“Roy Cape: A Life on the Calypso and Soca Bandstand” by Jocelyne Guilbault and Roy Cape

In NIHILIST LABS

For those who do not know who Roy Cape is, here is a short biography before we get to discuss his book “Roy Cape: A Life on the Calypso and Soca Bandstand”. Roy Cape is a legendary Caribbean musician, born in Trinidad in 1942, he has spent almost six decades performing on stages. He is a saxophone player and a band leader, his band Roy Cape All Stars has released eight albums. Roy Cape is a known soca and calypso musician on the Caribbean islands and among the Caribbean diaspora in Europe and North-America.

A book is written by Jocelyne Guilbault, an ethnomusicologist from The University of California at Berkeley, and by Roy Cape himself. Professor Guilbault explains in the introduction of the book how their cooperation happened, how the multi-layered editing happened. The main focus of this book is on the development of a musician, work ethics of an artist and ones career as an artist. The chapters in the book progress and grow as Roy Cape’s life story enfolds through his and Guilbault’s dialogues. They start off with Cape’s childhood, growing up in the orphanage and move forward chronologically to his early career as a band member in 1960s. The third chapter “Listening to Roy Sounding” focuses on the technical part of his career as a musician and the forth chapter moves forward to the part of the career where he became the band leader. The fifth chapter is an interesting experiment with a specific methodology of ‘show and tell’, Guilbault explains in the introduction about the rarity of photographs of the calypsonians, in this chapter she is using pictures of the calypso scene to let Cape tell his story. The sixth chapter gives a voice to the other band members, also an important technique in giving a wider perspective to a career of musicians. The seventh chapter is an overview, a time for reflection for both of the authors.

The biggest problem this book has, in my opinion, is that it is a combination of biography and ethnography. This borderline writing is and could be a complete downfall or a complete success for the author of this book. Jocelyne Guiltbault is stepping on a hazardous ground of mixing different genres and my personal opinion is that she did not play it out well enough. One of the biggest obstacles in achieving it, is the fact that Roy Cape is a celebrity, and this already creates two problems, which in fact could be two reasons to make it a complete success. First of all it is not very common to write a ethnography about a celebrity, the main focus is always on the “regular” people, people who may be known among the community but not by newspaper covers. If she had written it only concentrating on the socio-economic environment of Roy Cape and on the influences it has had on his life, the book would have been much more appreciated by many more scholars. Guilbault gives hints on several occasions throughout the book, that they will talk about the gender issues, about the economic side, giving hope that there will be marxist-feminist analysis, but it does not happen. So the hope that ethnographic “side effect” will help the biographic genre, which in my opinion is lacking and could be enormously enriching for this genre, this “side effect” did not happen.

The second problem is that when one imagines a musician, then one imagines the lifestyle of a rock star, women, drugs, gossip, outrageous stories from tours and so on. One would imagine that the author sits down with the musicians, lets them talk about all what has happened, and then later on using the theoretical backing of different disciplines writes it all together. There would then be the theoretical part for the serious scholars and juicy content for somewhat less academical readers.

I would have been deeply disappointed in the book if I had not seen videos of interviews with Roy Cape [1], if I had not made the connection between the man and the book. The man is as solid as a rock, calm and collected, he does not need to do tricks to get attention, his music is his legacy and his guarantee, his reputation. The way he speaks emanates this calmness, and for that is the reason I respect this book, it is keeping it as authentic as possible to the person it talks about. There are no tricks, no dirty secrets about the famous calypso stars. And on the other hand Guilbault is not hiding behind complicated theories, she is not over-theorizing Roy Capes lifelong career. Instead, she is allowing the story of a musician to unfold in front of the readers eyes. Their dialogues are as calm and collected as Roy Cape himself, and as sharp and wise as his skills as a musician.

I know that I gave you contradictory statements about this book but this is how this book makes me feel. There are good methods used whilst writing this book, there is a lot of content for people who are deeply interested in musicology, in development of artists ethics, building a lifelong career of a musician. And then there are moments when you just wish it would stop being so safe, so edited, that there would be some funny moments of tours, some gossip and dirt, that ‘ruffneck’ life which has polished Roy Cape into his current form. And then I think, maybe he has always been a gentlemen and this book is the most authentic representation of him.

[1]

https://www.amazon.com/Roy-Cape-Life-Calypso-Bandstand/dp/0822357747

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