Following two recent columns in this space touching on the decline of calypso as popular music, I have heard from several readers in some very interesting exchanges on this subject. These gaffs, some of them quite extensive, served to confirm the point I raised, in one of the previous So it Go columns, of the diversity of topic that has been a feature of calypso since it emerged in Trinidad almost 100 years ago and constitutes a singular feature of the art form. As I have often mentioned in public performances in various countries over the years, one of the many unique features of this music is that while calypso is known for its salacious subject matter, and the consequently double entendre disguises, calypsonians actually sing about anything and everything under the sun; no subject is taboo; no matter is too delicate; the door is wide open for artists to enter, whatever their point. It is a distinction with a difference; one that sets it apart in the popular music genre.
A prime example is one from the 1930s, Grenada Excursion by Growler (a song I mentioned before), which set me as a writer on the calypso path. Growler wrote about a boat excursion from Trinidad to Grenada where rough seas almost caused a sinking, and while I suspect the event was covered in the various media of the day, I am very confident that no musician in the other art forms took it up as the subject for a song. Calypso, however, did in a manner that offended no one, deprecated no one, and left us laughing at what could have been a disaster. In classic kaiso use of the sardonic to emphasise, Growler tells us in one line that at the height of the storm, “a man turn and said to he wife, look we pay six dollars to lose we life.”
Time and again as we rifle through this catalogue of our popular music stretching back so many years one is struck by the range of topics our creators have embraced. It is a difference that I did not consciously recognise in my early years, but it was somehow operating for me, as well (perhaps in the subconscious from being exposed to the early recordings) because as I look back over the genre it is clearly there.
A classic example is a song entitled Chinese Incident by the late Lord Blakie, a Trinidadian icon in the form, where we see Blakie’s genius in taking an incident involving a traffic accident and using it as a platform to highlight the range of ethnic influences in the society by replaying in the chorus the hilarious pronunciation of Standard English by a Chinese immigrant to the Caribbean. The song instantly reverberated with Caribbean people familiar with the permutations of language that could produce, as it did in this case, an hilarious scenario without – and here’s the key point – any insult or put down. It is a feature of this music that it leaves us able to see the comical in ourselves, or in our neighbours, in a manner that is obviously instructional. It is instructional in that not only is the music played on the radio without demurral, but that the people laughing the hardest, in the calypso tents as well, were the descendants of the Chinese immigrants themselves.
Similarly, in a song of mine called Civilisation, where I argued that animals were often more progressive or showed more wisdom than mankind, I was able to make a point safely in kaiso that, in another format, could well have raised hackles. Indeed, a young man in St Lucia, charged with urinating in public, defended himself by telling the Magistrate, “Your Honour, who’s civilised and who’s the jackass?” To which the Magistrate responded “Case dismissed…and go and thank Dave Martins for getting you off.”) The genre is full of examples like that: one would be Sparrow’s Dan Is The Man, where Mr Francisco ridicules our early teaching methods using British text books (“Twisty and Twirly were two screws.”) No uproar resulted, but picture the eruption from the Ministry of Education if an academic had come out with a condemnation, as opposed to a kaiso?
Consider the political arena. Persons in that sphere are particularly sensitive to public criticism, and the higher up the greater the sensitivity, but a Chalkdust or a Cro Cro or a Sugar Aloes, or a Lord Canary, can come out with a sweeping mockery, naming names and incidents, and the people laugh; in fact, the subject of the public slap has to take it in stride, and, indeed, laugh as well. Consider for instance, in these days of Donald Trump, the absolute impossibility of an American President being lampooned in a popular song on the radio, and that in that vein remember that Eric Williams and Basdeo Panday and Karl Hudson Phillips, or Owen Arthur regularly got lampooned, but notice that it was possible only, and I emphasise ‘only’, in kaiso. Some of our social scientists have argued that calypso in fact has operated as a pressure relief valve on various public issues in Caribbean society; ask the Trinis; ask the Bajans; ask the Guyanese about the song ‘Postpone’ here during the recent parking meter turmoil.
And the subjects don’t end there. Yes, calypso has addressed sex – big time – but it has also addressed sociology (Ah Went Away by Andre Tanker), philosophy (Learn to Laugh by Chalkdust), dislocation (Emmerton by Gabby), dialect (Ramjohn by Killer), politics (Sinking Ship by Gypsy) and sport (Cricket in the Jungle by Dave Martins) and the list goes on from there. Nothing is off limits; all are fair game.
More elaboration is not possible in this space, but I have been approached by a prominent person in the society to do that in a public forum soon in Georgetown, and there is a possibility that I will do a similar presentation in Barbados, Trinidad and Cayman. It will be fun. Stay tuned.