Calypso is once again under the lens in a fine unravelling by Raymon Cummings in a recent letter to this newspaper where he expressed urgent concern for the declines in standard, in quality of judging, in song topics, and in marketability of the material. Raymon’s comments are generally on target, and it will be interesting to see the reactions to them, but there are some important aspects that should underpin such discussions.
In the macro sense, and most importantly, the relevance of the music has changed dramatically. The calypso form that most mature Caribbean people grew up with 40 years ago was the popular music of the day. When I came up with ‘Honeymooning Couple,‘ when Lord Funny wrote ‘Farmer Brown,‘ when Calypso Rose produced ‘Fire Fire,‘ that was the popular music of that time; that was the rage. It is not so any more. Popular music changes, as it always does, and now the regional rage is soca and chutney, and dancehall and (in the French Caribbean) zouk. It is no denigration of the value or artistry of calypso, but the reality is that musical tastes have shifted, as they always do, and even in Trinidad, the unquestioned mecca of calypso, the art form has been swallowed up by the soca/chutney/dancehall revolution. It is the performers in the latter genres who tour the world year now year-round performing to bumper crowds in various carnivals and promoted fetes – calypso is largely not heard.
It is a critical distinction because it impacts almost every point raised in Raymon’s letter. Whatever the musical value of the genre, if it’s not popular, it means people are not paying to attend such shows, and from that condition springs many of the problems facing calypso here and, indeed, wherever the entertainment industry operates. The lack of popularity means that the financial foundation of the art form has eroded significantly, and everything flowing from that (prize money, treatment of competitors, quality of venues, provision of facilities, qualified judges, advertising outlay) is also significantly eroded.
On the matter of the creators in the form, if the genre is not popular then the artists are not drawn to it, and the “new blood” that Raymon is naturally looking for is consequently hard to find. If the genre is not popular, then the promoters of calypso (in the case of Mash, the Ministry of Culture) are hard pressed to present it because the gate receipts are small. As the Trinidadian songster Super Blue put it to me a few years back, “Look padna. Jump and wave is where I make my money. It pay my mortgage. That is where I going.” It can be argued that today’s music lacks the lyrical and poetic standard of such vintage calypso as Sparrow’s ‘Dan is the Man‘ or Gypsy’s ‘Captain, This Ship is Sinking,‘ but song-writers today with similar abilities will take their abilities where the returns are highest, and calypso is not in that equation.
An engaging calypso, in the tradition of clever satire and precise double entendre (‘Fuh Cane‘), is an onerous task requiring vivid imagination, artistic ability and, just as importantly, long dedication to creating the work. In any time, such creators are going to be naturally drawn to the art form that will bring them the most returns; in this region it used to be calypso, but today it is soca and chutney and reggae. There may well be justification for the position that today’s popular fare, as artistry, is below the calypso musical level that Raymon would like to see return, but that complaint rings with subjectivity.
The reality is that the entertainment patron now is largely drawn to the soca and chutney “wukkin’ up” and, as in any age, what the people want is what prevails; how they got there is another subject, but that is where they are.
Subject matter, as well, is another criticism point, but again the musical shift is in play. In today’s music, the stress is on danceability, rhythm and tempo; subject matter is not critical. One line – “Who Let the Dogs Out”; “All Aboard”; “Roll Your Bumper” – is enough, and the song-writers soon learn that lesson, based on reactions to material, and naturally take it on as their mantra. The examination of society once expressed through calypso is now being carried out voluminously in this internet and cellphone age; we don’t need calypso for that any more. Someone such as our own Burchmore Simon, who has written several incisive and beautifully-crafted calypsos, is a rarity in Guyana because the market is simply not there for such work. Why don’t we find calypso being performed in places of entertainment in Georgetown during the year? The short answer is, there is no demand for it.
The lack of involvement in calypso is pervasive; it affects every aspect – even judging. If the music is not being widely played or practised, obviously it will be difficult to find persons with the expertise to judge it when the need arises, so that when the Ministry of Culture attempts to secure competent judges for the Mashramani competition, they find that the cupboard is close to bare.
And again, on a macro point, the complaints by mature citizens about today’s music are functionally irrelevant. Adults may be upset at changing patterns, but adults are out of the picture; the younger population drives popular music now, as it did in their parents’ time (they buy the records; they attend the shows; they follow the performers), and that population has clearly indicated what their preference is. If you doubt me, ask the promoters of music across the region.
Proponents of calypso in the Caribbean, including the Ministry of Culture here, are to be commended for applying themselves to reinvigorate and develop the art form. Any time we move to support our proven artistry, we are involved with valuable work; we are maintaining cultural streams. But the involvement in such exercises must also come with the awareness of surrounding realities, difficult as they may be to contemplate. In one such involvement, that of calypso, where some local artists are engaged, and the Ministry of Culture is contributing, the reality is that the task is going to be largely uphill.