Calypso, soca, dance-hall and chutney are authentic indigenous Caribbean musical forms

As Guyana celebrates Republicanism with Mashramani and the 2014 Trinidad Carnival moves into high gear, the greatest calypsonian of all time, The Mighty Sparrow, is awarded Trinidad and Tobago’s highest honour, but in Guyana questions are raised over the calypso form itself.

In the middle of many statements, claims and theses recently put forward, some of them erroneous, celebrated Guyanese musician, calypsonian, songwriter and band-leader Dave Martins offered an expert elucidation of the state and place of the calypso 20140126ALin today’s society.  One will not agree with everything in Martins’s account, but his explications put into proper perspective many areas in which recent utterings by others have gone astray.  The carnival and Mashramani season is apposite time for this kind of discourse.

There are those in Guyana who believe that the noble tradition of the calypso is being killed off by inferior pretenders – the soca, chutney and dance-hall.  Indeed, there have been complaints in Trinidad about elements of party soca in carnival in Trinidad, and about the ‘wuk up’ culture of Crop-Over in Barbados driven by party soca.  This is misguided but interesting and ironic because, of all the current waves of popular music, it is soca that drives all of these festivals – carnival, Crop-Over and Mashramani.

Yet the Trinidadian and Barbadian commentators questioned the acceptance of cultural practice where the national cultural identity is “defined by public simulations of the sex act” (the Barbados Advocate, August 2010).  And insightful columnist in the Trinidad Express Lisa Agostini remarked that the choice of the “empty and mindless” ‘Footsteps’ as road march over the deep and thoughtful ‘High Mas’ by David Rudder is a tragic reflection of what defines the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.  There are similar complaints about the predominant sexual content of dance-hall. The ironies continue because at one time the calypso was the anchor in carnival and at one time there were complaints about the “lewd” nature of calypso which (like the steel band) carried a stigma because of its reputation for “lawlessness” and “indecency.”

The splendour and success of the Schools Mashramani competitions that were quite well celebrated in robust press coverage was not surprising.  There were the usual dance, interpretive dance, dramatic poetry, mashramani costumes, costumed bands on the road and calypso.  The general trend was enthusiastic participation and competition brought off by a noted high level of creativity.  It is significant the way many dances, dramatic poems, monologues, costumes, bands and calypsos commented on social issues and dramatised useful and important themes.  This was the work of teachers and their students which has been for several years the real showcase of Mashramani where careful design and artistry give an idea of what should be the essence of this national festival.

In the original design of Mashramani in 1969-70, groups and bands were to have come in from the different regions of Guyana to the central finals in Georgetown.  While this was not sustained in the general festival, it is the pattern in the schools competitions.  At this level also, the emphasis on artistry has been retained.  This emphasis is particularly noted in the calypso.  They comment on social issues, but almost always there is a reflection of artistic effort.  Many complaints have lamented that calypso is a moribund art in Guyana, but what comes out of the schools may contradict that.  For the past few years the national Junior Calypso competition has produced compositions and stage performances that actually show the senior calypsonians how it is done.

One major observation is that this good work at the junior level does not carry over into the senior national level.  There is hardly a case of the best junior calypsonians when they get older or when they leave school continuing with calypso and taking their places in the senior calypso guild.  The quality in that guild is currently poor, and opinions differ (some ill-informed) on the reasons for this.  But quite the opposite seems to be the case with the steel band.  The rivalry among schools for the steel band crown is quite fierce, many schools excel, many schools have bands and a number of senior bands have significant numbers of youths in their membership.  There is quite a cross-over of players from the junior to the senior ranks and the 2014 Mashramani steel band competition was a success. It attracted a large number of bands and indicated that this area of Mashramani that was once vibrant and died away is now resurrected.

Where the calypso is concerned, ‘resurrection’ depends on a number of factors, some of which impinge on exactly why there is a need for ‘resurrection’ in the first place.  Dave Martins expounded upon a major reason which may be found in the factor of cultural change and the nature of the popular culture.  Some of the erroneous opinions that have been advanced did not take these into consideration.

