Thursday, April 18, 2024

Up against the competition – really!


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TWO RECENT ANNOUNCEMENTS – of the Pic-O-De-Crop placings and of the winners of Barbados Scholarships and Exhibitions – give me a chance to examine the question of what is real and what is not.
I am dealing with the Pic-O-De-Crop competition today.
Ever since Mac Fingall let Bajans exhale early in the morning of Saturday, August 4, people have fixated on the results, mostly second-guessing the judges. They even want to pick my brain (“Wuh you t’ink ’bout de results, Sherwyn?”).
I en in dat. I was not sitting with pen and paper, listening diligently and making notes and entering numbers. (By the way, neither were you.)
Even so, song for me is an enduring passion, a critical life partner. It is real. It isn’t a competition thing, existing on the edges of real life.
The best of it – with all its elements of lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, rendition well attuned – is “the food of love” (Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) and more: it can play a critical role in developing our sense of beauty, our emotional maturity, our theory of mind, empathy, our coping skills; and broaden our experience base, meld with our needs, connect us to others – nothing to sneeze at!
At its best, that is not art for art’s sake or for any other kind of sake that takes it away from its essence. It is not fodder for a political or social viewpoint. Not a psychological investment in a favourite.
Song is intrinsically a thing of the heart, soul and senses. Unfortunately, in our calypsos we Caribbean people shy away from those aspects of our humanness, becoming, therefore, a rationalist’s delight. Not me.
Although I did judge several national calypso competitions many years ago, I have never been fully persuaded, and even less so now, that art (if art it is) is amenable to summative and, in particular, comparative judgement. It is not an essay on a given topic or range of topics with a relatively small number of effective options (in terms of both substance and treatment).
The centrality of competition misguides as to what a song really is and does: the average Barbadian now thinks that a Pic-O-De-Crop song has to be social comment, having been seduced into being inauthentic (away from their realness as genuine engagers of the experiential, emotional and aesthetic nourishment of song).
Beyond that, the competition philosophy creates a constricting focus on a pseudo-market – judges – and a satisfied-with-little scope beyond the narrow confines of Barbados or the Caribbean.
And because competition judgements don’t really teach the creators or the receivers anything about art, there begins a sniffing out of formulas, with a consequent degradation of creative and true-to-its-nature effort. So our undoubted talented ones – yes, we have them – short-change the people, even if they themselves win more than small change.
Thus we have songs whose lyricists and composers have bowed collusively to a quick consigning to the dump heap because real-real listeners in numbers have no authentic uses for most of these competition pieces after the competition. The whole thing en real – it is taking place in a kind of cocoon.
You notice that David Rudder, indisputably the freshest breath of fresh air in calypso in the last 26 years, has not entered a competition in 25 years? De man reach for the heart – and de world.
Mahatma Gandhi, who knew more about real activism than any calypsonian, and probably had a deeper social conscience than any of them, said: “It is not enough to persuade with reason; you have to move the heart first.”
You can deal with social issues in art without the heavy, awkward, misplaced hand of direct comment. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and George Orwell, to name just two, had more telling effect when they showed in their novels than when they spelt out their views in comment forms of discourse.
Listen to Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday) or The Hurricane (Bob Dylan) for potent, depictive (not view-centred), artistic songs about pressing national issues. Enter the experiences; let them fill up your senses; feel your heart move; get sad; get angry; live real.
After our competition, people argue about songs. In the real world, people are too busy singing them, living them, going to sleep with them, engaging life through them, and so on.
I know it won’t be easy, but we must free “serious” calypso from the present contest prison with its rationalist warders – and competition junkies.
 Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email


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