Dara Healy writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
Well we carré down in the back ah de alley
Only me and she
Ah crawl on meh knees
And ah charge she
The first bois under she belly
She breaks the bois and she back back
Watch me fix in meh eye and laugh
Ah get delirious
and ah charge she …
Meh wood break in half
– Extract from De Stickman, by calypsonian Zandolie
Zandolie, a master of double entendre, sang in his typical style about a stickfight between him and a woman from Sangre Grande. In the clip on You Tube, Gypsy and David Rudder provide back up. The adult crowd collapses with laughter, as Zandolie sings with a mischievous expression on his face.
I stared at the headline “another mudda song,” and read the sober opinion pieces proclaiming freedom of expression for calypsonians and soca artists. While the arguments may be pertinent, under the pressure of staying lyrically relevant every Carnival, have some artists missed the mechanics of clever calypso composition? Double entendre is defined as “a word or phrase” that might be understood in two aspects, one of which is usually sexual. The technique is most effective when it is subtle. For this reason, it is perhaps one of the most difficult ways to convey a message with style and humour. One writer notes that this method was also used by the enslaved who sang songs ridiculing their enslavers, but used double meaning so the latter were never aware of what was being said about them.
The genre is also about storytelling, whether based on serious or frivolous subject matter. So Zandolie sang about stick-fighting, a form of martial arts that is still important to the communities that practice it, while Calypso Rose sang ‘Fire, Fire in she wire papa’ about a woman’s house on fire, a party song with sexual undertones. Gypsy lamented that he could not control his wife; eventually his grandmother had to tell him that his wife was probably out looking for cane with some man. In 1945, the Andrew’s sisters turned “Rum and Coca Cola” into an iconic song about life in the lazy Caribbean, with much of the world missing the fact that the original song was also making a statement about young women prostituting themselves for American soldiers.
Picong on the other hand, is the local way of poking fun at someone. Calypso historian Prof Gordon Rohlehr is quoted as saying the “earliest humour, picong, delivered caricatures about people, the way they dressed or looked.” Writing a clever, effective double entendre is therefore not easy to do, particularly when the writer attempts to combine it with picong. The question is, at what point does art become socially offensive? Is it not the mandate of the artist to challenge, push boundaries and make us interrogate life? Is it possible that people are thin-skinned as calypsonian Chalkdust once commented?
The current debate has raised a valid point about other genres of music currently allowed on our airwaves that objectify women, and remove any sense of dignity about sexual relations. Clearly, a firm philosophy needs to be adopted but once this process is started, how far will it go? And who will determine our moral boundaries? As early as the 1930s, calypsonians like Atilla the Hun, protested over music censorship. “Where is the liberty of which they used to shout/The freedom of speech they boasted about? … I am asking openly and would like to know/ What those Englishmen know about calypso/They really going too far I fear/What they can’t do in England they doing here”.
At what point does freedom of speech encroach on the rights of society in general? Rohlehr comments that “humour has got vicious in the last two decades … particularly political calypsoes. There’s a harsh sarcasm. When these things happen we have to ask ourselves why.” Undoubtedly in Atilla the Hun’s time, there were ideological and other conflicts as citizens grappled with questions of identity and self-determination in a colonial space. Now that we are independent, do we have a responsibility to determine the kind of society we want, driven by certain ideals and mores?
As a developing country, it is important for our music to be nation-building in orientation. Thankfully, young artists like Voice continue to lead the way.
This year, he warns the criminal element “Fire go bun them … say this is the year for love.” Perhaps this is what we need most now, not double meaning, but simply, straight talk.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.