Bukka Rennie

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Shadow's Lament Am I Ugly?

13, Mar 2000
Again we were stopped dead in our tracks. The intention this week was to begin a new series of columns in response to one Thomas Hylland Eriksen who, after visiting T&T, placed on the Net a 17-page piece, titled "Liming in Trinidad: The art of doing nothing". For quite sometime now we have been examining, in context of T&T, the social phenomenon called "liming" and indeed we do have a lot to say in this regard.

But Shadow won the crown, the Calypso Monarchy, probably the only logical and intelligent thing to have happened here for quite a while, yet some seem to have taken umbrage over his crowning and one person even advanced the view that it was unfair to other calypsonians in the contest because Shadow did not deal with any "issues". So the columns on "liming" will have to wait.

Look, we have had our say about Shadow over the years from as far back as 1974 and even most recently when we described him as the "William Blake of calypso", seeking thereby to establish Winston Bailey as an artistic genius, poet and philosopher. And to a large extent we were driven by the sense that people here will tend to dismiss his work as nonsensical, deluded into seeing simplicity as emptiness and childishness.

There is a depth to Shadow's simplicity that is beyond most in T&T. He copies no one, he imitates no one, he composes like no one before and like no one ever will, he is completely and totally original in his thinking, his way of seeing and his way of articulating.

If there is the affinity to 18th Century William Blake, including the same initials "WB", Shadow knows nothing about Blake and the affinity is purely an accident of history and fate.

Shadow is the most potent painter of pictures by use of words in the calypso business. Sometimes the picture is even more poignant precisely because of what he chooses not to say. His brevity is his forte. "What wrong with me?Am I ugly or what?Ah have bad breath or what?"

At no point in that calypso does he mention his composing and musical prowess which the world has accepted as being "solid as brick" (Jump, Judges, Jump), and that mind you is the issue, but he feels that he is being judged with the typical Eurocentric biases that dominate this society, his appearance, his complexion, his looks, his persona are what the society judges and not his music and artistic ability.

That is why he is the Shadow, the epitome of blackness which this society so despises. And when you black in this society, it means you ugly and probably from Tobago.

That is why he shall get his inspiration from Hell (the underground domain) rather than from Heaven (the dominant social superstructure).

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 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!"

Among those of us who understand the word "ugly" is never used to describe persona, if it is used at all it is used to describe behaviour.

Shadow in this song, social commentary of the highest order, is attacking the very core of our Eurocentric value-system, something that he has done from the very inception of his career and he utilises his personal life experiences to make the point even stronger.

Shadow, with his clear-cut concerns, employs a collage of symbolisms that reoccur in his work each time deepening and expanding in meaning. Precisely the approach of all philosophers. "hell", "death", "little children", "the interrelation and transience of all living creatures in nature's plan", "the aging process" and so on, the latter being the core issue of his second song, "Scratch Meh Back!"

Again his approach is quite unique. It is universal rather than localised and specific. It is "old age" speaking to "youth", and the juxtaposing of real life experiences from either point of view is what tells the story and paints the humorous scenarios with which we are all quite familiar. It is a masterpiece of calypso parody with a clear moral message.

And if he has 25 verses as it is rumoured then he should record all for posterity to be used as samples of this particular style of composing from which the youths can learn.

We wish that during the course of Shadow's reign that some attempt be made to broadcast the recording of the radio interview he did for "Colouring Book" back in the '70s, for that interview stands out for what the interviewer proved able to pull out of Shadow in terms of his view of the world and his sense of being human within it.

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