New year, new rules. And all that jazz.
Despite the inherently dismissive tone of the last expression, I like jazz. A music of infinite plasticity (Stanley Crouch’s description).
But even though “playing on the changes” has been central to jazz, what verbal battles have been fought over its changing sounds!
Like jazz, a new year is, for many, pregnant with that same kind of tension. I don’t know if it is because of an innate baulking at alteration, transition, (dare I say it?) transformation, but for all our New Year resolutions, we often seem to be the same old, same older.
So a new year points up an age-old problem: in spite of being an ever-evolving creature, man seems unable to easily let go of the once-was.
And our passion for the past is often fixated on artefacts and practices, not on values, principles, qualities of character and other attributes that gave rise to and sustained the “things” that we want to drag, even kicking and screaming, into the present.
Unfortunately, while we lament our children’s failure to treasure them, we don’t seem to recognize that this failure is rooted to a significant extent in our unconcern about the critical intangibles that undergirded their existence – the ethos/mythos (beliefs/attitudes and so on) and the fit that nourished them.
Ah, the fit – what man decides to use in his “progress” must fit the needs of the new situation, the new tenor, the new interests, the new turns of his evolution.
Turn your mind to the constant cries for two things here – the Landship and spouge – to be preserved.
If the one is dying, should we resuscitate it? If the other has been comatose for years, should we continue life support?
The sentimental answer to both questions is yes. Now, I am not against sentimentality – it can be a viable spur of the human will. But it must be buttressed by demonstrable applicability; otherwise it is a flimsy base on which little can stand.
So we must not simply continue with something simply because we used to do it.
This point came home to me very strongly the other day as I was watching a reality TV programme about a group of Hutterites (a Mennonite sect), who live in a community that they call a “colony”.
A 19-year-old girl in the group wants to let her hair down (literally, not figuratively). The response: it has to be worn “up” – because “that is how we have always worn our hair”. She wants to go to college. No – because “Hutterites do not go to college”.
An adult son has been diagnosed with a heart condition, and wants a more healthy diet. Mother (of the lard and pork fat and all that will kill him) responds: “We have eaten this way for over a hundred years.”
No practical justification. Just a mantra. In Jamaican style: “Is so we do it all the while.”
I well remember Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and Chalkdust, like a patriarchal calypso triumvirate, issuing their imperious dismissals of a new something called “soca”. The tribunal’s call? Essentially, it is not what we have practised for so long.
I have to report that in short order the three gentlemen were making soca music. After all, music changes. People change. Tastes change. Man’s creativity and resourcefulness press on. We seek new horizons, new pleasures. Necessity births invention.
Things from the past can vibrantly live on only if they have a clear-cut consonance with life as we now know it. Otherwise, like the Hutterite colony, there will be fewer and fewer takers.
And unless you have totalitarian power, you will not be able to stop the march of what may or may not be progress, but what certainly is what is.
If spouge, the Landship and other such things are to potently come with us, new year or not, into our constantly renewing world, their claims must be pressed by more than mantra thinking or an authoritarian impulse. Their relevance must be refreshed by an underpinning of imposing congruence.
Of spouge, in particular: since music rhythms, like dance forms, die in the natural course of things, the reason for its continued existence cannot be that it used to be or that one of us created it.
At any rate, a music in which your people do not find themselves reflected in their experiences, in their emotions – not principally their ideas; for this is supposed to be song art – or which does not provide the craved vicariousness or meet pressing entertainment needs always runs the risk of being as marginal as calypso (with those same deficiencies) is when its imposed season is done.
Find that “imposing congruence”– or you might just have to let it go.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.
New year, new rules. And all that jazz.