Some Things Are Important

The other day, Toots and the Maytals’ classic ‘Pomp and Pride’ (that image on the video doesn’t look like Toots Hibbert to me — hmmm, someone needs to learn that not all Black men look alike) popped into my memory-worm register, and I’ve been thinking about it and singing along since then. Nothing so surprising about that — par for the course, that a geriatric rocker should recall fondly the music of his twenties. And also not surprising, the non-Reverend Dr Adam rolled her eyes at this, particularly since I didn’t know all the words and was making up gibberish to fill the gaps.

So to satisfy my curiosity and to give Margaret something different to roll her eyes about, I decided quickly to look up the lyrics. Google Play covered all the relatively intelligible (to my time and volume-abraded ears) lyrics, and provided for one of the trickier lines

Is it an opulin, Iceland, calm down

Now, you have to admire Toots’s poetical ingenuity, working Iceland into a song about popular discontent with luminance (‘when they see it, they see it’s not bright’; cf. also ‘Tropical Iceland’ by the Fiery Furnaces). But ‘opulin’? Sorry, that — in the words of another line of the song — that can’t be right.

No worries — a quick look at another database provides

Ease it and happily, nicely calm down

which works well and seems plausible in context. I should also note that yet another source suggests ‘Isolyn, Jacqueline, Everton, come down’ — but mixing football teams with women’s names seems unlikely to me.

This all points to the problems of bridging Jamaican pronunciation and patois with [British] standard English, the classic article on which being Steve Cotler’s ‘Draw Your Brakes — A Jamaican Creole Shout,’ which explains the otherwise opaque

Forward and fiaca
Menacle and den gosaca

(‘Opaque,’ that is, to foreign ears.) Not only are the words themselves puzzling (if indeed those are the words in question), but Scotty intones them with an ominous, prophetic intensity. If we don’t know what ‘Forward and fiaca / Menacle and den go sa-ahkah’ means, how are we to respond to its urgency?

Cotler consulted experts (imagine that! In your eye, Michael Gove!) Peter L. Patrick of Essex, and Kenneth Bilby of the Smithsonian, who explained that

“Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.”

In the “youth man slang” of the time, “payaaka” was a verb, meaning “to take away another man’s woman/girlfriend.” In this “slang,” “saaka” meant “to fuck.” So the song’s intro meant, “go and take away a next man’s girl, grab her and then go have sex with her.”

So if this be prophecy, I guess I will fall far short of its mandates (and will not proclaim it so ardently when The Harder They Come comes round on my playlist). Good to know, right?

And while we’re on the topic of difficult-to-parse accent-and-patois expressions, what (you will probably ask) (actually, you won’t have thought of this, but I’m putting my thoughts in your mouth since it’s my blog, so there) ‘But what about the beginning of ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by the giant Desmond Dekker?’ I applaud your good taste — I too am a great admirer to Desmond Dekker — and I too have had difficulty figuring out what’s going on in the song.

As it turns out once one investigates the lyrics, the song concerns rude boys who have been released from custody (‘them out of jail’ — Dekker pronounces the noun with more of an ‘ee’ sound, as happens in some Scottish patterens of pronunciation), who are obliged to behave themselves as part of the conditions for their release (‘them must get bail’, likewise leaning toward ‘ee’). This also clarifies the ‘weel’ sound at the end of the first line — it’s ‘wail’ — and the line ‘Dem rude boys deh pon probation.’ ‘At ocean eleven’? Well, not all mysteries are easily explained.

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