It is a factor of cultural change that years ago the road march in carnival was a calypso.  Note, however, that as the years progressed, it was a particular type of calypso that was more fast-paced, up-tempo and of a catchy type.  A road march winner called for a fitting kind of music that Lord Kitchener with his extraordinary musical talents mastered.  In Barbados it was Grynner who had his tuning fork right on that kind of music, operating at the time when calypso was crossing over into soca.  But a calypso, however upbeat, cannot win the road march today because the popular culture calls for soca.  Ironies never end, because today a chutney tune can win it.  Witness the great success of ‘I will be A Bachelor for Ever’ by KI of the JC3Venni band in Trinidad in 2012.  Similarly, the true road march in Guyana two years ago was a chutney called ‘Dem a Watch Me’ by Mahendra Ramkellawan.  That illustrates the way trends change because soca supplanted calypso in this arena and now it is rivalled by chutney.  The matter is, however, complicated because there is a new hybrid brand called chutney-soca.  The soca itself is a hybrid that evolved out of the calypso.

To say that dance-hall, soca and chutney are the murderers of calypso misses the point contained in the foregoing, as well as another fundamental factor. That all four are authentic indigenous Caribbean musical forms arising from the same and/or similar roots. While calypso is by far the oldest, one cannot even say with any confidence that its roots are deeper than those of the dance-hall or that it is more deserving of a place than the other three.  Some may crown it the ancient monarch of them all, while others might say it reigns over an ancien régime.  But each has a place and the others should not be seen as alien intruders hacking away at the true tradition.  Calypso does have a long profound and noble history, but they all evolved from true Caribbean traditions.

Soca is the youngest of them, developing in Trinidad in the 1970s with possible roots in the ’60s, but only coming into its own as ‘soca’ in the 1980s.  Its root is the calypso, which became mixed with experimental strains which have not been definitively pinned down.  The documentation has variants, but mentions different influences including forms of Indian music.  Also different names are mentioned among the originators, including calypsonians Maestro, Merchant, Kitchener, and Lord Short Shirt (otherwise known as Shorty, and later as Lord Shorty-I and Ras Shorty-I). The rhythm emphasizes one beat in the four-square rhythm of the calypso which has become the driving bass in soca.  That part of it is identical to a similar driving rhythmic bass drum sound in the high-life of West Africa.  Soca very quickly became popular as the dominant party music.

Dance-hall can trace its roots in the 1950s when popular music in Jamaica was becoming local and other rhythms were being mixed with the rhythm and blues.  Local recordings with local subjects were being made and played in the dance halls.  The history is complex, but a simplification of it is that it started with DJs introducing recordings and developing a rivalry among each other and among different recording studios and sound systems like Duke Reid and Beverley’s.  DJ performance survived right through ska, rock steady and reggae until it became its own art form.  By this time the music was evolving its own urban sub-culture and the contents and styles of the compositions were deeply grounded in this sub-culture with the life-styles and issues of the ghetto life.  This was closely tied with entertainment, with the dance halls and sustained expressions of sexuality from the viewpoint of the popular culture.

Like dance-hall, the origins of chutney were quite outside of the carnival setting.  The tradition may be traced to India and the bhojpuri which came over with the immigrants.  Bhojpuri songs already belonged to an Indian tradition and survived for some time in Guyana and Trinidad.  But in a new setting and the continuing evolution of local lifestyles and tradition the language changed to Creole and the subjects took on local interests.  The musical instrumentation also became hybrid using simple percussion and drums.  There was much de-creolisation and more English in the lyrics.  While chutney developed as a folk form, it drew closer and closer to prevailing popular music, in Trinidad, the soca.  This became very marked with the music of Drupattie in particular.  Electric instrumentation grew in influence until what is now called soca-chutney developed.

Those are very brief, sketchy outlines of how those musical forms came into being.  The point is that they are authentic Caribbean forms which gained overwhelming popularity in fairly recent times.  The changing cultural climates meant that they have overtaken the calypso as popular music.  Martins has adequately dealt with that (see ‘So It Go,’ Sunday Stabroek, February 16).  But such has been their growing influence that the Trinidad Carnival now has a separate competition for each of Soca and Soca-Chutney.  Barbados has a separate competition in what is now the largest and most popular show in Crop-Over – a grand party on the East Coast by the sea.

Guyana saw the light and introduced separate Mashramani shows and competitions for calypso, soca and chutney.  However, the soca competition, in keeping with current popular trends, is now galloping away from the others.  This development will be a subject for discussion in another column.

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