Monday 26th February, 2007

Debbie Jacob
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Calypso in trouble

And suppose that Cro Cro’s Dimanche Gras calypso really was a repeat of a song he once sang in Shadow’s Master’s Den. What exactly does this tell us about the National Calypso Monarch competition?

It shows, I would argue, that you can take the competition out of the Savannah but you can’t take the Savannah out of the competition.

Without trying to sound ominous or downright superstitious, I would like to go on record saying that the Calypso Monarch competition has nothing going for it but bad vibes.

Old calypsonians used to talk about there being jumbies in the Savannah and they were most likely right. The jumbies were the spirits of bygone calypsonians who haunt what has become a lacklustre competition filled with enough bitter calypsonians to rock the calypso boat.

First and foremost the problem with that competition always comes back to the judges who never know how to judge calypsoes from different genres. A humorous calypso is never on an even field with a social commentary and a political commentary is never on an even field with a social commentary.

Political commentary is dying a slow, painful death because everyone—including Cro Cro—realises you don’t get picked if you criticise the Government. The occasional token political calypso gets through, but it’s unlikely to steal the crown.

Each calypso should be judged according to a clear rubric that measures structure, creativity, lyrics and melody. There is clear judging criteria, but too often judges seem to be at a loss on how to follow it.

If judges were properly trained in how to follow a rubric, there would be less than one per cent disagreement about who would win. The content would matter only in terms of the rubric. Ask any English teacher—who grades essays, and he, or she for that matter—will tell you how easy it is to follow a rubric.

So one would expect lyrical content to be judged according to how a calypsonian builds an argument. A calypso judge would be able to separate himself from political content that he does not agree with and judge the calypso solely on its structural merit. Does that happen? At the risk of sounding like Fox News, you be the judge.

The next problem with calypso judging—and I use that term loosely to include soca judging, even Road March judging—is that the judges do not know their musical history. No one in this country seems to realise how many times we have been duped by plagiarised melodies.

Worse yet is that the handful of people who bring up the problem with “borrowed” melodies, a euphemism for stolen melodies, don’t even use the right terminology in discussing the problem. Too often they refer to a stolen melody as sampling when sampling is actually lifting a recorded part of another person’s song and putting it into a new song. It’s like cutting a chunk of cake out a pan and inserting it inside another cake.

Plagiarised melodies mean that the melodies were stolen and played in a new piece of music while the thief pretends it’s his original melody. He re-records the melody and puts it in his song.

As I have written ad nauseam, teenagers today haven’t been exposed to enough different types of music to know how many pop melodies are masquerading as calypsoes out there. Talk about playing a mas. Music is playing the biggest mas in Carnival these days.

And now for the biggest problem of all. Calypsonians are—and always have been—their own worst enemies. Their festering sense of pettiness never ceases to amaze me. While they have a right to comment about any judge’s decision or even express their concerns or dismay about a judge’s decision, the timing is always suspicious.

I have not always seen eye to eye with the T&T Unified Calypso Organisation (Tuco) but I do agree with its very perceptive statement about the timing of the calypso protest against Cro Cro. Why would calypsonians wait until after he won his crown to express their feelings that he had sung his calypso before?

No doubt all of these squabbles come from too many crabs being packed in one barrel. There just isn’t the demand for “traditional” calypso like there used to be. The soca boat got an engine donated by William Munro years ago and it took off like a speed boat. Whose fault was that? It was the fault of traditional calypsonians who scorned soca’s presence in the Dimanche Gras show. They pushed the life out of calypso to protect their weaknesses—not their strengths.

The traditional Calypso Monarch competition was left with too many competitors who wouldn’t know a melody if it bit them. Those well-rounded calypsonians such as Shadow who make it to a Calypso Monarch final never receive their due.

The only hope I see for that Dimanche Gras competition is to wrestle it away from Government’s claws. Give it to William Munro. Let it struggle a while in a new format and new forum. Let it be the third competition along with the Power Soca Monarch and Groovy Soca Monarch competitions now featured in Munro’s show.

Let it have some fireworks and fire. Don’t make it a lame duck, worse off than any politician on his way out of office. With all the petty fighting going on around this art form, calypsonians should be big enough to realise the real problem at hand.

Calypso is not going forward because it is no longer the newspaper of the people. It doesn’t have enough braggarts to stand up to society. It’s fast becoming a toothless—even spineless—shadow of its former self. When it comes to calypso it’s clear massa’s day is not done.

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