Kaiso, boy!

By Raffique Shah
February 15, 2015

Raffique ShahI waited patiently for Calypso Fiesta, the Mother of all Calypso shows, which featured 41 of the top calypsonians for this year. I did not trust the 20-plus radio stations in the country since those that feature local music kill us with pumping, jarring noises accompanied by voices that all sound hoarse as if the artistes are stricken with sore throats, that they tell me is soca.

I know better. I was there when Lord Shorty experimented with “Indrani”, “Endless Vibrations” and a string of very melodious songs which, from the first notes, compelled Trinis-to-de-bone to move our bodies, to sing along. I was there when all the giants of calypso—Sparrow, Kitch, Shadow, Maestro, Duke, Rose, Gypsy—adopted and improved on Shorty’s fusion, giving us renditions that are timeless.

But I digress. I want to look at calypso today, at where the art form has reached, hence my focus on the semi-finals at Skinner Park. I did not listen to every contestant, and I don’t want to be unfair to those whose presentations I missed. But if after eight hours and 41 songs I felt as though I had attended a huge wake, lamentation for an art form that is in its death throes, forgive me.

Not one singer, not one song perked my interest to the extent that I listened closely to its lyrics or tapped my ageing feet to its beat. Not one! Oh, there were some okay-ish songs, and some singers who are undoubtedly very talented. Heather McIntosh, Devon Seale, Brian London, Kurt Allen, Karene Asche, Karen Eccles, Duane O’Connor and Myron B have what it takes to rescue calypso from the purgatory it has been consigned to for more than a decade.

Let me put this another way: sing a verse and chorus from one of the winning songs last year! Bet you cannot remember the singer, far less his songs. For the record, it was Roderick “Chucky” Gordon, and his winning song was an Indo-Afro fusion titled “Wedding of the Century”, a lovely piece of pan music composed by Ray Holman.

Who won the crown in 2013, and what was his/her main song? Answer: Pink Panther with “Travel Woes”. I can go on and on, working backward through the years, and unless you have the list before you, you’d hardly recall the winners or their songs. Chalkdust was one (2004/2005/2009), but you’d sooner remember his “Juba Dubai” (1977) or “Ah Fraid Karl” (1971) than you would “Ah Not In Dat” which won him the title in 2009.

From the turn of the millennium, those who won the competition include Sugar Aloes (2002/2008), Cro Cro (2007), Sandra, Luta, Allen and Asche. More than likely, you’d hardly be able to hum a line from their songs. Indeed, there are only two songs from the past 12 years that most of us will easily recall—Shadow’s Road March of 2001 (Stranger) and Denyse Plummer’s “Nah Leaving” that won her the crown that year.

If we cannot remember the winners or their songs, what of those that did not make it to the finals or win anything? Yet, we easily recall and sing calypsoes from the 1950s through the 1980s, a period that can be dubbed “the golden years”. Say “Jean and Dinah” and most Trinis, including the very young, can sing the entire song that dates back to 1956, the song that launched Sparrow’s career.

The DJ spins the first bars from the divine music of Kitchener’s “Sugar Bum Bum”, and everyone, young and old, dances to the beat. The monster hit that launched Blue Boy (now Superblue) in 1980, “Soca Baptist”, evokes a similar response.

So why have we endured this decades-long drought of ordinary calypsoes, this absence of good, compelling music? In social commentary, many bards seem to think that they must “screw up” their faces and dish out licks to all, especially their audiences.

Shadow’s “Poverty is Hell” (1994), a classic in this category, and Lord Brynner’s “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1960), say otherwise: boss lyrics, nice music. Political commentary can be songs that make you wine (not “whine”): check Sparrow’s “We like it so” (1982), Gypsy’s “Sinking Ship” (1986), or David Rudder’s “Panama”. Nation building songs don’t need to be drab: Sniper’s timeless “Portrait of Trinidad” (1965), Brother Marvin’s “Jahagi Bhai” (1996), Baker’s “God Bless Our Nation” (1967).

Look, no one expects our calypsonians to give us gems every year. But with a hundred-plus bards singing in tents that receive some form of state support, and with $1 million at stake tonight for the title, plus much more for runners-up and category winners, surely we the people deserve better that dirges, lamentations and chastisement.

Over the past 20 years or so, except for the odd good song, calypso has been not in decline, but in free fall. Boring songs in wake-like environments that claim to be “tents” will not cut it in today’s fast-paced entertainment industry.

The younger calypsonians I mentioned above have a duty to rescue the art form. Don’t expect Sparrow or Stalin or Rose or Shadow to come back from the brink to do it. Calypso will not survive on “back in time” hits. How I long to listen to a good song and shout, “Kaiso, boy!”

7 thoughts on “Kaiso, boy!”

    Some of us are listening.

    Grazie !

  2. Your commentaries/articles parallel that of “Good-calypso”.
    Pertinent Topic,Solid Harmony,Sweet Melody,Irresistible Hook and Lucid,Substantive and Spicy lyrics.

