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More calypso history

By Terry Joseph
October 15, 2004

Last Friday's incident at a function hosted by the National Carnival Commission (NCC) in which calypsonian Relator was assaulted, not only provided rib-tickling extempo feedstock for colleagues performing at the Mas Camp Pub on Wednesday night, but triggered memories of equally humourous anecdotes in the house.

Nightclub veteran Versatile's cover version of Funny's "Accident Policy" included a couple of spontaneous stanzas that had patrons weeping with delight. Lingo was, as usual, at the top of his game. When Rootsman fell off the stage while teaching two foreigners to dance, one heckle asked whether the male student had cuffed down the singer for mispronouncing the word "soca" in whispered instructions to the wife.

Lord Superior, who helped restrain self-confessed aggressor and National Carnival Bands Association (NCBA) chairman Richard Afong, said the visiting calypso monarch from London, Wendy, who sat near Relator, might have suffered a glancing blow; causing a witty colleague to suggest that "Mr Cuffie" may have simply misconstrued the term "equal rights".

But there are serious matters involved. For openers, it is at least embarrassing for the NCC to throw a small, private event that doesn't qualify for being described as "incident free" but that is hardly its worst worry. Mr Afong, whose position on the Board is a requirement of the Act governing conduct of our national festival, was a perpetrator of violence; behaviour historically frowned upon by Carnival's custodians.

Nothing in the framing of the Act presumed this quandary. Consequently, no provision for removing the NCBA chairman purely on this basis is enshrined although, given the NCC's mandate, one might argue Mr Afong's conduct constitutes a fundamental breach. What is infinitely more troubling is whether the Commission can allow itself to be seen as condoning Carnival-related violence, without compromising wider festival considerations.

Even if it were so intended, this was not Mr Afong's picong debut. Just two years ago, former NCBA member Ian McKenzie, singing under the moniker "Strongy", went even deeper with a double-entendre titled "Ah Found the Thief", a beading of thoroughly damning references to Mr Afong who, at one point, threatened legal action. Since neither lawsuit nor violence ensued, we may surmise good sense prevailed-perhaps informed by the singer's formidable physique.

Nor is it Relator's first experience with retaliation to his lyrics, no matter how nobly intended or innocently sung. Indeed, the calypsoes that won him the 1980 national monarch title can both stoutly argue patriotism, one auditing Government performance at large in "Food Prices", while the other went straight for the jugular, demanding the political leader of the People's National Movement (PNM) Dr Eric Williams and his entire party "Take a Rest".

Later that year, Dr Williams led a huge trade contingent to the Far East, deliberately excluding Relator, although taking the current calypso monarch on such junkets had long become standard practice. In true calypso tradition, Relator bounced back in the year following with a piercing piece called "The China Syndrome", accusing the Prime Minister of-among other things-blatant petulance.

It was not a behaviour alien to Dr Williams who, seven years earlier, reportedly instructed then Attorney General Karl Hudson-Phillips QC to investigate the possibility of bringing charges against Lord Shorty (later Ras Shorty-I) for singing "The Art of Making Love" replete with graphic imagery that made illustrations in the Kama Sutra look like fairytale drawings.

Again observing calypso tradition, Shorty redressed by releasing a sidesplitting account of the issue, called "The PM's Sex Probe", the chorus of which recounted an imagined conversation between the Prime Minister and Dimanche Gras producer Ivan Williams, questioning how Shorty's lyrics slipped through the safety net no one knew had been there all the while.

Even earlier, Dr Williams, using reverse psychology, would have us believe he endorsed calypso's unbridled freedom of speech. In responding to queries by party sycophants who felt Chalkdust was going much too far in criticising his Government, Dr Williams uttered the memorable quip: "Let the jackass bray", hardly a flattering comment on an indigenous art-form that has been with us since the late 18th century.

Interestingly, persons in authority have used calypso ruthlessly in seeking to destroy opposing forces, a tactic dating back to at least 1783, when Gros Jean, a slave on Diego Martin's Covigne Estate, was frequently prompted by plantation owner Hillaire Begorrat to perform songs berating other members of the elite. Picong was therefore born at much the same time with calypso as we came to know it.

And while throughout calypso history those on the winning side guffawed at songs denigrating competitors, they often sought to impose prohibitions when the shoe was on the other foot. Clearly, not everyone can take a ribbing (even if it be nothing more than perception) and some calypsonians are experts at needling victims, a few have even crossed the line, providing more debate on good taste rather than lawsuits citing slander.

Court judgments in the instant case will undoubtedly provide fresh guidelines for calypso craft and the responses of those who feel aggrieved but on the ground the incident adds a meaty topic to next year's bag and for posterity another colourful chapter to the history of calypso.

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