A Rough Passage to Navigate

By Stefan Szczelkun, 2 October 2014
Image: Mighty Sparrow performing in a Calyspo tent, undated

Stefan Szczelkun reviews Everard M. Phillips, The Political Calypso: a sociolinguistic process of conflict transformation


For Everard M. Phillips recent Trinidadian political calypso is something as serious as your life. He ascribes to it a direct role in a ‘non-formal’ process of jurisprudence, or what he prefers to call ‘conflict transformation’. His ideas on conflict transformation draw on studies of globally widespread practices of dispute resolution by informal mediation, challenging the literal and formal approach to law built into the history of western states and their courts. Phillips defines conflict as ‘an inevitable part of the triadic process of learning, growth and change' (p.17): he prefers the idea of transformation of meanings to that of ‘conflict resolution’, which often ends up resolving a problem in a way that brings more advantages to one party – usually the state – than the other, reproducing the original inequalities. It is also clear from the beginning that Phillips includes class, gender, and race oppression in his idea of conflict. This theoretical knowledge is enriched by the author’s own experience of working as a mediator.


In discussing what these things mean, he refers to the discourse in legal anthropology that followed from Bronislav Malinowski’s seminal Crime and Custom in Savage Society in 1926. He pays particular attention to the work of Clifford Geertz, according to whom 'law is a type of social abstraction that is driven by culture and imagination and is designed to regulate social life’.1 Phillips also underlines research into the history of enslavement and the African background of the majority of the population in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean Islands: describing the negative effects of slavery as well as the transmission of African cultural practices of informal conflict transformation in social structures such as the moot.2


Within the functioning of the individual moots there is commonality in the drive towards seeking settlement without either an external judge or the application of punitive measures. (p.23)


A performance in the ‘calypso tent’ is something I have never experienced. Any feeling that ‘I know what a calypso is’ largely comes from my ’50s childhood viewing of Cy Grant on BBC’s progressive ‘Tonight’ programme. He impressed me by making up topical calypsos based on the daily news. Grant died in 2010. Whilst reading this book I listened to the songs that are discussed on YouTube – quite a long distance from the immersive experience of calypso tent. Phillip’s describes the ‘calypso tent’ as a place in which there is an intense vocal and gestural rapport between performance and audience. He writes about a process of co-creation with the calypsonian as a temporary leader who stimulates a cognitive process that can result in collective action. The lyrics of the political calypso engage with a ‘matrix of domination’, an interaction of race, class and colour or an ‘equality problematic’ to which the calypsonian responds. The calypso demonstrates human agency, or what we might prefer to call ‘resistance’, within this matrix.


Two-Sided Masking


The layers of meaning in a calypso can mask its more profound insights from an outsider who may only hear the carefree, light-hearted exterior. In this way the calypso has been regarded by those outside of Trinidadian culture as too light and comedic to be the carrier of serious meaning. This reminds me of the way the middle class have regarded English working class culture as simple, shallow, crude and vulgar rather than sophisticated like their own ‘classical’ musics and literature. This assumed superiority becomes then one of the cornerstones for the justification of class oppression. The middle classes ‘good critics’ simply don’t get it and don’t even understand that they are missing the point. Aesthetics becomes hierarchised when the propensity for all humans to perceive subtle flavours and relations goes unrecognised. Phillips doesn’t reflect sufficiently on the ramifications of this dynamic aspect of calypso and does not explicitly mention class very often.


I found the way the Phillips analysed the political calypso challenging to the limitations of my own understanding of political musics through the Agit Disco project I have been immersed in for years. To me, the key thing had been to highlight the role of the consumer as an active selector and to expose the hidden political forms of music that lie behind mainstream channels of consumption. Phillips critiques political calypso lyrics through criteria based on how effective he thinks they are in catalysing change. The strategies implicit in each song he calls ‘frames’. ‘Tragic’, ‘Euphemistic’ and ‘Debunking’ frames can be ineffective if they produce stasis after a gesture of protest.


Sugar Aloe’s calypso ‘Never Again’ is quoted at length to show the ‘aggressive’ use of language may restrict successful transformation of the terms of conflict:


Civil Disobedience’ that’s Panday’s requests

Encouraging people to ignite social unrest

Use allyuh vehicles, block roads and pavement


Phillips suggests that unreal assertions of power – ‘This Stage is Mine’, ridicule of those in power – ‘Ah Ready to Go’, and complaints of not being heard – ‘Why Ah Stay’ (all examples by Aloes), may stop short at protest and restrict fuller possibilities of transformation.


