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Dancing to a 'new' drum

By Terry Joseph
February 15, 2003

Arguments by calypso purists about the state of Carnival music invariably seek to compare each year's issue with those of seasons past which, in the current consideration, turns up some rather interesting results.

Again this year there is widespread derision of soca's next generation, some describing the work as inane, citing sameness of rhythm, lack of original melodies and "breakneck" speed of the music as additional reasons for annoyance and yearning for a return to the "good ol' days".

But a dispassionate examination of this season's work and careful comparison with calypso of long ago will discover more similarities than variance; dismantling the hackneyed question: "What is our music coming to?"

For openers, what is referred to as "inane lyrics" is nothing but a reflection of inane conversation, prevalent from Parliament to posse. In any event, caution should more than ever precede conclusion in any contemplation of calypso.

Social and moral values shifted so violently during the final quarter of the 20th Century, any assessment of today's communication must also recognise the intervention of ebonics, computer-generated syntax and a whole new language created by the video revolution.

There has also been stinging critique of the new generation of soca singers "riding a riddim", constructing several songs (often by different artistes) on a common music-bed.

But again, this formula is not significantly different from the "Santimanitay" and "Re Minor" matrices used extensively during calypso's Golden Era. Of course, extempo simply never ventured further than creating a single melody but apparently, none of the purists seemed to have noticed that.

More often than not, many commentators who slam today's singers for lack of lyrical content find it difficult to sing even a single line from any of the disliked songs, suggesting they were predisposed to finding the work distasteful.

Listen closely, though, as you may be missing a lot by replacing investigation with instant disdain. For instance, only the rapso group Treason appears to have noticed: "Killing sprees in festivities, Carnival changing in the West Indies." It is the opening line of an appeal to gangsters to put down their guns in favour of finding a "Carnival Darling".

But the question of lyrics has long been a contentious matter and music has had it no less rocky. Sparrow's "Rose" was considered a "song" by complaining peers. David Rudder's title-winning "Bahia Girl" (1986) was roasted by fellow contestant Gypsy in "Sing Ram Bam" the year following, the latter attacking the song's chorus for its absence of lyrics. Interestingly, when calypso legend Lord Melody did the very thing 25 years earlier in "The Whistler", he was hailed in many quarters as innovative.

Those who still refer to the new soca as "breakneck speed" obviously haven't paid any attention to the beat of today's songs either, perhaps confusing recorded versions with more exciting live performances; that brightening of tempo demanded by the frenzy of a fete environment.

Actually, outside of those songs dedicated to freneticism, the current crop of soca has delivered "Trini to the Bone", "Dr Seales", "By the Bar", "Life Shaping" and a barrage of hold-on-and-dance hits, the majority from the very group derisively referred to as the jump'n'wave posse.

And don't get me started on the lack of original melodies. The word "djamblay", a street-level description of calypso plagiarism in both lyric and melody, was not coined yesterday, suggesting that this approach has been around for some considerable time.

Then there's the hullabaloo about adapting melodies of foreign songs. By his own admission, Explainer's hugely popular "Lorraine" was sung to the melody of The Beatles' "Hey Jude". Kitchener's "My Fancy" from way back in the good ol' days, was a clear copy of "I'm in the Mood for Love".

And let us not forget that, so starved were we for a good melodic line back in (1955) that the road march was a German folk-song ("The Happy Wanderer").

Black Stalin is among the few veteran calypsonians who find this year's crop of Carnival music exciting and more importantly, that the young singers have come around to embracing some of the art-form's fundamentals.

For the most part, the older singers see today's styles as a rape of the art-form's integrity, wishing the next generation would stay within the box, emulating their forerunners, when that too was never part of calypso.

The Roaring Lion didn't follow the rules, nor did The Mighty Sparrow, Maestro, Shadow, Shorty, Rudder or Machel Montano; each in his time.

Actually, they were all considered calypso revolutionaries of sorts, daring to change tempo, devise new nomenclature, disregarding the tenet of repeating the first two lines of the opening verse, varying the beat and in the sum; forging new styles that are now being argued as tradition.

Nor is the current departure from what calypso purists so vigorously defend resulting in any great loss. Veterans Duke and Chalkdust are among the leaders in this year's calypso monarch stakes and several great songs in the traditional style are being aired nightly at the tents.

But we are here choosing from what calypso entrepreneur William Munro counted as "more than 1,000 songs made for this Carnival alone". What radio plays is, of course, what's best for business and should not be the sole source from which final decisions on the value of this year's offerings are made.

We need to concede, however, that today's dance is to a different drum-a new one in many respects-and as was the experience of soca itself, trying to deny any innovation or hybrid a space in the arts doesn't make it go away.

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