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Contriving A Gender Issue

By Terry Joseph
Feb 1999

CARNIVAL visitors may well have returned home with the impression that some kind of revolution took place during the festival, resulting in the liberation of hitherto oppressed female singers.

The feeling, fuelled by patently excessive fanfare over Sanell Dempster and Singing Sandra, who copped the road march and national calypso monarch crowns (respectively); is nothing but a cheap political shot. While the ladies won fairly and must be congratulated for their success, the political spin put on the whole affair by the Ministry of Culture and Gender Affairs, may well have reduced whatever intrinsic or artistic value their triumphs originally offered.

The celebration of their victories as a singular conquest for women (more so than their work), led to a special party being thrown by the Minister, indicating to the uninitiated that females had dismantled some major human-rights obstacle or won afresh, the right to vote.

The arts have never before been subjected to such cheap distinctions, where the gender of performers purchases greater respect than the very substance of their work. Were it the first time that such a thing had occurred, the benchmark acknowledgement would suffice. To suggest, however, that battle lines are now drawn between the sexes is really the height of political hype.

Such was the prevailing euphoria that even Calypso Queen, Shurlane Hendrickson, was embraced by this ludicrous celebration of "all-female" triumph, as if her particular title had previously been dominated by male singers. Ironically, when Denyse Plummer won the Young King title in 1989 and male singers protested, they were shouted down.

In honouring achievement, we must be careful to ensure that the quality of the work is paramount and not obfuscated by a superimposed coincidence. Meaning no discredit to their performances, we should however note that, in the instant case, neither of the major title-bearers could lay full claim to writing the song, arranging the music or charting the course that brought them to victory.

But with a female Minister of Culture, it must have seemed like a heaven-sent opportunity to raise a flag for the oft-forgotten Gender section of her portfolio. Ironically, Calypso Rose, who managed to cop both titles in 1977 and then repeat the road march win in the year following, was left out of the picture, as was another pioneer of the female presence in calypso, Singing Francine.

Both Rose and Francine laboured long in calypso tents that did not even facilitate them with separate dressing-rooms and often left them to jostle with men for places on the playbill or in the washrooms. Denyse Plummer, by quite another route, scored a kind of success that paved the way for a whole other cadre of female to enter the arena.

But the hurrah was politically tailored to this year's winners, whose victories may well be fleeting, given the very nature of calypso and road march contests. Knowing the local penchant for competition in the arts (particularly at Carnival time) the trickle-down effect of the Ministry's eagerness to exaggerate the importance of gender in the instant case, may steer us along a quite unnecessary route.

Next year, one supposes, the Ministry will be equally enthusiastic about feteing the winners, if they are all gay or Chinese (or for that matter, Rastafarian), lest some thin-skinned singer cries foul. Isn't it amazing how we design trouble for spaces where none existed previously?

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