Bukka Rennie

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Shadow: The 'William Blake' of Calypso

01, May 1999
O see a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in a hour..." That's a quote from "Auguries of Innocence" by William Blake a British philosopher- poet who lived in the period 1757-1827. Listen to Shadow- Winston Bailey, the only living philosopher-calypsonian in his calypso "Evolution": "I am locked in a dungeon/in the middle of evolution/can't find the key/to escape destiny..."

Here's Blake again: "A robin redbreast in a cage/Puts all heaven in a rage/A dog starved at his master's gate/Predicts the ruin of the State/The lamb misused breeds public strife/And yet forgives the butcher's knife... (Auguries of Innocence). And Listen again to Shadow: "Everything is in harmony/Until the farmer get hungry.../The farmer comes searching the nest/The cock bawl out loud in protest/Cook curry ochro!..."

If you can make the connections between the quoted pieces, the revelation comes. Nature and time and space and all social activity are directly linked and integrated and interrelated. As Blake was wont to surmise: the sun rises and humanity rejoices and moves, the sun sets and humanity stops and sleeps. Similarly Shadow would sing in his "My Belief": "I believe in the sun and the daylight/I believe in the little children/I believe in Life and its problems..."

In the three pieces that I have written to date on Shadow ie "New Structure to suit New Mood"(1974); "Shadow's Hell .... Myth or Reality?"(1975) and "Shadow: Society Mad"(1977), I have always maintained that Shadow in his very simplicity and apparent childish lyrics remains in fact our most complex calypsonian ever.

Unlike our numerous social commentators who comment on particular and specific events and issues of a political or socio-economic nature, Shadow contemplates natural phenomena and man's relations to the universe. It explains why his approach to most topics: poverty, pressure, friendship, honesty, jealousy, survival, truth, human rights etc and, mind you, all these are titles of actual Shadow calypsoes, signifies that tendency of philosophers to be abstract rather than concrete in their treatment of subject matter.

William Blake was no different in his simplicity, poetic abstractions and glorifying of nature. With such an approach both Blake and Shadow force us beyond the ordinariness of the mundane to contemplate the meaning of Life itself, our purpose on Earth, the essence of death and its consequences, the juxtaposing of nature's opposites and how we stand in relation to the rest of the universe; the stars, the moon, the sun, the animals, trees and the birds, etc.

Blake, became over centuries of time to be best known for the following poems: "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night..." and "Little Lamb who made thee?/Dost thou know who made thee?..." And moreso for the ending of the "Tiger" poem where he questions: "What immortal hand or eye/Dare frame they fearful symmetry?/Did he who made the Lamb make thee?..."

Likewise Shadow's philosophical questions and statements as evidenced in "What is Life?", "I Believe", "Everybody is Somebody", "One Love", etc shall guarantee the immortality of his work.

Besides their great ability to simplify abstract thought and to seek truth out of the dialectical clash of opposites eg, "the ladder of success is written in distress", both Blake and Shadow also hold in common a sense of alienation from society or officialdom. Blake grew up in 18th century England when the idyllic pastoral life of the countryside was giving way to the overcrowded towns and the exploitation of child-labour that was deemed a commercial necessity in the midst of the widespread Industrial Revolution and at that time there seemed to be little value placed on human existence.

Blake rejected all this and in his "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" created a body of poetic symbolism to make the meaning of his imagery more poetically powerful, and at the same time allowed him to protect himself from censorship in a time when one could be hanged for sedition against Church or State, from which he barely escaped on one occasion. Blake's alienation was reflected in his rejection of all social convention then. To him churches or organised religion were "mills of Satan" in which "Satan was called God and compelled man to serve him in abject submission." This God Blake called "Urizen" and he described him as "satanic holiness, revengeful, and a brooding, dark power hid."

In comparison, Shadow's world of myth and reality is as spiritually harsh. He emerges out of the pastoral settings and closeness to nature of Les Coteaux, Tobago, to confront the madness of an urban existence that signifies him as "alien".

