What Calypso Taught Me About Writing

Digging through some old papers, postings and such in preparation for a couple of upcoming panels at the VI Lit Fest and Book Fair, I came across this piece I wrote some time ago about the influence of calypso writing on my writing. It’s an article published locally and regionally now which was extracted from a longer piece I presented at a calypso conference a few years ago (2007). Anyway, it remains true and I felt like sharing.

I have no doubt that calypsos provided some of my first lessons in writing. While my sister and I frolicked, acting out the tunes, the lessons were taking root, as was a certain idea that stories weren’t just about people in English boarding schools or anywhere else across the water. To this child, Star Black, a cowboy in a relatable setting, was as larger-than-life as John Wayne silhouetted against the blazing desert sun. Short Shirt, the singer of the tale, elevated him to the Caribbean folk mythos as surely as John Ford, who directed Wayne in some 14 films, made the Duke inextricable from the mythos of the American west; like Wayne, he sat “tall in the saddle”.

For the child I was then, Carnival was where art lived; from the elaborate costumes to the intricate steel pan compositions to the lyricism of the calypsonians – my first introduction to creative writing. I didn’t see it for what it was then, of course; as I watched the theatre unfold on stage – for instance, King Obstinate in pig tails and diapers, as he rendered his classic Children Mêlée, it was all in good fun.

But, via these calypsos, I was introduced to literary devices I would learn to name much later. Calypso, like the Anancy and Jumbie stories that compensated for the overabundance of American and British literature, was a gateway; done right, it made for engaging and effective story telling.

Take Obsti’s classic Wet You Han’. In local parlance, Wet You Han’ is usually a warning to a rival, precursor to making good on a threat or promise. Not surprisingly, then, the song chronicles an epic battle, typical of village life back in the day, between two of Antiguan literature’s more riveting characters, Crazy Ellie and Big Foot Maude. What makes this song work is, not just the humor, but the authenticity of the setting, characters, and language. Obsti shades in the details to such a degree that we easily pictured the shop into which the fight spilled, and smelled the ‘sweet oil’ permeating the air.

Calypso provided lessons in how to play, teasingly, with language. Its use of the double entendre and pun – its passion for double meanings – is legendary. These devices are most often used to mask calypso’s favourite theme, sex. The innocent among us thought Short Shirt’s Push was about a broken down car. But worldlier people knew what the female protagonist was asking for when she demanded “push…I ain’t got the whole night”.

Of course, the power of calypso, like any good writing, is what it makes you feel. Ivena calls on our collective history to shame us into action, when she shrills, giving me goosebumps every time, “You’ve got to remember the cane fields on fire” in Remember the Pledge harkening back to a time when our ancestors stood en masse against oppression. Then there’s Short Shirt’s hard luck but defiant calypso Nobody Go Run Me: “… no dice/I ain’t gonna eat lice/I ain’t going to grow old/sitting in the cold, not me…” On bleak days this is one of the theme songs thrumming through my blood, looping through my brain. Years later, on reading Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, chronicling the misadventures of men who were in fact catching hell in the cold, the thread between the literature of calypso, and the Caribbean novel, could not be denied.

Calypso in many ways was the ‘novel’ of the masses, all the devices, themes, and key story elements deftly used by the likes of Shelly Tobitt, Marcus Christopher, and others. Take Cuthbert ‘Best’ Williams use of conflict, a critical story element, in Ivena’s now classic Old Road Fight, a song inspired by this community’s battle with hotel developers. The use of the first person point of view helps make for a sympathetic perspective while the drawing on the power of the collective, the calling out of Ma Clemmie, Destah Jah, Lovell, Zakela and the others, makes this more than an individual tale. The conflict builds, taking on epic significance. Ivena sings: “It is a holy war, a revival of black power”. So, it’s no longer about a tourist development but an ideology. “When the conch shell sound, it spread right across the land, King Court calling rebel man and rebel woman”, she sings and it is no longer a localized conflict. This is riveting storytelling, and more than that, it’s perhaps the best account of this real life happening in Antiguan modern history.

A hybrid of journalist, commentator, oracle, griot, fiction writer, and poet, the calypsonian in concert with the calypso writer sings the songs, sings the lives of the people; in the process teaching them that their lives can be the stuff of epic lore and teaching this writer a thing or two about the creative use of language.

For good measure, I’ll also share this link to my poem Da’s Calypso originally published (2007) in Calabash and as of 2014 in  Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and Other Writings. Dancing 10 cover
Hint, it’s one of the other writings.

2 thoughts on “What Calypso Taught Me About Writing

  1. Reblogged this on Wadadli Pen and commented:
    This is coming up on being one of my most shared articles – and, yes, I’m the one doing the sharing. It is an abridged version of a series of articles previously published in Antigua’s Daily Observer newspaper and built from a 2007 presentation at a Calypso Association conference. This version was published in the 2008 edition of the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival magazine. I’ve since shared it on the Caribbean Literary Salon when that was still a vibrant space for Caribbean writers to positive feedback. “Spot on,” said one, an Antiguan; while a non-Antiguan wrote, I love this article for the homage it pays to calypsonians. The parallel Hillhouse makes between Short Shirt’s Nobody Go Run Me and Selvon’s Lonely Londoners intrigues me. Having read Lonely Londoners, I’m curious to hear the song.” So, of course, I welcomed the opportunity share Short Shirt’s signature album (Ghetto Vibes): http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/ghetto-vibes/id261551153

  2. Pingback: Carnival – Just a Little Taste | Wadadli Pen

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