On to Kurt Vonnegut novels I have read and admired, as we continue this week’s Vonnegut series. In 1963’s Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut created one of the most elaborate satires I have ever read or heard of. What’s the target of the satire? I’d start to list them, but how much time do you have? What’s that you say?
“Busy, busy, busy…”
Well, let me talk a bit about Bokononism, a fictional religion created by Vonnegut as a Dadaist philosophical framework for this novel. I thought it a clever satire as a young man, but now as an old man I admire the richness of its contradictions and insights. Bokononism (named for its living, but elusive founder, Bokonon) is rich in meaningful/absurd contrasts. It’s said to have been invented by the West Indian sidekick of an accidental American imperialist* as an opiate of the masses for an impoverished Caribbean island nation. But not far under the cover of its optimistic and panegyric lies are sharp observations of life and how we think we make sense of it.
Instead of the Psalms of David, Bokonon wrote calypso songs. To many readers now calypso is but an obscure genre of Caribbean Afro-American music, but in the years immediately prior to Cat’s Cradle it had had a fairly significant US commercial visibility. Here’s a complexity in this calypso moment: to the typical US listener at the end of the 50s the music was “read” as carefree and only moderately exotic and absurdist.** But to calypso’s originators on their colonial islands, it was a sly comment on oppressions and troubles.
Creating such a song-writing character was an excuse for Vonnegut to do what many novelists stuck on silent pages would love to do: dress up and pretend to be pop music performers, even if only in a novelist’s imagination. Cut Kurt some slack: that pretending allows us to use Vonnegut’s sensibilities in the short formats the Parlando Project prefers.
Over a decade later, this lyric escaped from the novel, and what was presented as the trickster guru Bokonon’s scriptural “53rd Calypso” in the book had a second life as a song lyric under the title “Nice, Nice, Very Nice.” It made the American hit parade charts with this song by Ambrosia in 1975. Taken that way, it either can seem a simple, pleasing song; or a good reason in 1975 to form a punk band, without delay.
These guys wrote additional lyrics, sing better than I do, and were more concise in explaining Bokonon’s motivation for his religion “I wanted all things to make sense/So we’d be happy instead of tense” Still, I formed a punk band.
Simple isn’t without complexities. All we have is one quatrain and a short refrain — “Be Bop A Lula” is epic poetry compared to this. That one verse is a diverse catalog of the lowly and the high, the brave and the mundane, and the refrain wishes to claim they are part of the same “device” which rhymes with a repeated judgement that this is “nice.”
On one level this is a statement of shared humanity, and our connection. As complicated as the character of Bokonon is, I don’t think his creator Vonnegut would doubt the truth of that sharedness — but the “nice” and then too, the “device” part? There is the complex part of Vonnegut’s world-view.
Vonnegut portrays a world where kindness, love, and altruism are possibilities – no, necessities. Everything that is not those things exists too. We are all in a net of “butterfly effects” — even then in the novel’s 1963, even more so now in 2021. Is the world “nice?” In moments and pin-points it is. Let’s acknowledge that. In totality? “Busy, busy, busy” is said to be what a Bokononist says whenever they try to consider the complexity, the world’s intended and unintended awe of incomprehensibility. The implication: too complex to understand, to control.
At this point, in an earlier draft of this post I then tried to synthesize these things in my conclusion, but I don’t believe the book ever does, and certainly this little song that I present today doesn’t. So, let’s move on. Busy, busy, busy.
This song, performed in the same live set, back in the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007 by the LYL Band, is unusual among the several musical settings I’ve since heard for it — I actually aimed for a calypso feel for the melody and groove, while others don’t. These 2007 performances I’ll use this week are each imperfect in some way, but as we approach the 99th anniversary of Vonnegut’s birth, it’s my hope that they still express some of his spirit.
There’s a player gadget for some to hear “Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso”, but if you don’t see it, tap this highlighted hyperlink.
*The very idea of accidental or coincidental imperialism is rich in itself. Even the minor threads in Cat’s Cradle are often like that.
**Just as I’m not much of an expert on the novel and its expressions, I can’t allow anyone to think of me as some expert on West Indian musical genres and political movements. But I am old enough to recall a bit about how the music was used and understood by white-Eurocentric-American culture circa 1960 — roughly, a darker-skinned Jimmy Buffett kind of thing. Some may recall a signal use in the goth-comedy Beetlejuice where the uptight urban sophisticates in a New England farmhouse were possessed and cursed to sing “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),” which had been a big US hit in the late 50s. It’s an extraordinarily silly scene. I laugh at it. Vonnegut could (should) draw laughs too, but he is using a deeper, darker, slyer take on calypso.
Calypso’s use first by the American pop music industry, and then by white US filmmakers, as well as Vonnegut’s use of it in Cats Cradle could be viewed as cultural appropriation — I’d guess because it is. How would actual people of Trinidad/Tobago view Vonnegut’s reflection of their adaptation of African songcraft in a new colonialist world? I’d expect the opinions would vary, but I haven’t found anything on a simple web search.
I’ll let them judge Vonnegut in that regard. I’m an American musician, so I will not throw the first Rolling Stone from a country whose music is unique significantly because of kidnapped Afro-Americans. I feel that restricting art and tactics that oppose oppression only to each group who could claim ownership and a first, best understanding of them reduces the powers of resistance.
2 thoughts on “Bokonon’s 53rd Calypso (Nice, Nice, Very Nice)”
Wow! Very nice. Reminds me very much of the Incredible String Band, circa their “Liquid Acrobats…” album. Also interesting re: Vonnegut’s influence.
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I can see that. For a Scottish group, the Incredible String Band had a streak of Caribbean music in them, making Bahamian Joseph Spence’s “I Bid You Goodnight” part of their repertoire even before the Grateful Dead. Alas, like the ISB my pitch sense as a singer is sometimes challenging. 😉