Rhythm and Class Struggle:
The Calypsoes of David Rudder


Joy A. I. Mahabir

SUNY at StonyBrook, New York

Copyright © 2002 by Joy A. I. Mahabir, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    Engine Room
    It could go on forever
    See dem jump and prance
    Give deyself a chance in de heat
    Engine Room
    It could never die, never
    . . .We're gonna let them know
    They could never stop the drum . . .
    --David Rudder, Engine Room

  1. Music fills every space in the Caribbean. Take Trinidad for instance. Here, Carnival has a virtual presence all year round, and the insinuation of music into every daily activity anticipates the streets exploding with sound during the Carnival season. It is impossible to predict the configuration of the music; anything may be drawn from the vast and heterogeneous archive that is part of musical culture in the Caribbean. So one finds chutney and hip-hop in a calypso fête, reggae and Country-Western in an Indian wedding, salsa and zouk in the discos of South Trinidad, punk-rock and Hindi film music in the Chaguanas market: the rigor of execution is always creolesque.

  2. In recent years critics have attempted to theorize the evolution of Caribbean musical forms, commenting on the rhythmic patterning and cross-cultural sampling of the music, but usually concentrating on recurring lyrical themes, as Peter Manuel does in his very informative study, Caribbean Currents (1995). Manuel suggests that some of the major themes are unity and diversity, race and ethnicity, sex and sexism, transnationalism, and politics. As these themes illustrate, Caribbean music has always been regarded as the most incisive source of socio-political commentary, more than newspapers or the television. But the culture also places extraordinary value on another element in the music that is more elusive to definition than lyrical content, and this is the complex polyrhythmic structure that gives the music its uniqueness, and defines it as "Caribbean."

  3. In his study La música afrocubana: La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba (1950), Fernando Ortiz interviewed many white and black musicians who remarked about the "secret" in the rhythmic structures of black music that resist any setting down. While this unwritten aspect of black music is often appealing to critics, it seems that it should not really be valorized, but understood in terms of the historical lack of a musical vocabulary and grammar rigorous and complex enough to express this rhythm, which has only just started to receive serious attention as new musical technology enhances its study. But Ortiz's observation should not be dismissed since it is partly validated by the quality of the unpredictable, for Caribbean music, like all Black music in the Americas, displays a reverence for improvisation. This can be understood partly as a type of musical historicizing, since the music appears in a certain spatial and temporal moment that, like the music itself, cannot be replicated. With improvisation, other basic tenets of Caribbean music, include call-and-response (antiphony), energetic percussion, cross-cultural rhythms and asymmetrical harmonies, all of which lead to considerations on rhythm, for it is rhythm that holds a place of privilege in Caribbean music and culture.

  4. Many Caribbean writers have argued that it is too restrictive to think of rhythmic expression only in terms of music and dance, since the Caribbean devotion to rhythm is evident in every single ritual of living, like walking to the market, conversing, or liming.[1] But rhythm can also be seen in other Caribbean cultural forms: in the asymmetrical movement of visual arts, in dub poetry and rapso, in the architectural flow of single family homes that extend over time into multiple family structures, in the innovative cultural fusions intrinsic to island fashion and cuisine. The fact that rhythm occupies a reified place in Caribbean society was even sensed by early historians and travellers, including Père Labat, who commented that it is rhythm first of all that establishes a socio-aesthetic link throughout the region.[2]

  5. Caribbean rhythms document so much of the history of the Caribbean -- slavery, creolization, resistance, revolution -- that it becomes clear that the rhythm itself delivers messages that are in excess of the music and lyrics, always sliding beyond the proposed, (to borrow Amiri Baraka's poetic line), to espouse ideological positions, and to engage in political and social commentary. While important texts on calypso, including Keith Warners's Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso (1982) and Gordon Rohlehr's Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (1990), are focused mainly on lyrics, many calypsonians, including David Rudder, have consistently used their work to theorize the central function of rhythm in Caribbean music.

  6. For over a decade, the raging debate in calypso has been over the increase in "jam and wine" music, where rhythm becomes central since the music is mainly designed for dancing. In journals, daily newspapers, street corners and fetes, calypso afficionados lament the scant attention paid to lyrics. Considering its history, the attention to rhythm rather than lyrics seems a major change in calypso, since one of the main features of calypso has been its delight in lyrical skill, and the West African word "kaiso," one of the roots of the word "calypso," is today used to designate calypsoes of admirable lyrical dexterity. (Other roots are the Carib word carieto, the Spanish caliso, and the French carrouseaux -- displaying the creole nature of the form). [3] Calypsonians often measure their skill against each other in the same way as rap artists, extemporaneously composing complex verses over a beat, proving that they can at once enter the rhythm, engage in intellectual commentary and please their listeners with their exceptional intellectual and musical skills that come "spontaneously." While lyrics and 'extempo' still provide the most entertainment in calypso tents, at ftes and jams the crowd just want music to 'wine' and dance, and so many calypsonians have gone in the direction of the party tune, focusing mainly on rhythm.

  7. The new wave in calypso is specific to the present conjuncture, and musicians have responded to the debates in an interesting way: not by asking for a return to impressive lyrics as have the critics, but by responding at the level of rhythm. This kind of development was first seen in the 1970's with the evolution of soca music ("the soul of calypso"). Calypsonians like Ras Shorty-I, one of the founders of soca, experimented with the fusion of African and Indian music primarily at the level of rhythm. As journalist Keith Smith explains,
    That fusion [of African and East Indian rhythms] came easily [to Shorty] not only because he was a child of both of the predominant cultures here [Trinidad], but because he could tune and beat pan, play the piano, and was adept at tabla, conga, dholak . . .

