Above: Blackman children, from left, Marge, Abbi, Nehilet and Isaac lead the cast in singing Watch Out My Children. Photo by Rhianna McKenzie.
A review of The Journey – From Lord Shorty to Ras Shorty I by Franka Philip.
Garfield Blackman has been described as a genius by many of his peers. Known more commonly as Lord Shorty, and in his later years as Ras Shorty I, he was the man whose ambitious musical fusions gave birth to sokah or what we now know as soca music.
Shorty I’s genius was apparent at the concert, The Journey – From Lord Shorty to Ras Shorty I, hosted by the UWI Department of Creative and Festival Arts at Queen’s Hall on March 11.
The concert is part of UWI’s Classic Concert series which has in the past featured the work of Roy Cape and Mighty Stalin. This year’s concert also marked the start of an ongoing series of activities that will pay homage to the soca pioneer who died in 2000.
The concert brought together some of Shorty I’s talented children and an interesting group of performers that included Explainer, Gypsy, Rikki Jai and Rembunction.
Kicking off the evening for a three-quarter full Queen’s a hall was Marge, the daughter known for her folksy style and more recently for the 2018 hit, Full Of Vibe, with International Soca Monarch Voice. Marge sang Jamoo, a song that epitomises the gospel-soca hybrid genre Shorty I created after he renounced his life as Lord Shorty and moved to a farm in Piparo with his family.
Actor and singer Rembunction shared duties with Winston “Gypsy” Peters in the singing of The Art of Making Love. This controversial 1973 calypso left nothing to the imagination and after he performed it at the Dimanche Gras show, then Prime Minister Eric Williams had Shorty charged with indecency.
Gypsy returned to sing a beautiful and touching tribute, Garfield Goodbye. In his introduction, the former Calypso Monarch said it was the first time he would be performing the song and that it was so emotional for him that he might not finish it. It was a really touching performance.
The words, “Who God bless, no man curse“ are a common part of Trini lingo. It’s not unusual to see this on maxis and cars as well as in businesses all over the country. Certainly, this must be due to the popularity of the song from the 1979 album Soca Explosion. On the evening, it was sung by Isaac, the youngest of the 24 Blackman children. He was decked off in a sharp white suit, which would have been typical of his father in the Lord Shorty days.
Isaac finished his first appearance with Push Out The Creator, which was written in 1999. The lyrics seem to prophetically reflect today’s society. The first verse below has extra poignancy especially after a woman was shot in her head during a robbery a few days before the concert.
Everybody frighten, they running for cover
No respector of persons, dem bandit, dem killers
They raping and looting, they killing you dead
Nobody escaping, booyaka, is bullet in yuh head
How my country overnight, get so angry and uptight?
Ah search out the answer and this is what I discovered
All yuh push the creator out, yuh didn’t want he name in yuh mouth
So yuh take him out of yuh school curriculum, no knowledge of God for the children.
Singer Kevon Thomas followed Isaac with When Will It Come, from the 17 album Love in the Caribbean.
Nehilet is the third to last of the Blackman siblings, and in my view, the one with the best voice. She sang the uplifting Hold Me Jesus, which she described as a testimony to her father.
The audience sang along with Nehilet as she did her “favourite song from the Lord Shorty era”, the classic Sweet Music. This is one of Shorty’s songs that helped to define the new sound of soca that he was creating in the
1970s. It was a good note on which to end the first half.
The second half was a more uptempo and opened with Abbi Blackman, who has over the years carved out a place for herself as a performer. She brought her unique style and energy to a suite comprising of Endless Vibrations, Nutuwaewae, We Ting, and Corey Iron.
Shorty has been recognised by leading Indian cultural groups for his contribution to East Indian culture. Even though his blends of Calypso and Indian rhythms were not readily accepted by some from either culture at the time, it’s now commonplace in T&T music.
The audience learned how Shorty inspired a former Chutney Soca Monarch to get into music. Rikki Jai said when he was attending Naparima College in the late 70s, he had to work hard around the house to get five dollars from his father to attend a Lord Shorty concert at the school gymnasium. So impressed was he, he decided to become a musician. When the young Rikki Jai asked his father for money for music lessons, he was told gently that music won’t make him any money so he put his dream on the back burner.
Rikki Jai persevered and is now one of T&T’s soca and chutney soca legends. His performance of Shorty’s Indrani and his own breakthrough hit Sumintra was part of an Indian-influenced segment that included an excellent duet between 2018 joint Chutney Soca Monarch Neval Chatelal, and Isaac Blackman for Om Shanti Om. Blackman and Chatelal should consider recording this for a new generation, it was that good.
The last guest of the evening was Explainer, who praised Shorty for getting him into the Original Young Brigade tent in 1975. Explainer related how Shorty begged the tent manager Syl Taylor to give him a chance. The rest as we say is history.
Explainer sang Soca Fever, then in an impromptu moment, started singing – in something of a mumbly whisper– Shorty’s 1974 song Zena. It left the audience and the band baffled. But all was forgiven when he did his much-loved Lorraine.
Of course, the final number was not a surprise as it is the song that came to define Garfield Blackman as Ras Shorty I. Watch Out My Children, a serious anti-drug anthem recorded in 1997 that resonated so widely that in 2000, the UN adopted it as an anthem.
The four Blackman children were joined onstage by the cast and the audience also stood up and joined in song to create a rousing finale of The Journey – From Lord Shorty to Ras Shorty I.
UWI DCFA must be commended for staging this brilliant and timely concert. The programme ran smoothly and was expertly fronted by MC Omari Ashby. We await word of more projects to honour the legacy of this great cultural icon. This concert was also timely because of the recent prominence of Garfield Blackman’s musical legacy as seen through the success of his granddaughter Nailah. Because of the 21-year-old’s uniqueness and obvious potential for great things, the younger generation is now aware of Shorty and is exploring the true genius of T&T’s soca pioneer.
- Franka Philip is the co-founder of Trini Good Media. She’s a writer and editor and has worked internationally across online, print and radio for more than 20 years.