From time to time on this ubiquitous internet that parades things before us, one often sees presentations reminding us of aspects of our lives that are no more. Many of them treat with life in North America where such things as the hand-cranked telephone or the steam locomotive with the operator shoveling coal are no longer in existence, along with ladies’ dresses touching the ground or the looping chain draping a man’s trousers as evidence of a watch in his waist-line. In a similar presentation in Guyana we would no longer see the street vendor patiently making a “press” with his hand shaver (the shaving now is done by machine, and the product name is “snow cone”) or someone like Garamai, basket on bicycle handle-bar, selling his famous potato balls around Georgetown. Things evolve, supposedly for the more efficient or more esthetically pleasing, as the culture modifies itself; many things become more efficient or come in a different format, and some things disappear altogether.
A regrettable change for me in music is the disappearance of the humorous calypso. I remember like yesterday hearing a calypso recording for the first time in my aunt’s rum shop at Hague. I must have been about 9 or 10 but the song caught me instantly on two levels: one was the lilting, floating calypso drum pattern – strong Africa with a Latin touch – and the other was the striking humour in the lyrics (I think the singer was Tiger). The song was based on an incident in Trinidad with two kaiso men – Tiger and Roaring Lion – on an excursion boat that ran into rough seas and nearly sank. The first verse went:
“I went to Grenada on an excursion,
it was the Lion that put me in the confusion
When I think we going on a serious boat,
it was a stupid contraption that could hardly float
I had to put me life-belt under me head
‘Cause the rocking of the schooner nearly kill me dead.”
I had heard a range of music on the radio, but this was a record on the shop’s gramophone and it was my first introduction to this amazing music with this juicy beat and hilarious lyrics. It was a new world opening up to me, I couldn’t get enough of it. In the years that followed, I remained enthralled by the humour that was an essential ingredient of the music, and the grip on me grew as I discovered Spoiler and Atilla and, of course, in later years, Lord Funny and Dougla and Chalkdust.
Cultures change and we have to change with them, often waving goodbye to what previously consumed us, and while I’m not one of those who rail against the shift in music today to emphasizing “dance” and “party time” above all else, I see the disappearance of humour from our popular music of the day as a loss. For one thing, popular music generally was dealing almost totally with love or emotion or mood, whereas, in calypso, almost any subject one could think of was fertile ground for the gifted song-writer. A ship sinking in the Gulf of Paria; the Police Force in Trinidad receiving a hefty pay raise; a steelband clash in Port-of-Spain with bottles flying and panmen ducking; stories of conmen, or famous politicians; all of these and more were the subjects of popular calypsos. Everything and anything was fair game, and the hilarity often coming to serious topics was a thing of joy as well as amazement for the ingenuity of the writer. King of the crop, The Mighty Spoiler, was one of the best but there were many of his ilk, including, in later years, Guyana’s King Fighter.
Of course, with the introduction of double entendre, even sexual topics became completely accessible to the clever song-writer and songs from that genre naturally prevailed, our own Lord Canary with his Doctor Beckles and his double-identity “Injection” being but one example. Double entendre writing – with one set of lyrics having two completely different meanings – as in my song “Honeymooning Couple” – is a specialized art that seemingly lives naturally in the Trinidadian culture, and is a phenomenon that doesn’t exist, in that form, anywhere else in the world. It is unique.
It is in its straightforward humour, however, in dealing with societal matters, that calypso particularly shines. It must also be noted that these pieces of music not only entertained, and even educated citizens about current issues, but they were also danceable. One could argue that today’s music has more pulse, propels more energy with its faster tempos, than old-time calypso, but the disappearance of humorous calypso is a loss. Songs such as “Farmer Brown” by Lord Funny and “Steelband Clash” by Lord Blakie are works of genius as well as humour. In particular, they allow the social commentator, using that umbrella of humour, to parade before us and make points about a very serious consideration for the nation – Sparrow’s “Dan is the Man in Van”, for instance or Dougla’s “Lazy Man” or, “Ram Goat Baptism” (the writer’s name eludes me). In our time, for example, when the management of West Indies cricket is causing huge controversy, I could come to that touchy subject and pronounce as I did in a kaiso seven years ago:
“You run the cricket shop on the rocks, alyou take a rest
You make a rasta cuff off he locks, alyou take a rest
You demoralizing I and I, you make Holding and Viv Richards cry
Greenidge cut up he maroon tie, alyou take a rest.”
Notice that if I wrote those words in a serious vein I would be criticized by some; but when I put them in a calypso, folks laugh and applaud; they even play it on the radio. In today’s popular music, we don’t have that. In a time when there is so much to make you cringe, losing such a trenchant source of laughter has to be a major loss.