Slow road works ahead
March 7, 2001
FOR all its bankable value, gifts of motor cars, public adulation, titles and cash prizes cannot properly reflect the real worth of what calypsonian Shadow has this year brought to the furtherance of Trinidad Carnival.
Not that he hasn't been labouring in the festival's vineyards, but at a time when the integrity of both the Road March and Soca Monarch titles was coming under serious scrutiny, this intervention by The King from Hell must have been heaven sent.
Eschewing the lure of a madcap musical recklessness that passed for Carnival's soundtrack over the past few years, in one graceful and sweeping movement, Shadow almost single-handedly governed the festival down to manageable speed.
He provided us with music at a tempo at which everyone could again participate in what is, after all, a national festival. To quote one of his earlier hits: "Old ladies, young babies, everybody; could Dingolay". It was a refreshing throwback to the period when sweet songs fuelled Carnival exclusively.
In addition, Shadow told well-crafted stories, shoring up a trestle common to the more memorable road marches of our time. He also retrieved from the altar of expediency, some rather precious fundamentals of calypso art, including a melodic line that steel orchestras could actually play.
Replacing irritatingly vapid drum machines with the gifted hands of Sonalal "Killer" Samaroo and assembling a pride of top-drawer musicians, background vocalists and engineering talent, Shadow as composer, guitarist, singer, producer and executive producer of the album Just For You, valiantly rescued the Road March component of Carnival.
And retrieving the Road March monarchy from "Big Truck", "Footsteps" and "The River", called a screeching halt to insidious gains made during the past decade by foreign-music sampling, repetitious lyrics and the general celebration of inanity.
Not that those songs did not serve their purpose at the material time, but being the national festival, Carnival had a larger responsibility than merely fuelling youthful frenzy through a choice of tempo that pandered only to those who signed up for pre-season aerobics.
His copping of the International Soca Monarch title, also penetrated a winners' list hitherto the domain of younger artistes like SuperBlue and Ronnie McIntosh and dismantled the view that only jump and wave singers could triumph at that forum.
Shadow's three popular works this year, "Yuh Looking for Horn", "Stranger" and "HIV" have come in at the leisurely pace of traditional calypso, albeit with the singularly commanding rhythm of The Dark One and the infectious churning keyboard strum of his sidekick, Fitz "Mello" Thomas.
In fact, it is again the fault of radio and party-circuit DJs that we have not heard with perhaps equal frequency, songs like Shadow's comment on domestic violence ("Let Go") and "Rag Down People", which presents a fresh philosophy about those who regularly engage in mauvais langue.
"Unknown Bassman", the song he singled out for special mention in the album's liner notes, is an eerie look at what might have happened had he gone on to plant peas in Tobago, as threatened in his 1974 blockbuster (and the road march of that year) "Bassman".
What Shadow has done through this timely intervention, is legitimise a position long held by the more mature among us—that Carnival could proceed with no loss of jollification, if the music is all-inclusive, rather than geared only to the most athletic.
The perception by jump and wave singers, who felt we needed an almost fascist tempo and instructional interludes to participate at fetes or on the road is, hopefully, now shot to hell. The history of the road march will testify that no one felt left out on any Carnival day for 100 years, from the late 19th Century "Prisonniers Levez" to Chris "Tambu" Herbert's "No, No, We Ain't Going Home" in 1990.
Indeed, even when SuperBlue gave us "Get Something and Wave" in 1991, the song, although at increased tempo, had its own special charm.
It was in the final decade of the 20th century the singers felt we needed a wake-up call and responded by going for outrageous speeds. Apart from Nigell Lewis' "Movin'" which, surprisingly, was the slowest song of that period, revellers over 40 were severely left out of the Carnival mainstream, forcing the proliferation of all-inclusive parties, which catered for grown-ups.
But now that the mounting musical frenzy has been scuttled by a metronome that ticked far slower than those of years previous, I can only hope that composers planning works for next year take note of Shadow's overwhelming popularity this season and at least wonder why.