CREATIVE SPACE #5 of 2022 (uploaded March 1st 2022)
CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the two–part CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on March1st 2022 (it ran a day early this week – in error):
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS.
CREATIVE SPACE #5 OF 2022 – IS PRESS ON SHORT SHIRT’S GREATEST ALBUM? – A CASE COULD BE MADE
Anyone who knows me knows that I hold Short Shirt’s 1976 album Ghetto Vibes as an all-time classic. And not just among calypso albums. I hold The Monarch (i.e. Short Shirt, born Mclean Emmanuel) in similar esteem. Short Shirt is, as I told ABS TV to quote me when I couldn’t make the celebration they had planned for his 80th birthday on their Monday morning show, “my favourite calypsonian…Not my favourite Antiguan and Barbudan calypsonian, my favourite calypsonian; and listening to his lyrics growing up was one of the things that made me fall in love with words and learn how to write.” It is in that spirit that I revisit 1979’s Press On. Listening to it as I write this, I remember being six and dancing around the living room of my grandparents’ house acting out the lyrics to songs from this specific album. And I realize that while the other music was always there, given my age at the time this was probably my first Short Shirt album when I was of an age to form an opinion about such things. So, I come here to say that while Ghetto Vibes is still top 5, don’t sleep on Press On – as complex and compelling an album, calypso or otherwise, in terms of writing, composition, and delivery, as has ever blessed our ears.
Track 1 – ‘Rock Me’ – a mid tempo track that begins “rock me, baby, rock me all night long” and which, its dance beat notwithstanding, leans in to the wordplay (“a frenzy of bliss/what madness is this”) characteristic of Short Shirt’s main collaborator at the time, his cousin Shelly Tobitt – one of Antigua and Barbuda’s greatest writers (and I’m counting book writers here), who should be more celebrated than he has been.
Track 2 – ‘Press On’ – If there is such a thing as blues calypso, this is it, notwithstanding the dance track – Short Shirt and Shelly had a way of moving you outside while moving you inside. It will resonate with any one who has ever been through it, as it chronicles the trials and encourages, or tries to, with its chant of “don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.” It’s one of the songs that undergirded the values (“yield not your soul to fill your breast”) I believed defined us. I was young. But whatever of that girl remains in me still wants to believe that “they must dry the sea and they must move the sky before the righteous spirit die.”
Track 3 – ‘Viva Grenada’ – Short Shirt’s discography is peppered with songs that look beyond narrow national interests and this is perhaps his and Shelly’s magnum opus in that lane. Dorbrene O’Marde writes in his Bocas award long listed Short Shirt biography Nobody Go Run Me, that this song and the entire Press On album came after two years of bruising defeats in local Carnival calypso competitions for Short Shirt and “gives voice to their revolutionary thinking”. The chorus goes:
Like O’Marde wrote, “There is no condemnation of Caribbean leaders more harsh anywhere in Caribbean song, in Caribbean literature.”
It’s a mouthful but one of Short Shirt’s gifts was making these essays effortlessly melodic and alight with passion.
For some, this song was our primer on the Grenada revolution (“March thirteen of seventy nine/a most historic freedom time”) and sparked the fire nascent in our own beating hearts.
Track 4 – ‘Disco Banga‘ – The disco backlash was already in motion but this catchy discolypso hybrid capitalized on the popularity of the music that moved the 70s. It feels more dated than any other part of the album because of the subsequent ‘death’ of disco but for a time it had us dancing as surely as anything by Queen of Disco Donna Summer. Shout out to Short Shirt’s musical arrangers and musicians.
Track 5 – ‘Kangaroo Jam’ – This Tourist Leggo-esque, panorama and Road March winnng track finds a whole group of Australians jumping in to the soca with rhythmless but exuberant dancing (“jumping up like they come to fight/kicking left and they kicking right”). I can just imagine how we children were kicking in imitation.
Track 6 – ‘Not by Might’ – This, paired with ‘Kangaroo Jam’, won Short Shirt back his crown after two-years of bareheadedness. Fun (and by fun, I mean embarrassing) fact: for many years, I attributed the opening cry of this song “give me liberty or give me death” to Short Shirt. What did I know about US revolutionary Patrick Henry? I distinctly remember when I was corrected on this point. The song itself remains a personal favourite from the maestro’s canon – borrowed words and all – speaking as it does, with the vocal agility and verve unique to Short Shirt, to the essential need of people “whether is in Uganda or whether is in Iran/or whether it’s in Grenada or Dominica”, and, of course, right here in Antigua and Barbuda, to be free. This song increased this child’s literal, literary, and liberation vocabulary.
I could write a whole essay on how it resonated: its mix of our vernacular and global liberation language, its dense poetry, its planting of a seed that continues to grow.
