By Raffique Shah
February 25, 2020
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of many calypsoes I heard during the first half of the Calypso Monarch finals last Thursday night. My self-regulated sleeping hours did not permit me to take in the second half, which I’m sure was better. But based on the performances I watched and listened to, I can safely say that calypso is on the rebound, albeit slowly. For this, we need to thank the young bards who have decided to stay with traditional calypso even if they sometimes venture into the soca arena to share in its rich rewards.
The results of the competition, which saw three women sweep the top positions (Terri Lyons, Karene Asche and Heather MacIntosh), indicate that young women are more than ready to rise to the challenge of rescuing the art-form from decline. Too, whereas the veterans in the competition—Chalkdust and Gypsy—acquitted themselves admirably, they must have sensed a changing of the guards, or perhaps more aptly, passing of the kaiso baton to the “now generation”.
Not that Gypsy and Chalkie, two of the country’s most distinguished and prolific calypsonians, are about to retire from competitions: like other greats, they will likely die with their boots on, singing some new song on their way out. But the youngsters must learn and hopefully master the craft from the veterans. Terri Lyons’ father is Austin Lyons, better known as Superblue, a specialist in musical calypsos who stormed the road march stage with “Soca Baptist” back in 1980. Her sister is Faye-Ann Lyons (Alvarez), popular soca artiste. So her pedigree is sound.
Her first song, “Obeah”, was okay—not spectacular, in my view. Her second song, “Meghan My Dear” is reported to have won her loud applause from the audience, so it must be good…I haven’t yet listened to it. (Which reminds me, our multiple radio stations are guilty of not giving air play to good calypsos, focusing instead on sub-par soca music.). Asche’s “Voters’ Prayers” and McIntosh’s “Claude” (targeting the Anglican Church for the fashion parade that was staged in the cathedral recently) were more or less of similar standard.
I thought Brian London’s “Shame on You”, Gypsy’s “Way of the World” and Kurt Allen’s “Justice” were better, but I’m just a humble scribe with no training in music. Singing Sonia’s portrayal of “Welcome to Chinatown” was excellent. Duane O’Connor’s “Not in Here”, another shot at the Anglican Church, but from a different angle to McIntosh’s, sounded ordinary. And defending monarch Ronaldo London seemed to have been overcome by the occasion, never really impressing, certainly in the first round.
So overall, the performances, while not outstanding, left me with the feeling that we have a decent pool of good talent that needs to be nurtured, to aim for the heights that great calypsonians attained in the past, which are the standards by which people like me, who grew to love calypso in its golden years, judge today’s bards.
It’s easy for all the young contestants and winners in the monarch title competition to write off my generation of critics, and those flanking us, as geezers who can see only as far as the past. Therein lie the seeds of illusion, even delusions (of grandeur), that could see today’s stars settle for mediocrity as the hallmark of success, a character trait that has stolen the soul of the nation. In almost every sphere of life and activity, if we cannot churn out the best, then settle for second-best, or worse.
As I appeal to this promising crop of calypsonians to literally go back to school, to sit at the feet of the masters of the art-form, or for the greats to package their collective genius and share it with those who are willing to learn, I ask a simple question that will reveal the dilemma that faces us: who out there remembers any of the good compositions rendered in the competition? I’ll be even more generous. Who knows the lyrics and melody of any song sung in the past decade?
The deafening silence speaks volumes to the point I am making. In any random year during the golden age of calypso, say the 1950s to the 1980s, there were songs aplenty, lyrics that were crafted Shakespeare-or-Walcott-style, musical notes that were on par with the those of the masters of any era. On any night, one could attend a calypso tent and be treated to sheer magic by close to ten bards—Sparrow (of course Sparrow!), Brigo, Shorty, Brynner, Nap Hepburn, Rose, Composer, Duke, Christo, Cypher…
Of another ten or twenty members of the supporting cast, each deserving his place in the night’s programme, half will sit around and hope that some of the frontline singers fall sick so they get a chance. The patron chooses a second tent for next week’s treat: Kitchener, who is said to have made music when he gargled, masterful melodies that you hum all the way home well past midnight. Kitch is supported by the likes of Chalkdust, Stalin, Crazy, Bomber, Funny, Gypsy. Maestro, Merchant, Nelson, Pretender…
Calypso in yuh tail till yuh want to puke—glutton! Out of season, there were one-man or one-band concerts staged by Andre Tanker, Valentino, David Rudder, Stalin, Scrunter, Shadow, Arrow… And I haven’t even mentioned the master of humour, Spoiler, or the King of Smut, Zandolee…
There is so much out there to learn, my children, so many exemplars to emulate. Reach for the stars. Don’t settle for mediocrity.
(This one is for Ken Gordon, who will be 90 tomorrow. From humble beginnings, he always strove for excellence all his life. Have a great day, Ken.)