Don't radio for help

January 19, 2000
By Terry Joseph

Attractive as the idea may appear, do not be rushed into condemnation of this Carnival's entire calypso crop, if your judgment is based solely upon selections being played on the radio.

The fact that determination of precisely which songs the public gets to hear has historically been left to radio is what has been getting us into trouble since 1955, when the top five places in the Road March competition went to foreign songs.

That Carnival, the melody played most often on the streets of Port of Spain was that of a German folk song called "The Happy Wanderer". Everyone knew the lyrics. At age eight, I sang it proudly from the gallery of our home, as the Savoy's Steel Orchestra made its way into Port of Spain that Jouvert morning, playing the chorus "Valderee, Valdera". After all, it was the piece of music that had enjoyed the greatest amount of airplay on the country's sole radio station during the Carnival season.

In descending order of popularity, the next four songs were also foreign. Second was the African song "Skokiaan", third was a Mexican piece called "Mexicalita", then there was the samba, "Zing", and in fifth place, ladies and gentlemen, Perez Prado's "Mambo Number One". This extraordinary situation obtained in the capital city of The Land of Calypso, even as the Mighty Spitfire was singing "29 Port of Spain" and Spoiler had won the calypso crown with "Picking Sense Out of Nonsense".

But radio did not at that time hold itself responsible for bringing the work of Spitfire or Spoiler to wider public attention. Today, as if to compensate for that glaring demonstration of socio-cultural irresponsibility, radio appears to have gone completely overboard, airing just about anything that the cat brings in or mews about.

Now, a couple of noteworthy songs seem to have slipped through the cracks and many thanks should go to a few of the presenters, including Winston Maynard on Radio 104 FM, who have gone to considerable effort every Saturday, to help rescue the national averages. But on those radio stations that advertise themselves as being on top of the season, the clear majority of calypsoes being aired are perilously poor.

As the year turned, I deluded myself into thinking that a contest designed to identify the worst songs of the season had been overshadowed by the Christmas season and the ensuing Y2K anxiety and that the radio stations were simply playing the work of the winners. It couldn't last-or so I thought!

In the first place, it seemed inconceivable that 95 per cent of the singers would wish to record their thoroughly unmusical songs at the same speed and with the same rhythm construction, or that most of them could have isolated the same 18 hackneyed words as total feedstock for their lyrics.

It was impossible, I kept telling myself, for them to come up with another inane song, given the volume that had already been played that day. I was wrong every time.

In addition, if we are to judge by the way in which they are being presented on radio, very few of this year's calypsoes appear to have names. Even the chosen are not introduced in traditional calypso fashion, but are segued to give the listener "commercial-free" music blocs.

At the end of such episodes, which could last up to 15 minutes each, the titles are either rattled off in frenzied voice, leaving the listener confused, or the presenter does not see the need to bother us unduly with such trivia.

Like a throwback to the 1955 example, radio has gone for the American option, playing a string of songs, as if the performers were Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and the Mighty Sparrow, or other talents, whose voices, musical integrity and singing styles are easily identifiable.

Thankfully, by the end of next week, all the calypso tents will be open, at which time the very radio stations that are currently bombarding us with those throwaway songs can actually discard them altogether, in favour of live recordings-if they are so minded.

And if some of the real calypsonians have been holding back their releases, waiting on the appropriate time to unleash some great works upon the public, believe me, there is no moment like the present. In fact, this is a mayday call to those calypsonians, to suspend the "sans humanite" concept in this desperate situation and show some mercy to those of us who listen to the radio; hoping with each new spin for a clear signal that all is not lost.

Terry-J at I-Level