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Clause and effect

By Terry Joseph
August 2, 2000

Given the groundswell of objection to the language and perceived intent of Clause Seven of the Equal Opportunity Bill, it was not surprising that the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (Tuco) felt a compulsion to join the dissenting band.

And not unlike other groups protesting against Parliamentary approval of Clause Seven in its present form, Tuco has expressed deep anxieties about the potential of the Bill for oppressing its members.

While Hindus may genuinely fear poaching by the Thusians, or Roman Catholics worry about a Pentecostal incursion and thus become apprehensive about any attempt to curb their facility for lambasting each other's religion; the calypsonians say that the larger mischief of Clause Seven, is that it deliberately targets their art.

Many of them sincerely believe that the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs sat down and thought out a way to muzzle calypsonians as the primary objective of the Bill which, only incidentally, also takes religious prisoners.

It is a reasonable concern for Tuco, since its membership makes its living by exercising an unbridled right to castigate anyone and in the language of its choice. Any piece of proposed legislation that could reduce the earnings of calypsonians, should ideally be the business of the organisation that looks after their interests.

But in rushing to join the protest parade and protect the obvious, Tuco's thinkers might just have overlooked one of its more subtle custodial responsibilities—that of safeguarding the art itself.

Over the past decade, there has been no shortage of critical comment on the state of calypso. The jam and wine, festival-type songs have all but replaced clever social and political commentary. And since insipid fast-food soca (or its derivatives) is where the major money resides, properly prepared calypso cuisine is at least rare and often quite unsavoury when served.

Ironically, when calypso first surfaced around 1783, a slave called Gros Jean, the chantuelle whose lyrics were most celebrated, sang brutal commentaries about his master's friends. He certainly had more to worry about if his verses were deemed offensive. Let's face it: the effect of a conviction for breaching Clause Seven as it stands may be brutal, but in no way compares with the flagellation that often resulted from a severe slave-whipping.

Yet, Gros Jean and many of those who succeeded him as the art evolved up to the late 20th century, continued to sing their contentious opinions, couching in clever language, the treatment of issues most likely to create uneasiness through their very candour.

No calypso in the latter day has matched The Mighty Dougla's "Split the Dougla in Two" (1961) for poignant comment on the ethnic divide, without smearing either tribe. That work is clear evidence that calypso has traditionally been able to identify unique approaches to dealing with touchy topics.

The more astute listeners can easily identify the similarity of social commentary in The Mighty Sparrow's "Jean and Dinah" (1956) and Relator's "Food Prices" (1980), both of which address the cost of living; albeit from diametrically opposed moral positions.

Sparrow's "Willie Dead" lays bare the sensitive matter of erectile dysfunction among men of the world. And coming from one who spent more than half of his career assuming the dominant position in songs about man/woman relationships, the tasteful treatment of so taboo a subject as impotence is the product of sheer ingenuity at calypso composition.

So, if calypso composers revisit one of the fundamental requirements of the art, it may be that the only effect the current version of Clause Seven would have is a positive one, by serving to improve word-craft and hence the quality of lyrics. And most of the people I know would cheer loudly for any device that will rescue us from the drivel that is being passed off as calypso in recent years.

After 217 years in the business, calypsonians should have developed greater confidence in their art to survive any attempt at censorship or outright muzzling.

The real challenge, therefore, is for those who see themselves as genius composers, to come up with a song that addresses Clause Seven frontally, demonstrating its absurdities, imputing motives, focusing on its implications and strengthening their argument generally; without descending into crass comment and venom.

It is a test of artistic integrity and a battle that must be won by the composers, if anyone is going to take traditional calypso seriously in the future.

No calypso composer whose work is worth an admission fee should reduce himself to begging the authorities for a break. That is not just insulting to the art, it is pathetic.

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