It was only this past decade that, in a moment of sheer joy, driving listening to a now defunct calypso station, I discovered Sparrow’s “Lulu”, recorded around 1959. Its message resonates so powerfully I chose a couplet from it as the epigraph for my first book.
“Come lewwe go, Lulu, is a long time I watching you”, the Birdie entreats her, “Have no fear. The bachy is there. No one will interfere.”
“Ah fraid you go make a calypso on me” is Lulu’s hesitation.
I’m so bored with being another warbling lemming going up the Hill to find the Hammer in the sing-a-long chorus that every David Rudder performance has degenerated into. I roll my eyes when during Sparrow’s now sit-down performances the old men shout out over the rum names or lines of well-worn standards they urge his millionth lacklustre delivery of. I must admit, though, watching Jayron Remy (“DJ Rawkus”) next to me in the sweaty crowd singing every word at Rudder’s last major Savannah concert made my pores raise contemplating David’s influence across generations. But the concerts I want to attend would discover underexplored corners of these masters’ work, underrated gems, work that died in the studio, oral histories of the songs and their characters, imaginative concert versions of the recordings.
Yes, I’ve joined the 2016 edition of the debates, the hopelessness, the handwringing over the state and future of “de artform” and “de festival”. The praise God for the PNM and Dr. Rowley litanies in Skinner Park, in between the young women wailing the headtie-holding dirges they bought from writers who imagine no other role for them. The monstrous costumes being dragged across the stage like funereal tadjahs. Ones crowned king and queen few will remember or distinguish. One “de judges” ranked third-place my friend home from London said people were talking about in every maxi he got into, and will into history. I’ve listened to Tony Hall’s logic that Carnival shows drag on formlessly like an orisha feast or kali puja.
Forget soca lyrics: I’ve contemplated the dead-end of the Carnival fete. The unwarranted deafening volume in schoolyards, the unintelligible singing, the lightbulb-screwing, the instructions what to do with your hands I refuse to follow, the rote exercises like refereeing competitions among different sections of the audience, even the decades-old “somebody missing” geographic roll call that surprisingly still pops up. The unbearably inane and criminally lazy broadcast commentary. Mark Lyndersay’s comment that government prize money has been the most ruinous force in Carnival’s development in 20 years. I wonder if it isn’t our obsession with competition and judgement itself that has deformed things, made everything into contests we entrust to questionably qualified panels we run to law courts to protest. Maybe the CJ will announce a Carnival court in next year’s law term address. I wonder, more seriously, whether some sort of Carnival version of a West Port-of-Spain traffic plan isn’t needed—a sweeping and heavy-handed new framework for the core infrastructure of Carnival to override the petty protests that prevent solutions, create a new landscape of opportunities and problems for imagination and enterprise to explore. I am humbled, in my armchair musings, that far more incisive and experienced ideas than mine are available to state bureaucrats serious about Carnival reform.
So I return to Lulu. Her invocation was really about the new lease on life for this column, where I thought I was writing about bodies and nation, but what I have actually been trying to do is make calypsoes. On everything. And my reflection on the essential importance of that function in our print media.
A friend I left out of my last column about our crisis of each other felt indicted. So I thought I would put her in here. Because what the Lulu epigraph means for me is that all writing, like a good Sparrow calypso, is a form of treachery. That the purpose of writing is the betrayal itself—to make experiences and people close to you into characters in a tale worth telling because of something they said or did.
I once thought poems or calypsoes or columns required this wrestling between truth and fiction. I’d discovered this resonant line from Marcel Proust while studying André Gide for ‘A’ level French. Gide, Proust and Oscar Wilde were all European homosexuals and literary giants born in the third quarter of the 19th century, who struggled in some way with questions of self-declaration in their writing. Wilde’s led him to be jailed for gross indecency. After meeting in 1897 with Wilde, just out of Reading Gaol, Gide recalls the older Irishman complimenting his work but asking him, “now you must make me a promise…dear, from now on never write ‘I’” and, to further underscore his point, adding “in art there is never a first person”. Twenty-five years later, Gide sought Proust’s feedback on new work, and the latter wrote back similarly, “You can tell everything, on condition that you never say ‘I’.”* Gide went on to win the Nobel literature prize 25 years later.
Come lewwe go, Lulu!
*See: Michael Lucey. (1995). “Gide’s Bent: Sexuality, Politics, Writing (Ideologies of Desire)”. Oxford University Press.