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The rise of black consciousness in calypso

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I have been challenged by a couple of my regular readers who would like to see more comment on day-to-day political, meaning partisan politics, in this column, especially with elections in the air. This is understandable, and undoubtedly, this column will have its say on these matters as they progress, but one cannot narrow one’s focus and become a tabloid reflection of the daily debates on air and the Internet, based on “Ralph did this” or “Arnhim said that.”{{more}}

My political experience and understanding of politics goes beyond that; thus the constant attempt to broaden the discussion to encompass wider perspectives of history, culture and class consciousness, among others. We have to try and deepen our understanding of the world around us and to expand our vision.

That is why, last month, this columnist attempted to seize the occasion of what was traditionally African Liberation Day, to re-examine in a limited way, the role and place of the Black Power movement in our social and political development. That is also why, last week, the focus was socio-cultural, bemoaning the slippage of standards in our Carnival expressions and the emphasis on the more negative aspects of the festival, the bacchanalia.

Thankfully, I am not alone in this quest. Retired teacher, musician, calypsonian and cultural icon Olson “Caribbean Pete” Peters has been doing a wonderful job in one other section of the media, almost single-handedly being a weekly promoter for all that is “good and noble” in our cultural field. He goes largely, well at least not sufficiently, recognized for his sterling efforts. Dr Edgar ‘Doc’ Adams has just published his 15th book, even at his age a trailblazer for the arts, culture, our heritage and sports. We take too much of this for granted. Life is far, far more than the scope of party politics would allow us.

So, I am humbled by the contributions of these giants and feel reassured that we must go beyond the scope of the “who said what” and the “who dunnit,” if we are to develop further. Thus, as we move into the height of the Carnival season, I would like to highlight, by returning to my Black Power theme, the role that the black consciousness movement has played in the development of progressive social commentary.

Calypso is a very special form of music, for in addition to its entertaining value, it also combines humour with biting social commentary. Very few, if any, other forms of music internationally, have been able to achieve this.

Historically, the Mighty Sheller, and before him, the said Olson “Caribbean Pete” Peters, were perhaps the most noted exponents, with titles to show. They were not alone, however, bur clearly where social commentary was concerned, both stood out. Most of my readers would be too young to remember ‘Pete,’ so it would be useful to recall just one verse from a classic of his:

“If is not communism, is nuclear weapons or racial discrimination Kruschev in Russia or Castro in Cuba, have the people bawling for murder In the Caribbean, dem dam’ politician

Mash up de Federation And McMillan up in Britain

Say ban West Indian immigration”

This dealt with some of the critical global and regional problems of the early sixties – the USA/USSR stand-off over the installation of nuclear weapons in Cuba, which took the world to the brink of a world war; the tragic break-up of the West Indian Federation; and Britain’s hardening of its immigration policies.

The mid-seventies was to see a significant deepening of the expression of social commentary in calypso, in a very progressive direction. Olson Peters has already documented much of this, so I only point to the emergence of a new generation of social commentators – starting with Black Messenger, I-Reality, Vibrating Scakes and De Man Age, but also extending to Sulle, Rastaman “I”, Dread Condition – calypsonians who did not only sing the songs, but were social activists themselves. So, too, was veteran Black Power advocate Robert ‘Patches’ Knights.

Of course, these were not all, for such was the influence that this trend manifested itself even in the works of the more renowned Becket and Carlton “CP” Hall, among others.

That is our progressive calypso legacy, a legacy which we must seek to preserve and enrich. I do hope that I can return to and develop this theme further at a later point.

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