    Small wonder, then, that...Shorty's work reached a defining point in what he was to call 'SOKAH,' the spelling of the word meant to convey both its "soul of calypso" and Indian origins.

    Listening to the songs that he sung on . . . Soca Explosion 1979, I find myself seduced by their Indian moorings achieved not only by their use of 'Indian' instruments but by the way he phrased the lines . . . [4]

  8. Soca's emergence as a popular musical form in the 1970's no doubt occurred because of the political and economic climate. For the first time in Trinidad, there was a class alliance across race that sought to actively displace the national bourgoisie in power.[5] There were labor strikes and riots, marches under banners of "Indians and Africans Unite." Soca's emphasis on rhythmic fusion highlights the choice by musicians to use rhythm as the form that gave utterance to the historical moment of the 1970's. This trend has not abated, but has continued to the present, suggesting that the sphere of rhythm can most readily accommodate ideological expression. For instance, in calypsonian Machel Montano's 2000 album, the extremely popular calypso, Real Unity, a duet with the chutney/soca singer, Drupatee, incorporates a sample of a popular Indo-Trinidadian Hindi song to illustrate the theme of the calypso: unity. Since the Hindi lyrics are from a love song and not directly related to the theme of unity, the Hindi song is obviously employed to draw attention to the unity of rhythms, while Machel sings about the "sweet unity" of different races and cultures. This calypso emerges in Trinidad in the period before the 2000 general elections, when tensions between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians have been overly exaggerated in the mainstream and more conservative newspapers like the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express. The political culture in the Caribbean is such that "official" discourses almost always misrepresent or overlook popular opinion, which calypsonians are expected to express as the revered artists "of the people." The calypso Real Unity answers all the rhetoric of the newspapers partly with words, but more powerfully by the explicit union of calypso and chutney[6] rhythms. Thus rhythm is used to effectively convey an ideology that is anti-capitalist, since it argues against racial and cultural divisions which are increasingly used to support global capitalism in the region by creating hierarchies based on such divisions.

  9. A similar use of rhythm underlies the music of calypsonian David Rudder, who views rhythm as an ideological language that can be used to engage in class struggle by conveying progressive ideas and inspiring progressive actions. Perhaps Rudder is so faithful to this representation of rhythm because he has remained firmly rooted in the grassroots culture in which he was immersed since his childhood days in Belmont, Trinidad, where he was born in 1953. Rudder lived next to a Pan and Shango yard, and his music has consistently reflected both influences, including the blending of melody and rhythm that typifies steelband music, and the Shango chants incorporated into many of his calypsoes. He spent his early years as a back-up singer in the calypso tent run by the legendary calypsonian Lord Kitchener, and launched his career with the band Charlie's Roots. He also worked as a design artist with the Carnivalist Ken Morris, who was famous for his Carnival designs and his copper-work. In these spaces of living and apprenticeship Rudder was able to study the elements of working-class culture, which he valorizes in his music. Rudder has explicitly aligned himself with the "little people" and their revolutionary tradition, as he expresses in these lines from Cuba:
    It's funny how the islands who bled the most for their independence
    Are the ones that suffer the most today
    From the naked hills of Haiti to the Sierra Maestras
    When will the little people have their day?
    In this time of Global warming it seems the cold war over here
    never wants to subside . . .

  10. Because rhythm in the Caribbean has been historically inscribed in cultural resistance, it maintains a transgressive element that places it beyond its formal framework, moving it into the sphere of historical and social commentary. Gordon Rohlehr proposes that rhythm functions as one of the most sensitive registers of social change, since the beat of the music relates directly to the sociopolitical:
    Each new weight of pressure has its corresponding effect on the music, and the revolution is usually felt first as perceptible change in the base, the basic rhythm, the inner pulse whose origin is in the confrontation between the despair which history and iniquitous politics inflict, and the rooted strength of the people. When such innovation takes place in the ground-beat, the whole trivial stream of popular appeasing which increases the dread and tension in the whole society, because the beat dominates the city: the rhythm of the basic bass is the grounded heart-beat of the city. So when the rhythm goes dread, the whole city feels the tension. (228)
    Rohlehr writes this in one of the earliest critical explorations of dub poetry, and what he intimates here about rhythm has only been partially explored in critiques that readily focus on the obvious marriage of rhythm and lyrics in dub poetry and rapso, but do not really analyze the element that is always in excess of both. Dub poet Oku Onuora alludes to this element when he explains that dub poetry has the ability "to dub out the isms and schisms and to dub consciousness into the people-dem head."[7] Onuora implies that rhythm can be used to purvey a certain ideology, a point made explicitly by dub poet Lillian Allen in her poem, "Riddim an' Hardtimes."[8] From the first stanza, there is effortless association of rhythm with "hardtimes," implying that there is a kind of 'riddim' that is immediately recognizable as the expression of an oppressed class:
    An' him chucks on some riddim
    'an yu hear him say
    riddim an' hardtimes
    riddim an' hardtimes
    According to Michael Bucknor, the rhythmic variance of this poem causes the reader "not to focus so much on images or story-line but to dance with the rhythm and feel the 'vibes'" (317). In addition to this, in stanzas 4 and 5, Allen points to the quality of rhythm that allows it to deliver a message beyond the music:
    riddim a pounce wid a purpose
    Truths and Rights
    mek mi hear yu

    drum drum
    heart beat
    pulse beat

    Through the progression of stanzas it becomes obvious that the beat is the primary carrier of the "purpose" of the rhythm, and hence rhythm here is ideologically configured to show alignment to the class that faces 'hardtimes,' a word that immediately evokes the entire fabric of 'hardtimes' living: financial troubles, hunger, the smell of poor housing, and, above all, the music that constantly penetrates such working class spaces. The poem therefore understands rhythm as having several registers -- aural, political, ideological -- an idea of rhythm that I would suggest is perfected in the chutney genre of Indo-Caribbean music.

