Carnival, Mashramani and the evolution of calypso, soca and chutney

The relationship between the carnival season in the Caribbean and Guyana’s Mashramani is very easily disguised. The two seasons coincide, not so much by the natural calendar or traditional roots but more by historical happenstance. Yet the periods are the same because once there is recovery from the Christmas and New Year’s season, energies shift gear and apply themselves to carnival, to Mashramani, and the run-up to the competitions in the indigenous music of the calypso, soca and chutney.

Carnival’s roots are deeply embedded in ancient customs. Colonial settlement and religion caused countries in this part of the world with a strong Roman Catholic background like Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and parts of the Eastern Caribbean such as St Lucia and Dominica to celebrate carnival. Others whose background was more Anglican, like Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica were not traditionally carnival countries. Carnival-like celebrations did, however evolve in all of them. What is more, some, notably Antigua, have adopted carnival and have as enthusiastic a festival as their neighbours, but celebrated in August. Barbados’s Crop-Over, also held in August, is in a few areas, almost indistinguishable from carnival.

To take it further, other ‘Roman Catholic’ territories like St Lucia switched their carnival from this season to the middle of the year in order to move it away from coincidence and competition with the Trinidad Carnival. Only Brazil can compete with that; the others want to realise their full tourism prospects by either avoiding the competition or imitating carnival.

20100919artsonsundayGuyana does not try to compete. It is not bothered by the overlap of the seasons and also happens to be fairly new to the business of tourism. It is still to extensively explore the tourism potential of Mashramani. Where Guyana is concerned, the seasons coincide for different reasons. Carnival does not fall on the same dates every year – it shifts and depends on the religious Christian calendar; always climaxing on Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Ash Wednesday and 40 days before Easter. Mashramani is fixed on February 23, to mark Republic Day in Guyana.

The Trinidad Carnival evolved from ancient religious and secular traditions reinforced by folk practices and 19th century proletarian sub-cultures, while Mashramani, in contrast, was manufactured only in 1970 as a National Day festival. While the indigenous music associated with both festivals is virtually the same, the differences between the two in origin and evolution are important to the rise, the treatment and the place of the musical forms in each country.

Now retired from competing, the Mighty Rebel, a consummate performer has won the local Calypso Monarch Competition several times. (Stabroek News file photo)
Now retired from competing, the Mighty Rebel, a consummate performer has won the local Calypso Monarch Competition several times. (Stabroek News file photo)

The calypso is or has been the foremost musical tradition of Mashramani, although it has waned considerably for two main reasons. It has been associated with Trinidad and Tobago and carnival throughout its long history, but established itself as a folk form and as popular music in Guyana throughout the 20th century, as it did in Barbados, Antigua and other Eastern Caribbean states. Guyana can even boast that it is responsible for the rise in the career of the greatest calypsonian of all time, the Mighty Sparrow, having nurtured him in his early years when he had a Guyanese manager (Cyril Shaw). Throughout the 1960s, calypso was strong in the popular culture, associated with the steel band and carnival feting. It was natural for it to be a focus when Mashramani was invented in 1970.

Interestingly, when, following the carnivalesque tradition, a calypso king was crowned in Guyana Independence festivals, this changed in 1970 for Republic Day. The first Mashramani dropped the calypso and instituted in its place, a shanto competition, crowning instead, a shanto king since it was argued, shanto and not calypso was indigenous to Guyana. However, this idea did not survive very long as, by force majeure, the calypso prevailed as the popular form over shanto which was already moribund.

Because of its history, calypso has been immersed into Trinidad culture first as a folk form and then in the popular culture so that it is indivisible from Trinidad culture itself. The crowning of a king is deeply-rooted in popular culture and the fierceness of rivalry in the post-Emancipation, more specifically the post-1880 period. The music and the tents took on serious roles through the 20th century. Similar rivalries, social implications and seriousness in popular culture also became quite defined in Barbados after a formalisation of Crop-Over in its present form in the late 1970s.

Calypso in Guyana began its slow decline after the 1970s and certainly did not have the kinds of depth of traditions as experienced in Trinidad and Tobago or the popular fervour as developed in Barbados. The music continued in Guyana as a Mashramani competition activity with not much of a presence outside that season. Additionally, the kind of political suppression of public dissent and free expression took its toll on the calypso in the 1980s. Those two factors must have contributed to the decline in quality from which it has not yet recovered. Today, ironically, the recent trend is to lambaste the government in crowd-rousing lyrics with no attention to form. Most aspirants merely compose one song per year for purposes of entering the competition.

