by Arley Gill
It is that time of the year again; it is carnival in Grenada. The Calypso and Soca competitions have started, the panmen and women are well into learning their Panorama songs and the masquerade bands are busy marketing their costumes. Let us not forget the recent Jab Jab craze, where fans of this traditional mas’ gather for weekly “Goat Pen’’ and “Cow Pen’’ jams.
As an outsider looking in, it is always one of reflection and meditation for me; looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the Spicemas product and attempting to make constructive criticisms and recommendations.
For the last year or so, I have been wrestling with the problem of how the Grenadian public decides on their Road March songs or — at least — their big hits. This came into sharp focus when the Cloud 5 monster hit, ‘Shell Down’, did not win the coveted Road March prize in 2015. Now, this is no slight on the eventual winner, ‘Jab Jab on Sesame Street’, which I think is a truly creative and infectious song.
However, here we had ‘Shell Down,’ a song that was played more than any other in the streets of most carnivals overseas, and was by far the most popular song in the soca world, struggling to get play at home in Grenada. I attended both Crop Over in Barbados and Brooklyn’s Labor Day Carnival last year and I swear, ‘Shell Down’ was the most played song on the streets and in the fetes of Bridgetown and New York. I am not sure whether because of the song’s Carriacou origins, the Grenadian public, or the disc jockeys, did not see ‘Shell Down’ as a Road March contender, bearing in mind that it was not sung specifically for Grenada’s carnival; or, because Cloud 5, as new kids on the “bloc’’, had to pay their dues.
But indeed, we must recall, as well, that Tallpree’s ‘Ole Woman Alone’, Killa’s ‘Rolly Polly’, and Super P’s ‘Everybody Peeping’, really became hits outside of Grenada before they got the love at home. So what is responsible for this phenomenon? I am not certain if ‘soca mafia’’ is involved; but I find it strange that our big songs have to be appreciated outside first. I will continue to give this more thought.
Now I am truly satisfied, with the numerous songs on the different “Jab Jab Rhythms’’. It says to me that the seed, which was controversially sown a few years ago to spark greater acceptance of our unique traditions, has paid off. However, on one of my forays on Facebook, I noticed that one of the most respected producers with Grenada roots, making the point to the effect, that artistes must use the Jab Jab Rhythm to sing on themes other than Jab Jab. I concur whole heartedly.
In other words, the Jab Jab Rhythm is here to stay, so the artistes need to now explore other topics than Jab Jab on the Jab Jab Rhythm. This, I believe, will give the Jab Jab music a wider acceptance and will allow the music to grow.
On the issue of local music production, there is some growth in the quality of productions. However, there still is a lot of room for improvement. For instance, the need exists for greater harmony in the background vocals in too many songs, and the diction of the singers could be improved in the studios. Producers must encourage multiple takes and keep an eye out for details, not only in the musical accompaniment but also in the singing.
This brings me to another point; that is, too many producers arranging songs solely on the “melody’’ of the tune the artiste brings them. There can be more creativity in the musical accompaniment; although, I must admit, there is some improvement in that regard.
Finally, I must state publicly, that I disagree fundamentally with the staging of the Soca Monarch quarter finals in carnival city, on the Carenage, in the capital city. As I understand it, it is to cut costs; I am aware of how much carnival is underfunded. However, in cutting costs the Spicemas Corporation (SMC) is also cutting significant other things.
They are cutting out the decentralization of carnival. Considering that the parishes of St John, St Mark, St Patrick and St David do not have major carnival activities, the Soca Monarch quarter finals were always an opportunity for these parishes to get piece of the action.
The SMC, essentially, is cutting out artistes who will enter the competition for the fun of it, and who do not expect to make it to the other rounds. These artistes just want to entertain their hometown parish fans and would not invest in a bus fare to go to St George’s town to compete.
The SMC is cutting out the vibes that are created in the rural communities. They are eliminating the small service providers who look forward to a little business around carnival time and, instead, SMC is feeding the mega service provider. The commercial business of carnival has to spread around the country, and not even the big players of commerce are not annoyed at that idea. So, in having these events all in St Georges, in effect Spicemas Corporation is cutting out more than costs.
Yes, carnival is a business, and must be run as one; but it’s a non-traditional business. Its trappings are different from a retail or wholesale store. In running the carnival business, one has to be steeped in the history of festival, its cultural relevance to a people, and its economic impact on the national economy. In addition, one has to be guided by deep philosophical appreciation of carnival. It is much more than putting on a show on a stage.
And while we value the commercial importance of carnival, and appreciate that the festival will evolve and has to be modernized, we also have to be careful about sanitizing it too much, just for the sake of earning some tourist dollars. Carnival can never, and will never, be the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York or the Pure Grenada Music Festival.
Carnival’s origin was about protest against the establishment; it was the Black man’s opportunity to poke fun at the ruling class and to “rebel’’ without being punished; it was about bacchanal, which includes wining and dining as much as you can. Sure, such behaviour would offend the sensibilities of some; if so, then carnival — or some aspects of it — are not for you. You never would find many of our youth attending a 5-day cricket Test; it’s not for them — they find it too boring. Other people who love sport, hate boxing or hockey; they consider them too violent and won’t buy tickets to see a boxing match or hockey game. Perhaps, the same approach should be taken by those without the palate for the blackness of the Jab Jab; the jumping and waving of the soca artistes; and the debauchery of the masqueraders on the street.
The simple solution, instead of complaining and trying to make carnival into something it was never meant to be, may be to avoid going to Jourvert or Soca Monarch, or not leaving home on Carnival Monday and Tuesday to view the Parade of the Bands.
Did I say finally? Well, last point. Smile! A young promoter shouted out to me on the Grand Anse Main Road, “They killing carnival and all that you work hard for with Popcaan and them dancehall artistes’’. I made no comment; I just smiled.
You see, I learnt years ago, that when a ball starts rolling downhill, there is no way you can tell where it will stop, unless you stop it yourself. I am fairly certain, that these dancehall artistes will sing on track on the night in question. But, so much for carnival and a quality product.
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