  11. In nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Indo-Caribbean music, most of the lyrics were in Hindi or Bhojpuri, but younger generations understand less of these languages, except for popular words and phrases that have been interwoven in Trinidadian speech. Chutney enters the sphere of Indo-Caribbean music and addresses the decreasing proficiency in Indian languages by marginalizing the lyrical content of the songs to a striking extent, although this hyper-rhythmic configuration of Chutney has not been theorized or even noted in significant texts on Indo-Caribbean music, including Helen Myers' Music of Hindu Trinidad (1998), and Peter Manuel's East Indian Music in the West Indies (2000). If Indian languages are used, they are incorporated mainly as artifact, a representation of cultural specificity. Lexical meanings have little importance since the deeper message of the song resides in the rhythm. For instance, in Madan Ramdas' Chutney Genie, only a few words are required to evoke a whole sphere of social and historical relations. As far as the lyrics are concerned, the singer repeats that he wants a "Chutney Genie" in various spaces: Soca Paradise (a Queens nightclub), New York City, Miami, Toronto . . . But it is the driving rhythm that says everything: the burning need for cultural space in North America, the way patterns of peasant Caribbean life are recreated in the metropole, the utter marginalization and poverty experienced by the Indo-Caribbean working class and peasantry in the Caribbean and North America.

  12. Like Chutney musicians, Rudder sees the relationship of rhythm to history and ideology as immediate and central to his music. He says in an interview with Ramabai Espinet:
    Trinidad's period [of slavery] was short, so you find that our interpretation of pain is different. This is why I feel Reggae have to be a Jamaican experience, because the music down in the ground and it painful. A Jamaican will say 'This life hard, you know man;' and a Trinidadian go say 'This life real hard, yeah boy.' Is the same thing we saying, except that we laugh. We laugh at the pain and this is how Calypso is like 'Pardner, what we go do, take a drink and leh we go up the road.' And is like -- this is why the drum -- the laughter of the melody. Our music laughs -- a cutting kind of laugh.[9]

  13. The specific history of Trinidad, which includes its comparatively less intense mode of slavery compared to the other islands, its status as a haven for rebel slaves, maroons and adventurers, and its plural cultural composition, all contribute to the 'laughter" of the rhythm of calypso. What Rudder is attempting to articulate in this interview is made clearer when he sings about the "laughter of the melody" in Calypso Music:
    Can you hear a distant drum
    Bouncing on the laughter of a melody
    And does the rhythm tell you come come come come
    Does your spirit do a dance to this symphony
    Does it tell you that your heart is afire
    Does it tell you that your pain is a liar
    Does it wash away all the unlovely . . .
    In these lines, rhythm not only projects the "laughter of the melody," but also carries the message of the music, interpellating its listeners by proclaiming its effectiveness in addressing their personal and social troubles. Similar to its representation in Lillian Allen's "Riddim and Hardtimes," rhythm here displays a class bias, aligning itself with the underclasses as a weapon against their oppressed conditions of existence. But if Rudder usually associates rhythm with the oppressed classes, the alignment is never presented as automatic, since rhythm is understood as an ideological tool, and therefore capable of purveying any ideology. In Behind the Bridge, for instance, rhythm is portrayed as part of the oppressive circumstances of the people who live "behind the bridge":
    Behind the bridge
    Where the love runs thinner than that naked stream
    So many people living with a deferred dream
    When will the children rise
    Behind the bridge
    I find the drummer plays a painful rhythm
    On this darker side of the schism . . .
    . . . the pain is we drummer
    The rhythm pulling you under . . .
    Rhythm is for Rudder is therefore indicative of the social and historical conditions of the conjuncture in which the music is produced, or as he sings in Beloved, "the rhythm never lie." This argument about calypso is very different from the one made by critics like Stefano Harney, who suggests that the Trinidad calypso more clearly articulates sexism and racism rather than their opposing ideologies:
    Typical of such [bourgeois] democracies, Trinidadian social relations contain articulation of systemic racism and sexism, sometimes reflected in the calypso. But also typical of such democracies are antiracism, antisexism, and liberation movements. With rare exceptions the calypso in Trinidad does not usually help us to see these latter features. The analyst who seeks to understand Trinidad through the calypso will discover soca's role in the social formations of the former but will miss the larger invention and consolidation of other movements and institutions outside this expressive form. The analyst who presumes a popular form like calypso must by definition embody the liberatory features will seek to promote the calypso form to the disadvantage of some of these same movements and institutions in Trinidad. (53)
    Rudder's statement about rhythm contests Harney's reading of calypso, which only looks at what is obvious and explicit, ignoring hidden or implicit messages. Rudder suggests that any calypso can reveal social relations through its rhythm, but it becomes a question of how to listen to the music for its relationship to and commentary on social relations.

  14. In the calypso Engine Room, Rudder privileges the rhythm section or "iron section" found in all steelbands: the pure percussion section where musicians use instruments fashioned from discarded pieces of iron including car and machine parts, cow bells, found objects. Rudder comments:
    When the iron fall
    It humble the band
    . . . Engine room
    Is down whey does cause the bacchanal
    The pan is de body
    But the rhythm is heart ah the thing
    . . . Engine room
    That is the soul of Carnival . . .
    Rudder's suggestion that the rhythm of the music is its central driving force is repeated by other musicians who sense that rhythm is one of the most important features of Black music. As hip-hop artist Rakim Allah (formerly of Eric B. and Rakim) notes, to be "hardcore" in rap is reflected through the rhythm:
    "Hard" to me is a sound. This is music, you know what I mean? It ain't about chewing on nails, swallowing glass, screw face in the cameras and knocking 'em. It's not about that, you know what I'm saying. Being this is music, we express the hardness through sound: delivery, bass kicks, the mood of the tracks or the sample we choose. That's what hard hip-hop is to me, you know what I'm saying.[10]
    But if rhythm is primary, it then illustrates one of the main contradictions in black music that is best understood today by the relationship of hip-hop culture to global capitalism.

