Ah Leaving

By Raffique Shah
September 05, 2023

Raffique ShahIf there is one thing Trinis like me, who still have an interest in Independence Day celebrations, look forward to, it’s the ever expanding volume of calypsoes that we enjoy coming from just about every radio and television station every year. We enjoy a bonus when, as happened this year, popular calypsonian and singer Denyse Plummer sadly passed on. Last year when Black Stalin [Leroy Calliste] passed on after a prolonged illness, his body of work being second in numbers only to Sparrow, we feasted for months on some of the best calypsoes ever, composed and sung by a bard of his stature.

The irony of Stalin and Denyse making their exits is that they were both ‘minorities’ in the calypso world. Stalin, a minority? Let me explain: Stalin dared to go rasta, to grow his locks at a time when rastafarians were frowned upon by most of the public and the establishment. Stalin was also militant and always reserved the right to criticize politicians left, right and center, mattered not which party they belonged to. So the ‘Black Man’ was seen as a kind of intruder in a cultural environment where the recognised calypsonians wore suits when they performed, and were clean-cut, well made-up, Sparrow was the symbol of what could be called ‘The Calypso Establishment’.

In the mid-sixties, when the revolution and Black Power had quietly inserted themselves into the politics of the day, and 1970 had not yet happened, it was treason to criticize the government through calypsoes. Bards like Stalin, Brother Valentino, Duke and Chalkdust, faced serious criticism for using their power on the ‘big stage’ to lampoon the establishment. It is in those circumstances that I refer to Stalin as a minority. By the sheer force and will, and his commitment to what he believed in, Stalin and others like him, literally broke down the bastion that controlled the art form in those days.

Denyse on the other hand was a ‘minority’ of a different kind. She was near-white and a cabaret singer with a good voice. On her first appearance at Skinner’s Park, Denyse was bombarded by rolls of toilet paper and spent fruit husk. So bad was it, Stalin would approach her after her performance and encourage her not to leave and remind her that she had a place in calypso. The negatives she faced came from the section of the Skinner’s Park audience that was at the time, die-hard PNM supporters who felt calypso belonged to them, that they owned Skinner’s Park, and only songs approved by them must make it past the semi-finals. Had Denyse sung something highly in favour of the PNM she would have been greeted with loud applause and maybe even an encore or two. Readers need bear in mind that when Dr. Hollis Liverpool, Chalkdust, first entered the calypso arena singing songs highly critical of Dr. Eric Williams, he was mysteriously fired from his teaching service job.

Luckily, Denyse decided she was ‘Nah Leaving’ and she would continue singing and making great music even after her Monarch win in 2001. She then quietly retreated to gospel singing, making the odd appearance at functions until her illness got the better of her. But the calypso and steel band treats we enjoyed during month-long celebrations annually are worth the waiting. From Sniper’s Portrait of Trinidad that won him the crown in 1966, to Stalin’s ‘We can make it if we Try’, to David Rudder’s ‘Ganges and The Nile’ and “Trini to d’Bone’ and who can forget Brother Marvin’s controversial ‘Jahaji Bhai’? We die-hard calypso fans enjoy a treat that is so rare, it’s as if we were not living in our homeland, the land of calypso and steel pan.

Politics has so carved up this country that foreign music rules the roost most of the year which is a sad indictment on those who control what influences our younger generations. In the midst of a crime wave that, say what you will, has unnerved many among us, most radio stations and many of the independent DJs operating on the internet offer nothing but harmful junk, feeding into the minds of future criminals, egging them on to commit the most heinous acts against the same people who stood up to the oppressors so these same criminals could enjoy the freedom they currently do. Our television stations have some archival compilations that are both educational and interesting. Yet we see these only on special days such as Independence. The rest of the year they gather dust.

But what is left to be said about a country whose patriots are dwindling faster than they are being replenished. Whose existing patriots are forced to work overtime preaching to an unrelenting youth hell-bent on making poor decisions and blaming their predecessor for the consequences. Maybe that’s why Denyse, and Stalin before her, say… Ah Leaving.