Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Wednesday, April 23, 2003  

Another post about a post about a post

Back to Damien's comments about the post by Edward and reply from Seldo on being expatriates. This time it's Damien's take on marketing Trinidadian culture, especially its music.

To begin with, I'm not much of a fan of most indigenous music. I like good calypso, but there isn't much of that these days. Soca has taken over, and I can't stand soca. I don't care much for steelpan either. But I do recognise their relative importance; well, the importance of steelpan at any rate: the social function of the steel band, and the pan yard, cannot be underestimated in this society.

This isn't to say that I'm averse to changing the "people's culture". People can do what they want with soca; it's vapid nonsense with lyrics (if one could call them that) that one can't decipher most of the time anyway. (Good luck trying to market that.) As for pan, well, when comparing it with American folk music, which Damien quotes another blogger as saying is "heavy on the fiddle, heavy on the harmonies, and light on the rehearsal time" he is very much mistaken. Any pan composer or arranger can tell you the months of work that goes into preparation of a steel band and its musical composition for the annual Panorama competition; of the intricate arrangement of the different pans - tenor, double tenor, guitar, cello, bass, percussion, not unlike arranging instruments in an orchestra. (The fact that the end result sounds like noise to me is another matter entirely). How exactly pan can be marketed, made more accessible, when, like classical music, it isn't exactly a "popular" form of music to begin with, is beyond me.

But the question of making calypso, as distinct from soca, more professional, is another matter entirely. What so many people - supposed cultural and calypso "experts" included, fail to grasp is that the essential nature of calypso defies any real sort of professionalisation. Again, this is not a matter of resisting change to the "people's culture". Though I don't agree entirely with what he says, VS Naipaul's take on calypso in The Middle Passage pretty much sums up the issue:

"It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso is a purely local form. No song composed outside Trinidad is a calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider. Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, no matter how good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso."

"You can't necessarily grow and stay as you are," says Damien, and I agree. But we have to realise where we can realistically expect growth, and where we shouldn't. For the most part, I don't think our music is such a place.

posted by Jonathan | 1:00 AM 0 comments


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