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Conscious lyrics

By Terry Joseph
May 01, 2002

The tendency among mature Trinis to lump local ragga-soca singers with Jamaican dancehall artistes, then dismiss the lot as unmusical and lyrically irresponsible, suffered severe assault early Sunday morning.

At a show in which he was the sole Trini act, Bunji Garlin redefined the term “conscious lyrics”, wading into the overwhelming Jamaican posse at full bore, taking no prisoners as he remonstrated in song and prose.

Titled “It’s a Love Thing”, Saturday night’s show did not stop at staging almost exclusively Jamaican acts, but also imported their countrymen to work at jobs historically done by citizens of any host country. Jamaicans working here unlawfully in full glare of police took turns at harassing on-duty media. Locals were hired to do only transportation, presumably because it may have been unwieldy for the Jamaicans to bring their own vehicles.

Garlin, whose business depends heavily on doing live shows, threw all diplomacy aside in telling his Jamaican employers where to get off and probably forever blacklisted himself.

His protest action must therefore be also counted as a major financial sacrifice.

Nor did he stop there. Radio stations that pander to Jamaican music also invoked his wrath. Scoffing at fellow artistes who discuss the problem only in guarded whispers, Garlin said: “Everybody does talk ’bout it in the carpark and rumshop and backstage, but when onstage they playing they forget what going on. Not me siree! I am speaking on that, ’cause it is affecting me and affecting we as a nation. Plain talk, bad manners and who don’t like it, tell them haul their…. look here!”

He then trained his gunsights on the very promoters that paid him to perform, but not before firing first fusillade at the Jamaican cast who, he said, were heard grumbling about his inclusion on the playbill.

His lyrics on the lam included comments about the number of Jamaican acts who visit Trinidad for lucrative gigs, but denigrate local artistes when they leave this country:

“Ah done say who vex me eh care
Cause, yuh talking ’bout love and unity
As they leave here
They gone back and diss Trini
Talk ’bout we culture is so simmie-dimmie
If we simmie-dimmie, why de hell yuh in it?
Why the hell yuh bring yuh big show an’ dem for we?
Why the hell yuh make a big issue to pay me?”

Garlin later said he felt a need to represent Trinidad and Tobago, especially after a recent New York experience, where Jamaican artistes derided Trini counterparts onstage, saying our women are too ugly, our artistes lame and we have no talent.

“Same time, we’re buying up their CDs and bringing them for shows and making them rich,” Garlin said, adding he would continue his campaign as long as God gives him life, strength and the ability to speak. “Some of them find I shouldn’t be on the cast tonight. Well, I fix that good and so long as they on we case, I go be on them case,” Garlin said.

The easy comparison here is to The Mighty Sparrow who, equally early in his career took on major powers and principalities in his fight to secure a better deal for calypsonians. When he won his first national title in 1956, Sparrow received a $50 prize, while Judy Edghill, the beauty that became Carnival Queen, took home a whopping $7,500. Sparrow protested publicly.

And like Sparrow, Bunji must be prepared for the long haul. In the Sparrow example, instead of enjoying relief the next year, Dimanche Gras producers raised the Carnival Queen’s cash prize to $10,000, a cheque gleefully handed over by then Tourism Minister, John O’Halloran.

Sparrow boycotted the show and began a six-year running battle with the authorities that eventually resulted in the formation of the Carnival Development Committee and delivered improved conditions of work for calypsonians.

For Garlin to stand onstage in an environment predictably hostile to his view and one fraught with potential for peril to target Jamaicans and cockeyed local radio not only makes him an envoy for his peers but also enhances his stature as an artist. He clearly sees the broader version of social commentary, not limiting his lyrics to the antics of petty politicians, but attacking even fellow performers where their conduct fails the integrity test.

That Saturday night’s show produced anticipated lawlessness does not help the cause of even those Jamaican artistes who steer clear of Trini-bashing.

Already there is a widespread view that dancehall music shows are invariably preceded by a rise in street-crime.

Port of Spain Mayor Murchisson Brown on Monday confirmed that in the week before The Love Thing, City merchants were robbed of more than $250,000. It is not by chance the gym-boots crowd turns up at these events with brand new outfits.

So let’s weigh the package: On one pan of the scale we see increased crime, violence-inducing lyrics, endorsement of promiscuity, homophobia, insensitive promoters, obscenity, ungrateful performers and vulgar deprivation of locals from earning a few dollars.

On the other side … well, at least there’s Bunji.

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