The simplexity of song text
'Simplicity we use to survive
Many find it difficult because them ignorant and hype"
I am not sure if it was Ibo Cooper or Steve Golding I heard use the term
'simplexity' - a combination of simplicity and complexity, obviously - to sum up the playing and effect of reggae by musicians.
The notion is straightforward: the music is simple to play for those to whom it comes naturally, but complex for those to whom it is an acquired genre. Also, it is deceptively simple sounding, yet having profound, complex effect on listeners.
And there is yet another possible interpretation. Reggae's simplexity could lie in how it acts as a transmitter of complex ideas in their simplest form when fulfilling its role of social commentary.
While simplexity was used to refer to the music part of a song, I am applying it to the lyrics. There are a lot of lyrics now which could do with some simplicity in approach, as the intention seems to merely show off what the writer/performer can do with words, rather than striking a balance between skill and purpose. I will not give any examples of this approach, because it is rife and I would not want to single out any person or song for negative critique.
Suffice it to say that the songs tend to be long and there are lyrical leaps to references which emphasise the writer/performer's wide knowledge of popular culture or grasp of classroom-related material. The references are structured to make us marvel at the writer's intelligence and skill, and, to a large extent, it works.
But do they make great songs? Although I am not a football fan, some quotes from legendary player Johann Cryuff, which were posted to my Facebook page, struck me. The jist of one is that, if you pick 11 strong players for a team, you end up with just that - 11 strong players and not
necessarily a team. Adjusting that logic to a song, if a person maximises their skill level on every line, showing what they can do to the best of their ability rather than crafting each to fit into a song as a whole, then what you might end up with is a collection of fancy lines and not a great song.
That is what I fear is happening to a number of our current song productions as performers go to great lengths to demonstrate their ability. They make for good listening a couple times, but do not make memorable, enduring songs. And there is always going to be someone else who comes along and does the lyrical dexterity to another level of extreme, and the contest continues.
While I hesitate to identify Jamaican popular music songs created in that complex vein, I can point to an outstanding example of lyrical simplexity which is all of two decades old this year. Buju Banton's Untold Stories has a number of couplets which are simply out, but express deep thought in a memorable way. Among them are, "it is a competitive world for low-budget people/spending the dime while earning the nickel" and "who can afford to run will run/but what about those who can't?/they will have to stay". Then there is the line, "full up of education yet no own a payroll".
The first captures the cycle of poverty, with those at the lowest rung of the income ladder having to always spend more than they earn, this in a situation where they are locked in a contest with a fellow have-not to keep out of the ranks of being the lowest of the low.
The second pair of lines is applicable to refugees everywhere - those fleeing Syria now and those fleeing Jamaica in the mid to late 1970s; persons packing up everything on a truck in a Jamaican inner-city community and Palestinians in a refugee camp. Buju expresses the
fatalistic attitude of those who simply cannot leave the conflict zone, while leaving their fate unsaid.
real lyrical genius
And that line about not owning a payroll captures the frustration of education on several levels, two of them being the plight of the highly qualified person who cannot find employment and also the highly educated person unable to transition from management to entrepreneurship.
These days, I hear a lot of elaborate lyrics in which there are striking images and connections between different aspects of society, as well as historical references. While I do not expect a replica of Untold Stories, I am yet to hear that simplexity of approach - the compression of complex thought into a few simple, memorable lines.
Which leads to the question - how much of the lyrically admirable Jamaican popular music we listen to now will we retain? I have already forgotten quite a few.