Words and Photos by Rian Nurse
Painting by Rebecca Foster
As his sobriquet implies, The Mighty Shadow is a man of understated magnitude. A truly enigmatic artist, he first emerged in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1970s, becoming a part of the tapestry of Caribbean music and reinvigorating calypso at the time.
Calypso is the indigenous folk music of Trinidad and Tobago, with roots in West African kaiso rhythms, French Creole influences, and the Caribbean hardships endured by the African slaves brought to Trinbago, who who used it as a tool for self-expression and storytelling. As Trinidad & Tobago’s sociopolitical landscape evolved, it was utilized for political and social commentary, all while retaining its satirical roots. Calypso music would also give birth to several other music genres, including soca, with its uptempo beats and festival context. The Mighty Shadow effortlessly moves between both genres.
Known for entertaining the masses in Trinidad — and elsewhere in the Caribbean — with his signature dances, mischievous stage antics, dark dress code and characteristic chapeaus, Shadow has had hits each decade of his more than 40-year career, including 1974’s “Bassman”; “Dingolay,” “Pay de Devil” and “Poverty is Hell” in 1994; and “Yuh Looking for Horn” in 2000. The “Bassman from Hell” is in a league all of his own among Trinidadian performers, able to affect music lovers of several generations, mystifying them with Interstellar lyrics, irresistible melodies and vocal acrobatics, and his know-how of chords and structure.
He has performed (and still performs) in calypso tents for many years and has also taken part in Carnival Dimache Gras competitions including Calypso Monarch, which he won in 2000 with “What’s Wrong With Me” and “Scratch Meh Back.” After first winning Trinidad’s Carnival Road March in 1974 with “Bassman,” he followed the feat more than a quarter-century later in 2001 with “Stranger,” a track which also won him the title of Soca Monarch that year.
And he is still releasing tracks today. Shadow reminds us of the ease with which a master craftsman can awaken the Carnival spirit with his 2016 Carnival release “What Yuh Come Here For?” Produced by his son, Sharlan ‘Dred Wizard’ Bailey, on the artist’s own Crossroad Records label, the track delivers a distinct, undiluted Carnival party energy with an alluring melody typical of the artist’s work. It’s an ideal introduction to Shadow for a modern generation now discovering his music, and a reintroduction to the generations who have already had their lives affected — or even narrated — on one of his his iconic tracks. In a year which saw soca return to its roots, he entered the International Soca Monarch competition once again in 2016, where he was one of the most seasoned artists on the cast.
This incomparable, intimidating personality was nothing short of genius and humility personified, as I sat down with him at his home in Trinidad, surrounded by his numerous awards and accolades.
LargeUp: What is the inspiration for “What Yuh Come Here For?”
The Mighty Shadow: Well is like this is Carnival, it’s beautiful music, everybody happy, pretty colours. And some people walking about out there, and you want to save them, and bring them into the party mood. What Yuh Come Here For? … for those who weren’t thinking, I come to dance, I come to prance, I come to fete and they have to get into the thing you know. Some people go to fete, and they don’t really fete, they go to watch people fete. I’ve seen people doing that. The whole thing is about Carnival, and explaining how it is, really. The music and different people behaving naughty, walking social and talking local. It’s a disguise thing all the time.
It’s a simple topic, but you pay attention to things that are happening, like the preacher passing when music blasting. He’s not accustomed to that. [Sings] The music takes him and starts to shake him, preacher walking, the preacher rocking, looking like the first time he had a good time. He never got so close to it. When that music hit him, that’s a new dance. Everyone has their own dance. Looking into it, there’s a lot of story there. The music banging, constant jamming, that’s a whole different thing — the musicians and the energy they put out. The DJs are jamming, too.
LU: How long did it take you write the song? How important is the guitar in the songwriting process?
TMS: I used to take one day and do 10 songs, but that time I had reasons to do it. I would go up into the countryside, especially by the river, and just cool. I used to do it with the thought that I have to record those songs. I would have a cassette recorder, and put down the bass line one time and get ready for anything. But times have changed. I used to do that to sell music. When I [would] go out there and people hear it, [they would] want to know where they could get that to buy.
When a good idea comes and I start to do something with it, I ask myself what you doing that for, because I could make anything and make a good song out of it. I can write and create with or without the guitar, but I enjoy doing it with the guitar, and sometimes I get into some kind of energy there. Grooving with the strings, you could hear the bass line cutting through.
LU: The things you do with your voice resemble the things you do with the strums on your guitar. Do you scat it first, or play it on the guitar first?
TMS: You can’t really separate it. What I’m using now, it becomes a part of me. The guitar I used to deal with like a wooden floor, and strum through and build from there. The guitar is part of it, it’s your hands and your ears and your fingers. Growing up, sometimes my mother would be quarreling and I go to fetch water and the bucket turned over and the bottom turn up to me and my mother still quarreling because her pot burning but I can’t study her, the music too sweet, I stay out there beating that bucket or whatsoever I get. The older folks at the time in their garden and I would be sitting on River Hill in Tobago and they would send me for water — and they know they should advise me to go get the water — but when the music take them they can’t tell me to stop beating the bucket. Even though those things were a long time ago, it used to have a lot of vibes. When they do two dance steps, it remains with you for a whole lifetime.
My uncle would ask me to play the triangle — “Beat the steel for me” — as he played his fiddle, and he would say “It’s not so, play it this way.” For the life of me, I couldn’t play it his way. We have different vibes. I had to do it my way, and I see it now the world going crazy over my style, and I get to prove it to him. [Laughs mischievously]. He was a talented man, playing the Constantina and other instruments that nobody taught him. The talent flows through people when they’re pure.
LU: What do you think about the direction of modern soca music?
TMS: I can’t tell nobody what it needs to be now, because I can’t listen to them. You talk about the beginning, and the beginning was me and Picton Fort [Tobago] and I used to strum and talk and tell Shorty [Ras Shorty I] what I like. And that little word came —S oca, Soul of Calypso — and he first came up with Soca. We know his music is beautiful but my music was always beautiful, they were paying attention because he came up with the name. After a time nobody was using his music, they were using the music with the bass and that’s my music. [Laughs mischievously] And that music still here and the question is what they really do with it. Some people have a nice beat, but we leaving lyrics behind. Some don’t balance it so foreigners could really understand. You do it for yourself, but you also have to do it for the world. Some people don’t know how to handle it, and so they go too fast. If you check out the soca party it’s so easy to have people dancing and jumping so they get in the mood.
LU: For young singers and writers, do you have any advice to help them with their writing?
TMS: I don’t want to answer that because I gave them the advice already. All that music…all that lyrics, you have to put your thing together your way. I tell my story and you have to learn the way I tell my story, and figure out how to tell your story in your way. The mood of the music, the vibrations would put you in a different route — that would be the changes that take place. If you really like it, you would find a way to fit yourself in there, and your story would come with certain rhythms. I would spend a lot of time up at Picton Fort in the hills strumming and creating things. That music I was doing, people weren’t doing it but that was in me and that was coming from the sound of the music at the time. I climb up the hill with it and take it to another level. Music is a jealous thing you know, if you don’t spend time with it, it will leave you and go.
RN: There’s a line in “What Yuh Come Here For?”: It makes one wonder, should this be over, in the meantime just have a good time. Can you expand on that?
TMS: The party going on but you can’t stretch it too long. Everything [is] so beautiful, but it could make one wonder should this be over or just let it continue. In the end, you will find out if it should go on or if it should stop, but don’t waste the moment — just get into it and do it.
LU: Thank you so much, it has been an honour to share this time with you.