Thalia, Fiah: The cause is greater…

The judges’ decision in a calypso competition will never satisfy everybody, and this year’s Calypso Monarch Finals would have been no different. Listening, from the comfort of my bed, to the offerings onstage and to the commentary following each song, I wondered whether there were two different competitions going on; then I learned, to my everlasting grief, that what the radio audience was listening to was, indeed, different – at least in sound quality – to what those at Carnival City, including the judges, were hearing. Which explains a lot … at least to me.

Congratulations to the winners and the also-rans who made it to the big stage on Sunday night. In a season that didn’t seem very promising at the start, there emerged some pretty good, and a few excellent, calypsos, after all, though some, as usual, were weeded out early.

In the determination of “good” and “excellent,” I must confess to a certain bias on my part; a bias rooted soundly in the criteria, which continue to accord the biggest share of the points to lyrics. And among things earthly, words are my first and enduring love. That is why the calypso season was made memorable – and I speak unapologetically for myself – by, first, King Fiah and then by Princess Thalia.

For the past decade almost, we have seen and heard a degeneration in calypso, as what used to be art was bastardised and prostituted, shamelessly, to even political scores, to flay opponents, and to provoke in the audience a certain scorn and disrespect for not simply persons in authority, but authority itself. And where, in the past, such objectives would have been met by employing innuendo, irony, and doubleentendre, the modern audience was treated to, and accepted, even relished, the lowest of standards in blatant sexuality, political name-calling, and personal defamation.

It is widely accepted that the use of words is what, primarily, distinguishes humans from animals and elevates us above the primates. In the calypso arena, there are some who use words with purpose, that purpose being to entertain the masses; or to encourage the down-pressed; or to expose corruption; or to excoriate the politician; or to express some truth, actual or perceived, that advances some party’s agenda. But there are a few – and they are far between – who use words because of their very deliciousness; their playfulness; their adaptability; and their creativity. That is how I see King Fiah’s calypsos: as testament that calypso is, indeed, art.

Here is an artist who revels in his mastery of all that makes language versatile and beautiful: pun, simile, personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia. Here is a man who, last year, made a verb and, I daresay, an adjective out of the word “Ouch.” Here is a feller who, when old words simply will not do, is not afraid to create new ones – like this year’s “gerrydemandeering,” which brilliantly links a personality with an issue in a way that is seamless and, again, simply delicious.

The very word fills up one’s mouth, rolls over the tongue, and causes those of us starved for artistry to salivate for more.  Here is a political satirist who, in chastising the prime minister for his sin – the seeming inability to come down on either opponents or colleagues with force – eschews the obvious and dispenses not punishment, but penance… the advice that he become a priest.

Yet Fiah also knows how to use the simple to great effect – if one knows how to listen – as in his warning to the former king, to “bear this in mind,” or his observation that he ran from lava only to meet up with fire/Fiah. It reminds me of the Mighty Sparrow’s boxing match between Lion and Donkey, in which the referee calls out “break, break, break” to the latter, who admits, in a clinch with his opponent, “That is what ah trying to do….” This is the type of simple mischief, the kind of sly humour, at which the calypso aficionado can only shout in joyful appreciation: “Lyrics!”

To those who don’t feel as I do, Fiah’s style might be dismissed as verbosity; and there are those pundits who would advise that he might get farther by sticking closer to the traditional. But Shelley Tobitt’s distinction did not come about by employing the pedestrian, and few classic calypsos use words in an ordinary way. And, really, isn’t that exactly what we have been complaining about the last few years, anyway?

This is the man who, in former combat, taught us “how to peel an Onyan” and who, in his inimitable style, described poverty with the words, “Me mouth did get white squall,” and I, for one, would not have him any other way. So to King Fiah I say, “Thank you,” on behalf of the art form and for those who long for what it used to be and to say, and “Well done.” The cause, Brother, is greater than the crown… .

And I say, again, this time to Princess Thalia – whose promise is coming to fruition so nicely – the cause is greater than the crown. For her 2013 social commentary, Positive Focus, is more than a competition song; it is an anthem for the youth at whom, all too often, we shake our heads in wonder at their lack of aim, direction, ambition. 

And if I had my way – and if the right people are listening, they would, too – I would make it mandatory singing at assembly – right after the National Anthem and just before prayers, to make it sacred – from Grade Six until secondary-school graduation. For, in the same way we accept that Calypso Joe’s A Country to Build, a Nation to Mould is the stuff on which we can build patriotism, I believe that Positive Focus can make productive men and women out of drifting boys and girls.

King Short Shirt warned us, generations ago, “… Awake the youths, my sleeping country! Wake them before they grow too old to care.” Too many people didn’t listen and, hence, today we have a generation of un-awakened and un-conscious parents raising children without values or vision. With Positive Focus, we have an opportunity, again, to impress upon today’s children that where they come from does not determine where they can go;  to remind them that this thing called self-determination trumps the nonsense of predestination (after all, our prime minister and the man who hopes to become prime minister both were “ghetto youth”); and to impress upon them that they, indeed, have the power – through pen and paper, skills and certification – to write their own episodes.

Shadow might have cried that “poverty is hell,” but “voices from the ghetto” have been resounding positively in these 108 square miles forever.  Many are the gentlemen and ladies, the movers and shakers, the talented and the tallawah, who have come from what are now called “depressed neighbourhoods.” But living in the ghetto doesn’t have to mean our youth must be restricted to “the ghetto of their minds:” that arid wasteland in which only the material and the physical matter; that place in which the imported gangsta rap and nihilistic dancehall find such access …. Can we, for once, commit to spoon-feeding these children a bit of positive focus?

…I had said, only recently, that I was glad that I have reached the place of emotional disassociation from calypso competitions. Thank you, Fiah, and thank you, Thalia, for keeping my navel string attached to calypso… .


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