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Tuesday 21 January 2020
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Side by side we sing

“I am always amazed at the way many of us behave as if the national anthem is for our entertainment, rather than an opportunity to express afresh our national identity. We don’t sing; and then at the end we applaud.”

Last month, President Weekes should have surprised no one as she continued her efforts to promulgate standards for our national emblems. She had staked a clear position on the matter of the national anthem within minutes of taking office a year-and-a-half ago, fewer than 300 words into an inaugural address many listened to attentively, but appear to have already forgotten.

Many also appear to have forgotten the national titter set off ten years ago by Anne Fridal’s “ariatic” rendition of the anthem, at the opening of the OAS Summit of the Americas, the “heliconia,” she protested, twisted in her hair – of the bihai (balisier) species – further fuelling the bacchanal.

Our Dimanche Gras audiences have so dwindled, too, that many, including me, failed to notice that the oddly dramatic staged performance of the anthem by Danielle Williams at the recent Carifesta closing ceremony, which drew the President’s attention, was in fact a Savannah-stage re-enactment from February. (Both public events were produced by Davlin Thomas.)

We love to complain about the irrelevance of the presidency, and some commentators rushed to take potshots at Paula-Mae’s pronouncement that Williams’s Carifesta anthem production was “an unacceptable rendition” as an exercise of colonial authoritarianism, or to rehash Denis Solomon’s and others’ well-worn points about blunders in the language of the anthem itself, or our convenient appropriation of Castagne’s composition for the West Indian Federation when it collapsed.

But it seems that taking on the responsibility for protocol with regard to national symbols is not only a worthy use of the office of the presidency, but no more than the President doing what she sees as her job.

It’s not mine. And I’m not one to get knicker-twisted about this sort of ritual and officialdom.

However, our post-Carifesta debate quickly turned to really silly questions of authority. People pointed to language on the website of the President’s Office that acknowledges – the legend of WPC Marjorie Beepatsingh’s Savannah Grand Stand arrests notwithstanding – there is no law against failing to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Others pulled up written documents about national emblems, which someone once drafted with no authority at all, as authoritative references; as if what’s in a booklet was a rule before it was printed.

We missed the point entirely – as we always seem to – that not all standards need to be, or are, rules. And that a uniquely positioned officeholder is simply laying out contemporary standards, a vision for how we should treat with the anthem. You can be guaranteed no one will ever dare pull a Fridal or Williams at any event Paula-Mae is at.

We can also have healthy disagreements about the President’s standards – whether there should be formal adherence or creative licence in singing the anthem – just as we ought to debate how much freedom we should be allowed in wearing and enjoying our own flag and coat of arms. Some of the restrictive minutiae for their use in the 70-page National Identity Guidelines Kamla’s national diversity ministry published (at least they produced something) make my eyes glaze over.

Then there’s the matter of taste. I wasn’t moved by either Fridal’s summit or Williams’s Carifesta performances, and all their breathy melodrama. I wondered why it’s when foreigners are around that we trot out these pappyshows that seem to hearken to American ballpark culture and its importation into our local public events.

But I’m not a fan either of the very local culture of playing the anthem at the opening of a paper bag. Perhaps if we didn’t use it so often, people would find freshness and meaning in it without resorting to tasteless and artistically mediocre (or at best debatable) renderings. And maybe, too, a national anthem that spans an octave-and-a-half begs for solo dramatic interpretation, since most of us can’t really sing the whole thing in one key, and have struggled with that shame since adolescence.

But that’s the very point President Weekes made when she first stepped into office – and we forgot. That the real point of a national anthem is a collective expression we undertake together; not a stage performance or star vehicle for any one person that we clap. No one should be creating a rendition of it for us.

And maybe she’ll write that down in a booklet. And like all those things people keep forwarding you as true because they’re in writing on the internet, it will become a rule.

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