  15. On the one hand, hip-hop culture and music are deeply rooted in the black liberation struggle in the United States, and there is always the pervading sense that hip-hop artists who are 'hardcore, 'true to the game,' or who 'keep it real', remain faithful to the radical impulses and roots of hip-hop. According to Tricia Rose, hip-hop
    attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding ties of Black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop. (71)
    Yet, paradoxically, the same driving rhythms that were in the eighties and early nineties associated with a critique of capitalist racist structures, are today employed by several successful hip-hop artists and rappers in praise of capitalist relations and acquisitions. This trend is not unique to African-American culture, and has been theorized by the late Black Panther and political prisoner George Jackson, who argued that slavery has taught its victims to think of themselves as capital, and therefore to evaluate themselves only in terms of the amount of capital they can raise. So even the segment of hip-hop culture that promotes the acquisition of designer clothes, expensive cars, houses, jewelry, and "living large" follows a historically established conservative trend in American-American culture, mimicking bourgeois patterns of consumption. Hence, the internal contradiction present in black music is that it is a historical form of cultural resistance against capitalism that has the ability of being manipulated into becoming an extremely sophisticated form of capitalist propaganda.

  16. Rudder does address this contradiction in his work, and what he proposes as a response is to focus in a fragmented or localized way to rhythm, which historically holds a strategic position in revolutionary Caribbean culture, since the drum was viewed as the quintessential expression of Black culture, and was constantly forbidden, even after slavery. In the 1880's in Trinidad, for instance, legislation was introduced to ban drumming practices, dances, and street parades. A popular nineteenth-century calypso laments,
    Can't beat me drum
    In my own, my native land
    Can't have we Carnival
    In my own, my native land
    Can't have we bacchanal
    In my own, my native land
    In my own, my native land[11]
    Understanding music and Carnival as the most suppressed cultural forms, this calypso implicitly suggests that they convey the most antagonism to colonial relations.

  17. Techniques fundamental to black music like antiphony and asymmetry are therefore not used solely because they are traditional methods, but have persisted in all black musical forms in the Americas because they support the subversive effect of the music. Antiphony is enhanced by asymmetrical rhythmic patterns, since these encourage improvised additions or subtractions. Critics have often tried to identify asymmetry in various ways. Tricia Rose, for instance, refers to it as "ruptures in line and layering," (83) while Tim Brennan identifies it as "tonal clash" (680) and Robin Kelley uses Pete Rock's words, calling it "the breaks . . . the funky breaks" (226). As musical process, asymmetry allows for angular rhythms, supporting the breaks, jarring sounds, and disruptions in the flow that let the music seem to go beyond the level it initially established. In many of his compositions, Rudder establishes the rhythmic rather than lyrical level of antiphony, especially in calypsoes like Bahia Girl, where the call and response elements are rhythms to be hummed. According to Rudder, the chants in Bahia Girl are influenced by the Baptist chants he grew up with,[12] and he used them in this calypso to show that the rhythmic connections between black communities in the Americas exist despite the oppression of slavery. Bahia Girl, with its emphasis on rhythmic chanting, was therefore envisioned as a "victory song," together with other songs on the same album, as Rudder explains:
    The Hammer was a victory song. Just like the Bahia Girl . . . Bahia Girl was saying -- it had a higher murder here -- a higher murderous act was being perpetrated here in the sense that people were taken from their homeland, brought here, separate -- which was like some sent to South America, some sent to the States, some sent all through the Caribbean, some sent all over the place -- and the whole -- not only a physical shooting down but a cultural, spiritual: the soul and all was shot down -- was supposed to be shot down. And what this girl coming back and saying, is that 'they lie, we didn't lose nothing, we still have it, the vibrations still here, because the same thing I seeing here I seeing in Brazil' . . .

    The drum that was taken away revealed itself...The drum just take on a different face and the drum come back.[13]

    Struggles for liberation are therefore historically recorded by the rhythm, which seems closest to the historical roots or the "engine room" of black music in the Americas. Rudder emphasizes this in the calypso Engine Room, where the pure percussion of the "iron band" is the response to the call, a feature also seen in Black Stalin's calypso, Black Man Feeling to Party (1991). Stalin's calypso always commands a rhythmic response, so that whenever it is played at fêtes, the crowd immediately answers by tapping glasses, bottles and other present objects, affirming the rhythm as the center of the music.

