Remembering the 1968 Chicago Convention, the Riots…and KAISO?

By Corey Gilkes
June 16, 2011

Harry BelafonteWe Trinis are truly a self-contemptuous bunch. This is why I often hold the view that we need to be humiliated and re-colonised for we own good. What we have must be taken away and benefit someone else (well, more than what’s already happening), cause we really eh know or value wha we have. Cobo cyar eat sponge cake nah. And why I getting on so? Real simple.

I was on YouTube and was looking at an interview of international singer, actor and Civil Right activist Harry Belafonte. Now for the great many who eh know, in the entertainment world this Jamaican-born artiste was one of the big names back in the 1950s and 60s. Much of his fame came from his singing and popularising old Caribbean folk songs and especially calypso. Yes, that’s right, the same kaiso most of allyuh eh want to hear outside of (and even during) Carnival season because “dat too slow,” “dat too dead,” “I want to free up and wail down de place, me eh want to think.” That same kaiso that is so versatile it could be deeply philosophical and nonsensical and sometimes even jumpy — often all at the same time.

Anyhow, I listened to the interview and from there was led to a link on a controversial incident back in 1968 when he was a guest star on a comedy variety show called the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Now although the show was based in comedy, the two hosts used satire to lampoon public figures and events and many times were quite political. That’s one of the main reasons why they were eventually fired from CBS and the incident Belafonte spoke about was one those events that set that dismissal in motion (yes, I know, what that have to do with we? I coming to that dey now).

The 1960s was a period of very intense political and social upheaval all over the world. 1968 in the US was an especially difficult time; both Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy who represented hope for those committed to peace and a scaling back from US imperialistic aggression abroad, were killed. There was widespread rioting and the non-violent Civil Rights had split with one arm becoming very radicalised. Groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence were formed and made their presence felt plus there were other protest actions and groups — many very confrontational — all across the country. Naturally, the music also reflected the radicalism and disenchantment.

In the middle of all this steps Mr Harry Belafonte of “Day-O/Banana Boat Song” fame, on the Smothers Brothers show, singing some of the songs that made him a star, but using clips from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the riots that took place outside the hotel, to express what he and many were feeling at that very troubled time. And what were the songs he sang? “Mama Look a Boo-Boo Dey” by Lord Melody, “Sly Mongoose,” a kaiso that went back to the 1930s (about a cunning, philandering member of the white elite), “Don’t Stop the Carnival” by Lord Pretender, “All Day, All Night Mary Ann” by the Roaring Lion and “Back to Back, Belly to Belly” popularised by the Kingston Trio and Lord Invader, but also sung by a young kaisonian named Charmer who is known today as Louis Farrakhan.

Now my thing is this: here we have an international singer — who had made a lot of money and fame, it’s true, by singing Trinidad calypsos and Caribbean folk songs — using songs that, apart from “Sly Mongoose,” contained no real political or social themes, but pretty much could be said to have reinforced the laissez-faire, easygoing image Europeans and Euro-Americans had/have of the Caribbean. Yet, by cleverly using visual imagery and some poetic licence at times, Mr Belafonte made a profound political statement — so much so that the executives at CBS, in a flagrant act of censorship, pulled that sketch off and didn’t allow it to be aired.

So my question is how the f#%k could he see the value in this and we still don’t? How in 2011 we still having stupid discussions about kaiso, still seeing it, like other forms of music, dance, drama and art as mere entertainment, amusement for the visitor but with no relevance or connection to social improvement and transformation? How kaiso still scrunting for airplay and why we cool with that? Lloyd Best and others often pointed out that our collective self-contempt and self doubt is so ingrained in our psyche that local initiatives, inventions and talents are routinely ignored or devalued until and unless they first receive foreign acclaim and validation. Frankly me eh so sure about even that because the average Trini today still does not know or care to know about say, Sir Trevor MacDonald, Billy Ocean, Winifred Atwell, Edric Connor (who also sang a version of the Banana Boat Song), Ellie Manette or Claudia Jones. Didn’t they get international acclaim and validation? Aren’t there steelband orchestras in Japan and Europe? Isn’t creative arts design for Carnival part of school curricula in certain schools in England? Haven’t foreign political scholars marvelled at the caustic directness of our political kaisos? Hell, long before Belafonte (re)exposed kaiso, didn’t Atilla, Lion and Executer — to name but three — do exactly that on a US radio programme back in the 1930s?

In 1968 there were already a slew of political songs and folk singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, all standing in the tradition of older protest folk singers like Woody Guthrie; there was the music of John Coltrane still living on after he had passed the year before. So how Harry Belafonte saw in it what we still refuse to see (despite songs by David Rudder, Shadow and Brother Resistance being used in refugee camps in the so-called Middle East, Hollywood and the UN respectively)?

Lloyd Best so often argued that especially in an economy that is constantly shifting towards knowledge or mental endeavours, the best gift we can give the world, the best way we can earn revenue is to market and export local intellect. That same intellect and ability to create astonishing works of art from what others discard, that same intellect and directness that produced Best, CLR James, Claudia, George Padmore, Kwame Ture, even Naipaul…..if he’d admit it, could give us singers and composers, poets and artists whose works could be used to lend to voices struggling all over the world right now in mass movements from the Chiapas and Zapatistas in Mexico to the Green Belt Movement in Kenya to the struggles against Western corporations privatising water and seeds in India and protest action in other parts of the world, far too numerous to mention (most of this by the way affects us and what we eat, drink and wear, just so yuh know). But of course we have to first see that the kaisonian, the Midnight Robber, the poet and the artist are our intellectuals — provided they not serving some narrow tribal party agenda like Cro-Cro and Aloes — and that what they say can actually profoundly impact on how others seek to transform their spaces.

Harry did, see for yourself.

3 thoughts on “Remembering the 1968 Chicago Convention, the Riots…and KAISO?”

  1. Are we congratulating Harry for ripping off songs which he did not write and making a fortune from them, without recognizing the songwriters or paying royalties?

    This is still going on today.How many artists all over the world have stolen “Feeling hot hot hot?” Even Toyota used the song in one of their ads. I wonder if royalties were paid to the original songwriters?

  2. Well from what I gather, that famous Banana Boat song was written for him

    But I don’t want to believe you are ignoring the whole point. Harry and people like him might be “ripping off” local songs but WE not doing ANYTHING with them songs! Is the same thing with the patent for the hydroforming method of tuning pans that Whitmore and Pryce got, I was asking wha de f**k Trinis was vex about? Allyuh didn’t want it; it was offered here from what I learned since the 70s and Dr Williams didn’t think that warranted any kind of state support, so let dem go with friggin it.

    Furthermore, as Lord Melody himself said in an interview, Belafonte, by singing those kaisos actually gave them much needed exposure, Rudder also concurred — the same Rudder who have to go to them small Caribbean islands if he want to hear he whole album on radio……cause he eh go hear it done here.

    And so far as I know royalties are indeed paid

    But the main point is that to date WE DON’T VALUE WE OWN, period

  3. I understand and appreciate your point,but I am particularly pleased to find out that royalties are paid.

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