This year has seen a passing parade of the pioneers and the peerless in Barbadian entertainment – broadcasters Vic Brewster and Carson Small, calypsonian Charles Romeo Smith, actress Andrea Gollop-Greenidge and calypsonian and prolific songwriter Don Sir Don Marshall.
These cultural icons were all household names to older Barbadians who watched, listened and celebrated their performances. Yet how many younger Barbadians, particularly those born after 1990, truly know about them? How much of their work has been preserved for future generations? Some of the old records are in the libraries of radio stations, and some of the broadcasts of Carson Small and Vic Brewster should ideally still be in the archives of the media houses they worked for most of their lives. But how far back does it go and does it accurately reflect their progress, and that of Barbadian arts and entertainment through the years?
When “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin died in mid-August, media houses around the world were able to access file footage and photos of her performances dating back to her emergence in the soulful 1960s.
Sadly, that ‘greatest generation’ of Barbadian broadcasters and performers was active in an era where artistic expression in this country was often frowned upon and seen as a vocation of the “lower classes”. Sir Don summed up the prevailing belief system in his calypso, A Mother’s Plea, with the memorable lines, “I want you to done with calypsos, son; I do not approve of your ambition if you call that one”.
This might have led to indifference among the artists themselves. Some years ago, the issue of plagiarism surfaced in the Pic-O-De-Crop competition, when two of the songs that qualified for the semifinals were said to resemble songs that had been entered in the competition before. In the late 1990s, there was Natahlee’s Magic Mirror, which borrowed from Lucifer, one of Tassa’s works from earlier in that decade; and Mr Impact’s Life in 2003, which another artist – Evvy – had done many years before.
“I have written so many songs I can’t possibly remember all of them,” came the defence. One even went further: “I only take into account the songs I kept for myself and recorded; I never kept track of the ones I gave to other performers.”
Now that simply is not good enough. Whatever happened to recording demos, of keeping copies of the lyrics and musical scores on file, both hard copies and digital ones? How about issuing receipts when selling songs to other artists and keeping documents from the National Cultural Foundation pertaining to the use of those songs in previous competitions? What about intellectual property considerations so composers can earn a residual income from them if they are used in commercials or for other purposes?
Owing to that indifference and the limiting beliefs that fuelled it, many veterans have ended up in the financial doldrums, believing that more should have been done to recognize and reward them.
Perhaps a more business-oriented mindset is needed if we are to be serious about developing the cultural industries. Thankfully, the younger generation has grasped this concept well, and are moving in the right direction by taking full advantage of the social media platforms to promote themselves and market their work.
The cultural industry is not only about producing new material; an important element is also preserving what has gone before for both educational and commercial purposes. We have all seen those late night ads on American TV for classic shows and music from the 1960s and 1970s.
All is not lost. We hope not. The late photographer and calypso impresario Peter Roy Byer had an extensive archive of calypso tent recordings, other live performances and photos from our calypsonians and other entertainers, but there is no word as to what became of his collection of videotapes since he passed away in 2014.
A former UWI librarian and academic Dr Elizabeth Watson, has written three books highlighting the work of Red Plastic Bag, John King and the late Leyland Informer Maloney, and has been trying to compile a similar project on Jackie Opel’s extensive discography. Indeed the RPB work may be due for an update.
Here is where today crop of students, musicians, broadcasters and journalists come in – to talk to the veterans before they all shuffle off this mortal coil, ensuring future generations become acquainted with their work. We have lots of storage options now, and if we can get our hands on the older material, we should transfer it to newer, digital formats.
This is a mission for the National Cultural Foundation, the National Library Service, the Department of Archives, the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation and the Government Information, should they choose to accept: record these voices of Barbados; preserve the sound of our Barbadian Century.