Phillips own rigorous criteria is built from the premise that a strategic use of words needs to produce or facilitate a transformation of meanings for both sides in a conflict. If the baseline conflicts are those of class, race and colour then it is no good prolonging or exacerbating the conflict. He rejects ‘one-sided thinking’ for reducing the possibility of conflict transformation. On one level this is eminently reasonable, but it also felt to me to be akin to the kind of liberal position of having a ‘balanced’ representation of views. This always seems to lead to a re-establishment of the status quo in my experience, but this is from my experience of UK situations that are themselves framed by establishment media. Could it be true then, that in Trinidad and Tobago the people are, as it seems, not separate from their working class artists in the same way that the British audiences are? The wider point that Phillips suggests is that political music cannot simply be a vocalisation of people’s anger and a focus for their complaints if it is to be politically efficacious.


Different framing strategies often work through the use of ‘masking’ in which serious purpose can masquerade behind light-heartedness and ambiguous metaphor. Phillips points to three ways masking can be used: firstly in the stage identity of the performer; secondly in making a claim to the validity of the calypso platform and thirdly in the creation of a theatrical identity for the target of criticism.


Phillips refers to Katherine Hale – to achieve transformation the story must be ‘reframed’ to be comic or hopeful in a way in which it is clear that change is not only possible, but a fact of life. This reframing should also ‘reframe the focus on the larger system or bigger picture’ (quotes by Phillips from Hale (p.34)). Phillips supports this with a rather unconvincing example from an anti-drugs song, ‘Watch Out My Children’ by Ras Shorty.



The idea of ‘reframing’ is, according to Phillips, to give the audience an opportunity to re-evaluate the circumstances ‘enabling a new and different vision of the situation’. calypsonian artists make use of metaphor, metonymy and polysemy to achieve these aims of providing fresh viewpoints. A less literary approach might simply call this ‘word play’. To illustrate this point Phillips mentions The Mighty Sparrow’s ‘We Like It So’ (1982) in which the lyrics are presented in two voices with each expressing an opposing view.3


Cro Cro’s 1991 apparently patriotic ‘Still the Best’ is mentioned as an example of ‘ironic illumination’ and ‘perspective incongruity’ following as it did a period of critical unrest that culminated in the Islamist coup of 1990.4



The terms of literary theory with its focus on the use of metaphor, metonymy and polysemy are used and repurposed by Phillips. He discusses different definitions of metaphor such as ‘one thing understood in terms of another’, but he criticises these conventional uses and says that there is a more dynamic use of metaphor in calypso. A metaphor can carry a duality of meaning with both cognitive and evocative meanings.5 Evocative meanings are either empathic or generate insights in themselves. The two meanings, cognitive and evocative, give rise to a third meaning of insight towards conflict transformation. Phillips gives examples of songs that operate in this way: ’Sinking Ship’ and ‘Chauffeur Wanted’. Then again he later points out we should avoid binary analysis into two meanings when there may be multiple layers of meaning in complex coexistence.6



The ‘Banana Death Song’ by David Rudder is chosen for an in depth analysis. This first requires a background to the vicissitudes of the international banana trade that is carried out by transnational companies and states. Phillips shows that you not only have to know the recent history of the trade wars and their human cost, but also the symbolic connotations of Caribbean speech. For example, a church signifies reverence and importance to the community, and is also ‘an icon of hope and growth’ to those people. So the phrase: ‘Well, Uncle Sammy used to visit the church of Banana’, is pregnant with meaning for the local population. He writes about the US owned corporations that own and run the Latin American banana industry that threatens to undercut the Caribbean product with its European market. Here, Rudder is a ‘liminal servant’ translating a crucial political issue into a poetic form that allows people to think about it afresh.7


Co-authored Canons


Crucial to the theory of ‘non-formal conflict transformation’ is that the audience are co-authors. He refers back to his previous work and to the works of Lev Vygotsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Mikhail Bakhtin and Hans-Georg Gadamer who are quoted to ground the idea of language as essentially social, rather than existing in any individuals mind, and as being an ongoing stream of interpretation. He also refers to Fairclough’s ‘idea of intertextuality to reveal the complex and enigmatic quality of discourse in the calypso tent.’ (p.54) This referencing of western canonic works of progressive theory inserts Phillips' Trinidadian analysis into the global knowledge system. A rough passage to navigate for sure when we are aware of the level of ignorance about oral cultures that exists within the literary world.


Call and response allows the audience to co-author the proceedings of the evening, while they are engaged in the process of co-constructing meaning (p.55)


To go deeper into the context of cultural co-creation Phillips discusses the ‘Philosophic implications of African Retention’. He claims a pan-African centrality for vibration or rhythm and of the power of the word to ‘heal and restore’. His detailed analysis of call and response then follows.


Here we move from the spiritual tone of ‘vibration’ into a materialist ontology of the process that is initiated by the caller. The caller is whosoever ‘initiates the speech ritual, s/he is a conduit for the people, who have a deep respect for him/her’ (p.59). The power of the caller is not only poetic but also a moral authority invested in him or her by the people. ‘The call is achieved through variety of mechanisms; these include: Questioning, Pauses, Mimicry, Padding Refrain, Identifying Jingles and Auditory Variety’ (p.62).



