Crop Over – The Curious Case of Red Plastic Bag

Red Plastic Bag has been one of the foremost contributors to Crop Over music. He is also one of the most loved human beings in Barbados and its overseas departments in Brooklyn, Toronto and London. This love not only relates to his music, (he has won the national calypso competition more times than I can count) but also to his personality and public image.  Here he is live in 2009.

 

 

I grew up a Red Plastic fan and still am for that matter. However, after outgrowing the blind acceptance forced upon me by my equally Bag fanatic family (who as it goes in Barbados was also Gabby non-lovers, which I am totally not now by the way), I asked myself:

“Why do Bajans like Red Plastic Bag so much?”

The answer to this question is really not obvious when I began to think about it. Let me show you why…

In terms of popular music, an artist’s potential fan appeal is based on a number of criteria. These are:

  1. Good looks and sexuality.
  2. Name branding
  3. Amazing Ability – dancing, singing, singing while doing acrobats á la Pink, singing while accompanying yourself on an instrument from a comb to a rocking guitar (Hendrix, Prince).

There are artists who tick all of these boxes and as a result are sought after commodities. So Chris Brown for example:

  • is/was young depending on your point of view
  • could dance and could sing.
  • In terms of good looks he ticks that box as well. *under advisement

When it comes to local soca, there are a number of artists who tick these boxes as well. Edwin Yearwood for example, when he emerged in 1995, used his real name, was young and could sing and dance. Thus his popularity can be explained away easily given the normal modes of musical popularity outlined above.  See clip below.

In terms of Red Plastic Bag however it becomes much less obvious and here is why:

  1. His name – No one would think that a guy called Red Plastic Bag would be a huge star anywhere in the world. Red Plastic Bag is not a name that one can imagine plastered in lights or in a stadium. Like most Bajans, I never thought much about this until I overheard Bag, as he is affectionately called, introducing himself to a US reporter. When she repeated it, it sounded hilarious. “Your name is Red Plastic Bag?”
  2. Sexual what? – Red Plastic Bag, even though coming on the scene as a young person, never emphasised sexuality in his performances. He was tall and slim then and since that time has never attempted to change. In fact, when he did expose his body, it was done for comedic effect as opposed to getting the ladies/men all warm under the collar.
  3. Ability? Hmm – I am sure by his admission, Red Plastic Bag would admit that he is no dancer. By dancing I don’t mean the “WOW” type dancing of James Brown, I mean the basic ability to move in time. In terms of singing, he is also not technically gifted. In fact, in live performances he is competent but no more. He is by no means an impact singer like Edwin Yearwood (in terms of range or intonation) or a rhythmically smash you around the ears vocalist like Machel Montano.

So is Bag loved because of his lyrical ability? Because no one can turn a phrase, pun a pun, meet a metaphor, save a simile like Red Plastic Bag?

Partially…

To me, Red Plastic Bag shows that there is something else going on when it comes to popularity. Red Plastic Bag constructs himself as everyone’s friend, everyone’s neighbour, everyone’s son and brother. To many, Plastic Bag is so cool because he ISN’T cool. He is not too flashy, his music is not confrontational or philosophically complicated, it doesn’t chide. He also doesn’t make non-muscle men like myself jealous, he doesn’t boast in song, instead he is just….BAG.

So my friends, if you are in Barbados and see people swooning over Red Plastic Bag, remember it is his kingdom. Also remember that you don’t have to tick all the popularity boxes to be a cultural icon; you just have to be honest and know who you are…

oh and being a brilliant lyricist and hook writer does help 😉

 

 

 

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Crop Over Blog VI – Red Plastic Bag – The Bajan Lyrical Master’s Top 10

 

Red Plastic Bag is seen as one of the foremost lyricists and composers of calypso in Barbados.  He has been a significant part of Crop Over and Bajan calypso/soca for over 30 years and to celebrate him is a Stefan Walcott Top 10 list of his lyrical masterpieces.

 

10. Something’s Happening

This song from 2009 is one of Red Plastic Bag’s biggest hits of the last 5 years. It is simply constructed  and I actually dismissed it at first until my mum said, “Listen.” What I heard was a portrayal of Crop Over that was simple, vivid and direct.

My favourite line:  I see vendors doing good trade, snowcone man got it made.

 

 

9. Can’t Find Me Brother

In the calypso genre it is expected that the lyricist take a topical event and put it over in song. The more disguised yet understood the composition is, the better the calypso is considered. In this song Bag takes the escape in 1987 of convicted criminal Winston Hall to construct this more than witty composition. Note, he never mentions the event directly or Hall by his name. This song is the one most used by people to testify to Bag’s genius.

My favourite line: I search every Kingdom Hall, I search every dancehall.

 

 

8. The Country Aint Well

Red Plastic Bag is self-admittedly inspired by Chakdust and like Chalkdust, he uses sickness as a metaphor in this song to get his point across. From the first line to the last puns rain down with most speaking to the topical issues of 1989, which unsurprisingly, are relevant to 2014.

My favourite line(s):  The body surviving but really aching bending over in pain. It needs support to stand strong again but cannot depend on this cane.

 

 

7.  Bim

This one is from 1984, the early days of Red Plastic Bag. Here Bag sings about Bim, another name given to Barbados and his love for it. He does not do this in a typical manner, instead he lists all the things wrong with it and says in spite of these, he still loves his country.  Once again a simple melody and easy tempo allows every word to be heard.

My favourite line(s): Some call you bad and cry you down. Certainly not me, of this soil I am a true son.

