by Arley Gill
Bob Dylan, an American songwriter and singer, is this year’s Nobel Laureate. In doing so, this achievement has in a sense radicalized the world’s outlook on literature. Traditionally, the written word in poetry and books won this prize from its very inception, and then this!
“It’s literature, but it’s music, it’s art, it’s also highly commercial,” said David Hadju, a music critic. “The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time, but this is it being made official.”
The Swedish Academy, which is responsible for choosing the Nobel Laureates in Literature — and has been presenting the award since 1901 — credited Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
To many literature purists, this is disturbing and unwelcome; but there are those of us who always maintain that well-written songs, regardless of genre, are as beautiful literature as one can find, in whatever format.
Bob Dylan, it is said, influenced American society for over 5 decades. I am no expert on his music or his genre, for that matter. Moreover, as a student of cultural art forms, I am not an authority on American cultural art forms. But I know a good song when I hear one, and I am au courant with many rap and country and western music. However, the significance of this award to Bob Dylan must not be lost on us in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean musical art forms have influenced the world in many ways. In fact, per capita, the English Caribbean music genres could well be the most influential in the world.
If I may upset the literature purist a bit more, the lyrics of the great Bob Marley have influenced generations all over the world, and not just in one state. The lyrics may not be the most complicated or sophisticated with all the literary devices, but it is effective in communicating.
In the genre of calypso, an entire civilization was positively affected; from slavery to colonialism, from independence to apartheid, from revolution to social issues like poverty and prostitution. Almost all aspects of life and living imaginable have been addressed from persons who do not have university degrees and, of course, by some who have doctorates.
I would like to invite the Swedish Academy to examine the catalogue of Slinger Francisco, the ‘Mighty Sparrow,’ and hear for themselves how major world events were documented with some of the most amazing use of language. Listen to how the stories are told — at times with humour and satire.
The Swedish Academy must not stop there. The archives of Black Stalin, Chalkdust, Valentino and Lord Kitchener must be dusted and studied. The works of these calypsonians, in my respectful view, are no less masterfully crafted and poignant than are Bob Dylan’s.
Look, I cannot give an exhaustive list of calypsonians and calypso or reggae or reggae artistes and songwriters in this short article. This will require time and a more in-depth analysis of more calypsonians and composers and their work. However, these are the few names that jumped out at me.
There are calypsonians in other islands, outside of Trinidad, like Black Wizard and Scholar from Grenada; Red Plastic Bag and Gabby of Barbados; Short Shirt from Antigua, and the list continues of others who, over the years, have produced some beautiful literary works in their music. The Swedish academy may not be aware of this phenomenon. But, we should alert them.
Bob Dylan has broken new ground. Indeed, his award is groundbreaking, but it must not stop there. The work, the literature in music, of our English-speaking Caribbean writers and singers are worthy of the highest adulation. The Nobel Laureate prize is not too lofty!
Perhaps, the catalyst for bringing awareness of our artistes and songwriters to the Swedish Academy could be our regional universities. Interestingly enough, The University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) is holding a graduation ceremony on November 10 and they have invited prolific songwriter Winsford Devine.
In its invitation letter, UTT told Devine that he has been selected “for the award of an Honorary Distinguished Fellowship,” which is being conferred on him for his “sterling contribution to the development of the nation’s culture as a calypsonian, songwriter, musician and arranger.”
Devine, in a career spanning 50 years, has written more than 600 calypso and soca songs, including widely acclaimed renditions such as ‘Progress’ by the late King Austin; Sparrow’s ‘Phillip, My Dear’; Mighty Trini’s ‘Sailing’; Crazy’s ‘In Time To Come’; and “Madness” by Inspector of Grenada.
The life work of Devine is documented in a 2006 publication titled, ‘The Progress of Winsford Devine: A Collection of Caribbean Lyrics.’ It’s compiled by Trinidadian Jamil Asinia and Grenadian Lincoln DePradine and edited by Nandi Ogunlade.
“Not every Devine lyric is profound nor every rhythm sweet, but cushioned within his 600-strong catalogue are timeless gems that have influenced cultural movements, shaped political thought and fuelled this nation’s propensity for bacchanal. Arguably, it is Devine’s anthems that have most accurately reflected the pulse of three generation of Trinbagonians,” Ogunlade writes in the book.