Calypso Muzzling Itself

November 8, 2000

THE very next time calypsonians even dare to whisper about a perception that external forces are conspiring to muzzle candid expression, someone should remind them of their conduct during the current election campaign.

Sadly, after more than two centuries of vigorously defending their right to freedom of choice in the selection and treatment of topics, the very calypsonians who incessantly preach this independence of thought are now fiercely chastising those among them that practise it.

In the only indigenous art that prides itself on promulgating constitutional rights and one frequently touted by its practitioners as a cutting-edge, creative crucible for fearless comment, it suddenly seems that freedom of association is a selective concept, outlawed (or at least frowned upon) where it involves radical political choices.

Indeed, in the latter-day world of calypso, the definition of political commentary has apparently been narrowed to mean audible support for the People’s National Movement (PNM), or alternatively, denigration of the United National Congress (UNC).

Calypsonians who dare deviate from this unwritten rule have discovered, to their chagrin, the degree of ostracism that such adventures may incur. At every sequence, Gregory ‘GB’ Ballantyne and stable-mate M’ba are being rebuked by their colleagues, on the flimsy evidence that they sang songs in praise of the UNC.

Former national calypso monarch, Gypsy, who went one step further by offering himself as a UNC candidate, has become an even larger target, all because he either changed his political allegiance, or only now decided to make it public; facilities guaranteed him by the constitution.

But blinded by the passion in which politics cloaks those who regard it with undue intensity, what the pro-PNM calypsonians are quite inadvertently doing, is curtailing freedom of expression; the very concept that allows them to sing songs favourable to their preferred political party. Such naivete is not only perilous in the present tense, but is bound to impact on the future of the very art.

As of now, novice calypsonians and particularly the youth, must be thoroughly confused by the extant scenario, if they are led to believe that regardless of lyrical quality, melodic line, presentation or rendition of a political commentary, it must also overtly support the PNM.

There are only two possible explanations for what GB and M’ba did: they either hired out their talent to willing purchasers, or expressed personal views. Not so long ago, the latter concept was not only considered a perfectly legitimate approach to calypso, but was actually encouraged.

And given the recent announcement of Machel Montano’s signing with Atlantic Records and the continuing success of Anslem Douglas’ song “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, selling soca skills seem to be celebrated on the one hand and castigated on the other.

By his own admission, the Calypso King of the World, The Mighty Sparrow, suffered severely for his overt alignment with the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) in 1981, a marriage that produced all-time calypso classics like “Capitalism Gone Mad” and “You Mad”.

It was a fate he had managed to avoid over decades of openly lambasting the British monarchy, from the fifties with “The Queen’s Canary”, through “The Princess and the Cameraman”, “London Bridge” and to the singularly hilarious “Phillip, My Dear”; perhaps because he simultaneously sang the praises of the PNM. Once he shifted political focus, his commentary calypsoes, regardless of inherent quality, began to attract a series of virulent attacks.

In the face of this startling contradiction, calypso’s forked tongue wags, with stalwarts of the fraternity continuing to express concern for the diminishing popularity of political and social commentary songs. The youth, they say, is only interested in festival-type music. None of the elders, it seems, wish to even consider that they may well be transmitting mixed signals to youngsters, straining at the bit to develop independent political opinions.

And if the perception of the PNM is one of an African-Trinidadian party, then calypso is further narrowing potential earlier reduced through decades of denigrating women, bashing the gay community and hurling abuse at other ethnic groups and the elite. In the sum, calypso seems to be working harder than ever at shrinking its already miniscule market.

If calypsonians really wish to guard the precious facility of singing unfettered by political interference, then all must be allowed to air their views. And while that may not please a few, it will undoubtedly redound to the greater good of the art.

And if this all sounds like some kind of elaborate pitch for the UNC, then the problem is clearly larger than I first thought.

Terry-J at I-Level