Ras Shorty I Biography
One of the few musicians of modern times who could claim to have almost single-handedly created a long-lasting musical genre, Ras Shorty I, formerly known as Lord Shorty, was one of the most creative figures to emerge from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. With hits such as "Indrani" and his 1974 album Endless Vibrations, Shorty created a new variant of Trinidadian calypso music; known as soca, it was still vital and flourishing at the time of Shorty's death almost 30 years later. Shorty's own musical career was durable as well; he changed directions several times without losing any of his popularity in Trinidad.
Shorty was born Garfield Blackman in the southern Trinidadian community of Lengua on October 6, 1941. The area in which he grew up was heavily populated by the descendants of indentured servants Trinidad's British colonizers had brought from India, and he heard their music along with the lilting but satirical local calypso sounds that gained international popularity after they were adopted by American performers like the Andrews Sisters and Harry Belafonte. Beginning his life as a performer at age seven, Blackman took the name Lord Shorty early in his career. Most calypsonians took nicknames and Blackman's served humorously to point up the imposing presence of his six-foot-four-inch frame.
Gaining musical experience as a teenager by working out musical arrangements for Trinidad's spectacular steel pan bands, Shorty began to record in the early 1960s. After several modestly successful releases like "Long Mango" (1962), he had a hit with "Cloak and Dagger" in 1963. Fired from a carpentry job in 1967, he decided to make music a full-time career. The way to fame and fortune in Trinidadian music was in the island's annual calypso competitions, and in 1970 Shorty took top honors at a regional contest, losing only in the national finals in the capital of Port of Spain. In these early years he was influenced by the classic calypsonian Lord Kitchener
His calpyso career on the rise, Shorty was what Trinidadians called a "saga boy," living what he described (according to the Guardian) as an "orgy of the flesh" and becoming regarded as a sex symbol. Some called him "the Love Man." He used drugs, alcohol, and women, fathering 14 children or more but eventually marrying a woman named Claudette. In the early 1970s, Shorty worked with calypso musicians from the island of Dominica, wrote and produced songs for other artists, recorded a song in Creole French, and cast about for a way to counter the growing popularity of Jamaica's reggae music throughout the Caribbean region. "I felt [calypso] needed something brand new to hit everybody like a thunderbolt," Shorty was quoted as saying in The Times of London.
Shorty began to draw on the music of Trinidad's Indian minority, using such Indian instruments as the dholak, tabla, and dhantal in such songs as "Indrani." After combating obscenity charges that arose in the wake of his racy "Lesson in Love" single (Trinidad's prime minister Eric Williams came to his aid), Shorty released the song "Soul Calypso Music" in 1973. That song was widely assumed to have given the new genre of soca its name by contributing the first two letters of each of the two genres it mentioned, but Shorty himself explained the term's etymology differently, pointing to the Indian elements of the style. In his version, the syllable "so" came from "calypso" and "ca" from the Indian percussion rhythms he introduced to the music. The word was variously spelled as "solka" or "sokah" on early releases.
It was Shorty's 1974 album Endless Vibrations that put soca on the international music map. Other calypso singers, including the biggest star of them all, the Mighty Sparrow, jumped on the soca bandwagon, and Shorty continued to deliver innovative recordings like "Om Shanti," a song based on a Hindu chant that was even covered in India itself and became a hit there. A charismatic figure who dressed in designer shoes and suits and sported a long cigarette holder, Shorty turned to calypso's traditional function of political satire when he jabbed at Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister in "The PM Sex Probe" and in "Money Ent No Problem" (from the Soca Explosion album of 1979), which sliced up one of leader's speeches and re-formed it into comment on Trinidad's decaying infrastructure.
By the late 1970s, however, Shorty was tiring of his hedonistic life, and his disillusionment with the fast life grew when his fellow musician and friend Maestro was killed in an auto crash. He converted to the Rastafarian faith, traded in his fancy clothes for togas and sandals, grew dreadlocks, and moved with his wife and children to the forested Trinidadian region of Piparo. In 1980 he was christened Ras Shorty I.
Unlike other musicians who have turned to an existence filled with spirituality, Ras Shorty's new life did not portend any decline in his popularity. He criticized the sexual orientation of soca music as enthusiastically as he had previously participated in it, pointing especially to Lord Kitchener's hit "Sugar Bum Bum" as an example of soca's moral decline. Younger musicians criticized Ras Shorty's polemical songs like "Latrine Singers" in turn, but Ras Shorty continued to connect with ordinary Trinidadians. He formed a band called the Home Circle (later the Love Circle) which featured 13 of his children, and he proclaimed the birth of another new style. This new music he called jamoo, an abbreviation of the words "jah music."
Ras Shorty's new style, as heard on his 1984 release Jamoo: The Gospel of Soca, featured elements of reggae music and of African-American gospel. He continued to come up with new ideas, once again incorporating Indian instruments into his music and influencing a younger group of musicians that forged the so-called "chutney soca" style at the century's end. Many of his songs addressed social issues, and his 1997 hit "Watch Out My Children" was a major antidrug anthem that gained international airplay and was said to have been translated into ten languages. The song warned against "a fella called Lucifer with a bag of white powder; he don't want to powder your face but bring shame and disgrace to the human race."
In April of 2000, as he was preparing for the release of his CDs Jamoo Victory and Children of the Jamoo Journey, Ras Shorty broke a bone in his hand. Friends worried when the break did not heal, and he was diagnosed with bone cancer. "I am not worried because whether in death or life Jesus Christ will be glorified," he was quoted as saying in The Times. He declined chemotherapy and put himself in the hands of a Haitian-born herbalist, but after his condition worsened and he was hospitalized at Trinidad's Langmore Foundation and Southern Specialist Centre, he issued an appeal for financial assistance. A concert and radio telethon raised $27,000, and a government fund gave him a monetary advance on a possible future cultural prize, but the money came too late to help. Ras Shorty I died on July 12, 2000, in Port of Spain.
"Long Mango" (single), 1962.
"Cloak and Dagger" (single), 1963.
Endless Vibrations, 1974.
Sweet Music, 1976.
Sokah, Soul of Calypso, 1977.
Soca Explosion, 1979.
Jamoo: The Gospel of Soca, 1984.
"Watch Out My Children" (single), 1997.
Jamoo Victory, 2000.
Children of the Jamoo Journey, 2000.
Gone, Gone, Gone (collection), 2002.
Sweeney, Philip, The Virgin Directory of World Music, Henry Holt, 1991.
Guardian (London, England), July 15, 2000, p. 22.
Independent (London, England), July 17, 2000, p. 6.
New York Times, July 16, 2000, p. 30.
Times (London, England), July 24, 2000, p. 19.
Trinidad Guardian, July 13, 2000, p. 1.
"Lord Shorty," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 10, 2004).
"Soca," CaribPlanet, http://caribplanet.homestead.com/101_Soca-ns4.html (August 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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