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Monday, June 18, 2012


Is it a paradox to claim that the more Soca “degenerates”, the better Calypso becomes? Are the degenerate underground versions of “Twanche” Soca art forms anyway? Whatever it is, ‘twas a time when there was a popular perception that Soca was “overtaking” Calypso, to the extent that some pundits even thought that the former might have had a significantly deleterious effect on the later. Perhaps, it did! Perhaps, it did not!

There is no doubt that Soca - because of its infectious and appealing “African-inspired” rhythm - is more marketable and even more sustainable than Calypso. It is played in dancehalls almost all year round; it has more international appeal; it is superlatively more entertaining; and indeed, it seems very user-friendly to the thousands of tourists visiting our shores every year. Hence, it is tenable to claim that it is potentially a better promotional and marketing tool for the Caribbean islands.

Take, for example, the late Mighty Arrow from Montserrat; despite coming from one of the smallest Caribbean islands, his “Hot, Hot, Hot” selection took the world by storm and became a universal “Soca anthem”. (Incidentally, that tune still brings significant posthumous honour and reward to Arrow’s estate.)

Also, who can forget Ed Watson’s “Hot Soca” and the string of hits by “Burning Flames” from Dominica, “Becket” from St. Vincent, to name a few. Those songs were so “hot” and “juked so hard” that they would perhaps even make Queen Elizabeth and Pope Paul want to shake their “bamsy”. Papa Vader’s “Walk and Wine” also followed in those footsteps but it didn’t quite achieve the monumental success of Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot”. Later on, Rootsy’s explosive “Riding West” offered great potential; but in the last analysis, it remained largely confined to the St. Lucian diaspora.

It is noteworthy that there was one defining attribute about all the songs cited above: Quite apart from being hot and their “universal appeal”, they were generally suitable for all public audiences, irrespective of class, age, race and religion; and we must applaud the artistes/composers for that achievement.

Nowadays, despite the qualitative and quantitative improvements to Soca music and widespread local and regional popularity, it is beginning to look like its universal impact has (with age) become less. And the question is: Is Soca facing a downward spiral from the position it was, despite the proliferation and seeming “commercial success” of the art form? Does it potentially face the same fate as some of its predecessors (like Bajan Spooge, Dominican Cadencelypso and Guyanese Lopi) which all had sweet/hot rhythms (like Soca) and yet suffered at the hands of obsolescence?

Undoubtedly, the commercial potential of Soca cannot be over-emphasised; but, in my own opinion, it is still an experiment with calypso - just as dancehall is an experiment with reggae. In my own view, one of the things that attest to that is its “open source”, computer-generated, studio-type musical improvisations without a clearly defined musical ethos and still in search of integrity and even “identity” – in the way that an adolescent is in search for his/her identity. In fact, some versions (in my view again) are like “Stonelove dub-plates” fetching a buyer from the sound system industry but they are so crude and pappyshow-like, that few persons buy them; so they are relegated to underground status. And in the absence of an identity and integrity, I fear they may be subject to a high degree of vulnerability.

I have an uncanny feeling that as soon as the urge for “the jump and wave”, “raise the flag” and “are you ready to go” refrains die, then the music will begin to face an “irreversible decrement”, especially if it does not structurally reconfigure itself.

On the other hand, despite its “lower profile”, Calypso (like reggae) is an established and original art form with a distinct identity and permanence about it; and pari passu (I will argue) there is a reciprocal “transience” with Soca that has not passed the test of time.

In spite of its progress, I have to admit though that calypso has not achieved the magnitude of success and marketing penetration attributable to Soca. I guess one of the underlying reasons may be that Calypso is less musically infectious; too lyrically-loaded and message-driven; too politically-inspired; and so it tends to be too idiosyncratic, if not too “caviare” to achieve universal appeal.

In that context, we can in a sense describe Calypso as “religious”; and Soca as “agnostic”. In my opinion, Calypso may be compared to earliest-century “Roman Catholicism” and Soca as the emerging new “faith-based” and “non-faith-based” organisations.

