Everyone loves a “rags to riches story,” this is one of a Calypsonian called Red Plastic Bag. Barbados has a population of only 256,000 so when one of its numbers makes it overseas; it’s big news.
Red Plastic Bag, the Calypsonian, aka RPB was born Stedson Wiltshire and grew up in the rural parish of Saint Philip, the tenth child of a low paid fisherman.
Barbadian music surrounded his entire existence; it was always in the air being sung by locals and streaming out of shops and cafes on the regional radio. Red Plastic Bag has been composing the West Indies’ music of calypso, reggae, and soca since he can remember, and began performing in 1979. By the mid-eighties, it became obvious that RPB should dedicate his life to his music. He’s never looked back.
Red Plastic Bag has gained unprecedented success in the international world of Caribbean music. His hit “Ragga Ragga” has been translated into seven different languages and he’s won the fiercely contended annual calypso monarch competition in Barbados a record nine times.
This contest is a highlight of the Barbadian calendar and comes at the climax of the country’s sizzling sweet Cropover Festival, which lasts for six weeks from the start of July.
Red Plastic Bag’s popularity shows through his lively fan-base there. When he performs, his fans congregate on Stand C of Kensington Oval – the Barbados National Stadium, singing and dancing along to every word. RPB drives the crowd forward with his beats, often striding the stage in a snappy red outfit.
While Bajans hear the upbeat, enervating, hip-jiggling sounds of Barbadian music on a daily basis, visitors to the beautiful island of Barbados might be wondering what calypso and soca are.
It’s believed calypso has its origins in the 20th-century African slave trade. Slaves weren’t permitted to talk while working and so they turned to singing to communicate. This was the beginning of many types of music including blues and soul.
Consequently, calypso is traditionally a form of storytelling, often including political messages such as protests against oppression. Soca is calypso combined with other Caribbean musical ingredients such as soul, funk, disco, and hip-hop. It combined the lilting sound of calypso with a more substantial, persuasive beat and originated in the 1960s.
The political and social messages common to both genres are weaved into lyrics through witty and often amusing double entendres. Red Plastic Bag’s Arthritis can be understood as exclaiming about a disease, “In your hip! Arthritis! In your neck! Arthritis! In your hand! Arthritis!”
However, it doubled as a polemic on the then Prime Minister Owen Arthur, the lyrics singing, “Arthur-itis!” As familiar as these messages are, the genre isn’t limited to highbrow. No topic is too ordinary for calypso and soca singers to address. Consequently, songs mix unrelated subjects or sing about the simplest things leading to brilliantly funny songs and sometimes a poignant simplicity.
A favorite subject of calypso songs is the West Indies’ beloved cricket. Bajans are just as passionate as the rest of the islands and every calypso artist has created a song to boost the nation’s spirits when things don’t look so good and to celebrate when they are. Calypsonians aren’t averse to poking fun or giving advice either.
Red Plastic Bag wrote a song called Stroke It, after an inferior performance by the West Indian team at Kensington Oval. “It is a message,” RPB says, “to our cricketers not to hit every ball that comes their way.”
Leading Trinidadian calypsonian-academic Dr. Hollis ‘Chalkdust’ Liverpool understands cricket as another tool that was used to give the Africans power. “Calypso was born in the islands before we played cricket. So the music helped fashion our cricket. Both gave our people dignity and the ability to resist the domination of whites at that time,” he says.
Over two decades Red Plastic Bag has created hundreds of songs, helped spread the music of calypso, soca and reggae across the globe and put a little bit of the Caribbean’s jumping beans life force into our ears. All we can say is “Ragga Ragga”!
Brett Callaghan is the founder and managing director of Totally Barbados. I specialize in writing content for the tourism industry for my island home of Barbados. I help companies build strategies to grow their businesses online with SMART marketing, advertising, and social media goals.