– (Dedicated to Zeno Obi Constance, lecturer, historian, archivist, playwright and the most knowledgeable and helpful expert on Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago).
By Tony Deyal
Mum’s the word, I thought, but not for keeping quiet. I had planned this week’s article to feature calypsoes on women. My Jamaican friends don’t have calypsos but they had the kings of Reggae like Marley, Dekker, Tosh and Shaggy who presented them with songs like “She’s Royal”, “Strength of a Woman”, “Bam Bam” and “Princes Black” to the point that no woman no cry for calypso. I wanted to start with the stickfight era and chose for my first lick, “Mooma, Mooma, your son in the ring already/ Youh son in the ring already so take a towel and band youh belly.”
Then, from my schooldays, the Trinidad version of an English folk song, “You better tell youh mama don’t send you down dey.” I remembered the Mighty Destroyer’s great calypso of the 1930s which was very popular at least once a year when I was growing up and all of us were forced to learn the chorus, “A mother’s love is the master key of this world.” There was also the mature women or “mamas” like Sukkee with whom the Calypsonian pleaded, “Come leh we go Sukeee come leh we go”, and the one who told Sparrow, “Ah fraid you make a calypso on me. Not me. Ah don’t want you to make a calypso on me. Ah know nobody go see, that is only the two ah we, but ah fraid you go make a calypso on me.”
Then I thought about Calypso Rose who received every award available to living artists in the Caribbean. She is now 83 years old and, thinking about her, I started singing “I going down San Fernando”, her carnival hit about the southern Trinidad city of uphills and downhills. Then it hit me that while Rose and other heroes rose and took calypso to the heights with them, it has now fallen into the slough of despond. Their calypsoes had depth but now, hearing the calypsoes chosen as the best for this year in the most recent “Dimanche Gras” or national carnival calypso contest, it is clear that calypso in Trinidad is not just down in the depths and dumps but heading for the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea, the Puerto Rico Trench.
The question I asked myself and a few other friends who are from the old brigade and remember the “Young” Brigade of Kitchener (Kitch), Melody and Spoiler, as well as Sparrow, came from the Calypsonian Valentino. “Why only one type of calypso/ Must dominate the Dimanche Gras show? What about the valuable contribution/ Made by the other calypsonians? Too much injustice in calypso/especially on that Dimanche Gras show…” Most of my other friends strongly supported Valentino’s concern. One insisted, “Boy when Rudder sing Calypso Music now and ask you ‘Can you hear a distant drum, bouncing on the laughter of a melody and the rhythm tell you come, come, come’ is Barbados, Grenada, Antigua or any other place in the Caribbean except the Trinidad savannah when the supposedly best Trini calypsonians are singing.”
Another friend started singing Lord Kitchener’s “Jerico” for me and said, “Look, Kitch advised in his calypso that if you looking for Jerico you should tell them that he is in town, but I warning you and everybody else don’t try that. Kitch tells us flat that “Jerico ‘eh dey (not there)’”. He left Trinidad in a hurry and stopped off in Barbados on his way to the other so-called ‘small’ islands.” The one that hit me hardest was, “Tony, remember the calypso which claimed that ‘Calypso and Steelband is the culture of Trinidad’? Well half the culture, the Calypso part, done gone and instead of a culture, calypso has become a cult and those who like this particular cult could haul their mother cult from here.”
This stunned me to the point that I went and looked up “Calypso” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It read, “Calypso: a type of folk song from Trinidad though sung elsewhere in the southern and eastern Caribbean islands. The subject of a calypso text, usually witty and satiric, is a local and topical event of political and social import, and the tone is one of allusion, mockery and double entendre.” This fits in with what the great Black Stalin saw as the role of the calypsonian. He said, “We are the people’s watchdog, elected for life.” He also made it clear that calypsonians should never put “party before country.” Brother Valentino, Stalin’s good friend, added, “The calypsonian is the only true opposition.”
Seeing that even the comedians in Trinidad are not allowed to make jokes against the Government now in power, and the singers are much less than a Shadow of what they were, or even a Swallow, I decided to ask two of the greats of Caribbean calypso for their views. First, I called the man who took his government boots by the boots and booted them out of power, the great and Mighty Gabby (Anthony Carter). He described many of the present songs in Trinidad as “ringle dingle” that are totally lacking in the key elements of the calypso art-form. What he did was show me a video of his eight-year-old son, The Mighty Bit-Bit, who sang a genuine calypso managing his stagecraft like a veteran. That was all the proof I needed that Trinidad is out of contention now and in the future.
Then I spoke to my other favourite- Statson Wiltshire, the great Red Plastic Bag or just “Bag”. He said that Carnival songs are played by DJs who are not “true-true radio people” and who now control the radio stations so that the festival – the jump, wave and jam – drive the Carnival when it should be the other way around. The Carnival festival- what it is and stands for – should drive the music. He believes that in the old days we first heard of the important “happenings” or events in our society or the outside world, and what they meant or signified, the consequences and the actions we should take, from the calypsonians. Now calypso seems to have become a sub-culture. Social media has also diluted what calypsonians brought to the forefront.
However, RPB is convinced that calypso is going through a rough period now but it will get back. He stressed that calypso is not going anywhere and will always have impact because when politicians open their mouths, calypso will fall out. His view is that regardless of what is happening in Trinidad now, the voice of the people will eventually speak out again. He ended with, “Tony, the only thing that is better than genuine calypso is a steelband – playing calypso.”
While I was glad to hear this, I remembered Greek Mythology and what the Olympians under Zeus did to the Titans when they won the battle. They exiled Calypso. I get the impression she had moved to Trinidad and as soon as Zeus found out, he packed her up again.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying if you know where Calypso is, let’s ask the present Government to bring her back, if not to Trinidad but at least to Tobago.
Young Barbadian Calypsonian, son of Gabby, Bit-Bit