Home News by RegionAnguilla News Antigua: The Making of the Monarch Review
Short Shirt
Joanne C Hillhouse

Cultural contributor Joanne C. Hillhouse

From the ghetto to glory, such is the arch of Short Shirt’s life as captured in Dr. James Edwin Knight’s new documentary The Making of the Monarch which premiered at the Deluxe Cinema this Thursday.  It is a must see. Here’s why.

Good Storytelling.

The visuals aren’t great; understandable when you consider the dependence on faded stills and choppy archival footage.

Yet remarkably, considering it’s a visual medium, you’ll find yourself too mesmerized by the well researched, well paced, well executed, compelling story to care.

In fact, for the window they provide to another time, Short Shirt showing off his now classic moves back in the day, you may find the visuals somewhat charming.

Largely Knight stays out of the way and lets the interview subjects – Fitzroy Brann, Marcus Christopher, Jerome Bleau, Dorbrene O’Marde and others – carry the narrative in a manner both insightful and entertaining.

And yet the writer/producer/director’s imprint is there in the structure of the narrative. It is quite moving as it moves through Short Shirt’s life. He is born, he comes of age, he struggles, he finds his voice, he stumbles, he is transformed, he stages a comeback, he is elevated, he reflects, oh, and somewhere in there he gets married, raises 10 children, makes a life as both a businessman and a calypsonian, enjoys great rivalries, travels, is celebrated, cries, and dreams, is disappointed, bullies, is bullied, endures political oppression with a thirst for Vengeance, and more.

Short Shirt

Lord Short Shirt. Photo courtesy wadadlipen.wordpress.com

I dare you not to smile or laugh, or chuckle, or murmur through a screening of the Making of the Monarch.

Two sub-plots stand out. That period during the 1960s and 1970s when Short Shirt’s music tapped into the burgeoning pan African, anti imperialist consciousness – we’ll call that the evolution of the artiste.

Then there’s the section dealing with the nature of the man. Knight’s choice to swing back and forth between his religious transformation and his darker past was inspired, and the decision not to shy away from that past, the decision to acknowledge the icon’s imperfections honours him more than glossing over them would have.

Excellent Subject.

And that brings us to the other thing that works really well. Short Shirt is into his 50th year in calypso music; in fact the roll out of this film is a part of that year long celebration – one that has certainly whetted this writer’s interest in the forthcoming biography.

Short Shirt is, the film reaffirmed, a giant of the calypso art form;  not just giant for Antigua but enough of a threat, the film reminded to force a ban on foreign artistes in the Trinidad road march competition when he seemed poised to take the win with Tourist Leggo in 1977.

He is also a complex and interesting man. In the story, we meet a young boy who danced the jambull, sang when he should have been fishing and loved to dance; a young man who experienced the hard knocks of defeat, before claiming his first calypso crown in 1964; a charismatic artist struggling to balance the desire to follow his passion with the slim rewards it allowed; a rough and tumble sort of guy who fought for what he wanted finding allies and enemies along the way; a calypsonian who poured his pains and triumphs into every lyric.

Incomparable Music.

And so we come to the other thing that makes this film so enjoyable, especially for a home grown crowd. The songs. It uses them quite a bit but never gratuitously; always, they’re a part of the story.

The enjoyment of them is icing on a rich cake. The lyrics are timeless; deeply human at their very core with resonant themes like freedom, unity, equality.

That’s for the social commentaries; social commentaries, by the way, that never feel like someone is standing there with an essay in hand lecturing to you but always feel like something you’re a part of from the way the music moves your body to the way the lyrics and the vocal delivery move your soul.

And then there are the fun, slice of life, folk character pieces from Racan to Star Black which are timeless because they’re delightfully humorous – and humor never goes out of style.

So, if you find yourself in the theatre singing along, you’ll have company. And you’ll be reminded of what great writers – Marcus Christopher, Shelly Tobitt – this little country has produced; and what great music Short Shirt has brought to us, and actually continues to bring to us as he does have a new CD of 16 to be released this season.

It’s important.

This brings me to the final point of this piece. The film runs two hours long and yet somehow it’s not enough. Because there’s so little of this: research into and documentation of the legacy of our cultural icons.

So many of our heroes remain unsung. And isn’t this what calypso and in particular Short Shirt calypso did? Provide the social history not captured in the history books, certainly not from the perspective of the men and the women from the ghetto.

I was a reader before I was a writer – if I could be allowed a side bar. But I was reminded watching this film that none of the lived experience of my people and of the people that came before my people were in the books I read.

But they were in the calypsos that I tuned in to every Carnival as a kid. Shelly Tobitt and Short Shirt, that combo would have been a great inspiration to my young imagination.

I remember singing Press On and not really knowing what I was singing, until now that I’m living it. Press on, Power and Authority, Nobody Go Run me; songs rich in poetry and purpose; songs which helped me and likely others of my generation appreciate what great art is supposed to do, and we didn’t have to look far to find it.

Why aren’t there more of these stories? Hopefully more will follow because Short Shirt is the greatest but he does not stand alone in this regard, as someone whose story deserves this kind of platform.

One way to make sure more happens of course is to support. The film debuted at Deluxe and we’re told that paid screenings will follow. So, support; and be inspired. Author photo courtesy Emile Hill.

For more from Joanne, visit http://jhohadli.wordpress.com and http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com

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