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Going for a song - Part II

By Terry Joseph
November 21, 2003

As last Sunday's awards ceremony for 19 calypsonians selected by the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) proceeded, it was easy to identify each of the veterans with at least a couple songs of lasting quality. Listening to MC Winston Maynard trot out the many significant moments of their careers, the muted conversation at the back of the room wondered what the host would say 20 years hence, regarding honourees and which songs we will best remember them by.

They cannot seriously expect awards for plagiarized lyrics or stolen songs. In fact, outcomes of road march contests over the past few years would be an embarrassment, with "When the Saints Go Marching Home" (aka "River") and "every Breath You Take" (aka "Footsteps") among them. This year's winner would have to share the award with Byron Lee and its runner-up with Cindi Lauper.

Originality, once an element that distinguished Trini soca from other attempts at the art, has been dumped in the quest for quick bucks, with the result that songs from The Land of Calypso no longer hold a special place in the folk music pantheon, even as those from neighbouring islands gain prominence.

Not that they too haven't copied other people's music but never having claimed paternity of calypso, the "mocking pretenders" had no compunction about being so labeled. What happened in the interim is that their songs have become the tempered version of soca, while ours suddenly seem better suited to the soundtrack of horse-racing commentary.

This year, demarcation was clear at foreign carnivals. Last month in Miami, it was widely agreed that the best soca band we heard all weekend long was Jamaica's Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and easily the most impressive solo act was Barbadian Rupee. What set them apart from a number of Trini bands on the Miami Carnival Inc (MCI) circuit was the freshness with which even old songs were presented.

Byron Lee's Dragonaires were bell-clear and danceable at every sequence and Rupee cool and coherent in each syllable. Contrarily, our homegrown acts rushed onstage and entirely without provocation, shouted at the audience to "put yuh han' in de air", foolishly enquiring whether "you ready to go home", mercilessly asking after what seemed like every eight bars: "Anybody from Bar-bay-doze?" beginning the forever flawed list of Caribbean territories, always ending with "Trinidad and Tobago", screaming by that time, tiresome long before then; hoping for massive response to these cheap shots.

It seemed incredible that, outside of military examples, any band could play for a full hour at a single predetermined tempo, one segue of rhythm punctuated by a sprinkling of lyric and some horn riffs, but the Trini posse managed to do precisely that.

Diction was discarded in favour of athletics and general wining, with booming bass rivaling the tintinnabulation of high-hat and crash cymbals, cramping already garbled vocals and reckless harmonies into an even smaller aural space, with the reliance on semaphore ("flags up, flags down, now wave it") patently boring.

Precisely what was going on in the heads of the Trini singers and musical directors of our flagship soca bands is unclear but how it was received left nothing to possible misinterpretation. It was indeed sad to witness our precious creation going for want of a song.

The fast-food version of calypso has clearly run it's course and at the finish line, Trinidad and Tobago is behind by many lengths, with the very singers and bands once held up to ridicule now forging ahead.

Maybe stage lighting blinded them but we who stood behind the battens saw only the few soca diehards near the lip of the stage dancing, with thousands standing in astonishment, waiting on the moment that, more often than not, never came.

Our soca stars must have noticed the only time dancing engaged the majority was when they performed Jamaican songs. It would be at least doubly unfortunate if they took that to mean we prefer foreign music, without once contemplating the difference in beats per minute between our work and those of our neighbours.

Apart from every Trini band having the same absolutely weary repertoire, their lead vocalists utter identical phrases in the effort to move audiences. What then is the point of having four or six bands in a fete if they are all going to do the same songs and say indistinguishable things? What then would be the point of going to a fete listing a large number of acts? Certainly not value for money.

It cannot be that we have run out of ideas for, even in the apparent drought, supersongs emerge. The writers' block of which gravely underrated calypsonian Dirty Curty sings in "Gangsta Soca" has set in and sampling foreign pop songs for more than melodic lines has become the norm. It hardly speaks of the creativity we boast as a fundamental of Trinidad Carnival.

Don't get me wrong. No one expects to dance to a lyrical Chalkdust calypso on Carnival day. We like the jam but, on occasion, want to "hold on and dance" (as Barbadian Red Plastic Bag sang). Without that facility we may just go somewhere else for a song and perhaps stay there.

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