Alien Abduction: Doing Calypso “the Right Way” in the USA

Another episode of “Monday Morning Madness” — and given all of the posts that dealt with Trinidadian “wining” (here, there, and over there), I felt it necessary to introduce some sense of balance, a sense of decorum, of good old fashioned propriety. I want to first send my big thanks and a big hug to my inspiring friend Guanaguanare who has undertaken her own archaeological dig of YouTube, using it as a cultural database for an ethnohistoric investigation, using YouTube as a popular, global improvement on what we in anthropology knew as the “Human Resource Area Files.” She discovered that Calypso was once a craze in the cultural history of the U.S., and that before Jamaica assumed the role of emblem for the Caribbean, Trinidad was featured in American films — you will see videos on her page of Judy Garland as “Minnie from Trinidad,” Rita Hayworth as the “Trinidad Lady,” Louis Armstrong singing a calypso about “high society” in Rhode Island, and a calypso that is part of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and we have already heard the Andrews Sisters singing the Trinidadian-authored “Rum and Coca Cola” on this blog. Just as interesting is American actor Robert Mitchum singing calypso, imitating Trinidadian speech very skillfully, and showing his love for the art form. In fact Mitchum thus poses one path of cultural learning that we consider in this discussion, imitation not as mockery (as Guanaguanare points out, saying this is more imitation as flattery) but as a means of really immersing himself in a culture and acquiring its distinctive ways, trying to be as authentic as possible in his rendition. Guanaguanare posts her own notes after each video, and they are worth reading.

What I have below today is what Guanaguanare titled “Calypso Dance (the Right Way).” I was amazed by this, it really felt like spying on aliens who had performed surveillance on unsuspecting natives and were trying to breakdown, map, and acquire the nuts and bolts of the natives’ strange dance. They could also be melittologists who are charting the dance patterns of bees. There is more to the story than just getting some amusement. Nonetheless I hope you enjoy this video, it is remarkable:

Simply laughing at what we see makes us miss some important points I think. Dancing in formation, and the abrupt jump cut might be artificial elements that provoke amusement, especially as the video segment resembles a mocking vignette that one might find in a satirical documentary. If I were to do a cultural critique á la Michael Moore, or Borat, I would probably use this piece. As I said, I think we would miss something by doing that, which is what I want to explore below.

First, one really can see what Bloch was saying about most humans being anthropologists — this group of people, like Robert Mitchum, has studied a culture’s art form, has learned, and is trying to acquire and participate in native ways, but not in the form of direct imitation. Sure, some of the technique might make Trinidadians chuckle (Guanaguanare notes the rigid arms), but these people are obviously trying to learn something new while adjusting it to what is familiar to them. So if it is an “alien abduction,” it could be that these “aliens” were abducted by calypso, rather than, or almost as much as, the other way around.

Second, “cultural appropriation” is sometimes a two-way street, and what all of the videos and songs found by Guanaguanare above show are in fact one of the paradoxes of imperialism — that domination can be “sticky” and drags back all sorts of cultural influences from the dominated back into the mother country, so that dominator is not free of the dominated, even if maintaining the upper hand. One recurring figure in British literature is of the officer returned from many years of service in India, who dresses as a “Hindoo,” decorates his home to look entirely Indian on the inside, eats only Indian dishes, has an imported Indian “manservant,” and basically transforms himself into some kind of Essex Rajah. In the U.S., African, Caribbean, Latin American, and Native Indian cultural elements have so deeply penetrated American culture, interlacing themselves with European-derived cultural practices of the descendants of settlers, that they are often taken for granted and pass unnoticed. (And there are other Caribbean dynamics that have penetrated American culture and politics that Guanaguanare could have noted, not just Navajo steelpan as I mentioned previously, but the extent to which “Black Power” owes its origins and development to Caribbean inputs, beyond “Calypso Louis” Farrakhan who is himself of Caribbean parentage.)

Third, among many other points that readers could raise: the ladies in the video above are performing a form of cultural syncretism, one might even call it creolization. They are trying to filter “calypso dancing” through the modes and norms of what is appropriate for their culture, and for ladies of their generation in that culture. Had they done otherwise, had they started to ferociously “wine down de place” and “mash up de party,” then that would have been shocking — out of place. They are trying instead to reconcile different forms, trying to mold somewhat incompatible body movements, into a new whole with which they are comfortable. It is not imitation, but then again even Mitchum felt forced to imitate with as much fidelity as possible since American record companies wanted to sign him, and not all the Trinidadian calypsonians he met and boasted about to the companies, and so he had to take up their mantle for them. What he produced as a result is quite amazing.

One last observation: the video above and those collected by Guanaguanare show me something about what (perhaps even how) students should be taught about Caribbean culture. The subject matter should “go” where the culture goes, so that studying elderly American ladies in a dance class on Main Street USA, or listening to Robert Mitchum sing, should be considered as much a part of “Caribbean culture” as anything else, even while clearly noting the erosion of any boundaries between the Caribbean and the wider world. In other words, an ethnography of Caribbean culture does not even need to be done in the Caribbean, or even among Caribbean persons.

Recommended for further reading:

Creole Social and Cultural Studies: popular culture, concepts, bibliography.

Hannerz, Ulf. (1992). Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf. (1996). Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge.

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  1. Pingback: Imperializing Open Access and Militarizing Open Source: “What’s yours is ours. What’s ours is ours” « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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