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Going for a song - Part II

By Terry Joseph
November 07, 2003

Going for a song - Part I

News this week of an impending 25 per cent pay cut for calypsonians attached to Klassic Russo tent should not have come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the state of the art.

Actually, Klassic Russo (KR), a North Zone sub-set of the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO), deserves commendation for its pragmatism, although wage-reduction offers no guarantee of improvement in the fortunes of a business whose very products may well be deficient and therefore the real source of its financial woes.

KR's public relations officer, Elton Scantlebury, perhaps inadvertently, broadened the scope of the problem, saying: "Through the years, all tents have taken a beating, some even instituted pay cuts during the 2003 season."

Soon, tent managers everywhere may find they have to lower admission prices too and perhaps offer free drinks, if their products do not improve and patrons are still required to sit through more than five hours of mostly inane songs to hear just six or seven good calypsoes.

Indeed, according the manager of one high-profile tent, last Carnival season culled the lowest patronage in 15 years. Some closed on nights when the house numbers couldn't even justify the cost of electricity to run the show.

Among the reasons he ascribed to dwindling gates was calypso's relentless attacks on UNC politicians over the same period, putting that ahead of general concern about personal security.

The picture for next year isn't any more attractive either. At least two tents are currently mulling a merger and another major entity, after failing to satisfy long-term lease arrangements, finds itself without a home mere weeks before the curtain rises on a new season.

As we began reasoning last week in part one of this essay, Trini calypso is in a precarious state and worse, cannot blame its current plight on external forces, having cavalierly squandered decades of opportunities for improving its lot.

Unlike commodities that experience dramatic reduction in consumer-appeal after refusing to vary or modify the package, calypso can hardly be accused of delinquency in that regard. For the greater part of the 20th Century, product development was clearly a priority.

Even radio, now the whipping-boy of carping calypsonians, not only found homegrown music more marketable back then but assumed a crucial technical role in development of the art, with the likes of Francisco "Frisco" Torrealba voluntarily producing and recording singers and shows, sales of which hardly ever recovered the station's outlay.

In 1963, 610 AM programme director, Canadian Larry Heywood, bravely conquered a well-entrenched social taboo, by playing calypso during Lent, perhaps the most significant breakthrough in the quest for year-round appreciation.

Undoubtedly, the largest single leap in calypso evolution came with the 1973 debut of soca music. By his own admission, creator Lord Shorty, who had come to national attention ten years earlier with a traditional-calypso masterpiece called "Cloak and Dagger", felt the old approach was not attracting young audiences and, like its increasingly geriatric fan club, might soon die altogether.

Soca, he argued, would imbue the failing form with fresh spirit.

And it did, at first. The dance-friendly calypso hybrid seemed set to boost the art's already sagging fortunes then, not more than five years hence, the love affair with this new hope went sour.

Shorty publicly denounced his own creation, censuring even colleagues of senior rank, saying the genre had been vulgarly reduced to reverie of fat female bottoms exclusively; citing the blockbuster "Sugar Bum Bum" (1978) by Kitchener as a major culprit.

If we are to believe the loudest contemporary anti-soca argument, Shorty was something of a prophet, as his creation has been used more for celebrating women's backsides than the lofty purpose he first ascribed to it, this obsession with trite lyrics about wining on the bum-bum producing suitably damning results.

Not that soca is intrinsically a bad thing. Indeed, it has delivered more than a few impeccable hits. In its first few years, apart from Shorty's work, there were benchmarks like Black Stalin's "Caribbean Man" (1979), Scrunter's "Woman on the Bass" (1980) and in the year following, Winsford Devine's "Progress" (sung by King Austin).

The same decade also produced the first band dedicated to soca music, Charlie's Roots (1977), which featured David Rudder and Chris "Tambu" Herbert as its frontline vocalists and, under musical direction of Pelham Goddard, brought calypso lovers back to the dance floor in droves.

Goddard's intervention did even more. It broke a virtual stranglehold on road march music, dominated by Kitchener and Sparrow from 1963 ("The Road") to 1976 ("Flag Woman"), singularly interrupted by Shadow's phenomenal "Bassman" in 1974. Goddard's musical arrangements delivered 13 road marches over 18 seasons, calypsoes set to fine music, songs that told sensible stories, contained humour and were suitable for dancing.

Nor was he alone in this rescue effort. Other bands, notably Ed Watson ("Boogie Woman") and Leston Paul and the New York Connection ("Get Up and Dance") were among cutting-edge examples of infectious soca. Bandleaders like Errol Ince were also writing wonderful songs ("Sweet Soca Man") and one more time, as calypsonians of the day would say, the art seemed to be rising.

And one more time, all hell broke loose.

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