He comes in the midst of a quest, a demand, and an imperative of political Independence, to transform society unto an industrial basis as a platform to facilitate true development, but this "de-colonisation" process is bogged down by Euro-centric parameters that rejects genuine self-determination of a people as it rejects everything about Shadow's persona: his blackness, his ethnicity (Tobagonian-ness), and most of all his artistic expressions which are described as "growls and groans and primaeval yells."

But he emerges after 1970, in the wake of a groundswell of "black consciousness" that clearly establishes that the Eurocentric creole-culture, the culture of officialdom, could no longer accommodate or embrace the divergences of all who settled here by force or choice and now wished to proclaim their own ways of seeing and doing. Shadow philosophically spearheads this groundswell, he becomes both the medium and the message as he confronts official society and waylays the Calypso Monarchy.

To accomplish this, Shadow summons inspiration and creative strength, not from "Heaven" as the ethics of this Graeco-Roman-Christian world would want to suggest, but from "Hell", to break the musical monarchy ("The Threat").

However the inspiration is not immediate in coming so he considers going back to Tobago to plant peas, when "Farel", whose similarity to Blake's "Urizen" is obvious, suddenly turns up ("The Bassman").

Victory comes as a result and it is then that we are told that this new "King" shall be a most exacting and revengeful one ("King from Hell"). It is the psychology of intense alienation that produces the brooding exaction of both "Urizen" and "Farel".

In Shadow's Hell he is comfortable. It is a state of mind that allows no limits to creative power. Farel is the psychological manifestation of this. Farel is what Winston is not. There is a constant struggle between Farel and Winston, a struggle of personalities, a struggle between two worlds.

Winston is the tendency of compromise and surrender, Winston has been beaten into submission by society, Winston is a drop-out, while Farel is uncompromising and cannot be accommodated. When Farel and Winston combines you get "Shadow", a reflection of myth and reality, a new sense of power. Logically then the main symbols of Shadow as an artist have always been "death", "hell" and "children".

"Children" represent the new birth, the new consciousness and thrust against the old order and arrangement, while "death" and "hell", as sources of inspiration and strength, represent the space and time and action of social transformation.

Anyone can trace Shadow's use of these symbolic themes in all his calypsoes and show how he expands the symbols as he goes along to incorporate new imagery and new meaning. In short, Shadow turns all the norms upside down and around.

He was the first calypsonian who in dealing with man/woman and gender relationships in song put the sexes on equal footing and in fact in most instances placed women in control of the situations and in a position to determine outcome especially where their bodies are concerned.

That is quite obvious in "I Come Out to Play", "Rap to Me", "Country Boy", "Shift Yuh Carcass", etc and that in itself was revolutionary when one considers what obtained before. Moreover, his revolution was not only in terms of content but also in terms of form, for in searching for the best means through which to express his novel ideas, he found that it required a whole new approach to calypso, and in so doing ended up freeing calypso from the limitations of its traditional form and structure for all the others like Shorty to follow from 1975 onwards.

That in fact has been his greatest contribution, he opened up the Art form, and it is why he is so revered by the present Rapso exponents.

But all this is quite understandable when one realises that for people like Blake and Shadow the underlying connection between all creation, between all living and non-living things, is the only absolute truth.

Blake said in "Thel's Motto": "Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies/How great thy use, how great thy blessing!" The very idea is expounded by Shadow in "What is Life?" when he paints the imagery of the connection between the hunter and the worm and considers the transience of existence and the immortality that lies only with function and the connection between all things.

On the cover of the 1981 album, Shadow is shown emerging out of the sea; on the cover of the 1984 album, Mystical Moods, there is a tree topped by the beak of a bird, the branches are it's wings, fruit hang from the branches and the image of Shadow is depicted inside one of the fruit. It is all graphic expression of the same philosophic understanding to which both Shadow and Blake adhere and which informs all their artistic expressions.

Bill Trotman said in 1977: "Shadow totally original. Nobody like him before from whom he copying. Nobody could sing or compose like Shadow because nobody does think like Shadow." True, nobody thinks like Shadow, except William Blake who moments before he died in 1827 burst out singing till the walls around him rang with sound.

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