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Calypso and Carnival 2010


Carnival 2010 is over, and it is only left for us to reflect on what has happened. My focus is on Calypsos, especially those sung on Dimanche Gras Show, the Night of the Finals. I do not think there has ever been a year when there were so many political calypsos in the finals.{{more}} Calypsonians have always, through their songs, commented on social and political issues. What stood out this year was the number of anti-government calypsos, made even more interesting because two of the finalists bucked the trend and sought to defend and to shower praise on the government. What can be stated clearly is that there has always been an association between calypso and politics. There were always, as far back as 1951, calypsos sung at election campaigns and at victory celebrations, often, however, in the form of short choruses built around the symbols of the candidates. There were sometimes the overnight calypsonian whose sole purpose was to make a political statement. I could distinctly remember in 1966 a calypsonian from Layou whose song was “we got to change de government”. The lyrics were a repetition of the theme and occasionally a variation of it. I don’t think we ever heard from that calypsonian again.

But it was not always as simple as that because there were occasions when calypsonians would not have attempted to present as their competition pieces songs critical of the government. This depended on the political climate and their ability to capture the sentiments of the public. In 1986 at a Calypso Symposium at the University of the West Indies, St.Augustine, I presented a paper entitled “Calypso and Politics in SVG with Special Reference to the Role of the Calypso in the 1984 General Election”. The focus of the paper was on the Calypso “Horne Fuh Dem” that by the strangest coincidence possible had played a major role in the election of that year. In that paper, speaking on the association between calypso and politics I made reference to an occasion in the early 1980s when the Chairman of the CDC was said to have unplugged the cord of the sound system to the stand where officials of government sat, during the singing of a calypso critical of the government. Those listening to the show on radio, however, heard it all. There were times when suddenly the lone radio station would develop technical problems during the singing of particular calypsos. While at one time the popularity of the Trinidad Radio stations meant that we were more exposed to Trinidad calypsos, with the greater availability of ghetto blasters, tape decks and stereo sets, and even later the recording of calypsos locally, local calypsos then began to dominate and were heard everywhere. Governments then became more sensitive to calypsos with critical political commentary. There were occasions over the years when calypsos were banned from the single radio station that existed. In his weekly column in the Vincentian newspaper on July 26, 1985, Dr. Kenneth John in reflecting on the first year of the NDP government listed among the positives that there was no banning of calypsos, and as he put it, “Calypsonians are free to sing social commentary.”

This year something has happened. Of the eleven calypsonians that faced the judges on Dimanche Gras Night, only two did not sing songs that were directly political. Those were Joy C- with ‘Cries of the Grand’ and ‘Think’ and Tajoe with ‘Tribute to Haiti’ and ‘World Crisis’. Even Ipa who frequently uses his calypsos to call for a healing of the Nation as he did this year could not avoid his political digs, referring to victimisation and the use of party cards. Brother Ebony who started with ‘Haiti, a Blessed Day is Coming’, used his second song to send a message that the Prime Minister should take warning from the defeat of Prime Minister Manning in Trinidad and Tobago. While most of those calypsos were strongly critical of the government and Prime Minister, Sulle and Bosalt attempted a Rescue Mission. Sulle had two well composed calypsos but as often with calypsos the atmosphere and political climate make a difference. In fact one woman said about Sulle, “He ain living in this Country. Is he one ah dem Overseas Calypsonians?”

This year was a difficult one for the layman trying to pick the winner. There was no one who was clearly out front and any of a number of them could have been given the nod. Joy C’s “Cries of the Grand” made a big impact. It was well presented, and as usual clearly enunciated. She is powerful on the stage and commands your attention. The audience liked it. Her second song came nowhere near matching the first, but the strength of her first calypso was obviously what gave her the edge. Overall, the Calypso ‘Finals’ was good and the calypsonians seemed to have put great effort into their compositions and presentations. A few persons from whom we were expecting great things fell a bit flat in one or the other of their songs. The focus on politics might have had something to do with the fact that we are into an election year and the atmosphere is really one where the elections are on the minds of the populace. The relationship between politics and calypso would, however, not go away, elections or not.

In the past, influenced by Trinidad, our calypsonians sang a slow, social/political commentary song and a faster piece meant for the road. A lot of this has changed. The Road March is now the preserve of the Soca Artistes. Before the advent and popularity of soca the calypsonians would prepare compositions geared for the road. There were years, too, when the Musical Bands carried the day. ‘Touch’ stands out in this regard. The Calypsonians are thus left to concentrate on social and political commentary. Calypsos appeal to an older population, while the younger ones move to soca. The Calypso Association has to do some serious thinking about the future of the calypso. The emphasis is on the Calypso Finals on Dimanche Gras Night, but this means that a number of calypsonians who have not made it to that point are left out in the cold, even though they might have had good compositions as we have seen this year. They have to look again at recreating the Tent as it used to be. In 1981, Doug Neverson, writing about the Calypso Tent, had the following to say “…(it) is marked by hilarity, jesting, ribald heckling and satire. One hears social commentary , political ‘picong’ and ‘commess’. Calypsonians use the opportunity to create mirth and merriment or to induce serious thought”. We need to get back to this, but having the tents at Victoria Park would not recreate this kind of atmosphere. An enclosed area is needed where there could be greater interaction with the audience. This would also lend itself to the production of a variety of calypsos and cater to those persons who might not necessarily be interested in making it to the finals but who might have something to offer those who come to the tents. This area needs working on, and the calypsonians must begin to treat this as a matter of urgency or they might be preparing themselves for the death of the calypso as we now know it.

Let me, finally, compliment Raeon “Maddzart” Primus for winning the Road March with his song “The King Road”. At Dimanche Gras and Mardi Gras, most of the bands used this particular song, so it was no surprise to me that he captured the Road March title.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.