  18. If rhythm in black music is ideological, then it must also have a concrete existence, for as Althusser puts it, ideology, though seemingly abstract, helps to maintain the means of production, and therefore has material realization in the reproduction of labor and class relations.[14] This casts at once a different light on musical culture in the Caribbean, for its very deployment in the public sphere illustrates how seriously its listeners consider its ideological function. Various forms -- for instance the overamplified sound systems that emerged in the slums of West Kingston and spread throughout the Caribbean, U.S. and Britain, the music trucks seen in every Caribbean parade, the maxi-taxis that blast music daily for their passengers -- show that the urban and rural working classes use music as part of a soundscape of resistance, in a similar manner to African-American youth who blast music from their cars and boom boxes, participating in what Robin Kelley calls an "indirect, ad hoc war of position" (206). This description accurately represents the way black music is used to stake a claim over public space, especially in North America. So it is not surprising that the Jamaican sound systems caught on so quickly in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn, for their function in Jamaica was to create a free, communal sound system whose entire configuration -- appropriated public space, working class crowds and amplified music -- would embody a protest against "Babylon." Loretta Collins explains:
    During the volatile 1970's, "fyah!" was the ubiquitous message on the deejay sound chain, a righteous fire that would burn down Babylon (North American and British capitalists and the bourgeois classes and police forces of the Caribbean)...Graduating from the one- or two-track studio of the early years to multitrack systems that allowed deejays to record their inprovisations ("talkovers," "toasts," or "dubs") with the coopted basic rhythm tracks of old R&B tunes or reggae, operators captured the dread atmosphere of the times by adding reverb, delay echo, phasing, slide faders, a thumping bass line, other urban sound effects (gunshots, screams, bomb blasts, car horns or synthesized distortions) . . . (174-5)

  19. Hence the rhythm was fashioned into a spatio-political affront against the ruling classes and their instruments of repression, including the police. Rudder incorporates this concept of rhythm in calypsoes such as Permission to Mash up de Place. As the lines of this calypso explain, any public arena where black music is allowed to air will be turned into a space that threatens the social order:
    We want permission to mash up de place
    To give the music some jammin' space
    . . .Let the music rule
    Soca music rules
    Tonight . . .
    Thus the rhythm has the power to "rule" or take political power for itself, a type of "people's" ruler capable of diffusing the institutions of the ruling class by its concrete installation in space, as explained in the calypso Basement Party.

  20. In this André Tanker composition, a typical Caribbean party in New York City is envisaged:
    Uptown rockers, downtown blues
    Streamlined ladies in spike-heeled shoes
    Green-card lovers
    In a corner dancing close
    Illegal immigrants:
    Dem jumping up the most . . .

    Mr. Deejay just put all the rhythm together
    And give them some praise
    You know the whole place start jumping
    'Cause the vibration raise!

    But the party is soon interrupted by the police responding to complaints that the sound is too loud, and at this point the rhythm in the piece gets louder as the lyrics simultaneously establish its hegemony over the Caribbean immigrants, who are constructed in terms of their "immigrant" status or their relationship to the State, and the police:
    They [the police] say the music got to turn down real low
    Or the party gonna stop
    But the jammin' get stronger
    And the music stay free
    The police get locked into the rhythm . . .
    . . . One love . . . one melody!

  21. Here the rhythm is presented as a weapon that can subdue the forces of the capitalist state, creating a political and social alternative in the space of its articulation, an idea that is even more explicit in Rudder's calypso Ministry of Rhythm:
    Over in France thousands will die
    Because of tainted blood and arrogance
    It's a New Age genocide
    And a slap on the wrist and a life of bliss
    Is all the criminals get
    While the victims have only their deaths to abide

    And yet in all this insanity
    I can hear Miles Davis play a laughing note
    Straight through, oh straight through his tortured soul
    With a sound so pure that I know for sure
    It's still a living world

    There's a mighty place you know I can take you
    With a sound to soothe your soul
    And a melody that will never fail you
    Lead you back to control
    We're gonna take you to the Ministry
    The Ministry of Rhythm
    The beautiful place to be
    The Ministry of sound . . .

  22. Juxtaposing Europe against the 'Ministry of Rhythm' specifies the existence of a material space that destroys the perception of rhythm as ideology alone, without concrete manifestation. This in turn highlights the false separation between material reality and ideology that capitalism must maintain in order to disguise the relationship between exploitative labor practices and their supporting ideologies. So rhythm responds by creating an alternative space that exposes and critiques the one existing as a result of present capitalist social relations. For this reason, there is a tendency to misinterpret the way black cultural forms respond to capitalism, as Paul Gilroy does when he claims that
    . . .in the critical thought of blacks in the West, social self-creation through labour is not the centre-piece of emancipatory hopes. For the descendants of slaves, work signifies only servitude, misery, and subordination. Artistic expression, expanded beyond recognition from the grudging gifts offered by the masters as a token substitute for freedom from bondage, therefore becomes the means towards both individual self-fashioning and communal liberation. (40)

  23. During slavery, black aesthetic expression was hardly a "grudging gift" but was kept alive through constant struggle. This is why it cannot be placed in a separate sphere from the relations of production, as Gilroy suggests, since it played a primary role in fashioning and conveying the ideologies of liberation that would soon come to material realization. As Rudder describes it, the aesthetic form actually projects itself into a liberated space that is not utopian, but presided over by anti-capitalist relations, and inscribed by class, race, gender, sexuality.

  24. For Rudder, there is an interchangeable relationship between the working classes and black music, made possible through rhythmic patterning. In Rudder's representation, rhythm is one of the cultural signifiers of the working classes, and it is therefore seen constantly under siege from the ruling classes, while at the same time appropriated by this class to advance its own ideology. This contradiction is illustrated in the calypso, Engine Room, by showing the early difficulties of steelband men, whose music later became more acceptable to the middle classes:
    Check yuh grandmother
    Or could be de neighbor next door
    If the times didn't change up
    All now we'd still be in big war
    That is the same woman who put out
    Yuh mother because
    She was in love with this panman
    She used to open the church door
    Just to pray on mi head
    Now she boasting to the neighbor next door
    Oh my granddaughter beats for a steelband
    If it wasn't for you, girl
    Yuh Daddy woulda be so dread

    But when you see I in mi pain
    I does have to look again
    And take it out on the steel
    Engine room
    Is down dey where does ease mih frustration
    Nearly every old panman will tell you
    That his in-laws were outlaws . . .