 

6.  Material

This song, like others on the list, was responsible for Bag winning the national calypso competition. It is one of my favourites and here Bag takes the sobriquet’s of other calypsonians and assigns topical material to them. Composing this song involved some serious writing technique, because not only did he need to find the issues, he had to select the appropriate calypsonian which fitted the issue.

 

My favourite line:  The US show of power as the world’s liberator, that one I giving to Invader.

 

5.  Waste

This song is one that fits the Red Plastic Bag template; find a pun and stick with it. Here Bag plays with his own sobriquet,which to many people is a waste product. However, he pulls this metaphor into the battle calypso tradition laying a challenge to fellow calypsonians that he is back in the game.

My favourite line:  To environmentalist it’s really a drag, (why?) it’s hard to get rid of the plastic bag.

 

 

4. Pluck It

In 1989 there was what was known as the “chicken controversy” where it was alleged a local businesswoman was selling chickens that were dead as opposed to being freshly killed for consumption. Bag here relates the event through double entendre and a soca beat.

 

My favourite line:  One worker did not chicken out, he broke the news and caused a big foul/fowl up.

 

3. Bag of Riddles

This one from the early period of Bag (1983) saw him play a game of riddles. Here he takes a controversial political issue and asks, who or what am I? This song of course has a built in audience participation component and it would have been a great joy to have heard it in the old vibrant tent setting.

My favourite line (s):  Take this easy riddle to solve you must always get involved. Scratch your head and give it a try, tell me, who or what am I?

 

2. Volcano

Volcano is a much quicker song than many on this list. This song is once again soca and Bag, unlike many soca artists, inserts his pun. Here he references the eruption of the volcano in Montserrat with his ability to erupt a party. Clever.

 

Favourite line – Volcano, kicking up, soon erupt and the lava getting hot.

 

 

1 Maizie

Although not a Crop Over song, this Christmas song is a funny narrative of Plastic Bag’s partner attempting to pass off her affair as a visit from Santa Clause. Of course this is a rather dry description, just listen to Bag below as he relates it beautifully.

 

My favourite line: Maizie where is the reindeer, Maizie I ain’t see no sleigh? Look he had no reindeer or sleigh, he came on BWIA.

 

 

 

Snapshot in Soca IV – A History of Soca – 1990s – Present

The last snapshot in Soca is taken from the early to mid-nineties and runs right up to the present. This period can be broken down further but is not necessary given the musical similarities of songs called Soca in the last twenty years. In this time, there have been generally two musical styles in Soca composition and performance: Power Soca and Groovy Soca. These terms come from Trinidad, with Barbados referring to the latter as Ragga Soca (a term which Trinidadians generally use to refer to another modern sub-genre of Soca, but that is another blog for another time). It is interesting that Barbadians, and much of the rest of the Caribbean for that matter, have no name for the faster Soca and generally refer to it as just Soca, but that too is another blog for another time.  I want to look now, however, at how these two forms of Soca—Power Soca and Ragga/Groovy Soca—came about. Firstly, here are two examples of both these types.

Power Soca

Ragga/Groovy Soca

 

It is my view that the Power Soca has its foundations in RingBang, at least musically anyway. Ringbang was a musical style and way of life devised by our good friend Eddy Grant in the early 90s, as a sort of concocted style-life culture which was supposed to introduce a new way of ‘cool existence’ to the Caribbean. Ultimately, this Ring Bang entity ended up influencing mostly music and sounded as below.

 

The most striking thing about RingBang was the stripped-down nature of it. The drums and voice were purposely in the foreground and there were no horns or keyboards nor guitar strumming.  This differed considerably from the work of the producers of Classic Soca who were operating the same time as Grant. Listen to another track below, this time by Super Blue from 1994, who was obviously influenced by the Ring Bang vibe as this song is on Grant’s Ice label.

 

What Ring Bang sound did, in my opinion, was to open the door to increased tempo. In music, the more harmonically light a song is, the faster it can be played. Just think of dance trance music, for example, or some traditional Indian music. In addition to the suggestion of quicker tempos, the songs that came after RingBang used a similar drum beat.

Some of the later nineties songs are as follows:

 Machel Montano Xtatik and Big Truck

Square One with Raggamuffin

Eventually Soca songs increased from less than 120 b.p.m, with the classic Soca songs, to over 150 b.p.m.! (See Jumbie above). This was mostly due to the new emphasis on rhythm.

 

The other style to come to the fore in the 90s is the form known as Ragga/Groovy Soca. Ragga Soca owes much of its early development to the work of producer Nicholas Brancker. The first recordings of the style that became known as Ragga Soca are below. These two works are what I consider, even to this day, some of the most important songs in the genre.

 

What these two songs have in common is their tempo. In addition, they both have the same musical influence—both these songs are of medium tempo and are influenced by Jamaican Dancehall. These stylistic properties are in essence the core of the Ragga Soca style (along with other stuff which I do not have time to deal with here).

 

Here are some other examples of Groovy/Ragga Soca.

 

 

Currently, most Soca artists operate within either style, Power and Ragga/Groovy Soca, and there are now established competitions in both sub-genres in most Caribbean carnivals.

 

So here end the Snapshots in Soca’s life. I hope you have enjoyed viewing the album. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel, STEFAN WALCOTT, which has the snapshot songs in playlists as well as my book, Caribbean Composers Handbook for further elaboration.  And stick around for the other blog articles to follow, including the promised blog on other Eastern Caribbean Soca groups and their influential songs.