Puttin' Yo Self in People Mouth
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 18, 2020
Judith Reyes is my neighbor. Our parents lived in the same spot for over eighty years. Neighbors thought our mothers were sisters. Judith's brother Giles and I live like brothers. We have never quarreled with each other.
Every morning when I am in Trinidad Judith sends me a cup of porridge with prunes in it. She makes it clear that she is not doing that for me. Rather, she is doing this for my mother who she reminds me was my protector. She says: "Yo' know how much candles yo' mother light for you at Mt. St. Benedict?"
Judith has taken my mother's place. She is my protector and my chief look-outa.
Judith is also a devotee of talk radio. When callers castigated me for saying that Sat reminded me of Martin Luther King, she sighed: "O Gord Reggie [that's my home name] dey licking yo up on the radio. Whey dey have with you so?"
It was Judith who told me about Makeda Darius's calypso "Not Martin" that referenced my remarks on Sat. Before I knew it, I had received several recordings of the calypso from friends and foes alike. Anthony, my good friend and family, cooed: "Classic kaiso style…. Nice music, Nice tune."
Lystra, a family friend and devoted listener to WACK, is one of the most informed persons on T&T politics. Our families go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. On WACK radio she is known as "Lystra from Queens." I asked her to send me her response to the kaiso.
She wrote: "Darius represents the feelings of most people of African ancestry [in Trinidad]. I thought it was well written in that she recounts a lot of areas for which Sat could be applauded but she also shows the differences between the two men."
I listened to the calypso many times to get its full impact before I made a judgment. The calypso is superbly written and exquisitely rendered. I tapped my feet rhythmically as I listened to it. It reminded me how important well-thought out and well-rendered calypsoes are to the intellectual health of our society.
Her rendition of the calypso written by Christopher Grant also demonstrated the wisdom of our folk-singers and the heightened sophistication of their analyses. In this case there is little distinction between the adeptness of professors (we can call them traditional intellectuals) and what Antonio Gramsi called organic intellectuals, who are in closer touch with their people's feelings than traditional intellectuals.
Darius can be described as an organic intellectual. She made it known that "While I know is true/whatever you do/ Yo cannot talk bad in a man funeral/ But to stretch the truth/ While sober to boot/ Is wild and reckless, almost criminal."
That was a heavy lash. She knows what protocol (or human decency) demands. You say good things about the dead but you really can't overdo it. It borders on intellectual cheating or overreacting to the point which can lead to insincerity.
Darius's intellectual sophistication here is impeccable. Her analysis reminded me of the subtle judgment that Bishop Charles Telleyrand rendered when Bonaparte ordered the murder of the Duke d' Enghien. He said of Bonaparte's command: "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder." Darius seemed to be saying that my judgment with regards to Sat was more than reckless; it was criminal.
I may not agree with her criticism but it reveals the wisdom of our bards and our ordinary people. They may not use big words but they possess a profound understanding of a situation which gets to a deeper truth of a situation sometimes.
The beautiful thing about this calypso is not so much that it tried to put down Sat as it attempts to critique my reasoning and judgment. She calls out Sat's indiscretions and compliments some of his actions, but she says you can't compare the two statespersons, although I am not sure that Darius would call Sat a statesperson.
She says: "A most sensitive man/ O yes was Sat./ Protector of things Indian/You can't vex with dat./ But where Martin had a dream/To raise up self-esteem/Any time Sat Maharaj talk/was to make a fight." She goes on to say that King's legacy is "world peace" whereas Sat was "the protector of the Indians."
Yet there is a disabling duality in her work, especially when she argues: "A most famous victory/he challenge bravely/ And he overturned the Trinity Cross/ Saying it was Christian,/ Insulting Indians, Especially Hindu religion of course."
She ends that verse by saying that when the Privy Court ruled in Sat's favor "we wave goodbye" to the Trinity Cross.
The only question is this: Who is the "we" to whom she refers, the blacks or the Indians?
Well-done calypsoes are important ingredients to fostering the intellectual and social health of our society. At their best, our calypsonians give voice to the innermost feelings of our people. They capture important dimensions of our social and cultural being and this is what I think Darius is doing in her wondrous life-affirming calypso "Not Martin."
When Darius's calypso hit the stage, my first cousin queried: "Why yo' like to put yo' self in people mouth so?" I immediately thought of a character in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart who was asked about Okonkwo's behavior. Okonkwo was the major protagonist in the novel. She replied: "I cannot yet find a mouth with which to tell the story."
I hope my pen has been able to say how grateful I am for Darius's masterful work "Not Martin." She may have a winning song for the calypso crown.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe