COME OCTOBER, the Mighty Shadow will be among a select group of individuals who will receive an honorary degree from the University of the West Indies (UWI). Shadow’s UWI honour not only reflects the pivotal role he has played in our culture over decades, it is also a reminder of how much further the State has to go in improving its problematic relationship with the arts.
Shadow will be in good company. Among the other individuals to be honoured by UWI are cricketer Shivnarine Chanderpaul, adult literacy activist Paula Lucie-Smith, model legend Grace Jones, and international pop star Rihanna. All outstanding individuals who have made tremendous contributions in their fields. However, Shadow’s honorary doctorate will be especially poignant. Here is a true calypso maestro whose artistry, originality and innovation have often been underappreciated and unheralded.
Shadow has been consistently excellent. Like Cher, he’s had a major hit in every decade since the 1970s. His classics include Bassman, Tension, Feeling the Feeling, Dingolay, Poverty is Hell, Yuh Looking for Horn, and Stranger. Some of these songs are as memorable today as they were upon first release. They all bear Shadow’s penchant for minimalism, wryness, infectious melody and poetry. When combined with his signature black garb, his equally signature pulse dancing, and his unique vocal delivery, Shadow’s performances have been intoxicating. And at times he has been aptly rewarded.
In 2001, Shadow became the oldest Road March winner (he also won previously in 1974). He is only the second person to win both the International Soca Monarch and the Road March in the same year. Yet, despite the fact that he is a household name whose music is instantly recognisable, when the time came to honour him in 2003, he was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver).
The UWI award, which is bestowed annually to individuals of eminence, goes some way towards reframing Shadow within a proper perspective. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of many of the shambolic and superficial attempts by the State, throughout the years, to honour calypso icons.
With few exceptions, it is often the case that our most beloved artists – calypsonians or otherwise – are neglected until only the last minute. Ironically, the artists who achieve ubiquitous status are the ones often most at risk of neglect. They are taken for granted, and the craft of what they do trivialised.
In Trinidad and Tobago, when we think of the arts, we tend to focus almost entirely on Carnival and the Carnival season. State funding is limited to the ritual of annual competitions and not towards archiving, preservation, education or even community outreach. The sheer power of Shadow’s words, with their democratic call to action and reverie, is in sharp contrast to the lack of meaningful interventions in the realm of culture. Our only consolation: we can still dingolay.