‘Well, well, well': What the fuss about Trinidad & Tobago's national anthem is all about

Feature image via Canva Pro.

National anthems are generally regarded as the calling card of a country, instilling citizens with a sense of patriotism and pride in the values the nation holds dear, and proclaiming to the world where it has come from and what it stands for.

As such, anthems are treated with respect and there are often dire consequences for not adhering to protocols, regardless of whether or not the departure from etiquette is being done for noble reasons — like American quarterback Colin Kaepernick did when he used his sporting platform to draw attention to the oppression of Black people in the United States.

In Trinidad and Tobago however, the hullabaloo around the country's national anthem has less to do with “taking a knee” than “taking a wine” — that hip-swivelling, suggestively gyrating dance that is a hallmark of Carnival, the country's national festival, and the vibrant soca music that provides its soundtrack.

At a time when soca music artists have begun dropping their tracks for Carnival 2024, Iwer George, a popular performer who also owns his own radio station, released a song called “Happy People” — but his use of Trinidad and Tobago's national anthem at the start of the tune made many people decidedly unhappy.

Quite apart from the fact that the use of the anthem raises concerns about possible copyright infringement, which President of the Copyright Music Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT), Curtis Jordan, said only the state can raise as the commissioner and owner of the work, Minister of Culture Randall Mitchell added that the anthem was “a source of patriotic pride” and “should be treated as sacrosanct.” He felt that the song “breaks with the well-established protocol” and was “in poor taste, for which creative licence could be no excuse.”

Social media user Dane S G Wilson agreed, calling Iwer's move “disrespect of the highest order towards Trinidad and Tobago” and suggesting that the tune be denied airplay.

An online petition protesting the use of the anthem in the soca song soon began making the rounds. Authored by Joel Castagne, a descendant of the late Patrick Castagne, who composed the anthem, the petition first documented how and for what length of time the copied work was used:

The beginning of the song is essentially the National Anthem of Trinidad and Tobago, set to a soca beat and compressed into 43 seconds, with the only addition being interjections of the word ‘well’ at various intervals. The Anthem is copied in its entirety within the song, including its lyrics and melody. The copied work comprises the first 21% or just over 1/5th of the entire song, which is 3 minutes 16 seconds long.

The resulting issues the petition cited included the question of copyright and moral rights, the matter of national pride, and the fact that, because “the anthem belongs to [all] Trinbagonians, “no one person should make the unilateral decision to use it in contravention to the wishes of so many others, sacrificing tolerance and respect, for views and clicks.”

By the time Prime Minister Keith Rowley said he was not in support of the anthem — which has “a profile and a place that no other song has” — being used in such a manner, the controversy was reaching boiling point, and the local blogosphere was polarised.

One Tik Tok user decided to demonstrate the conundrum with the song via a video that got lots of laughs:

@originalmedusa.ttIwer again 🤦🏿‍♀️🤦🏿‍♀️🤦🏿‍♀️🤣🤣🤣😒♬ original sound – flavoured tv

Another related a story of how primary schoolers began adding Iwer's signature “Well, well, well” hook to the lines of the national anthem during school assembly.

Firmly in the Iwer camp were Facebook users like Nigel Jayt Maloney, who posited that other artists had sung similar patriotic songs and that “no one is more patriotic than Neil Iwer George,” adding, “If you hating, go for a swim and don't come back.”

Ian Socapro Henry chimed in: “🇹🇹🎶 Absolutely nothing is wrong with this patriotic new power soca song from Neil Iwer George! 🥳 The T&T Prime Minister needs to drink some water and mind his business.”

On November 22, however, Iwer issued a public statement about the debacle, saying that the prime minister's perspective made him reconsider his use of the song. He promised that another version — without the use of the anthem — would be released on November 24, and asked people not to play the initial cut.

This tactic led some netizens to comment on Iwer's marketing strategy. Facebook user Gerrard Small quipped, “Drop yuh road March chune [tune] now Neil Iwer George, yuh have them on the fence on two legs looking on.”

The Road March is a prestigious and financially lucrative prize which rewards the soca song that gets the most plays during the Carnival Monday and Tuesday street parade.

Ian Socapro Henry, meanwhile, who had no problem with the song, admitted that Iwer was “a very clever business man. It's called viral marketing 101! 😎”

Once the new version of the track was eventually released, many were disappointed — but not completely surprised — to discover that the amended opening did not contain commentary on the controversy, or offer insight into what Iwer was trying to achieve by incorporating the national anthem into the song in the first place. Instead, the soca artist simply resorted to his default line: “Well, well, well, well.”

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