    However, middle class acceptance predictably seeks to eradicate the same pan culture whose form it assimilates. Rudder protests in The Case of the Disappearing Panyards:
    Even pan headquarters
    That too had to move
    Yet they always say
    How the instrument is here to stay . . .

    And is "move yuh pan"
    Can't you see the town progressing
    Move yuh pan
    This is a new vibe we building
    Pandemonium take over the town
    And we eh want no noisy pan
    As we beautify the land
    On this Promenade
    Of this new tomorrow
    Move yuh pan
    Because we want to nice up the land . . .

    If the form is to be reclaimed by and for the class from which it emanates, then the culture associated with the music must be made to seem overly defined by everything that is unacceptable and shocking to the bourgeoisie, a mechanism evident in hip-hop culture by the constant redefinition of clothes, language, behavior and stances of the performers, but most of all in the rhythmic structures integrated with oppositional lyrics.

  25. In a very good musical analysis of Ice Cube's "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate," (from the album Amerikkka's Most Wanted [1990]), Adam Krims shows that the layered rhythms of the song all intensify whenever Ice Cube stresses the positive value attached to being "the nigga ya love to hate." This identity is first positioned against black bourgeois identities (Arsenio Hall) and forums (Soul Train), and at these moments there is an immediate decrease in density and pitch. Finally, the rhythm is dramatically isolated and increased as Ice Cube proposes the following:
    Laws are made to be broken up, what
    Niggas need to do is start lookin' up, and
    Build, mold, fold themselves into
    Shape, of the nigga ya love to hate!
    Krims suggests that Ice Cube emphasizes a revolutionary identity, but while this may be interpreted by the emphasis on being "the nigga ya love to hate," what these last lines highlight is not so much identity but a process of anti-State opposition.

  26. It seems that this opposition is linked to an entire understanding of class in terms of socio-economic processes rather than categories of identity alone. It suggests that cultural forms, as sites of ideological contestation, need to be constantly seized from possible co-optation by the ruling classes, a reclamation that rehearses the seizure of power at the level of the economy. Something very different from what Paul Gilroy calls the "politics of authenticity" is therefore at stake in the constant ascription of specific cultural markers to black forms, which Gilroy reads as "narrow concerns of ethnic exceptionalism and absolutism"(108). Instead, the form is recognized as a site of class contestation, and this is most obviously manifested in the way Carnivals and street festivals are constantly reconfigured.

  27. An interesting example of this occurred at the Caribana 2000 and 2001 festivals in Toronto, promoted as celebrations of the city's professed multiculturalism, even as racial and class tensions are on the rise in Canada. Participants got an unpleasant surprise as many onlookers pushed into the bands past the security guards, making the parade take on a Brooklyn or Caribbean ambience rather than the security-controlled, state-infiltrated atmosphere that is usually pervasive in the Toronto Caribana. A similar kind of reclamation is constantly enacted in the West Indian Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn, as every year the authorities increase security and add restrictions. The most important part of this parade, for insiders, is now the J'Ouvert, which occurs on Labor Day in the hours before dawn, ending at daylight before the Parade officially starts. As Earl King, one of the first J'Ouvert organizers explains, the J'Ouvert began in the late 1980's in order to put pan in the spotlight as the "engine room" of Carnival:
    You see, pan got lost on the parkway when the big sound systems and deejays took over. So we were determined to do something to preserve pan, to let our children know where Carnival really comes from. So in J'Ouvert its just pan and mas bands, no deejays invited. Now people are remembering the joy you can get by taking your time and playing mas with a steelband, just inching up the road, pushing pan.[15]

  28. In the 2000 Brooklyn J'Ouvert 2000, participants threw down barriers and carried anti-INS and anti-police placards. Liquor flowed freely in every steelband, as revellers defiantly protested the ban placed in the sale of liquor by the New York City mayor, Rudolph Guiliani. This unfortunately resulted in a heavy police presence in J'Ouvert 2001, with steelbands being systematically pushed along to end the J'Ouvert at precisely 8:00 am. Increasingly, crowds are favoring gatherings that allow Caribbean cultural preservation away from the direct scrutiny of the State, in the form of basement parties and fêtes. There is also the "las lap" of the steelbands, hidden in Prospect Park on a Sunday evening, one week after the Labor Day Parade, advertised only through word-of-mouth and attended mainly by steelband supporters and people in the know.

  29. This desire for subterfuge, this enactment of marronage in the reclamation of the cultural form, reflects the historically constructed role of the form as a carrier of anti-imperialist ideologies, and therefore as a form opposed to the State, aligned to a class that realizes its historical oppression and its need to seize power away from the ruling classes to create a democratic society. In black music, if rhythm is often used as a weapon against the State, then this accounts for its non-ironic use in calypso music, although rhythmic camouflage can be easily mistaken for irony if rhythm is taken out of its historical context. For instance, in Rudder's calypso, Permission to Mash Up the Place, the rhythm appears to soften as the singer ostensibly asks for "permisison" to engage in oppositional politics, a feature of calypso that calls attention to its underlying political content by the very denial of it, as illustrated in these stick-fighting verses from Derek Walcott's drama, The Joker of Seville:
    Tell the stars over Old Seville, When we kill we don't really kill. Look our swords are all sticks and our duels just stickplay, sans humanité! (10)

  30. "Sans Humanité!" (without pity) was the ubiquitous refrain of the old stick-fighting songs and calypsoes, recalling the culture of unrelenting opposition to slavery and colonialism. In Permission, the attenuated rhythms parallel the request to "mash up de place" hiding the attack on the State that is soon articulated when the rhythms increase. Ultimately, music emerges as a camouflaged weapon that we only recognize because the rhythm is amplified when the lyrics say,
    Let the music rule
    Soca music rules
    Come along with me
    We take a journey to the other side
    The rhythm is the key
    The schisms and the soca ride
    So wouldn't you come along with me.

