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…..