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Patricia Gone With…Millicent? – Talking Tongue in Cheek Calypso with Colin Robinson

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2011 Bocas Lit fest blogger

Lord Invader, The Growler, Attila the Hun (dressed as Eve) and Roaring Lion, 1943
‘Think of this as more of an open conversation than a formal presentation,’ Colin Robinson tells us, as we recline in the deep-backed seats of the frosty AV room in the National Library’s basement floor. Everything about the hour-long ‘presentation’ that follows (which turns out to be more of an erudite, witty lime session than anything else, really), invites our interest and our engagement…and no surfeit of our ribald cackles.Conducted on Thursday, the first of the Bocas’ features on music, Robinson’s talk is subtitled, ‘How has Trinidad calypso dealt with sexual orientation over eight decades? A work in progress.’ You’d expect a direct series of self-evident, plain-faced conclusions on the basis of such a proposition, right? It should all seem cut and dry and, well, straightforward, no? Wrong. If we know anything about the golden and inimitable age of calypso, it is that things are rarely as they seem; that lyrics can inhabit a disparate life from the one we initially enjoy on page or on stage, and that picong can wear coats of many, many colours.

Colin, a writer and activist with a longstanding interest in the portrayal of Trinidadian calypso, ushers the delight of music into our sensory engagement with the theme. We are treated to oft-crackling, sweetly staticky favourites, such as Terror’s ‘Patricia Gone with Millicent’, in which the calypsonian’s beloved sets up house with the belligerent Millicent, much to his dismay and consternation. The fact that poor Patricia becomes the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Millicent, her new, jealous lover, is smoothly glossed over in the cleverness and wit of this 1950s production from Terror. While we feel for Patricia, we muse over the ways in which potentially incendiary issues of desire and sexual politics are finessed in the suaver than suave treatments of lyrical dab hands like Terror, and Black Prince, who affirms almost archly in his ‘The Letter’, that it was an easy decision to get his queer relative to write him an emotionally sensitive missive:
“…but I remember I have a homo cousin named Hugh
So I let him write it; that is woman too”

We consider, perhaps with a smear of unease, (given the way we’ve revelled in the nostalgia of this saucy calypso and kaiso) the flip side — the unveiled anti-gay sentiment of contemporary dancehall. As Colin aptly puts it, many of these songs, such as ‘Dread Prezidents’ by Bunji Garlin and Menace, possess a proud ‘lyrical brilliance’ when it comes to the dissemination of hate. ‘Dread Prezidents’ boasts of the decimation of ‘chi chi chi men’ with aplomb and maximum violence, but manages to do so in a fashion more elegant than the heavy hand of Buju Banton in ‘Boom Bye Bye’. Were the feisty Buju to be improperly propositioned by a ‘batty bwoy’, he wouldn’t hesitate in dispensing ‘justice’:
“Dis is not a deal
Guy come near we
Then his skin must peel
Burn him up bad like an old tire wheel…”

The discourse of Caribbean sexual identity and gender querying can feel like a painfully modern phenomenon, for those involved in the process of trying to talk it through, out, and into practical, purposeful debate. Calypso reminds us that the roots of these ideas have been singing to us quietly for decades, if we’re of the disposition to hear them. The debate has been ongoing, when all we might have been doing previously was grooving to the sweet melody of some of the smartest songs ever penned.