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Calypso and society – some thoughts


It pains me to see how poorly patronized are the two carnival shows associated with calypsos. My thoughts here are meant to start another conversation with the aim of saving the calypso art form. It is conceivable that in this era of market economy a decision could be made to further downgrade calypso as a component of Carnival and opt for more lucrative shows.

Let us hope that it doesn’t reach there, but we should take no chance. The calypso is central to Carnival and needs particular attention. Although we can argue about the reasons for the lack of public support based on attendance at the Park, it is clear to me that the calypso is the most talked about subject at Carnival.{{more}} If anything, it generates a lot of controversy every year.

I want to provide a context to better understand what is happening with our calypso art form. Let us first look at its roots. There is general consensus that it is derived from the West African word ‘aiso’. Today we continue to hear shouts of ‘kaiso! kaiso’, referring to classic calypso! Bryan Edwards, writing in the 18th century about Slave Society, points to aspects of slave songs that we still see manifested today. He writes, “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…” Ridicule, derision and controversy have therefore been around for a long time with employers, bosses and those who exercise the power of control being often the victims.

The calypso has undergone changes over the years as it adapted to challenges and changes in society. VS Naipaul in his novel THE MIDDLE PASSAGE (1962) touches on the nature and role of the calypso as he saw it from a Trinidadian perspective. He states, “It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes and it does so in a local language. 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.”

To this we add the view that the calypsonian is not only an entertainer, but also the peoples’ spokesperson. We ‘touch on reality through the calypso’ is an important observation. Herein lies the popularity of the calypso, because the calypsonian touches on subjects and issues that are often not talked about publicly. The calypsonian has something of a license, granted not by law, but by convention and tradition. The threat of legal action against a calypsonian is an interesting development. The calypso in question did attempt to put focus on the ‘double entendre,’ which always had a central place in the songs of slaves and in the calypso as it evolved. Within the context of Slave Society, while the slave master did not understand what was sung, the slaves understood perfectly well. Naipaul’s point that the calypso is incomprehensible to the outsider because it deals with local attitudes and incidents now has to be looked at again in light of rapid developments in communication technology.

The calypso is about lyrics and melody. Lyrics is a key component of the calypso, to the extent that we pay a lot of attention to it, sometimes hardly remembering the melody. This, perhaps, follows naturally because the calypsonian is storyteller and spokesperson. I have long maintained that our calypsos have suffered because, among other things, little attention is being paid to humour and the ‘double entendre’. Marshie’s ‘controversial’ composition attempted to use the ‘double entendre’ to full effect. One of my criticisms of this calypso (and I have others) is that a lot more could have been done with more creative and imaginative use of the ‘double entendre’.

With soca’s overwhelming emphasis on melody, our calypsonians highlight their role as social commentators and story-tellers. But so much more can be done with more use of humour and the ‘double entendre’. Perhaps the person who best combines different aspects of the calypso in his songs is the Mighty Sparrow. Check ‘Phillip, My Dear’, ‘Well Spoken Moppers’, ‘Queen Canary’ and ‘Capitalism Gone Mad’, to name a few. He was also unique in using his calypso ‘Ten To One is Murder’ to win public support, for a case brought against him.

In looking at ways to win back public support, I am suggesting that among other things is the need for a longer ‘Tent’ season. I understand the problems associated with this, but it could, if provided with more support from government and the private sector, be critical to calypso revival. With that support will come, hopefully, better organization and a greater degree of professionalism. This can provide the calypsonian with a better opportunity to provide a greater number and variety of calypsos, some done specifically for the tent and at least two for competition. Fans are bound to flock the tents and this will encourage attendance at the major calypso shows. The calypso is too important an art form and too central to Carnival to be allowed to wither in this way, and here I am referring to public support. I must point out that whatever is said is not meant to denigrate calypsos sung today, because many of them are really of a high standard. Our aim here is to get calypsonians and fans talking with the goal of developing the art form and winning back public support.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.