October was Calypso History Month and the annual event always provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the tremendous contribution that the artform has made to Trinidad and Tobago culture. For this reason I fully endorse the call for 50 per cent local content on the airwaves and while the quality of some calypsoes leaves a lot to be desired, there is a remarkable volume of work that deserves greater exposure. Much of it has been ignored over the years although some of the more outstanding compositions are just as relevant today as they were many years ago.
In fact one of the hallmarks of a great calypso is its ability to deliver a message that remains topical despite the passage of time. For instance the 1959 Road March "Run the Gunslingers'' by Caruso sang about rising crime and that criminals were so desperate that they would "knock you down for a green mango". If you substitute "cellphone'' for "green mango'' it is perhaps even more relevant today. Then there was the classic about freedom of speech in the late1930s by King Radio who sang "they want to license we mouth, they don't want we talk". Around the same time the Growling Tiger wrote his famous "Money is King'' in which he noted that the wealthy could do as they please in the society, even "commit murder and get off free".
On the humorous side Cypher captured the Calypso King title in 1967 singing about the behaviour of political parties and poked fun at their "manifestos only pack with lies". More recently there was "Mr Trinidad'' by Maestro, a marvellous insight into the national psyche while Sparrow's "Good Citizen" dramatically highlighted the hypocrisy and injustice that still prevails. Birdie sang that "the real traitors are all high in society" and recent revelations coming out of the Clico/HCU Commission suggest that he may have a point.
There are many other calypso gems from the likes of Shadow, Kitchener, Duke, Chalkdust, Stalin, Valentino et al. However, the one that keeps reverberating in my head is the masterpiece by the late, great Ras Shorty I "Watch out my children". Perhaps it is prompted by the bullying, rape and child abuse that seem to be on the increase. Or maybe it is the appalling behaviour of adults who are supposed to be setting examples of honesty and decency for the youth to follow.
I came across the following statement on the Internet recently, "children are an extension of their parents by their thoughts, words, and actions. They learn as they see their parents responding to emotion, reacting to comments, handling circumstances and making choices. They are sponges."
If it is true that our children absorb the world around them like "sponges'', then I wonder what they are soaking up as they look around at the country today. Will they absorb the lesson of young Keshorn Walcott that discipline and humility can move mountains or will they learn from some of our "exemplars'' that cunning, deceit and "smartmanism'' are the secrets of success?
Ras Shorty I is classic with a warning to "walk cautiously children, be alert because you have an enemy that's roaming the earth". And while he referred specifically to the dangers of cocaine, the enemy extended not only to the drug trade but to "all the evils of life that create strife and destroy life."
Some weeks ago CCN TV6 asked the question "do you think there are evil people holding high office in Trinidad and Tobago?" While it was an unscientific poll, an overwhelming 92 per cent answered in the affirmative and I suspect that viewers did not confine their answers to politicians.
In a more recent article Sunday Express columnist Sunity Maharaj noted that "gangsterism dressed up in jacket and tie and high heels and lipstick is the culture of a leadership class committed to the ideology of self above all else". Many would agree that "the ideology of self above all else'' is the root cause of many of the ills affecting T&T. It is reflected not only in the unrestrained lust for money and power but also in the self-righteous arrogance that refuses to accept or listen to other voices.
It is a type of behaviour which often seems to border on megalomania or even narcissism. A prominent medical encyclopaedia notes that narcissism is "a personality disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration and praise". It goes on, "they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling others". Egos are running wild throughout the country and our youth need to guard against this particular "evil of life''.
Fortunately Ras Shorty I offered some hope to the next generation and reminded them that their destiny is in their hands. "Your future is ahead of you," he sang "right or wrong, sweet or sour depends on what you do. What you feed your mind with forms your characteristic and shades the path that you must walk tomorrow… darkness or glow, joy or sorrow". It may be difficult in an "eat-ah-food'' environment but the youth must "feed their minds'' with what "leads on to righteousness'' and does not bring "shame and disgrace to the human race''.
• Richard Braithwaite is a