For at least thirty years out of my life people have been holding an unnecessary wake for Calypso. Is like Calypso on a ventilating machine, everybody sit down in the waiting room absolutely convinced that any minute now it going to dead.
Every season you have people who are more guilty of nostalgia than real common sense accusing the art form of being dead. And trust me, next year there will be a Calypso Monarch competition with calypsonians arguing about not receiving enough money; and an audience accepting sub standard performances and songs. Calypso dead? Not quite. Calypsonians and calypso shows being lazy and unoriginal? We have plenty of that. And this is not to say that all calypsonians are that way, but the ones that get offered up to us and labelled as True True Kaisonians have definitely become that way.
What we recognize as being Calypso in 2013: slow, preachy, lyric-heavy songs that focus on social or political issues, wouldn’t be recognized as a calypso back in the 1800s when the form was still evolving. The stick fighting songs we have today share a closer resemblance to calypsos of a past era. And if calypso could have evolved then to survive and appeal to a twentieth century audience, then it can do so now. And is, but most of us are unaware of it.
But you see, we have our notions about what is a calypso. We create our own mental definitions and stick with them. We have had artists repeat a particular formula year after year for the last forty plus years; they have been paid by tents to repeat that formula; crowned as monarchs and received hundreds of thousands of dollars and cars for singing the same formula. And when that formula begins to go stale or bore us the cultural ignoranti among us, who know only one thing as Calypso, get up and pronounce in a self-important fashion that Calypso is dead.
So let me disabuse you. Calypsos, good social and political commentary, with infectious beats and memorable hook lines are being sung here every year. Year after year and we ignore them. There is no rule book that says a calypso has to be slow, must have four or more verses, must have brass in it, and can only be performed by person’s upwards of thirty years of age. Calypso has no formula!
Back in the nineties, when Sugar Aloes and Cro Cro were at the height of their vitriol, making tent going an unpleasant experience for Indo-Trinbagonians, men like Gary Hector, with his band jointpop FC, was singing songs like. “Port of Spain Style” and “Bashment to Halloween”. By the year 2000 the band had released another album to its hardcore group of fans with gems like “New Fast Food in Town” and “Crack, Pitbull and Gun”. Any of those songs I just named there could have knocked Panther and Kurt Allen out of the Savannah last night for lyrics and melody. And until you have seen Gary Hector in full flight you do not know what rebellious insouciance is.
In the last decade our most powerful calypsos have been coming from Soca artists, yet we continue to deny their contribution to local music because we have been trained to be dismissive of soca music. It just there to wine and get on bad. We barely listen to the lyrics and then accuse the songs of having no lyrics. Why! Because they aren’t slow? Because they don’t fill our narrow stereotype of what a calypso should be?
In 2009 when KMC sang ” Yeast” what was that if not socio-political commentary? Does being able to dance to it lessen its message? When Fay Ann Lyons sang “Meet Super Blue”, how many of us realized that it was a calypso of affirmation? We were probably too busy wining to listen to the lyrics and understand what they meant.
In 2006 when Machel Montano sang “No War” and “We Not Giving Up”, what made them not a calypso? The artist? The beats per minute? The musical arrangement? Have you actually listened to the lyrics of “The Return”, “Mr Fete”, or ” Fog”? All fitting the model of songs of affirmation?
This year we too busy with memes about waking cows to realise that Bunji Garlin’s “Diffrentology” is the next sound in calypso. Or that “Savage” is yet another well crafted calypso offering from Garlin discussing our class strificstion issues, much like “Lies”, ” Fete is Fete”, and “Clear the Road”.
We might also not be exposed enough to the local music scene to realise that the band Gyazette could have sung any number of songs from their soon-to-be-released album and possibly won the Calypso Monarch title. Kerene Asche’s “Meh Padnah Ship” would be forgotten next to front man Nikolai Salcedo’s blistering delivery of ” Who Is the Captain of This Ship”. And the disdainfully saucy message in his “Mango”.
Unfortunately, we have come to rely heavily on stereotypes and formulae here. To win prize money, you have to follow formulae, and bands like jointpop and Gyazette aren’t much for formula. While Montano indulges in formula every year to win soca competitions, he also gives himself enough leeways on his albums to experiment with form and sound. Bunji Garlin, since exploding onto the local music scene since the late nineties has been delivering calypso after calypso annually. In fact, I’d love to see him shake up the extempo competition one year and show the stalwarts what Sans Humanite really is. Just think Red Edge Freestyle session and you too will wish that NCC would hurry up and fix all of the silly competitions that rely on formula for their judging; and have artists stifling art forms in order to eat a food. While the slavish audience looks on demanding the same thing every year; and if they ain’t get it, is not “true true calypso”.
It is not that Calypso is dying, rather we, the organizers, judges and audience holding a pillow over its face, while the art form struggling hard to free itself.
But while all yuh eating up all yuh self over Kurt Allen and Pink Panther, I going and rock my Gyazette, jointpop, Bunji and HD…..and I still say Trinidad James shoulda win last night’s crown…WOOO!