  31. As the rhythm interpellates its listeners to "mash up the place," a second element intervenes that is simultaneously associated with this process, and this is the idea of democracy, since the rhythm is invested with the power to reach all people, "the red, the white, the black." Many calypsoes are unambiguous about the democratic nature of the form. For example, the calypsonian Shadow sings in Music (Dingolay) (1994),
    If yuh clothes tear up
    And yuh shoes buss up
    Yuh could still jump up
    When music playing
    Old lady, young baby
    Come dingolay . . .
    When Rudder adopts this stance, it does not mean that the class alignment of the music is superceded, but established in earnest, since it anticipates an hegemony of the oppressed manifested by the "rule" of rhythm in concrete living spaces.

  32. In the album where Rudder makes his most explicit comments on rhythm, he establishes the inseparable connection between rhythm and the spiritual life of Caribbean people, advancing the same kind of observation as Amiri Baraka, who argues that black music cannot be separated from black religious life. Baraka comments,
    Indeed, to go back in any historical (or emotional) line of ascent in Black music leads us inevitably to religion, i.e., spirit worship. This phenomenon is always at the root in Black art, the worship of spirit -- or at least the summoning of or by such force. As even the music itself was that, a reflection of, or the no thing itself. (182)
    Rudder's album is self-consciously called Ministry of Rhythm (1992), where the secular and the spritual sense of the term "ministry" is merged -- ministry being a government institution as well as one associated with the church.

  33. It would be a mistake to interpret this primacy of "spirit" as something removed from material social relations, for the most historically faithful way of interpreting Baraka's and Rudder's linkage of black music with religion would be to understand the way both were mobilized in ideologies of liberation -- in the Haitian revolution and other slave revolts, in decolonization and independence struggles in the Caribbean, in the U.S. Civil Rights movement. When Rudder invokes the "Ministry of Rhythm" as the "beautiful place to be," he also recalls that the black church was one of the few social spaces where, in Baraka's words, "complete fullness of expression by the Black was not constantly censored by the white man," (183) and ideas of freedom could therefore be disseminated with little restriction, as Rudder suggests in No Restriction (In the Friction), where the rhythm takes its listeners "to a different world/ a different tomorrow."

  34. In such lines, rhythm might be interpreted as having the power to alleviate suffering, and this element in black music has been constantly noted by critics. Discussing one of the rhythmic techniques in hip-hop, tonal clash, Tim Brennan calls it "insistently homeopathic . . . it reminds one of our social troubles only by offering tools of endurance" (680). The aim of this asymmetrical rhythmic technique is to place the music in antiphonic relationship to the listener, and so the music can be used not just to assuage, but to tease, enliven, amuse, and, of course, incite. What must be emphasized is that black music, or its rhythm in more specific terms, like any ideological form, can simultaneously theorize as well as incite to action. Rudder refers to this in One More Officer:
    It was the kind of night, my friend, when the vibe was bad
    So everybody come and full up the soca yard
    It was the kind of night you see when the music win
    The rhythm come and look and exorcise all we sin
    But then the law say stop the groove
    But the people wouldn't move
    That is the point when I hear them say . . .

    One more officer, one more
    Before we go down the road
    And damage somebody . . .

  35. The calypso alerts us to the fact that while the soca helps the people cope with their dismal socio-economic conditions, it quickly becomes the cause of riot as the State tries to stop its expression:
    It was the kind of time when we economy tight
    The people they were sad but my people did not cry
    They flock into the town and lose themselves in the beat
    Mixing up the bitter truth with "de living sweet!" . . .

    . . . Run the music man
    Oh we will come out and burn this town
    Tell him to stop the music
    You've got to be mad
    Listen Inspector,
    We don't want to have to shake you down...

  36. Rudder's thesis about rhythm, in its strongest form, is that it is an ideological language, and can convey ideologies that reveal one's socio-political position inside of capitalism, but also inspires communal action to transform this oppressive system. The sense of community, of rhythm as a communal form, is insisted upon, not just in the specific spaces of the Caribbean, but in metropolitan centers as well. Rudder's album International Chantuelle (1999) embodies this position, as the chantuelle, or calypsonian, is represented as someone who can supply revolutionary inspiration through music, but specifically through rhythm. The rhythm of calypso therefore becomes an international language for calling all the oppressed of the world.


  1. "Liming," or the complex art of socializing in Trinidad, is spatially and temporally ruled by intellectual exchange and critique through conversation, recitation, robber-talk (grandiose rhetoric), picong (biting humor), jokes, dancing and music. Back

  2. See Père Labat, Nouveau Voyage aux Îles de l'Amérique (Paris, 1722). Back

  3. See Keith Warner, Kaiso!, 7-8. Back

  4. See Keith Smith, "Sokah Education." Back

  5. In Trinidad, by the mid-1960's, the ruling People's National Movement (PNM) was mainly African and the oppositional Democratic Labour Party (DLP) largely East-Indian. Most of the left leaning intellectuals of both parties had either been expelled or had resigned. In the late 1960's, several new political parties and newspapers, headed by the estranged left, began, in close association with the trade unions (comprised mainly of oilfield and sugar workers) began to agitate for social and political transformation. Back

