By Raffique Shah
February 15, 2015
I 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!”