Let me try put Calypso and Soca into some sort of theoretical framework to give context to the discussion. I will contend that Soca is a strand of Calypso with two sub-strands: mainstream and underground. The “mainstream” sub-strand is the dominant and “universal” form. It is what was/is courted by reputable artistes and it is the force that drove the progress of the art form to international heights. Also, it is/was the Soca performed by Arrow, Invader, Ed Watson, Burning Flames and the like. The “underground” sub-strand is the equivalent of the Lucian “Twanche” (a daggering version of Soca) and it has – in its various forms - worked itself into our broadcast media and hence, has been ascribed “mainstream status”. I would have to include Ricky T, Yardie, Mad Elle, Exodus, Gros Islet etc in that category.

Lucian “Twanche” bears much resemblance to “daggering”, which became so problematic in Jamaica that it had to be compulsorily regulated. Some of us who are old enough will remember the varying strands of Reggae/Ska ranging from the “ridiculous to the sublime” permeated the Jamaican musical landscape at any given time. The ridiculous was always unfit for airplay. Daggering incidentally falls under the category of the ridiculous!

In St. Lucia, some of our radio DJs do not seem to have developed the faculty to differentiate, and there seems to be no censorship policy to assist in that regard. They unconscionably and indiscriminately blast “lewd music” on the airwaves at will and at all times. In fact, they have made the extreme underground Soca the dominant type of Soca music hitting the airwaves and we seem to be very comfortable with that.

But amidst all the skirmishes and other challenges, Lucian Kaiso deserves a round of applause for maintaining a progressive curve. When it comes to lyrics, word craft and melody, I believe our local calypso is perhaps “toe to toe” with Trini Calypso and may even at this point in time have an edge over it.

A special round of applause to “Papa” this year for his three superb compositions: “Congratulations”, “Shhh” and the pulsating “For-A-Cut”. All three pieces are superbly crafted. “Congratulations” is a qualitatively superior piece of double entendre, superbly interwoven with a tinge of quadrille/kweyol music: “Congratulations to all women in positions; they like their post”. “Shhh” is another masterpiece of prototypic calypso: “Anytime Stephenson talking . . . ‘SHHH’ . . . Hush your mouth”. And “For-A-Cut” gives us a pungent account of a “for cut” society.

Although it is still early days (for we haven’t heard from “Ambassadors” and “Take Over Tent (TOT)” yet), I’m very encouraged by the initial menu of calypsos. AG Simpson’s “For Love of Country” is a very good calypso improvisation. AG seems to have finally found his calypso groove with that song and I believe the song has potential to go places. He must be credited for bringing in a uniqueness which has added a distinctive richness to Lucian Calypso. This is well-deserved “value-added”!

Notwithstanding much improvement in the art form, many critical issues remain unresolved. For example, are mission and vision driven? Do we need a new Calypso/Soca paradigm which would enable us to define and redefine Soca and Calypso? Specifically, do we have a clear road map of where we want our music to go? How do define or even demarcate creativity in the context of the road map? Should we subscribe to explicitly lewd vocal and physical expressions as acceptable manifestations of creativity? Where do we draw the demarcation line of integrity in our lyrics and performance? In the name of creativity, is there “space” for the profoundly negative underground Soca and if so, how much? In fact, is underground Soca relevant and what are the policies that should shape its development and regulate its preponderance of lewdness?

I understand very well that a vital element of any art form is creativity; but calypso is not all creativity. It’s also about production, engineering, policy framework, management and national development among other things! All are important variables in the calypso equation.

St. Lucia may well be making progress but is it enough?

I think the time is now right to step up to the plate, to give clarity and definition to some of these issues, to move from controversy to paradigm.

Perhaps, the controversy may well be a indicator that point to the need for a more structured “music” paradigm; one that will not only encourage growth but also a sense dignified identity. And perhaps, the establishment of the new “creative industries” ministry may well be our Sputnik moment to reconfigure our music industry in a progressive way.

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