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The calypso final

By Terry Joseph
October 29, 2004

In the spirit of double-entendre, the title of this week's column may be naively interpreted as nothing more than quick rubric for the last of four articles on Calypso History Month or, by the more mature, as critical analysis of Dimanche Gras' most troubling segment.

Given the constraints of this space, taking on calypso history in four articles could hardly be exhaustive. To lift a couplet from "Royal Jail" by the Mighty Sparrow: "If they tackle me, my friend, they have to multiply four by ten and that is 40."

In the same vein: "I done tell my friends and my family 'not to worry',"promising to not drag them back to Dimanche Gras "one more time" if the calypso segment is going to torpedo Carnival Sunday night jollification with a succession of dirges no one remembers past Jouvert.

Really, Dimanche Gras calypso seems determined to erase its own history of masking social commentary in humour. Also missing from recent editions is the provocative deception of double-entendre and the art's rambunctious element; custodians of the production relying on an archaic template well past the trailing edge of its usefulness.

Consequently, Dimanche Gras calypso, already lagging far behind Carnival's core tempo, is further distancing itself from the dominant festival vibe.

Its history misinterpreted, the calypso component now seeks to compensate for a dearth of depth in party-oriented songs but overstates the case - to the point of evangelising. In 1956, Sparrow's winning calypso, "Jean and Dinah" contained all fundamentals. It did not sacrifice humour, incisive social commentary nor double-entendre and was rendered at the speed of that era's party music. As the years progressed, however, Dimanche Gras calypso failed to keep step, routinely relegating up-tempo calypsoes to last place, signalling judicial preference for funeral marches.

In charting the decline of the calypso final as a crowd pleaser, it is also useful to reiterate that, at inception, each contestant was required to sing only one calypso, a format that existed until 1958, change jointly inspired by the unusually prolific Sparrow and ignominy of the year previous, when Lord Pretender won with "Que, Sera, Sera", a calypso guilty of much more "sampling" than the level we now frown upon.

At first glance, the two-song rule appeared art-friendly, affording composers fresh comforts. Where a single calypso once had to deliver all of the art's components, writers could now dedicate one song to risqué humour and/or the festival mood, while another focused on social or political issues.

Although some really priceless pairs occurred during the 48 years since "Jean and Dinah", for the most part we almost invariably remembered only one of each monarch's winning calypsoes, the overwhelming power of which absolutely neturalised the other offering; charitably referred to as the singer's "second" song.

But along the way, the two-song rule took more prisoners than it spared, including Conqueror's "Webster's Dictionary", "Fire, Fire" by Calypso Rose, Kitchener's "Mrs Harriman", Shadow's "Bassman", Brother Mudada's "Papers No Use", Scrunter's "Woman on the Bass", King Austin's "Progress" and to leap to what is perhaps the ultimate in collateral damage, Brother Valentino's 2004 offering, "Where Calypso Went".

Meanwhile, not only were we being subjected to a calypso segment unavoidably twice as long as the model from which it was derived but singers began consuming even more time by hauling truckloads of pathetic props onstage, some additionally devising trite preludes and quasi-dramatic vignettes or having elaborate dance routines preface their works.

Concomitantly, the number of contestants kept rising, first to ten, then 12, each singer indulging in those tiresome rituals twice in the same show. And while these events happened over decades, taken today as cascading tablets of information, it is not difficult to understand how the calypso component of Dimanche Gras degenerated from annual excitement to sheer ennui, nor the rate of its descent.

Calypso history therefore holds a number of not-so-secret remedies for resuscitating the art's Dimanche Gras input, an elixir easily accessible by revisiting both the quantity of singers and number of songs invited to compete on Carnival Sunday night.

Indeed, judging from the quality of calypsoes foisted upon us in recent times, perhaps composers should ideally be concentrating on a single entry, while the authorities redesign criteria to result in fewer singers reaching the ultimate round, giving larger consideration to realigning calypso's final offering with the mood of the moment, distilling the entire book of rules to one commanding concept: Bring your best calypso and come.

After all, it is the climax of a song and dance festival of which hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors share an expectation of non-stop merriment. With the Soca Monarch competition on Friday night, children's carnival and pan at its most frenzied on Saturday and Jouvert following

Dimanche Gras, the calypso final cannot continue to pretend it exists in a separate cocoon, immune from festival ambience.

In fact, selection of songs and singers for the 2005 calypso final should be seen as a rescue mission for the very art and judges guided accordingly, lest Carnival ends up with the embarrassment of Dimanche Gras becoming an albatross for which, predictably, no one will readily admit responsibility.

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