  6. Chutney's evolution as a musical form is contemporaneous with soca. In Peter Manuel's East Indian Music in the West Indies, the roots of Chutney are identified as the folk-song culture of East-Indian immigrants. Manuel writes, "Modern chutney evolved primarily from a specific set of folk-song subgenres, all of which share the use of fast tempo, a simple refrain-verse (in North India, sthãi-antara) structure, and light, erotic Bhojpuri texts" (169). Manuel correctly identifies the matikor, or female wedding night ceremony, as one of the important spaces where chutney was developed. Chutney, though, has always been a creolized form, configured like soca with a fusion of African and East Indian rhythms, although the East-Indian signatures are more predominant than in soca. Back

  7. Qtd. in Carolyn Cooper, Noises in the Blood, 80-81. Back

  8. In her selected poems, 63-4. Back

  9. In Ramabai Espinet, "From the Belly of the Bamboo: Interview with David Rudder, Part 2," Trinidad and Tobago Review, Carnival February, 1988, 12. Back

  10. Qtd. in Adam Krims, Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity , 31. Back

  11. Cited in Simon Lee, "The Development of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago," in Noel Norton, 29. Back

  12. See David Rudder and John La Rose, Kaiso, Calypso Music, 27. Back

  13. In Ramabai Espinet, "From the Belly of the Bamboo: Interview with David Rudder, Part 1," Trinidad and Tobago Review, Christmas 1987, 12. Back

  14. See "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)" in Althusser's Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 127-186. Back

  15. Qtd. in Ray Allen and Les Slater, "Steel Pan Grows in Brooklyn," 131-2. Back

    Note on the Photographs: Other than the CD cover, all pictures were taken by Joy Mahabir. The picture on the first banner is a Grenadian "Shortney" band from Caribana 2000 (Toronto); on the second banner a part of Roy Pierre's band "The Big Kahuna," from J'Ouvert 2001; on the third banner the steel drums from "The Big Kahuna"; on the fourth banner, David Rudder [left] on his music truck from Caribana 2000. The J'Ouvert pictures -- characters from the "Sons of the Kalahari" band, and revellers playing 'mud mas' performing spontaneously for the crowd -- were taken at J'Ouvert 2001.

Works Cited

Allen, Lillian. Women Do This Everyday: Selected Poems of Lillian Allen. Toronto: Women's Press, 1993.

Allen, Ray and Lois Wilcken, eds. Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New York. New York: New York Folklore Society and The Institute for Studies in American Music, Brooklyn College, 1998.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Baraka, Amiri. Black Music. New York: Da Capo press, 1998.

Black Stalin. "Black Man Feeling to Party." Cassette. Trinidad, 1991.

Brennan, Timothy. "Off the Gangsta Tip: A Rap Appreciation, or Forgetting about Los Angeles." Critical Inquiry 20.4 (Summer 1994): 663-93.

Bucknor, Michael. "Body-Vibes: (S)pacing the Performance in Lillian Allen's Dub Poetry." Thamyris 5.2 (Autumn 1998): 301-22.

Collins, Loretta. "Rude Bwoys, Riddim, Rub-a-Dub, and Rastas: Systems of Political Dissonance in Caribbean Performative Sounds." Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Ed. Adalaide Morris. Chapel Hill NC: U of North Carolina P, 1997. 169-93.

Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Espinet, Ramabai. "From the Belly of the Bamboo: Interview with David Rudder, Part 1." Trinidad and Tobago Review (Christmas 1987): 12-13.

---. "From the Belly of the Bamboo: Interview with David Rudder, Part 2." Trinidad and Tobago Review (Carnival 1988,): 12-13.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1994.

Harney, Stefano. "Soca and Social Formations: Avoiding the Romance of Culture in Trinidad." Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation. Ed. Belinda J. Edmonson. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. 39-55.

Jackson, George. Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. 1970. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994.

Kelley, Robin. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: Free Press, Macmillan, 1994.

Krims, Adam. Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Labat, Père. Nouveau Voyage aux Îles de l'Amérique. Paris, 1722.

Manuel, Peter. East Indian Music in the West-Indies: Tn-Singing, Chutney, and the Making of Indo-Caribbean Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2000.

Manuel, Peter with Ken Bilby and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadephia: Temple UP, 1995.

Montano, Machel and Xtatik. 2000 Young to Soca. CD. Trinidad, 2000.

Myers, Helen. Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1998.

Norton, Noel. Noel Norton's 20 Years of Trinidad Carnival. Trinidad: Paria Publishing, 1990.

Ortiz, Fernando. La m&uacte;sica afrocubana (La africanía de la música folklórica de Cuba). Madrid: Júcar, 1974.

Ramdas, Madan. "Chutney Genie." Hot and Spicy Chutney. CD. London: Music Collection International Ltd., 1998.

Rohlehr, Gordon. "Afterthoughts." BIM 14.56 (January-June 1973): 228.

---. Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad. Port-of-Spain: Gordon Rohlehr, 1990.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. London: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

Rudder. David. 1990. CD. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1990.

---. Beloved. CD. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1997.

---. David Rudder: The Gilded Collection Vol. 1, 1986-1989. LP. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1993.

---. International Chantuelle. CD. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1999.

---. Ministry of Rhythm. LP. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1993.

---. Tales From a Strange Land. CD. Trinidad: Lypsoland, 1996.

---. The Power and the Glory. LP. Trinidad, 1989.

Rudder, David and Charlie's Roots. Haiti. LP. Barbados: West Indies Records, 1988.

Rudder, David and John La Rose. Kaiso, Calypso Music: David Rudder in conversation with John La Rose. London: New Beacon Books, 1990.

Shadow. "Music (Dingolay)." Dingolay. LP. Trinidad, 1994.

Smith, Keith. "Sokah Education." Trinidad Express, July 19, 2000.

Walcott, Derek. The Joker of Seville and O Babylon!: Two Plays. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Warner, Keith. Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso. Washington: Three Continents Press, 1982.

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