He who is without spin
February 21, 2001
AMONG the most carefully guarded secrets of Trinidad and Tobago, is the astonishingly high ratio of ordinary people to calypso adjudicators, a quotient that stands at exactly one to one.
When The Growling Tiger won the first official calypso king competition in 1939 with "The Labour Situation in Trinidad", there was dissatisfaction, although, at the time, everyone was far more subdued and genteel about such matters.
But there were those (including my late father) who insisted that Atilla the Hun had been more impressive in the contest, a position he argued at every opportunity. More than a few rooted for Pretender.
The closing volley of those arguments was almost invariably prefaced with the proviso: "I don’t care what anyone says…." Of course, if the complainant has no regard for anyone else’s opinion, there is little point in proffering logic and fact as substitutes for emotion.
Through the years, seldom does a contest conclude without a plethora of protest over its results. In most instances, the complaints come from persons who neither saw the competing performers at close quarter, nor were familiar with the rules of the contest.
Consequently, those assessments are tarnished by the burden of personal preferences, rather than informed by evidence. The resulting arguments are therefore delivered with a particular spin, the only real accuracy coming from the statement: "I can’t understand how they left out so-and-so."
Now, the same judges included a large number of other calypsonians, choices with which the complainant agrees. But if in the lot there is even a single discrepancy between the adjudicators and the critic, the entire body of judges is deemed incompetent.
Over the years I functioned as a judge at the various levels of the national calypso monarch contest, at the end of each stage of competition, it was predictable that the telephone would ring almost non-stop for days thereafter, with irate callers foisting their findings upon me.
Curiously enough, those occasions on which affected calypsonians actually launch formal protests have always been few. In the instant case, even as debate continues over the selection of semi-finalists and the choice of Dimanche Gras contenders for Shadow’s crown, the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (Tuco) has not heard a murmur of objection from performers eliminated at those levels of the contest.
But that hasn’t stopped anyone from remonstrating with the judges over the omission of this or that calypsonian. Mark you, I will admit to a raised eyebrow upon hearing that Brother Mudada was not selected for the semi-final round, but I was not there when the judges visited the Klassic Russo tent, where he made his bid for inclusion.
Entertainment critics, who concluded that last Saturday’s Calypso Fiesta was a definite yawner, may also have been misled by the event’s promotional material, which promised a calypso show. It was, in fact, a contest and those wishing for dancing opportunities and other amusements to spring from it were simply victims of their own expectations.
The judges are not there to select a palatable mix of party songs and social or political commentary as would a producer for a commercial calypso concert. They are given a wad of guidelines about melody, lyrics, rendition and presentation and against that backdrop, pick 30 performers after listening to hundreds of singers at the various calypso tents.
The method by which judges are chosen, involves screening of applicants by the adjudication committee, after which successful candidates are exposed to training seminars, then a second screening identifies the group that will go forward to do the season’s work. This year, 50 graduates of the process comprise the group from which judges were chosen for the various stages of the contest.
Participating calypsonians were given the opportunity to raise objections to any or all of the judges. My information is that none among them protested then or now and two levels of elimination have already gone. Not that calypsonians haven’t spoken of their disappointment, but none has written a formal complaint to Tuco.
It may be that the calypso body needs to revisit the very framework within which its judges operate, perhaps updating and adjusting some of the long-standing principles contained therein to more properly address today’s calypso products. Like any other art, calypso is a dynamic thing. Great as he was, The Growling Tiger would not likely win any of today’s competitions.
Which is the better calypso? Surely a song that offloads four boring verses of fault-free research on a particular topic should not beat one that craftily combines a few essentials on the same issue with humour, great rendition and infectious melody. Performance at the material time is, however, the most critical factor.
In any event, the very nature of calypso suggests that if a performer feels wronged, he or she should be champing at the bit to write at least a verse on the subject and drop it in the tent during the following week. When it comes to the final, there is the whole of next year for lament. Gypsy’s "Sing Ram Bam" in 1987, argued that David Rudder’s "Bahia Girl", one of the calypsoes with which he won in the year previous, was a song whose chorus had no lyrics. Sparrow’s "Robbery With V" chided the adjudicators about giving the prize to The Mighty Dougla in 1961.
Sparrow himself became the target of widespread complaint, when he beat Shadow’s combination of "Bassman" and "I Come Out to Play" in 1974, although few of the protesters remember that he sang "We Passed That Stage", one of the greatest calypsoes ever and the provocative "Miss Mary." Not to be outdone, Shadow doubled back later with "Jump, Judges, Jump" and last year put the question to them directly in "What’s Wrong With Me?"
Democracy allows for free expression of opinion, a facility that becomes even more valuable when triggered by studied opinion and presented in unemotional terms.
Now, let he who is without spin cast the first stone.