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Calypso! Kaiso! Kaiso!

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For me carnival is about calypso, steelband and mas. They would always be central to carnival. My focus here is on the calypso.Virtually every year there is confusion about picks for the Calypso finals and of course, about the winners. What I am writing here is not necessarily meant to be a criticism of the judges’ picks, although my selection this year did not necessarily coincide with that of the judges.  True enough, they are using broad guidelines . When a judge looks at lyrics as part of the criteria, what is he/she judging? Part of the problem is that some of the judges might know music, but little about calypso.

     The calypso is part of our cultural and historic tradition and can be traced back to Africa and our slave plantations. It has roots that are deep that we cannot simply discard. Plantation owner Mrs Carmichael observing without fully understanding what was happening, stated “Negroes have fertile imaginations; and it is not unusual for them to compose impromptu words to their songs, very often of the most ludicrous nature…” Historian Bryan Edwards writing in the late 18th and earlier 19th century seemed to have had a better understanding; “At their merry meetings and midnight festivals they are not without ballads of another kind adapted to such occasions: and here they give full scope to a talent for ridicule and derision which is exercised not only against each other, but also not infrequently at the expense of their owner or employer.” (my emphasis)

     What has been associated with the calypso is ridicule, derision and coming with that, controversy. The calypso has always been the voice of the people. It touches on subjects and issues that have been officially taboo. The calypsonian has been granted a virtual license by convention so that he can use his creative imagination to bear on any issue, of course this has its limitations. But it is basically about social commentary and story telling using to full effect humour and the double entendre.

     A more recent comment by V.S Naipaul is worth repeating: “It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality (substitute SVG for Trinidad). The pure calypso, the best calypso is incomprehensible to the outsider. Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, however good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso.” (my emphasis). Political Scientist Selwyn Ryan, has added another dimension, “Today, the critical calypso is accepted as a sacred part of the national tradition.” The quotations I mentioned are critical to an understanding of the calypso. Add to what Ryan says, Naipaul’s view that wit and verbal conceits are fundamental.

     The calypso is believed by some to have been derived from the West African word Kaiso. So today when one sings a classic calypso, we often hear shouts of “Kaiso! Kaiso”! If the judges understood what the calypso was about, they might arrive at different decisions. By making the kind of decisions they do, they send a signal to the calypsonians as to what is acceptable. We have to protect the calypso, its social commentary, its humour, its wit, its mockery, its derision, and verbal conceits. It cannot be allowed to wither away and to be sanitised out of existence. It must be allowed to tell the peoples’ story and be the peoples’ voice.

     The Calypso association has a role to play beyond what happens at carnival. Calypsonians have a lot of work to do in how they approach their calypso. Some years ago, I called for more humour in calypso and was strongly criticised, but one of my critics is today using humour to telling effect. Tents need to be better organised and to run for a longer time. I realise that cost is a factor, but some way has to be found around that. Let us, calypso lovers, protect Calypso.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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