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The Calypso Story

By Terry Joseph
October 30, 2003

PERHAPS because we are not all of a culture that automatically records indigenous art shows in hard, retrievable formats (the eternally reliable griot having always kept such files in his head), The Calypso Story, a photo exhibition currently on at the National Museum and Art Gallery, may also be described as a product of our collective delinquency.

Mounted by the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) as part of its current observance of Calypso History Month, the exhibition promised moving pictures in addition to stills already in evidence when it was formally opened Monday evening by Culture and Tourism Minister, Pennelope Beckles.

That it was mounted at all is truly commendable, but The Calypso Story is ideally a much larger tome, one with many other facets than the pleasant performance pictures on walls at the museum. And while only unreasonable viewers will expect page-by-page accounts of the art's 220-year-old diary, there is a lot more to the tale than what is currently on show.

Admittedly a work in progress, The Calypso Story walks its viewers through consecutive periods of 20th Century performance images, portraits of selected singers where pictures were unavailable and pieces ranging from Roaring Lion's trademark canes and hats to Ronnie McIntosh's early trenchcoat design; using printed legend as signposts.

There are pictures of the artform's greats, including The Roaring Lion, Growling Tiger, Railway Douglas, Atilla the Hun and Lady Trinidad contrasting with images of latter-day heroes of the art but on opening night, The Calypso Story, which sets out on the Herculean mission of capturing a fundamentally kinetic product in still prints, missed its mark on at least two crucial counts: mood and moment.

Where Kitchener and Sparrow are caught relaxing at the latter's Hideaway patio, the greater good might have been served by a picture of the same two calypso adversaries hugging in joint presentation, doing impressions of each other's work in deliberate half-light, on stage at Arthur Bentley's Dimanche Gras production; an act so well directed it fooled most of the people for much of the time.

In fact, such an exhibition almost cries out for a separate alcove of carefully selected Dimanche Gras moments, which would have not only added wonderful memory-triggers, but supplied The Calypso Story with that touch of the humour for which the art is equally famous and one so remarkably absent from the visual stimuli on offer at the gallery.

The exhibition consequently proceeds without conversation pieces like the classic comparison of Duke being borne onstage for "Black is Beautiful" in 1969 and two generations later, Denyse Plummer enjoying similar comfort at the calypso final, or Crazy's monkey making a dash for it, scared by crowd response, as "The Loveable Lunatic" began "Soca Tarzan", Kitchener handing "The Will" to Scrunter at the same forum in 1982, or the glow of cigarette lighters in the Grand and North stands as Black Stalin sang "Bu'n Dem", en route to his third national title in 1987.

Of course, there is no guarantee that, in attempting to capture mood, only flattering images would surface but calypso lives a colourful life and crowds throwing hard items at Denyse Plummer on her Calypso Fiesta debut is as much a part of that existence as Sparrow receiving The Order of Caricom.

History must never be accused of sanitising its products. Even so, the easy imagery of an over-the-shoulder shot at a calypso tent or, an impression of the crowds that fill Skinner Park every year for the Calypso Fiesta could have helped in communicating a sense of the reception accorded the many mouths at microphones, nearly all featured in full-frontal pictures in The Calypso Story.

Where frontage could enjoy invaluable exclusivity would have been in pictures of calypso tents, marquee from the lantern days to contemporary settings, since that aspect of calypso evolution tells of leaps in presentation of the art, narrating its own version of the story of how the system changed from a group of calypsonians hiring a manager to quite the reverse.

The Ice House, SWWTU Hall, contrasting Shorty's Professionals at Queen's Hall decades before Maljo's high-tech 21st Century approach, William Munro's Kingdom of the Wizards moving from dirt floor to Terry Evelyn's stage design, Calypso Spektakula eschewing the "tent" tag and adding even more glitz, eventually finding a home at the Jean Pierre Complex, The CDC Calypso Theatre ("The Nursery") growing into Kaiso House; all would have helped to flesh out perspectives critical to the scholarship of this initiative.

We were told that the soundtrack which, on Monday, featured only songs of the 1950s in one room, would within two days be upgraded to present headphones listening for persons wishing to sample other periods.

Pictures of Emery Cook, Eduardo Sa Gomes or Christopher Recording Company may have helped in this regard, bringing back into focus some of the people who toiled locally to ensure we had any kind of retrievable calypso history.

But apart from finally making it to the walls of the national museum and art gallery, The Calypso Story achieved several other things, not the least of which is getting influential parliamentarians and diplomats to come and view it which, if the images are haunting enough, may lead to a much higher level of appreciation when matters relating to calypso come before them in their official roles.

Among those attracted by Monday's gathering were Senate President Dr Linda Baboolal, House Speaker Dr Barry Sinanan, US Ambassador Dr Roy Austin, Hilton GM Ali Khan and a host of other dignitaries, who heard museum curator Vel Lewis and Head of UWI's Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, Rawle Gibbon sing praises to the project.

Like TUCO president Michael "Protector" Legerton, most of the speakers hailed the debut and, over time, touched on the attainable goal of turning this yet fledgling project into a gallery of which we can all be proud.

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