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This past 40 years

By Terry Joseph
August 31, 2002

I was fresh out of Trinity College and had just one week earlier celebrated my 15th birthday, when the flag-raising ceremony that heralded our inaugural independence celebration took place at Woodford Square.

Television was new to us all, launched that very night, with Mervyn Telfer's hair neatly groomed as he anchored the event that would see Princess Alice doing duty as official representative of Queen Elizabeth II, when the monarchy handed over responsibility for the future to Trinidad and Tobago.

On my block in Laventille, teenagers didn't attach due significance to the event. What was clear was a sense of frolic among adults and by osmosis, an indication that, young as we were, there would be no objection to us taking drinks, once we agreed to hum along with the national anthem none of us could yet sing.

In the intervening 40 years, most of us learnt the anthem, a national surge coming in the wake of a story in the Evening News relating the plight of calypsonian Robin who, having been hired for the purpose, blundered through the piece and later admitted he didn't know the words.

But let us not race too quickly ahead, for it was a time when, in the good ol' chantuelle tradition, choruses were the main focus. Knowledge of calypso verses, for instance, remained the privilege of only those who could afford to purchase copies of the lyrics from the man with the rack of titles, a street-vendor who did business below the Frederick Street awnings of Salvatori, Scott and Co.

The year 1962 completed a beaver trick for George Bailey's Carnival presentations with the band Somewhere in New Guinea, and saw the first official Road March competition. Six months before the flag was raised, Warlord Blakie copped the title with a most unlikely piece called "Maria", which many of his peers argued was a love song, but revellers embraced it to give him the title.

The year 1963 was the year of the inaugural Steelband Panorama competition, that prize taken by Pan Am North Stars for its rendition of Sparrow's "Dan is the Man in the Van", arranged by Tony Williams. Pan made another mark in history that year, with Silver Stars winning the Band of the Year trophy for its presentation of "Gulliver's Travels".

North Stars took the Panorama title again in 1964 with Kitchener's "Mama, Dis is Mas", showing off another aspect of Tony Williams' genius, by putting their pans on wheels. Bomber, the calypso king, walked away from Dimanche Gras with $1,300, less than one-hundredth of the value of prizes available this year to Sugar Aloes as winner of the same contest. Julia Edwards and John Humphrey got together to produce the band Carib Sun Worshippers.

The year 1965 was the year of Sparrow's "Congo Man" and Guinness Cavaliers came into the picture. Lennox "Bobby" Mohammed rolled onto the Queen's Park Savannah stage with thundering basses and an arrangement of Lord Melody's "Melody Mas" that left the judges no choice. He also broke a stranglehold by Kitchener and Sparrow on that contest that resumed in the following year and ran until Scrunter's 1980 blockbuster "Woman on the Bass".

In the interim, soca had intervened and Bertie Marshall's experiments with the Bertphone had come and gone, as did research work at Cariri that developed a process for mass-production of steelpans. This was achieved at a time well before the efforts of George Whitmyre and Harvey Price, the two Americans that stunned Trinidad and Tobago earlier this year by securing a patent for a similar process.

The first half of our 40 years of independence therefore saw a number of innovations in pan and calypso. In 1978, Calypso Rose forced a change of title for the winner of the national calypso competition that hitherto acclaimed its victor in gender-specific terms, men having triumphed exclusively since its inception in 1939.

Yet to come were radical changes in calypso composition, first from David Rudder and later Machel Montano, the latter heralding a new wave of youth-oriented music that shared little with its antecedents.

Mas too would take a turn into costumes that discarded yards of velvet and finery for skimpy bikinis, nubile females replacing men in the bands and wining openly to extremely powerful music systems.

But apart from the emergence of benchmark performers, in the second half of the independence period, relatively little happened by way of research and innovation in either calypso or pan.

It was a kind of lethargy that seemed to copy social development which was, since the boom years, informed largely by foreign tastes and enhanced disposable income, with little thought for shoring up traditional cultural values.

The momentum that came with Independence and was borne along through the advent of republican status flagged, as performers made no obvious attempts to think outside the box, enjoying from a captive audience, a silent protectionism like the legal model applied to many other forms of industry.

The result of this nonchalance was dramatically established by Whitmyre and Price, but was not exclusive to developments in pan. While successive governments were promising all sorts of wonderful things for the arts in general, the oil windfall did not even produce a single concert hall.

But for the few who seem afflicted with the urge to continue plodding we have, in terms of art and culture, limped along since the early '80s on little else but past glory.

It is against this backdrop that I wish you a happy 40th anniversary of independence noting that, for those in other places who embraced Trinidad and Tobago's indigenous arts during our extended cultural hibernation, time has not stood still.

In fact, in the interim, Mervyn Telfer has gone completely bald.

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