Guyanese calypsonians hardly have standards to aim at

Two recent comments in the newspapers revisited the subject of the calypso art form in Guyana.  In a letter to the editor (SN  Feb 21) Raymon Cummings complained about the poor standards tolerated in the national competition, and columnist (legendary theatre artist, musical celebrity) Dave Martins responded with a comment on the state of the art form and contemporary trends (SN, Feb 26).

Of direct relevance to those is the question asked earlier in Arts on Sunday (Dec 4, 2011), ‘What is calypso,’ in which there was some discussion about the artistic demands of this tradition and the quality of what was produced in Guyana in 2011.

There is certainly a concern for the state of the art in Guyana, but there are other related issues concerning the rise of soca, its treatment in the Guyana competition and the changing popular trends.  Where these are concerned, reference may be made to Dave Martins’ observations, but comments on the same subjects were raised in at least two previous publications of Arts on Sunday, including August 7, 2011, about the way the forms are treated in Guyana.  What happens in Trinidad too, is of some interest and, significantly, there were remarks in the press in that country about dissatisfaction with their own Soca Monarch and Road March contests, a public dispute over the chutney competition, and a threat by calypsonians to boycott the 2012 finals at the Dimanche Gras show to protest the size of the prize money.

The quality of Guyanese calypsos has been a long-standing problem.  The criticisms coming from Raymon Cummings who was once a ministry official and a part of the process are the most recent and the most outspoken.  But generally over several years the calypsos have been given approval by panels of judges using criteria that do not appear to give much weight to matters of artistry and craft.  Not only is the quality of the compositions held up to criticism, but questions are raised about what is considered to be calypso; are there any standards or demands made upon the entries according to what may be required of a good calypso?  Clearly in art there can be no prescriptions, but adjudicators, audiences and critics alike can pronounce upon what is put before them and either accept or reject it as good work.  From time to time Guyana produces a few good calypsonians and calypsos, but normally the nation lags behind Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and others in the production and level of this music.

It is not surprising that songs lambasting the government and its officials should have dominated the field in Mashramani 2012, and there are two reasons for that.  One is that they would have been encouraged by what happened in 2011.  In that year the man with the most popular entry was declared King with forthright sorties against the President.  Nothing wrong so far.  But nothing more was required of him than to stand before the audience and belt out his words without bothering with any demands of the calypso form, quality of lyrics, lineation, artistic devices or musical composition.  The vanquished might have felt that to improve their chances in 2012 they should come with the same thing to win the crowd and the judges.  That could be easily done because they need not worry about labouring over a high quality composition.

Secondly, criticism of the government is popular and that is enough to win audience support.  If they hit it off with crowd appeal they stand a chance of swaying the judges.  At the moment it can be said that there is a minor trend within which calypsos taking off on the government command popular appeal.  It is ‘minor’ because it might be ephemeral, and one is not sure how long it will last (it will take a few more years to make a trend).  Some may argue, but isn’t that the way calypso works? Does it not move and change with the audience? And if the government is unpopular does it not reflect that?  It is true, that might be a type of calypso, and it can also work like litmus paper for the government to take notice that they might just be doing something wrong and need to reassess their relationship with the people.  One of the functions of the calypso throughout its history has been to challenge authority.

The big problem with this, however, is that these kinds of songs now prevalent in Guyana disregard the thing that would make them calypsos, and that is their craft.  One can give a speech crucifying any public official, or one can do the same thing by committing a piece of ordinary prose to music, or one can write an essay.  But none of those are calypsos.  Calypso is an art form.  Chant down the government as much as you want, but do it in a well-composed calypso.
The opposite is also true. There was a time when the government placed a very tight lid on dissent and it was dangerous to criticise it in calypso.  Some calypsonians sought refuge in neutrality, while several took to singing in praise of the government and the President.  That did not represent a true trend, but a period of falsehood in the nation’s calypso, of fear, coercion and self-censorship.  During that period no song critical of authority ever won.  The situation largely produced bad songs and deepened Guyana’s problems where the quality of the calypso is concerned.

As it is now, Guyanese calypsonians hardly have standards to aim at. The judging criteria have not helped to provide those because they have repeatedly approved bad work.  How have they been using the criteria that require points for artistic techniques?  How do they score a song that demonstrates none of them?  With these requirements on the score-sheets how can such a song win?  One may ask these questions, or one may say that in those kinds of subjective contexts you can’t please everybody.  But there are flaws in the scoring system currently being used, and it is difficult to accurately adjudicate artistic performances with the kind of arithmetical system currently in force.

In Guyana, however, all is not lost with the state of the art form.  In both 2010 and 2011 there was quite a high standard in the Mashramani Junior Calypso Competition.  Both winners Tenecia De Frietas and Diana Chapman produced calypsos of good artistic merit that contained what was lacking in the senior competitions.  It may also be seen that the schools calypso competitions in Mashramani produce compositions headed in the right direction, ie, attempts to write calypsos using artistic techniques.  If the juniors are better than the seniors then, while one performance is lamentable, it is good that there is some promise of continuity in the form in the other.  What seems to happen, however, is that there is no natural line of continuance. While many teenagers might perform calypsos in school, they have no ambition to be calypsonians and do not continue in the field after school to carry the talent over to the national monarchy. It was therefore a stroke of genius on the part of the Ministry of Culture to admit the junior winner to compete in the senior national.

Both the Soca and Chutney Mash-ramani competitions in Guyana have a number of additional problems which cannot be satisfactorily dealt with here.

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