“Don’t condemn the children for their iniquity,
is you who make them and shape their mentality.
Every generation is nothing more,
than a reproduction of the one that went before”.
—You push the Creator out
Ras Shorty I
As the nation celebrates the 79th birthday of the greatest of them all, the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), the legacy of another calypso genius comes to mind. Saturday July 12, is the 14th anniversary of the passing of Ras Shorty I, the man who many credit as the founder of soca. The issue may be open to debate since Shadow (Winston Bailey) and the late Maestro (Cecil Hume) also played significant roles in developing the genre.
However, what is indisputable is the outstanding contribution that he made to local music. Like many of the great calypsonians Ras Shorty I was able to provide a profound insight into the society and to do so with a combination of compelling lyrics and irresistible melodies. His metamorphosis from “macho man to mystic man” is a journey of self-discovery and courage that should comfort those who are concerned about today’s crass materialism.
His musical ability was such that, had he decided to remain as Lord Shorty he may have achieved even greater fame and fortune, probably winning several calypso and soca monarch titles along the way. Instead he turned his back on the bright lights, facing public ridicule as a weird, half-mad eccentric. He remained steadfast and unapologetic however and he would sing, “I will be not afraid of what man can do to me, because man you see is only full of vanity”.
He sought salvation deep in the Piparo forest where, together with his family, he produced some of his greatest calypsoes. His classic “Watch out my children” is timeless and now that no less a person than a US assistant Secretary of State has pointed to the link between criminal gangs in T&T and the international drug trade, perhaps Ras Shorty’s prophetic genius will be appreciated. “Walk cautiously and be alert”, he warned the youth, “because you have an enemy that’s roaming the earth” and he was not only referring to cocaine.
Although he had a special interest in young people and many of his compositions dealt with their challenges, he was particularly harsh on the greed and hypocrisy of the adult world, two of the “evils of life that create strife”. In “Change your Attitude”, Ras Shorty I pointed to the poor examples that adults set and the absence of parental guidance. He warned parents and guardians, “when the tree young and you bend it wrong, it hard to straighten when it old and strong. You sow the seeds of darkness and now you reaping wickedness”. He pointed to the decadence in the society and he prophesied, “if this is the example for our children to follow, then the schoolyards will be the battlefields of tomorrow”. Was he wrong? He further cautioned, “if we don’t take heed and mend our ways, one day we will set this entire place ablaze”.
He pleaded with his fellow citizens to fight against corruption and in one particular recording he began with a verse from the Book of Chronicles, “if my people who are called by name would humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, I will forgive their sins and heal their land.” The need for repentance and atonement was a central theme in his music and he poured scorn on religious hypocrites who preach one thing but do something else, “going to church regularly but they conscious only about money.” Like wolves in sheep’s clothing “they walking about with briefcase and bible in hand, offering freedom when they themselves are servants of corruption”.
For Ras Shorty I, the love of money was indeed “the root of all evil” and in “Money is no problem” he exposed the fallacy that having wealth is a guarantee of progress and development.
Despite the flow of petrodollars he saw that serious problems persisted, “people saying that the country blight, so much money and nothing working right”. But perhaps his greatest triumph was that he rejected the seductive blandishments of Babylon and stayed true to his beliefs. It could not have been easy especially when others with less talent and creativity were simply “riding a riddim’’ and achieving widespread public acclaim.
The music of Ras Shorty I is more relevant than ever, now that the society is on the brink of the abyss. While it is said that “a prophet is not without honour except in his own country”, let us hope that a similar fate does not befall the “Prophet of Piparo’’.