For an afrofuturist artist in jazz, you may think of Sun Ra, in funk, Parliament Funakdelic, and in reggae/dub, “Scratch” Lee Perry. But for calypso, it is probably singer The Mighty Shadow, or Shadow.
Born Winston Anthony Bailey and originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Shadow is known for his 1974 mythic song “Bassman,” about a musical ghost named Farel who won’t leave him alone. He is also known for his black gown and black hat, and skeleton outfits that he wears on stage, as if he is some sort of grim reaper or Baron Samedi.
In fact, themes of ghosts, death, alienation, mysticism, disorientation, and darkness are throughout Shadow’s work, from his name to his songs. He grew up listening to ghost, or jumbie in the Caribbean, stories from his grandparents and later infused it into his music.
Caribbean historian Caldwell Taylor called him the Robert Johnson of calypso (here, he is called the William Blake of it), and in a sense he is, because like “Bassman” and “Jumbies,” many blues artist have have described the blues as a need to sing to sooth the haunting phantoms, like in Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.” Thomas F. Marvin wrote in “Children of Legba: Musicians at the Crossroads in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” that ” the blues musician is never truly free from the spirit of the blues. He merely appeases the spirit through the periodic ritual of singing.”
Taylor also connects Shadow’s bassman to Legba, and his description of the bassman does sound like a spirit possession, or a need to appease an ori (yoruba god that controls a person’s head). Shadow does sing that the bassman takes his “head for a [steel] pan yard.” Though Shadow’s lyrics may appear childish to some, they go much deeper and his unique style has influenced many modern calypso and rapso artists. And as Shadow sings in “The Children Ting,” “you cannot stop ah ghost,” so you might as well sing and dance.
Writer Bukka Rennie has written a few articles on Shadow and the mythical/mystical elements of his music :
“Shadow: The ‘William Blake’ of Calypso” – “…Blake and Shadow force us beyond the ordinariness of the mundane to contemplate the meaning of Life itself, our purpose on Earth, the essence of death and its consequences, the juxtaposing of nature’s opposites and how we stand in relation to the rest of the universe; the stars, the moon, the sun, the animals, trees and the birds, etc.”
“Return of De Bassman”
“The Children Ting”
“Pay De Devil” (about carnival masquerade of devils)
“Through the Mirror”