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Stress and strains

By Terry Joseph
January 04, 2003

For the first time in many years, calypso watchers are reporting good prospects for a bright season, citing as evidence of an upswing indications of a sobering of tempo and uplifting themes that-perforce-demanded deep thought.

To reach the kaiso oasis, however, pilgrims must trudge through dunes of throwaway songs, protecting their ears against a sandstorm of abrasive lyrics, as radio acknowledges (with transparently theatrical surprise) the advent of Carnival 2003.

But if you can get past the raw obscenity of Explainer's "Stress", overcome anxiety caused by trying to understand Nicole Greaves' treatise on a "100-Pound Flag" or demonstrate high tolerance for musical monotony; there's some good calypso to be extruded from the residual.

From the first strains of Skatie's "One Man Alone", a well-constructed composition by Steve Rabathally (who collaborated with Shorty on "Om Shanti" and other songs), it becomes clear that there is hope for a lift from the fen of waving songs already available.

Skatie's work speaks to anyone who ever thought: "It's just me alone. What can I do?" He trots out examples of individual courage, some of which changed the world for the better (Gandhi, Martin Luther King et al) and for balance, shows equal determination of tyrants like Hitler and Idi Amin in their attempts to satisfy singularly warped agendas.

Nor does Skatie overlook the pressing domestic issue of crime. Hear verse four:

"When a man lives a life of lawlessness

He's a dangerous demon in disguise

For all his acts are designed for wickedness

He proud to put water in people's eyes

I say the world has been ravaged by such men

Who feel they bigger than life, playing God

But they destroy themselves in the very end

Living by the sword, they die by the sword."

And there is more. Arguably the best male voice in the calypso arena at this time, Roger George uses his talent to propose an astonishingly astute appreciation of the role steelbands can play in combating distractions luring today's youth, in his rendition of the Allan "Blackstone" Thomas/ Alvin Daniell composition "Get Involved".

The Original de Fosto Himself is also on course with "Cultural Icons", a work that laments the speed with which we discard the artistic legacy of those who passed away, comparing our alacrity at burying their songs alongside them with American radio's insistence on promulgating good renditions into perpetuity.

In "Is We Who Start the Waving", Sean Daniel argues that the syndrome had its genesis in The Bible, quoting chapter and verse to show that the devout were waving well before the divas.

Now, don't expect to hear "One Man Alone", "Cultural Icons", "Is We Who Start the Waving" or "Get Involved" every time you switch on your radio, because that is simply not the business our stations are pursuing at this time.

More predictable from that medium is an extended segue dedicated exclusively to wining. Even so, identification of singer or title is rare, voice-overs often limited to a "shout out" or "big-up" to friends, fete advertisements and responses to "Caller from St Augustine".

Mark you, sometimes luck intervenes and a good calypso slips through the cracked programming. For humour with a piquant twist there is Impulse on "No" and "Four Prizes" (he also penned Crazy's "Qualified Cashier"), but for a more sophisticated brand, consider David Rudder and Carly Jacobs-two migrants-currently ruling the party circuit with a song ironically titled "Trini to the Bone". Shadow's "Directions" works well but could be enhanced by a tasteful dancer for live performance.

In the genre rudely referred to as "pan-kaiso", there are also more than a few gems. The Jit Samaroo/Alvin Daniell piece "Iron Band" is already emerging as a favourite, as is the Len "Boogsie" Sharpe/Anthony Alexis composition "Music in Meh Blood", vocalised by Anslem Douglas and "Identity", a fantastic synergy of lyrics and melody, penned by Mark Loquan and Christophe Grant.

It is a tribute to those composers (and other of similar persuasion) that they were able to avoid cheap lyrics that annually hear the basses grumbling, tenors rolling and guitar pans going "poo-roong, poo-roong, poo-roong". Among the more energetic performers, Bunji Garlin has released a stunning chronology of the dark period of steelband wars called "Desperadoes", a watershed in pan-kaiso-rap fusion. Iwer is also on the rise with a clever work called "Home, Sweet Home" and Imij & Co is beginning to enjoy airplay with "Push".

In selected examples, the youngsters have indeed shown a willingness to tackle serious topics, using their influence over the youth for fine and upstanding purpose. There are tales about the insensitivity of teenage girls who conceive during reckless sex, then leave their babies for granny to mind while they go out to party, and stories of boys who choose a life of crime then find themselves crying out for "mammy" when their shot is called.

So it is not all a lost cause although, given its length, the season may yet harbour a number of very unpleasant surprises. But of those so far unveiled, there is more than a hint of quality available-if you can survive the stress and strain involved in finding it.

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