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Calypso reaches the limit

By Terry Joseph
July 25, 2003

Unmoved by the otherwise pervading concept of political correctness, and even with tradition squarely behind it, calypso could not seriously hope to perpetually renew its mythical "poetic licence".

This self-appointed carte blanche historically acquitted calypsonians of lyrical brutality, even where the case was clear. It was open season. Craft flew out the window, singers simply lined up targets and blew holes in them, with no code offering guidance and veterans who tried to intervene often giving up the chase, joining those they couldn't beat.

Last year, Trinis looked on as a serialised, season-long Carnival joust between soca singer Iwer George and comedienne Rachel Price degenerated from light banter to sordid personal attacks and at reckless speed, its dizzying descent nauseating everyone but the irretrievably crass.

While public response exceeded mere murmur, it never quite grew into collective censure. Both acts continued to enjoy good audiences. Given the opening stock of consumers who seldom rise in their own defence on any issue, calypso and comedy could dredge the bottom of good taste without a single placard hoisted in denunciation.

Last week, in a situation with no less potential for squalor, Barbadians rose in island-wide protest, through all available media, demanding calypsonian Gabby's apology for lyrics recounting the gruesome death of fellow-competitor Kid Site's mother and consequential hanging of his convicted father; events that occurred in 1967 when Site really was a two-year-old kid.

After even his closest colleagues at Cave Shepherd All Stars calypso tent frowned upon attempts to defend clearly insensitive lyrics, Gabby not only publicly apologised to Kid Site and his family, but pledged to uphold "only the highest standards of artistic behaviour in the future".

"I recognised," he said in recanting, "that the ethical and moral fabric of society is experiencing severe strain and as a calypsonian, I have a serious responsibility not to aggravate the situation, but instead to do whatever I can to reduce and remove those stresses and strains."

In accepting Gabby's apology, Kid Site observed: "We have all learnt our lesson now and even though we don't want to restrict artistes from being creative in referring to incidents relating to other calypsonians, we all recognise now that there is level below which you don't go."

Both statements speak to the very future of calypso. In publicly castigating himself, Gabby also looks at the influence of his utterances on not just intended victims but society at large. Site defends artistic freedom but seeks to raise the quality of picong. Although he confines his comments to "incidents relating to other calypsonians", the principle is clear: You can't just sing anything about anybody.

You also can't just sing anything about any thing. For those who didn't get the memo: This is the 21st Century. Quite apart from sheer sophistication of the calypso product to meet tomorrow's global markets, there is the very real promise of litigation which, although not yet a popular response to slander or lyrical denigration, would no doubt soon be with us.

Because calypsonians saw themselves as invincible messengers, no one could shoot them down for twisting information, introducing conjecture as fact or uttering blatant lies, as long as it kept within meter and rhyme and helped embellish an already juicy bacchanal.

Shock and awe was fast becoming the new standard. We got details of a private medical condition affecting a woman Member of Parliament, Dr Morgan Job became the reference position for all the negative things that may be said of Black people, ethnic stereotyping knew no bounds, with the Chinese, French-Creole and Syrian/Lebanese communities becoming fair game.

David Rudder's "Lyrics to make a politician cringe" had turned into shards that pierced the very heart of calypso craft. Politics added a fresh dimension, giving those who aligned themselves with a particular party or tribe the power to publicly denigrate anyone caught in their cross-hairs and when that didn't wound, the singer could pelt some "hard lash" at other members of the family.

There are, of course, thin-skinned politicians and public figures who develop conspiracy theories from every calypso chorus and those who genuinely have cocoa in the sun. More than a few have tried and threatened to muzzle selected calypsonians. In recent time, hapless victims could do no more than call for self-regulation, relying on appreciation of political correctness to reverse the trend. As we all know, calypso prided itself on precisely the opposite approach.

Meanwhile, calypsonians themselves brazenly began taking pot shots at dancehall and hip-hop artistes who dedicate their lyrics to wanton sex and social disruption, lamenting their influence on our youth and suggesting that radio stations which favour such fare be made to play more indigenous music.

Calypso's hybrids also went the route of unbridled comment. Latter-day soca is now nearly as explicit as dancehall rough-riders and chutney is able to boast trans-national crossover popularity of "Rum Till I Die", a song advocating alcoholism as therapy for unrequited love; an approach quite different from The Mighty Sparrow's "Rum is Macho".

But calypso so properly mirrors the pulse of those societies in which it flourishes. Clever barbs and borderline comment were popular in the days of fist-fights. In the trigger-happy age, everyone shoots first, the long-term consequences no different for bandits or bards.

Indeed, what started in the late 18th Century as provocative "le vrai" (lavway) and was polished into the fine art of redolent picong and extempo wars (fencing with foils, really) during calypso's golden age, has run full course. After helping to define one of the craft's most elusive assets, "hard lash" has itself become one of its greatest liabilities.

In its dispassionate recording of fact, history may end up thanking Gabby for his role in helping calypso establish the outer limit of good taste.

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