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Kaiso in the Classroom

Denis Solomon • 1,184 words

Shooting from the hip like so many members of her government, and this time at the wrong target, the Minister of Culture announced that calypso was to be “taught” in schools. Then, in a climbdown even faster than that of the Minister of Agriculture when he denied that he was planning to give Caroni lands to the Nariva farmers, she issued a release to “clarify” the statement.

Even if the announcement had come from a more authentic source, i.e. the Minister of Education, and even if it had not incurred the predictable crypto-racist objections of Sat Maharaj, there is little to suggest it was not as empty a suggestion as the Minister of Works’ declaration of war on potholes.

The teaching of calypso, the Minister explained, would not be compulsory. In any case, what was to be taught was not the singing of calypso but “the art of social commentary, similar to that of creating poetry.”

A more ambiguous statement you could not hope to find. First of all, it is usually learning, not teaching, that is described as compulsory or optional. Secondly, it is hard to see how you can teach Trinidad and Tobago children to sing, which you should, without teaching them to sing calypso. Thirdly, Dr. Phillips’ description of the hypothetical calypso teaching throws into serious doubt whether she has ever read or heard either poetry or calypso. Fourthly, in what shape is the new subject to be introduced into the curriculum? Will there be timetable slots labelled “Calypso” or “Social Commentary”? Or will the material be part of instruction in social studies, history, civics, literature or English?

I recall that my children, who went to prestigious primary and secondary schools, used to take part in school calypso competitions. Professor Selwyn Ryan’s children were outstanding exponents of the activity, and one of them is now a professional musician, conducting orchestras in Europe. Fiona Imbert, sister of the former Minister of Works and Transport, was also a champion. And one of the schools (Mr. Maharaj, please note) had a majority of Indo-Trinidadian pupils.

The fact is that in addition to music, which Dr. Phillips now seems to rule out of the plan, calypso ought already to be used as a teaching tool in many disciplines. A discussion of just how calypso (all right, Mr. Maharaj, chutney too) could be used to best advantage would not be at all out of place at the appropriate level. Which is not, of course, the level of cheap party propaganda but of serious debate on the purposes and content of school curricula.

It is difficult to see how you could teach the history of the American occupation of Chaguaramas without reference to “Jean and Dinah”; or of ethnic relations without “Moonia” (sorry, Mr. Maharaj, but it is true that bap no likeam kilwalni); or of penal reform without “Gunslingers”. There must be an infinity of other examples. It is a truism of educational theory that you have to teach children by reference to what is already in their heads and in their environment. Calypsonians have realised this – remember Sparrow’s “Dan is the Man in the Van”?

As regards my own speciality, which is language arts, the value of calypso as an illustration of the socio-cultural domains of different language varieties is infinite. Here I am talking not of the content of the songs but of the text. By and large it is impossible to compose calypso lyrics in standard English (my erstwhile colleague Dr. Ian Robertson disagrees, and has an example to confound me which I cannot for the moment recall, which is why I say “by and large”), just as there are domains in which Creole is inappropriate. Inevitably, there are domains, such as advertising and popular journalism, where the two coexist in varying degrees of disharmony. An understanding of this situation is basic to solving the chief educational problem of our country: the clash of creolised with standard English, with all its psychological consequences.

In spite of the criticisms of ill-informed pedants, the Ministry of Education has always been conscious of the problem, and has always set the teaching of standard English as an unequivocal goal of the education system. With the help of scholars like Carrington and Borely, it has realised that the path to this goal is not through the eradication of creolised English (an impossible task anyway) but through the enrichment of the linguistic repertoire of learners by, among other things, recognition of the social role of the vernacular. I have written a book to help teachers in this task.

In this regard the Minister of Culture’s remarks about poetry are more pertinent than she knows. Even those Trinidadians and Tobagonians who acquire a superficial knowledge of the “rules” (I put this in inverted commas because most of those rules are wrong) of Standard English still use the language badly, and are still incapable of appreciating it as a vehicle of artistic expression. The surest sign of this is what passes for poetry in the readers’ columns and in the children’s’ supplements of the newspapers. The hardest part of a second language to assimilate is the prosodic system – the system of word accent, sentence intonation and, in the domain of verse, what is acceptable (i.e. felt by the native speaker) as rhyme. The basic distinction is that the prosodic system of English is based on stress, while that of Creole is based on pitch, with the result that stress is variable even in the same word. This has its effect on rhyme as well as on everything else.

A couple of examples: the first sentence of the Independent’s

Christmas Eve editorial is “Long lay the world in sin, and in darkness, pining”. The substitution of “darkness” for “error” in the line from the carol “O Holy Night” makes no difference to the rhythm, since both words have the same accentual pattern. But the addition of an extra syllable, even unstressed, by the inclusion of the second “in” completely disrupts the rhythm of the verse (yes, verse – a verse is a line of poetry. What we call “verse” is really a stanza). Not to speak of the spurious pause enforced by the commas.

On 19 December a reader of the Guardian delivers himself of a piece of doggerel in which he rhymes “spree” with “chutney”. In English (by which I mean in the linguistic consciousness of standard English speakers, not a mechanical “rule”) a rhyme must involve the stressed syllable of the rhyming word. So “eating” rhymes with “meeting”, but not with “drinking”. In calypso, with its pitch-based prosody, you can pretty well rhyme anything with anything else, and what made the Guardian reader’s line-endings ludicrous in English would have been perfectly acceptable in a calypso.

Calypso, therefore, has both a direct and a contrastive value in teaching. And anyone who thinks it is too frivolous should remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, a professional music critic as well as a playwright, who said that it was from Mozart that he had learned to say serious things in a light-hearted way.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top