Going for a song – Part 1
October 31, 2003
By Terry Joseph
If Trini soca bands and solo acts cannot, in the short term, come up with fresh themes, hook-lines and stage-routines, this country's hard-won integrity as The Land of Calypso will soon be severely devalued, literally going for a song.
For decades, our composers guarded this enviable sobriquet, bestowed in the awesome mid-1930s ambience of New York's Waldorf Astoria by The Roaring Lion, in answering US President Franklin Roosevelt's question: "Which island are you from?"
In classic demonstration of the quick wit peculiar to his art, Lion replied, "I am from The Land of the Calypso," giving Trinidad and Tobago something more than self-esteem, a virtual cultural policy, with collective responsibility for development of the art and, even more importantly, defending this facet of our heritage against all aspirants to the moniker.
Not that any country should adopt a territorial position regarding its home-grown arts, but by maintaining leadership of those it created, would continuously reinforce the sensitive matter of origin. Opera lovers still prefer to hear favourite works rendered in Italian and Spain retains flamenco authority, even though these indigenous music forms are excellently performed by natives of many other countries.
Frankly, we carried the mantle well and for some considerable time. No other emerging 20th century music genre could claim the special blend of commentary, rhythm and humour that was calypso, its writers defying copycats to match the sheer craft that catapulted this extraordinary art to attention worldwide.
Currently pilloried for cultural domination, the US music industry actually gave calypso its first nudge toward global possibilities. Apart from piracy of Lord Invader's "Rum and Coca-Cola" (sung by The Andrews Sisters), marquee-magnet Robert Mitchum dabbled too, releasing an album in the 1950s and, under the moniker "The Charmer", Louis Farrakhan, now leader of the Nation of Islam, recorded several calypsoes.
Global appreciation of this indigenous art peaked. Rising labels seized the opportunity. Lomax invited Lord Invader to the US, teaming him with Trinidad-born American calypso singers, including Duke of Iron and The Great MacBeth, father of contemporary Grammy Award-winning calypso-jazz artiste Ralph MacDonald who, as fate would have it, joined Harry Belafonte's 1956 world tour.
Funded by recording giant RCA primarily to promote its investment in the double-album titled Calypso, Belafonte created history by becoming the first artiste in any music genre to sell over a million records. In 1994, he received the National Medal of the Arts and six years later, the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
These supreme accolades all stemmed from a career kick-started by an album named Calypso the resulting promotional tour, whose flagship songs, Lord Melody's "Mama, Look a Boo-Boo" and Roaring Lion's "Ugly Woman", were calypsoes made right here in Trinidad and Tobago.
Ralph MacDonald's first Grammy Award was for a song called "Calypso Breakdown", conscripted to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, a production dominated by Bee Gees music, which to date has sold more than 60 million copies.
Despite continuing announcements of precisely such an ambition, calypso has been to the Billboard charts, received Grammys and, in its ascendancy, played the world's finest music halls.
By the middle of the 20th Century, Trini calypso was a staple on the BBC World Service and at home, an integral part of entertainment programmes for visiting Heads of States (including Pope John Paul II).
By their own admission, calypso had inspired The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and was being attempted by entertainment professionals everywhere, even in far-off Australia ("Tie the Kangaroo Down"). It had, much earlier, provided Nigeria with a national song.
We therefore have no one to blame but ourselves, for failing to capitalise on first rush for this happy-native music or steering the craze in desired directions, for calypso itself had done all a springboard could do, including getting to Hollywood in movies like Tiger Bay and Happy Go Lucky.
Among the pieces selected last year for Queen Elizabeth's 50th Anniversary commemorative CD, was Roaring Lion's song marking her coronation.
Parallel to Elizabeth's reign, calypso music evolved rapidly, much of its early variations accruing to the greater good. From Sparrow's shift of style in 1956, through Kitchener's return home in 1963, later interventions by Shadow and Shorty separately, Duke and Nelson in tandem, Merchant solo, scholarship from the likes of Chalkdust, Calypso Rose bearing the torch for women, David Rudder holding up another kind of light to youth, Blue Boy and Machel Montano grasping the flair; it all seemed to be proceeding swimmingly.
And then, all hell broke loose.
A virtual tidal-wave of garbage smothered calypso's original definition, claiming it was merely "sweetening" what was, long before then, an already delicious art. Latter-day performers unabashedly copied each other's cheapest tricks, writers were stealing lines, often plagiarising entire works and, in the rush to the bank, using society's lowest common denominators as preferred transportation.
Suddenly, the music of Trinidad and Tobago could no longer boast originality, the very principle on which it first came to global attention.
Perhaps out of desperation, our leading artistes became followers, seeking only to emulate-and from any source-perceived elements of success at the game, often sacrificing calypso fundamentals in the quest.
Calypso History Month closes today. Hopefully, the minds of those in whom we have reposed responsibility for its continuing welfare will not close with it.
(To be continued)