After Brian Lara toppled two major world records and scored several centuries in a genius spell of 49 days in 1994, monument man of modern calypso David Rudder commented: “Every generation in Trinidad and Tobago needs someone to not just look up to but to hold on to…when he became the Brian Lara, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to grab on to him now.’ It’s that extraordinary level of expectation, and if you don’t handle it right, you can buckle.”
Notwithstanding the obvious, major limits to the comparison, I hope Bunji Garlin is learning how to handle it right. The continuing success of “Differentology” abroad—still a marker of “real” achievement—builds on the reputation ascribed to Bunji here long before. He has always been an artiste apart, unique in the soca genre, a freestyling, non-wining, modern rapso man, using the power of the word to effect messages that hitherto had been the role of the social commentary kaiso-kaiso genus. There is no doubt he is helping to transform the character of soca.
The natural corollary to that is the public will converse with his music and lyrics in the deep call-and-response tradition of calypso and will, ultimately and quite rightly, engage soca in a similarly intense public dialogue as with social and political commentary calypso.
There is everything good and nothing wrong with that. Soca enjoys a free pass to do what it wants, at times, make the most dotish statements, offend large sections of the population, overtake radio frequencies with overwhelming silliness and still make plenty money and earn many awards in a compressed, commercialised period each year. For its part, the Soca Monarch competition, like T20 cricket, has simultaneously helped and hindered the form.
Even before this non-controversy over “Red Light District”, there was critical public reaction in 2008 to Shurwayne Winchester and Peter Ram’s groovy soca, “Woman by my Side”; Peter Minshall had, in 2003, publicly condemned the homophobia in Antiguan Wanskie’s “More Gyul” (head of the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre’s Special Programme on Sexually Transmitted Infections, Dr Bilai Camara, back then, articulated a connection that is useful to the discussion today about “Red Light District”; he said culture has a powerful influence on human sexuality and this power must be understood and handled in an appropriate manner); and in 2011, I mused in this space that KMC’s “Yeast” “…symbolised that feeling of being overcome, a muted Carnival happiness. It feels like trials and tribulations—crime, high prices, fears and frustrations that form unholy rumours in Lent—are too many, too overwhelming, even for The Carnival.”
So public conversations with soca, though few, are not entirely new nor are they unwelcome. “Red Light District” is a popular, easy track but it is not a profound song; the critical reaction by a few (I count only two) is also not profound but they are to be appreciated as part of the evolution of soca’s relationship with its public and its attendant responsibilities.
In the annual unholy pre-Lenten alliance between music and mass media, Dr Gabrielle Hosein’s incomplete but provocative analysis of the song and psychologist Dr Anna Maria Mora’s letter to the editor expressing her vexation on behalf of children have been “stirred” by weasel words into a “controversy” by “feminist activists”.
There is no controversy here and I am yet to find the “feminist activists”; most of the ones I know are preparing to Jouvert alongside one big, bad, stink truck on the road.
I was disappointed to see Fay-Ann Lyons’ and Bunji’s defence of the song-that-needs-no-defence; “Red Light District” was off and running since last November; it can’t be stopped and no one is asking that it be. Both Fay-Ann and Bunji have indeed diminished the song by reducing it to only its title line. There is much more in it to fuel productive discussions about men, women, sexuality, popular culture and their interstices.
Our artistes and entertainers—these are not synonyms—make music but they do not own the music they make. As they release tracks, so, too, they must also release ownership to a wide and diverse public and allow people to interpret, quarrel, analyse, conclude, like and not like all or bits of their creations. That is basic to the artistic process and artistic products.
Columnist and cultural activist Attillah Springer demonstrated this in relation to even “Differentology” in November 2012—“…it’s a sweet tune in that innocuous, slightly saccharine kind of way we have become accustomed to,” Springer wrote, further describing it as “another in the line of easy, simplistic groovy soca offerings for us to chip happily down the road to. It’s nice, in that way that soca can be. Non-threatening and pleasant….”
All things are as they should be, Bunji and Fay-Ann. Let the writers write, talkers talk, analysts analyse, dancers dance, musicians make music, and continue to nurture that defiant heavy-T while welcoming all of dem into the masquerade.