Questions can be directed to the audience between verses or be integral to the lyrics.8 Mighty Sparrow’s 1965 classic: ‘Get To Hell Out’ is given as a powerful example of mimicry.9


Where power within the society is asymmetric, such an approach

serves to remind the audience that these MPs and the people who

share these exalted positions of power, are only but human, having

feet of clay. (p.67)


As I have suggested, the island audience will often respond to deeper meanings suggested by the language used that are difficult for the outsider to understand as they would need not only an understanding of the language but also an intimate knowledge of local events, the colloquial language and terminology. A calypso probably needs to be heard with such an audience to get an idea of the quality of call and response. It seems that the audience is particularly lively and vociferous when a topical calypso is being performed, so the aesthetic frame supplied by the audience is very dynamic and immediate. Phillips refers to various levels of chorus apart from the immediate audience, primarily the MC, other calypsonians, and, on occasions, even politicians; who at times may feel forced to publicly respond to a challenge issued by a calypsonian.


The MC will often use humour in warming up the audience and Phillips points out that this is not the humour referred to in the humanist tradition of knowledge in which context humour should not be used ‘to excess’, nor on serious occasions for matters of importance. It should also be innocent in purpose and free from anger. ‘The European framework for the use of humour is counter to that which […] still does occur in the calypso tent.’ (p.74) It seems to me that this distinction can be applied globally to distinguish between the class formed by humanist knowledge and the rest of the world. Humour and its physical expression can be a crucial part of being able to discuss that which is often too fear laden or taboo to be approached directly or in a rational mode. Phillips refers to the MC’s use of humour in terms of E. Goffman’s notion of ‘sign vehicle’.10 Overall the MC is setting the scene for the ‘harmonious energy of transformation’ to be evoked by the successful calypso. A dramatic example is Black Stalin’s ‘Burn Dem’ in which Stalin, dressed in a fiery red cape and suit, inverts the metaphor of the fires of hell that await sinners to direct this fate onto white class opponents. Keith Smith describes a performance in 1987: ‘He burnt up the Savannah stage, bringing 10,000 people to their feet, singing his fiery denunciation of people who had wronged the African race.’11



Cro Cro responded to Stalin with his calypso ‘Fire’ in which he says that ‘he burns the wrong people’ and should have directed his fire at the local power elite. Critique of each others’ work is another aspect of this discourse. Black Stalin’s ‘Wait Dorothy Wait’ is a general call for more issue-based calypso.12 Sugar Aloes critiqued Sparrow’s disrespect of women in ‘Dis Stage is Mine’.13


But the calypsonian can also challenge the audience: ‘Say a prayer (for Abu Bakr)’ by Cro Cro suggests that it was the populations’ inaction that led to the 1990 coup. The 100 Islamists led by Abu Bakr were in fact responding to a general dissatisfaction – a violent coup that would not have been necessary if people had acted as one to resolve their dissatisfaction rather than just grumbling.14



The dependence of the figure of the artist/caller on a positive audience response must be at the heart of a radical democratic political process. The caller is required to have integrity. calypsonians have been booed offstage for selling out. In this way, the theatre of emancipation that is the calypso tent is held as sacrosanct.


Conclusion: Liberation Callers


What Phillips describes are, I believe, cultural elements that are universally necessary to a functioning liberatory culture in any part of the world. These elements are often missing when the process is a home studio that creates a commercial commodity. We do have DJs who act as ‘callers’ and get a response but the politics of the music they play are barely legible. Rhetoric is more evident in the open-mic rapping sessions, but very few people have access to this and it has little or no space in mainstream media. In fact, all local singer-songwriters with a political stance have a struggle to get beyond sporadic pub audiences.


Any caustic content in a local music scene is carefully filtered before it gets a wider airing on the media. We could learn from calypso how to create a more open theatre of emancipation for UK populations. Split as we are by ethnic and religious difference and adherence to genre subcultures, we also share many similar forms of systemic pressure.


Of course the limitation of Phillips' analysis may be in treating lyrics as separate from the music that carries them. As I listened to Youtube versions of this music as I read, I ‘liked’ some tunes more than others. Some music seemed more in tune with the lyrics, or simply more attention grabbing. The way that musical quality or aesthetics intersects with lyrical expression is something that is much theorised but still difficult to pin down.


