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Who's killing kaiso now? Part I

By Terry Joseph
December 31, 2004

Since the turn of the 1990s, when Carnival music-quite explicably-accelerated, calypso traditionalists annually take delight in reproaching new releases, often condemning the very art to death, convinced beyond reasonable doubt and more so in a short season, that songs yet to testify would warrant reprieve.

In the equally short season of 1989, just two years before SuperBlue opened the throttle with "Get Something and Wave", slower works like Bally's "Maxi Dub" made it on the party circuit and Baron, with Winsford Devine's "Somebody" crossed over to become Panorama's virtual test-piece. Toronto-based Jayson also hit with "Mash it Up." Notwithstanding Crazy's big-truck hopping, a last ditch effort at advancing "Nani Wine", Tambu dominated on Carnival days with "Free Up".

Interestingly, it was the fastest song that year, clocked (by the Gemini 2000 X) at 155 beats per minute, exactly matching tempo with the 2005 breakout road-march contenders from defending champion Shurwayne Winchester ("Dead or Alive"), Destra's "We Say So" and KMC's "First Experience", the latter a well-told narrative of the singer's debut as a masquerader.

Whoa! Slow down but get set for the Back to the Future ride. Rewind to 1991, then fast-forward to last year, even at the speed of soca during the interim and witness a changing of the guard, perhaps best exemplified by the ascendancy of SuperBlue's offspring, Fay Ann Lyons, whose coronation as road march monarch put her on the very throne daddy occupied for eight seasons between 1981 and 2000, when he last won (with "I Wish").

And since over that same period younger "festival singers" came out early each season with up-tempo party-oriented offerings that for a while, admittedly, were largely inane, hindsight often vindicated premature conclusion. When conventional tent fare failed to definitively rescue the art, the young Turks were accused of killing calypso, although, by even the simplest gauge of acumen, they evidently calculated market demand and were simply milking consumer preferences.

Veteran singers and purists resisted conceding they were calypsonians at all, pinning derisive tags on the rising stars, dubbing Bunji Garlin "Bunch o' Garlic", getting equally robust laughs out of Maximus Dan's name-switch and guttural tone, wondering why Dawg E Slaughter didn't choose a more manicured moniker, seeing mere athletics in Iwer or frenzy from KMC and paying attention to only the easily visible assets of young female singers.

Listening, which should have been the critical plank of those arguments, was excused away on the basis that mature people could not comprehend the gibberish coming from young performers, who were additionally accused of unmelodious droning to the same basic tune, spewing violent or pointless lyrics and generally bringing the art to ruin.

No point revisiting the clichéd conflict in its fullness but close examination of calypso's "golden age", from which such comparisons most frequently sprung, throws up no shortage of the same elements cited in critiquing contemporary versions. However, those who described Shadow's trademark jump as "unique", attempting to mimic his choreography at every party, considered Iwer a clown for including similar histrionics in his stage presentations.

Counsel for the good ol' days defended the Mighty Jackson's incoherence as humour. Allegiance to the D and E minor key chord-construction limited melodic creativity, resulting in similarity of tunes. Commander's "No Crime, No Law" justified brutality on the flawed premise of providing employment for police and magistrates. The violence of Sparrow's "Ten to One is Murder" came unmasked. As for storytelling, Spoiler's "Money in the Bank", a patently trite work, was also considered a "classic" of the mid-20th century.

The speed of 1990s soca, a direct consequence of market forces, inspired loudest objection. Older calypso aficionados refused to confess inability to maintain a wine above 160 beats per minute was merely a casualty of advancing age, calling the youngsters "racehorse" singers, forgetting we gleefully jumped to King Shortshirt's "Tourist Leggo" just 27 years ago and as recently as 1985, Johnny King's "Ah Want It"; neither of which was significantly slower than songs currently castigated.

Well, the good news is: Apparently the new wave of soca singers had been listening to every word of criticism issuing from members of my age group and acted upon the advice, resulting in a folio of excellent work for 2005 already hitting the airwaves, whereas proponents of traditional calypso are yet to get out of the blocks, waiting on tents to open while festival songs dominate the lucrative party circuit.

Traditionalists, clearly unable to strategise parallel promulgation of their passion are saying still that younger counterparts are killing calypso with all the "jump and wave", a comment based more on historical perspective than today's reality. Actually, the new wave music has slowed considerably-at least on the leading radio station, 96.1 WEFM. Among songs currently enjoying highest rotation is "Body Water" by relative newcomer Mini Priest, running at a mere 92 bpm.

Next week, when we look at lyrics of the new soca and the plight of traditional calypso, hopefully, the evidence coming from both sides will present clearer identification of the real culprits.

Who's killing kaiso now? Part II

Who's killing kaiso now? Part III

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