Track 7 – ‘For Sale’ – It was while researching this track that I learned that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back between the peerless calypsonian and his equally peerless writer. O’Marde writes that changes were made that flipped the meaning of the song (from its decided anti-government, anti-land-grab stance). Changes which vexed the writer. Before reading this explanation, I actually had an ironic read of the song which assumed an anti-government and anti-land-grab stance… but apparently completely mis-reading it (since my take aligned more with the writer’s original intent, I think). Either way, rift notwithstanding, Short Shirt, Dorbrene wrote, regards Shelly Tobitt as “the best writer he ever worked with”.
Track 8 – ‘What You Gonna Do’ – This is one I remember acting out in the living room with its “whatchu gonna do, whatchu gonna do, when time, time, time, finally run out on you”. It’s a deep one though with some interesting and introspective lines. Its theme of betrayal is laid bare in direct (“It’s not everyone who smile is your friend”) and analogous (“some will betray you with a kiss/and still sip and sup within your midst”) lyrics. A melancholic (“cause I’m weary”) song, it poignantly ponders the titular question, foreshadowing a break.
I once saw a YouTube comment from Shelly Tobitt (whom I have not yet been fortunate to interview) in which he said of Press On, “This is my favorite album, not because I believe it to be the best I’ve written, but because I wrote it for myself – not to sing, but to listen to. I was sending myself a message and I heard it. It was the beginning of the end. Let him that has wisdom, understand.”
I don’t know if I have wisdom deep enough to understand but I did find the more introspective songs on this album deeply meditative and indicative of a writer contemplating a mountain of challenges and changes. And whatever the state of their relationship at this time, Shelly and Short Shirt made magic on Press On as they always did.
Press On is a mixed bag but filled with classics (5 of them in the top 100 per ZDK’s list quoted in O’Marde’s book) from the canon of one of the greatest creative partnerships (with a tip of the hat to Short Shirt’s other prominent collaborators, Marcus Christopher and Stanley Humphreys, and the classics they birthed) from Antigua and Barbuda, the Caribbean, and the world of music.
Happy Birthday, Monarch, and thanks for the masterpieces of a lifetime. Thanks, too, for being down to earth, gracious, and generous at our various meetings over the years – you’re a real one.
Short Shirt is the stage name of Mclean Emmanuel, b. February 28th 1942, known as the Monarch due to his 15 calypso monarch titles – the calypso monarch competition was at the time the biggest singing competition of the Carnival season in Antigua and Barbuda. Short Shirt started competing in 1962 and captured his first crown in 1964. He also has seven road march wins – the road march refers to the most popular tune on the road for the Carnival season. Sir Mclean Emmanuel has more than 40 albums to his name, including greatest hits and two gospel albums. He’s also won crowns and been awarded prizes, regionally and internationally, including being inducted in to the Sunshine Hall of Fame.
I have been fortunate to interview Short Shirt, a couple of times in my career, which is a big deal to me considering that I grew up on his music. One of the articles produced was ‘Over the Boundary: The Monarch‘ for the Calypso 50th anniversary commemorative magazine which I also edited. Below is an article on ‘What Calypso Taught Me About Writing’ that I did for the Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival commemorative magazine, and ‘King Calypso’ for Zing, the LIAT Inflight magazine.
This ZDK listing of Short Shirt’s Top 100 includes five songs from Press On – Not by Might (17), Kangaroo Jam (33), Viva Grenada (45), Press On (66), What You Gonna Do (90).
The 1973 track from Caribbean Charm ‘Antigua Will Redeem‘ was number 100 on the list and ‘European Common Market’ from that same album was number 84. Of course, the list included almost all of 1976’s Ghetto Vibes, four -‘Tourist Leggo’ (1), ‘When’ (6), ‘Inspite of All’ (5), and ‘Power and Authority’ (7) – in the top 10.
See lyrics to some of the Short Shirt songs named in this article and other calypso in the Antigua and Barbuda Lyrics Data Base, a work in progress, on Wadadli Pen.
Short Shirt’s interview with ABS TV on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
An interview with author of Nobody Go Run Me Dorbrene O’Marde is linked in the article.
Another former calypso king, Progress, has called for national hero status to be conferred on Short Shirt (who was knighted in 2003). “Sir McLean’s amazing list of achievements, his impressive body of work, the impact his songs have had on the growth and development of Antigua and Barbuda, the fight carried on behalf of the poor, oppressed and downtrodden, his invaluable contribution to Carnival, the hero worship that is evident wherever he performs, make him highly deserving,” King Progress said during a church service for Short Shirt. Antigua and Barbuda’s PM has agreed with the sentiment. In the meantime, he gifted Short Shirt the lease to the Dickenson Bay property where he operated his popular beach bar for decades. (Source – Daily Observer newspaper)
In 2013, Dr. James Knight released a documentary, The Making of the Monarch, he had produced on King Short Shirt. I am delighted to find it online (shared by Dr. Knight himself). Enjoy.
As noted in the doc, musical arranger was Jaggar Martin with Shelly Tobitt and Short Shirt.
And finally, just some of the music (this one a mix from DJ Easy P).
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