The question that political calypso poses for us all is this: here is a cultural form that is a vital political platform in a musical idiom that does not have an equivalent in this country or maybe anywhere in Europe. Why is this? The undermining of (European) working class culture was the subject of my 1993 book, The Conspiracy of Good Taste. The repression of urban working class culture in Europe has been intense and prolonged, but it seems that the vitality of calypso has risen in the aftermath of the truly awful oppression of slavery. Maybe an answer to this might be found in an examination of the details of the mechanisms of cultural oppression and in the closeness of the oppressor class? However, it would seem that the basic relations between artist and audience that seem so vital in the calypso tent are globally required by any emancipatory culture. Phillips gives us some clues as to how culture can contribute to human liberation in his analysis of this African form.


The core theoretical argument in this book is Phillips' idea of the importance of a ‘legal’ process when understanding how music can be a tool of liberation. The left tends to have a psychological block when it comes to the ideas about legality. The legal system as we know it is so deeply ingrained as the face of our class enemy that it is difficult to conceive of law in a positive way. Phillips opens up a way to think about legality as conflict resolution with a cultural vehicle. This is not to say he is calling for calypso courts, but rather a completely different approach to the resolution of social conflicts that are due to social injustice.


In the original Agit Disco project I proposed people make playlists of music that had played a political part in their lives. I had taken the showing of music’s role in political will formation as the goal. In reality, political will formation leads to taking power, legislation and the administration of social justice or law. Phillips made me realise that law can be reconceptualised in ways that are very different from the legal system I’ve experienced. The process of conflict transformation, that he argues culture can contribute to, is something I recognise from the area known as ‘therapeutic’ knowledge but had not before thought of in relation to a rethinking of legality.


If […] one conceives of socialism as the set of necessary conditions for emancipated forms of life about which the participants themselves must first reach and understanding, then one will recognise that the democratic self-organisation of a legal community constitutes the normative core of this project.15


A good deal of translation may have to occur for us to join Habermas’ somewhat formal critique of past state socialism as imposed ‘design’ rather than democratic co-construction with what Phillips is discussing as I have summarised above. However, if we do not get hung up on the common associations of terms like ‘normative’ and ‘legal community’ then it is possible to see a way forward. In other words, we have to think of a future legal process that is open to democratic discourses including cultural ones. This new concept of legality engages with social conflict at an earlier stage than waiting for violent irruptions which are inevitably met with violent police repression and imprisonment. Participant forms of cultural expression may also play their part here.


People who want social justice must learn from such working class forms of socialisation, collective will formation and radical rethinkings of what constitutes a due process of law. A process that will need to be powered from the grassy base rather than coming down from on high.




This being my introduction to the subject I cannot offer any comparative review of this book in relation to the research literature on the calypso. Authors such as H.U.L. Liverpool or Louis Regis are not argued against and I assume that Phillips is offering an original approach. As such this is an ignorant reader’s report and a set of spinning plates of thought brought about by reading Phillips’ book rather than an academic review! Everard Phillips informs me that: every year for the six weeks preceding the Notting Hill carnival there is a calypso tent in the Tabernacle in Powis Square in Ladbroke Grove.


Stefan Szczelkun is a South London based artist whose main interest is in art and class. He keeps an Agit Disco noticeboard at,




Everard M. Phillips, The Political Calypso: a sociolinguistic process of conflict transformation, Port of Spain, 2009. Phillip’s book has a limited distribution in the UK through the following bookshops:

Pempamsie, 102 Brixton Hill, London SW2 1AM, 020 8671 0800

New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, N4 3EN, 020 7272 4889

All Eyes on Egypt, 25 Brixton Station Road, SW9 8PB, 020 7978 8321

Wolfson & Tay, retail Unit 12 Bermondsey Sq, SE1 3UN

Alternatively from the author for £10 plus p + p, by emailing him on


1 Clifford Geertz, ‘Local Knowledge: fact and law in a comparative perspective’, 1983, p.24.

2 P.H. Gulliver, ‘Dispute and Negotiations: a cross cultural perspective’, New York: Academic Press, 1979.

3 The Mighty Sparrow, ‘We Like It So’,

4 Cro Cro, 'Still the Best',

5 Marc Leman, ‘A Theory of Metaphor’ in Apostel et al (Eds.), Reason, Emotion and Music, 1986.

6 Chalkdust, ‘Chauffeur Wanted’, See below for ‘Sinking Ship’.

7 David Rudder, 'Banana Death Song',

8 For example, Gypsy, ‘Sinking Ship’,

9 The Mighty Sparrow, 'Get to Hell Out',

10 Irvine Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1969.

11 Sunday Express, 15 March 1987. A version of the song can be heard here,

12 Black Stalin, ‘Wait Dorothy Wait’,

13 Sugar Aloes, ‘Dis Stage is Mine’,

14 Cro Cro, ‘Say a prayer (for Abu Bakr)’,

15 Jurgen Habermas, ‘Between Facts and Norms: contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy’, (orig 1992) 1996, p.xli.