Music Lyrics on the shelf – By Dave Martins + 3 videos

It cannot be news to anyone who pays attention to our various news media that a column on one topic can trigger, and will trigger, topics for another column.  Just in the past weeks, for instance, after a column I wrote offering some suggestions for young writers of popular music, I heard from three readers who were pleased with my discussing the musical ingredients in Caribbean songs but chided me for not treating the lyrical side of the compositions appearing on our popular music charts in recent years.

In writing that earlier column, I had taken care not to overload the potential songwriters, to whom it was aimed, with too much detail at once, but in retrospect I consider the criticism to be fair.  Furthermore, one of the readers, my long-time friend Vic Fernandes, a radio guru in his home country of Barbados, is someone I consider as being very au fait with the music business in the Caribbean, so I’m giving some space this week to what I should have included in the previous column.     

With the creation of the Tradewinds band in Toronto in 1966, and in Guyana before that, I have been involved in the creation of popular songs on Caribbean life for going on 60 years and a key in that process for me was the completely wide open subject matter, a striking feature of calypso music which formed the major part of the Tradewinds music portfolio. From the beginning, delving into the cultural life of the region, that freedom on what to write about played a big part for me, and still does, when I set about to compose a song.

It is probably not a factor of which the common man may be aware, but it is frankly a gold mine for our budding song-writers that we have always comfortably embraced any feasible subject that came to us, secure in the knowledge that it would be accepted by our populations, whether they live in the region or outside.  A song, for example, about the specific style of writing in school textbooks in the British colonial days is not something one would find in other British possessions such as Australia or India or Pakistan, but we had one here, a popular hit of the day, in a song by the Mighty Sparrow, with the intriguing title of The Mighty Sparrow’s “Dan Is The Man In The Van” – an actual line from a text book on the English language used in Caribbean schools.

Dan is the Man (in the Van) – Mighty Sparrow


It is a tribute to the innovative ability widely practiced by Caribbean song-writers going back to Atilla the Hun in Trinidad, and coming forward to Kes Diefenthaller today, that they found a way to make a song about virtually any subject in Caribbean life, and the creation was readily accepted by the people, either in national festivals, but also at any other time in the year. So apart from the humorous song about education, Sparrow also gave us the double entendre hit, “Congo Man,” and Gypsy, another Trini, wrote “Sinking Ship,” about the poor political performance of then Prime Minister Chambers, while we had Bill Rogers in Guyana, extolling our various natural remedies in his “Weed Man” song, and, in more recent times, Gabby in Barbados in his popular “This Beach Is Mine,” as well as the even more recent compositions of my own, including “Boyhood Days,” “Is We Own,” “Copycats,” “Civilization,” and the anthem-like “Not A Blade of Grass.”

Guyana’s Bill Rogers – Weed Song – video


The fairly obvious point here is that popular music compositions in the Caribbean, as anywhere else, are a combination of musical notations and various regional lyrics in both Standard English as well as French and Dutch patois. What is not so obvious, however, is the Caribbean disposition to sing about anything and everything at any time, and no subject is exempt.  We sing about a coronation in England, or a Russian space satellite, or the renegade Arab leader Osama Bin Laden, or an excursion ship to Grenada sinking en route.  Even Hitler, in far off Germany, did not escape scrutiny as World War threatened: “Run yuh run, Adolf Hitler, run yuh run.  Don’t mind what Chamberlain say, cheer boys cheer, is a surety when they clash wid we, we guh conquer Germany.” And the politicians in various countries were also exposed to criticism in songs played on our radio stations.

This approach is a unique aspect of our history, one not often highlighted by our historians, but one I suspect some enterprising sociologist may well use as the topic for a book one day. I sincerely hope the book is written soon because to look around at our musical fare these days is to see that our earlier inclination to sing about anything seems to be fading, if not extinct altogether, being replaced by the current vogue where our writers are focusing almost totally on songs to do with partying, or “getting on”, or “wukking up”.

My concern is not so much with the “party songs” of this era – popular music is an arena of change, always was, always will be – but I see the narrowing of the subject matter as a loss for our creative people who are looking to write about our society, as has been our history almost from the very beginning, in a format that I see no other nation anywhere managing to emulate.

My radio pal Vic Fernandes remarked in a note to me about the decline in the quality of lyrics in many current Caribbean hits, and it pertains. I have no quarrel with the more dance-oriented music of today, and the narrowed subject matter that the people prefer, but purely as a writer I recognise that writers emerging in the Caribbean now will find it more difficult to create lyrics when the canvas available to them has become so restricted as it now appears.

Finally, I hear the comments expressing concern, but history tells us that cultures changing is a constant; it is happening as I write this, and Vic Fernandes is right: the Caribbean level in music lyrics has declined from that earlier stage when we sang, literally, about everything, and frankly I doubt we will ever revert to that earlier model. There is no history of that happening on any scale in the popular music of any land. The current version is it. The earlier version is in the radio station archives, but not on the air.  The lyrics some of us are wishing for are silent on the shelf.

THE TRADEWINDS – Civilization

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  • kamtanblog  On 12/10/2019 at 3:07 am

    Dave Martins not sure about your
    political affiliations but would love
    to hear a song on “elections” in
    February. With humour included
    lyrics ….with as many adjectives !

    Love the comparison of politicians with
    jackasses !

    Allow donkies vote they will elect jackasses

    USA humpity dumpity
    UK Bojo
    EU Iron Lady mk2

    Come on let’s have a song on suggestions

    Kamtan 🇬🇧🇬🇾🇪🇸🇬🇧👽

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