    Keep Singing Brother

  3. Blog,boy! You blog expresses my feelings about today’s “Kaisos.” I long for good lyrics, good music and good messages. I was in T&T last year and I went to three tents, the Junior Kaiso Competition, and the Parade of Bands. The tents did not impress me but the Junior Kaiso was good. I felt that the juniors gives us hope for the future.

  4. I second the motion Raff! Calypso is a special art form rooted in our culture and way of life. The calypsonian is a story teller, lyrical bard, genius and philosopher all in one. He/she reads the mood of the moment and comments, he/she listens to our stories, our likes and dislikes and comments. He/she listens to our pains and comments. He/she reads our concerns and comments. What other art form anywhere else in the world is so spontaneous and TOPICAL? None! It is for this reason I feel that we are lucky to have this music to entertain, inform and educate us about our state of being at any given time. It is also for this very same reason, the calypsonian, wakes us up in our slumber and tells us that this is the time to listen to the alarm clock. I remember sailing into the Boston harbor in 1986, twenty minutes before entering and the DJ started playing Gypsy’s “Captain, the ship is Sinking”, “Captain, the seas are rough”. It was joyous, entertaining and a reminder that we need to wake up to the realities facing us all at the same time. It is moments like this the true calypsonian must think about when he puts pen to paper and guitar in his mind to create his music.
    Who can forget Spoiler, in his usual and casually funny self ‘predicting’ in his song that people will be making children by wireless. Metaphorically, it turned out to be true. Before the reality of women police officers, Spoiler was the first to tell us about them. So, calypso is ‘we ting’ and every thing should be done to encourage the art form to remain alive and well. In recent times, we have seen politics raise it’s ugly head in the for of dictation and lamentation and this is troubling and might quite likely have negative effects on how well it is perceived in the future. The Calypsonian should be left alone to create his music, then and only then we might return to Jean and Dinah, Captain the Ship is Sinking and Dorothy (as performed by Stalin). Do we have the talent in our midst? I’m sure we do. Should we do everything in our power to encourage it? Yes, we definitely should.

    1. Mamoo, you can no longer call Keith Rowley a racist. He played with Kallicharan and not Ronnie and Caro, and he wined on Ravina instead of Jean or Dorothy.

  5. Yeah Uncle Shah, Kaiso ‘gone to the dogs,’ as we like to say on de streets, but who is really,checking ,or seriously gives a hoot,outside of old ‘foddy dody -culture fraudsters, such as that Chutney Soca whiner , Mamboo.
    Last time I checked, Sugar Aloes, was getting toilet paper waved at him,in like manner, to Kamla’s Venezuelan hermano,en el Presidente Maduro,aka de Chavez wannabe-politico Marionette.


    Last I checked, Marshall Montano, was sill singing high praises/showing loyalty to “me friends and dem,”in de UNC dominant PP government, while walking off , otra vez,like a Latino bandito,with his 5 million dollar Soca monarch /Road March checks.
    Last time I checked, kaisonians had to rally fund raising extravaganzas, to bail out,sick/simi broke, Black Stalin,and de Birdie,to help defray their respective medical bills,since they didn’t have much reserved,or had friends in high places,which would allow dem to go to London, Miami,or Havana, like Basdeo, Kamla, and Patrick Manning,each time the got a gas pain,rear end rash,or head ache.
    The boorish Iwah George, is making money, singing his one line ,eighties snoozers,while Grandmaster Kichie successor, De Fosto, could not even get his tunes played on a Panorama stage,and why? Dem semi educated, radio DJ clowns ,beholden to their boss Iwah,won’t give Cuz De Fosto,and similar old school stalwarts ,any airplay,hmmmm?
    Hey Lord Superior,was this what you ,and we should throw in- one time extempo king Gypsey, turned glorifie,yet irrelevant ,National Culture Vulture Minister(UNC dom hinant PP pandering, Mayaro MP hero,Winston Peters )fought for? A station for kaisonians, but monopolized,by tasteless, Jamaican Dance Hall /fake Yankee rapping music goons?
    Somewhere out there in lala land, Kamla’s Spirited adviser, in neo racist, radio magnate, Sat Maraj, is having a laugh,as he instead, ensures that Indo Trini culture, and socio economic /political interest are always promoted.
    Sorry Uncle Shah,but young artist aren’t idiots,but muy astute business folks, who will give de fans what they want, and make mucho dinero,simultaneously. Ain’t dat de truth Ricky Jai,KI,and Drupatee? Ooops wrong art form.

    Pretty soon,dem five Islamist Trini criminals,stuck in Venezuelan jails,would be soon freed,thus making Hermana Kamla,look like a hero among desperate,anti ISIS ,Trini voting-worshipers.
    Kamla would in turn ,request that pro sex tourista – Trinis,no longer would have to get stupid yellow fever shots,before entering red light districts around the politically troubled, oil fiefdom, to check out the excitable ,sexually salacious ,Y bonita chicas.
    However, I digress, …ummmm Kaiso dead,Si?
    Long live the Republic of T&T!
    I luv dis land, Y tu?

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