Bunji & calypso’s historical imagination

Patricia has left me
You would be shocked to hear who replaced me
My Patricia has left me
You would be shocked to hear who replaced me
Days upon days I sits down and cry
You may want to ask me the reason why
But the thing that is hurting me
She is gone to live with a young lady

Could you tell me where my Patricia went
She gone with Millicent
I cannot believe, not for one moment
She gone with Millicent

This July, newest international socadarling Bunji Garlin, whose ingenuity and talent have mesmerised me since I heard him sing about his “Accent” in Young Kings almost 15 years ago, was to perform at Caribana—now the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival. “On a personal level I, Ian Alvarez do not subscribe to anti-gay sentiments and am respectful of all peoples and communities,” Bunji wrote City of Toronto authorities. A young Trinb immigrant to Canada, Adam Williams, asked for a public apology for his ten-year-old Soca Monarch tune “Blaze De Fire”, into which he puts “some of dem big funny man dat taking dem man over gyal”, along with many other offenders. But, Bunji says, it’s “not…intended to be offensive to any group, nor…an attack of any one or any community”.

New_letter_for_Bunji_3

1990s dancehall music has enjoyed arguably the broadest international circulation of any contemporary Caribbean cultural idiom, and its obsession with policing gender and sex has helped cement a reputation in North America and Europe for Caribbean music—and the region itself—as singularly homophobic. New interest in the Caribbean by both gay and Christian Right activism in the North helped. Both movements are deeply invested in our primitivism—whether as the backwardly homophobic place that establishes their supremacy and progress on sexual and gender diversity, or as an antiquated frontier where dominion of Christianity can be preserved. We are no less eager to essentialise our homophobia—either taking pride in the rooted self-determination of our sexual cultures; or profiting from attention and resources homophobic hyperbole provides for gay social movements.

But unlike dancehall, whose badman peformers, outlaws themselves, seek to write others out of the social order as verminous chichiman, punishing them by inciting fiery lyrical violence, calypso is the kingdom of the jammette. Its currency is illegitimacy, its role is to narrate the margins. What I have found in calypso, with the help of Gordon Rohlehr, Zeno Constance and others, is a rich trove of ingenious and playful ways in which Caribbean imagination has dealt with homosexuality over six decades. It is, I believe, one of the topics to which calypso has brought some of its subtlest imagination and sweetest ingenuity. It’s not the only approach to the topic in the national artform, which includes moralizing, scorn, violence and ridicule. But in sharp contrast to the reputation of intolerance of sexual difference the intersecting internationalisms of the recording industry, human rights imperialism and world religion are producing and circulating for the Caribbean and our music, it is playfulness with sexuality that is the hallmark of calypso, a music that during its international heyday half a century ago was probably more popular than dancehall.

Indeed, the music’s fascination in the North in that era lay in another kind of engagement with the Caribbean as a sexually primitive place, where rum, Coca Cola, mothers, daughters and Yankee dollars swirled together down Pt. Cumana. Around the same time the Mighty Terror was singing self-deprecatingly in Windrush-era Britain about his sexual disappointment by Patricia “You may think I am jocular / But this really happened in Manchester / I felt so ashamed, my friends laughed at me / I had to take a train for London City”, across the Atlantic American burlesque singer Ruth Wallis would use calypso’s rhythms, innuendo and bawdiness, and an imitation of West Indian diction, to sing about her own disappointment on a Caribbean sexual adventure in which she encountered “De Gay Young Lad from Trinidad”

I always knew dey grew palm trees
Ba-na-NAS dey always had
But you can i-MA-gine my SUR-prise
I found a pansy in Tri-ni-DAD

Oh, yes he was very authentic
As described in de geography
Had his accent an de wrong syll-A-ble
And his lingo was queer as can be

Oh, I took him down by de ocean
It was romantic as it could be
De waves dey were swishing against de shore
Like de waves swished, so did he

I wanted to teach him to love me
But he seemed to be awfully shy
And de things I was trying to teach him
I found him learnin’ from some other guy

Two gay young lads from Trinidad
Oh, what a time I never had

Oh, we really are quite a threesome
Two guys and me, heavens above
Now nobody knows I’m de lookout
And dose other two are in love

From the Roaring Lion’s 1930s Cheek to Cheek and 1941 road march Woopsin, Woopsin, Lord Invader’s 1958 tale of transgender dancing in My Adventures on the Reperbahn, Dougla’s 1963 argument Man Nicer than Woman to Melody’s Sarge whose woman says “Is a vice I have, doux-doux / I still in love with you”—even when the joke is burlesque or cruel, as in Merchant’s 1978 Norman, is that You?, Brynner’s 1968 Bajan Bachelors or Bomber’s troublingly knowing 1973 MaMa Men in Woodford Square—wit and imaginativeness, and in occasional cases—like Blakie’s Current Gone and Zandolie’s The Whipincredibly subtle innuendo or superlative smut, overwhelm other treatments of homosexuality. No calypso is more of a masterpiece at any kind of storytelling dénouement than Black Prince’s 1993 De Letter. And Crazy’s 1992 Penelope incomparably blunt: If you can’t get a woman, take a man.

Adam is happy with Bunji’s reponse, despite concerns Bunji is just watching his pocket. But I think he’s just being true to the shoulders on which he stands.

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