Moreover, Guyana was never able to produce the necessary volume of native music to drive a popular festival as large and vibrant as Mashramani in the way Trinidadian music drives carnival. There has always been a dependence on imported numbers from Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. While a Road March is declared each year in Mashramani, the road march tradition is not deep and the winning song usually cannot compete with many of the imported ones. Few Guyanese songs can actually claim to have been the true popular road march the way Mahendra Ramkellawan’s “Dem A Watch Me” was in 2010.

This introduces the other two musical forms since “Dem A Watch Me” is not calypso, but chutney. This brand of folk music would have been developing in the early 20th century and claimed popular attention in Trinidad in the 1980s. The Caribbean public took notice when Drupatee Ramgoonai released the sensational “Mr Bissessar” and later when Indian play-back star Kanchan covered a number of other Trinidadian soca and chutney tunes. In the meantime local chutney proponent Sundar Popo followed by Sonny Man rocketed chutney to the top of the charts.

Chutney rose swiftly to the point where it forced its way into the Trinidad Carnival. But the brand that became most popular was that which was strongly influenced by soca to the point where compositions were called soca-chutney. The mix was pioneered by Drupatee and Kanchan. The further breakthrough was made with chutney’s incursion into popular culture which catapulted with such hits as “Rum Till I Die” and “Radika.” These had depth because of the way they represented a way of life and popular themes coming out of villages such as family issues, romantic heartaches and rum drinking. A Chutney Monarch Carnival Competition developed, although there has been a dispute over which competition is official or just how official it is.

In Guyana the Chutney Monarch is an official event on the Mashramani calendar. While Guyana is flooded with Trinidadian chutney and that island has been credited as the home of chutney, few seem to remember that the chutney is also an indigenous Guyanese tradition. Among those who did not forget is Rakesh Rampertab who wrote about it in the magazine Horizon edited by Vindhya Persaud. This folk form developed in the Caribbean out of Bhoj Puri songs from India. Along the line of its evolution, sugar estate East Indians in British Guiana composed songs in Creole touching social customs or issues. It was out of this tradition that old Guyanese chutney songs like “Ow Maninja” and “Dis Time Nah Lang Time” emerged. Today it is possible for chutney to compete for the Road March title in both countries as seen in the runaway victories of “Single Forever’ by KI of Trinidad and “Dem A Watch Me” by Ramkellawan of Guyana.

Yet, today in carnival it is the soca that produces the road marches. This form has long supplanted the calypso as the popular music that drives carnival and Mashramani. Soca began to emerge in Trinidad in the 1970s out of undocumented and uncertain origins. It is known to be a hybrid form – a faster-paced version of the calypso, more upbeat and mixed with other strains of music. No undisputed originator of soca has been identified, Trinidadian calypsonians Maestro, Lord Shorty and Kitchener have been named. Soca’s lively rhythm and driving baseline have made it the preferred party music and the medium for travelling on the road; so that soca has taken over along the route on Mashramani Day. But the local soca is not sufficient to be the music that carries the festival, and there is still a dependence on imported tunes. Besides, the quality of Guyanese soca remains well below that of its imported competitors.

Guyana has followed Trinidad and Barbados in having a separate competition devoted to soca. This competition has also taken over as by far the most popular of the three competitions.

In some years soca, calypso and chutney competitions have been fixed to take place on the same night, thus creating a clash and forcing both competitors and audience to choose. Otherwise, they have always been placed too close to each other. Furthermore, the Chutney finals are almost always in a rural village community centre, and the calypso similarly relegated to out of town or a less popular or prominent venue, while the soca has come to be a grand event, if not the grandest of the festival.

The advice to the Mash Secretariat is that while the Soca Competition should be a very grand and prominent event to maximise crowd support, rivalry and excitement, the same must be done with the other two. The organisers might argue that placing these finals out of town is a way of decentralising Mashramani as a country-wide, not a Georgetown celebration. But when the competitions are held in those locations they are always quite low-key and lost and lack the stature and interest that they must be given as a big event in the capital city.

Equal prominence might help to raise popular interest in, and, hopefully, the quality of the local calypso.




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