Calypso contortions

With Mashramani in the air in Guyana and Carnival winding down in Trinidad, the subject of calypso is once again in the air.  In Guyana we have controversy in the Junior Calypso Competition where a young singer, presenting a double entendre calypso, has drawn stinging comments in the press for “vulgarity” and “disgraceful lyrics that should be thrown in the garbage”, and the Trinidad Guardian newspaper is reporting the decline in calypso tents with one operator saying they cannot survive without a government subsidy, as one writer muses on “The death of calypso”.

In a narrow sense, our Junior Calypso uproar demonstrates, among other things, that people who write acclaimed calypsos are possessed with an unusual and very specialised gift to look at a society and extract commentary that is both introspective and amusing at the same time.  That, indeed, is the ingredient that sets calypso apart from any other popular music anywhere – the ability to find humour in life and to present it in a form that the society embraces – and the calypsonians who do it at  a high level are working with talent that is really a unique gift.  As with any other art form, of course, the quality of the work varies widely, so that from the start, the reality for the Junior Calypso uproar here is that what is involved there is essentially not a very good calypso in that the double entendre is poorly disguised (these things are not easy to write) and the work was therefore criticised for dealing in vulgarity and lewdness.

The ingenuity of the lyrics we get from Trinidadian singers like Cro Cro and Sugar Aloes now (and by singers like the late Lord Canary and King Fighter here) is a creative outpouring based on years of experimentation to extract humour from social topics of the day.  It is not a passing fancy over a few weeks relating to an event like Carnival or Cropover or Mash; it is essentially an artistic career choice not a temporary dab at music from a newcomer ‘trying a ting’.  It is the most significant plank in the calypso structure which at one time was the popular music of the day in the Caribbean, preceding soca and dancehall, and as long as the art form is around that idea of career, or life choice, by a writer will have to be in play.  To put it another way, we cannot come to this thing once a year, for three or four weeks, and then disappear until the next festival comes around.

From a wider lens, however, the biggest factor in all this is societal change.  All on its own, with no prodding or diktats from any one, a society decides on the ingredients of its culture, one of them being music, and calmly goes about getting what it wants by paying for A and saying “no thanks” to B.  It is so with the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the food we eat, the churches we attend, and how we spend our disposable income on things which include music.  Calypso was once the big gun in Caribbean music, but when Lord Shorty told Trini band-leader Ed Watson, “Ed, calypso is dead”, and turned to developing soca, he was talking as someone who was involved in a career where he was seeing an alteration; in its early stages, perhaps, but an alteration.  The factors behind the shift are varied and deep and they have been discussed everywhere – indeed, as we write the “calypso dead?” question is once again front page in Trinidad.

As someone in the music industry for some 55 years, the transition in calypso leaves me feeling sad.  Societies change, things come and go, including in the Caribbean, but calypso is a fantastic art form that captures the essence of a people – our exuberance, our ability to find humour in travail, our creative streak – and for it to fade away, whatever the reasons, means we have suffered a significant loss.  Fortunately, one of the changes working to our benefit, is the emergence of technology that leaves us able to go on the web, or to listen to a recording somewhere, and hear for ourselves the joy and the sweep of calypso.  A part of the drop, of course, is that that very technology has also brought out a range of social attention that wasn’t there before but which is now dealing with issues that engaged calypso in times past.  In other words, the ingredients calypso focused on are now being handled (apart from the Carnival Calypso Monarch competition in Trinidad) by a range of other easily accessed media platforms.  So the story is still there, but the vehicle is now a different creature where, for me, significantly, the humour ingredient, crucial to calypso, is often absent, and that is a pity.

To hear Sparrow, for instance, castigate our education system in his piercing ‘Dan Is The Man’ song, or the double entendre of ‘Congo Man’, or to encounter Gypsy warning Trinidad that ‘The Ship is Sinking’, is to hear ingenuity and pertinence and sense of humour combining in a piece of entertainment.  Dougla’s ‘Lazy Man’, with its point about the laid back life, is another example, but there are scores of them in the calypso archives including such classics as Lord Funny’s ‘Fuh Cane’, Crazy’s ‘In Time to Come’, and, a favourite for me, Lord Blakie’s ‘Chinese Incident’. (I am tempted to include my own ‘Copycats’ but modesty prohibits.)

Life changes and that includes music; I get that.  But I also get that sometimes the change, propelled by the times, leaves us with a loss.  I like soca and dancehall and reggae – some of it a lot.  But if calypso dies we have definitely lost. Mind you, so it go.

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