand and Lamming, is indeed a most in-depth, enfeebling plague. The response to the piece we did on Shadow titled "Shadow: the William Blake of calypso", carried on May 1, brings the very issue to the fore once again.

The piece was put on the net and one particular "chat-room" of friends began to discuss the merits and demerits of the Shadow/Blake analogy.

One high-profile calypsonian had this to say: "Thanks for the piece on Shadow. It is a fine analysis save for one thing: the writer does not know Shadow. Shadow's lyrics are coloured by his beliefs and his upbringing.

"He believes in 'bad', that is, in jumbie and spirits and all kinda foolishness, evil, etc. Hence, his songs reflect those alienated responses. Blake, on the other hand was godly. He saw God in flowers, lambs, nature. Where Blake sees God, Shadow sees the Devil (Les Coteaux Jumbie)".

That response is quite interesting and socially revealing. We have been writing and talking about Shadow since he appeared in Blake's tent. Reason: we were and have remained totally fascinated with the man and his work. We have always felt that, whereas other calypsonians are explicit commentators, Shadow's work is caught up in his "being" and his symbolism needs clarifying.

Shadow is his own man. He "sees" through his own eyes and has the confidence to tell the world what he sees and in his own way and style. That is his strength and that is what the avant-garde rapso artists such as Ataklan have seen in his work and why they have adopted him as mentor instead of any of the urbanely, sanitised popular calypsonians who have been embraced by the middle-classes of the city.

In 1974 we did "Shadow thief we head: new structure to suit new mood", and we can recall that Chalkie took objection to a statement therein that there was an attempt to breakaway from the traditional calypso structure, and that "Bassman" was the "ultimate" in this regard. Come to think about it, Chalkie should not be blamed for this because it was the interviewer, one "Cupid", who felt that we were advocating that "Bassman" was the ultimate calypso and asked Chalkie to respond to this erroneous assumption.

In that very piece on Shadow, Kitchener was dubbed the "Grandmaster" for very specific reasons, and the very next year, 1975, Shorty launched his contribution "Endless Vibrations" with the opening line: "Change your musical structure!" And the soca revolution was well on its way.

Then we did two other pieces, "Shadow's hell: myth or reality" and "Shadow: society mad" because, despite acclaim by the masses, official society was still seeing Shadow as a clown and his lyrics as childish, crass foolishness, and his singing was described as "baying", in other words, inhumane.

One recalls how the Afro-American third-stream jazz instrumentalists used to be told by white people to stop "screaming and howling, fluttering sheets and banging doors and start blowing their horns." The earthiness unsettled their "Oh My Papa type" zone of comfort, just as Shadow's raucousness disturbs the smooth urbanity of the Port-of-Spain brown-skin middle-classes.

"Shadow: the William Blake of Calypso" was an extension of the three pieces gone before, using Blake, an alienated 18th century poet, as a key to understanding Shadow and reveal his universality and timelessness. It was deliberately published on May 1, the very day of his grand show "Dingolay in May". It was an attempt to get people to delve deeper into the man's work, the man's reasonings and the stirrings of his soul and so appreciate him this "black and ugly" Tobagonian from Les Coteaux a little more.

One person on the net felt that the analogy to Blake was far-fetched. Why is the analogy to Blake and Blake's England in the throes of early Industrialisation being viewed as far-fetched? Rejection and alienation and violence to the human spirit, to creative intelligence, the essence of humanity, is the connecting link.

Both Shadow and Blake experienced rejection and, in turn, rejected the basic underpinnings of Eurocentric society. Blake rejected the God of organised religion in his time. So too, because of his African religiosity, prevalent in Les Coteaux, Shadow can be inspired by "Farrel" since there is really no concept of Devil, and all Gods are ascribed human attributes of "good" and "bad".

In the Shango feast, if the nicest young girl is not allowed to ceremoniously placate Damballah's cravings with offerings of food and drink, etc, it is the view that he will not let the feast go on without untoward incidents. Likewise, at all times, the spirits of dead ancestors have to be appeased.

Both Blake in his time and Shadow, now, have created in their art very similar symbols of life and death, and of man's relation to nature in attempt to express their feelings, reasonings and truth. And they both did so with a childlike innocence that is not to be construed as childishness.

We have no doubt in my mind about the close affinity of these two in their thought patterns and approach to subject matter. It is uncanny. Listen to both of them:

I asked a thief to steal me a peach;
He turned up his eyes.
I asked a lithe lady to lie her down;
Holy and meek she cries.
As soon as I went
An Angel came. He winked at the thief
And smiled at the dame
And without one word said
Had a peach from the tree
And still as a maid
Enjoyed the lady.

What is wrong with dis world
Like it gone outa control
Lunatics in politics
Like they all come out to kicks.
They legalise alcohol
And sell it to Rufus
After which he had ball
And started to cuss
A policeman called Spinks
Came up and arrest him
First he paid for the drinks
And now he paying fuh drinking.

Do you see the common approach? Shadow came from Les Coteaux with these dark, stirrings in his soul, confident in his "jumbies" swirling around him. It is all about native sensibility and wit as the only basis from which to see and act differently.

e-mail: brenco@tstt.net.tt

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