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Who's killing kaiso now? Pt III

By Terry Joseph
January 14, 2005

It wasn't always so but from early 20th century, the soundtrack for Carnival fetes and the masquerade has been supplied by calypso, its speed informed by costuming of the day and gender/age-bracket considerations and whenever those elements varied, music swiftly adapted to the succeeding configuration.

As Carnival evolved, modifications were mostly insidious but among its few revolutionary adjustments, the most radical came at the turn of the 1970s, resulting from a conspiracy of social circumstances. Women's liberation, the fitness craze and a booming domestic economy encouraged unfettered females wishing to show off aerobically re-energised bodies to play mas and they suddenly had requisite disposable income.

Residuals of the Black Power uprising included calypsonians dropping colonial titles like "Lord" and mas designers shying away from associated imagery.

As distinct from the preponderance of ancient history portrayals in the 1955 to 1970 period, "pretty mas" bandleaders now opted for indigenous themes, a post-Independence statement that found favour with judges.

The Wonders of Buccoo Reef, Anansi Stories, We Kinda People, Know Your Country and Peter Minshall's sailor mas, Carnival of the Sea, were among victorious bands during the period 1971 to 1980. In the previous decade, winning titles included Ye Saga of Merrie England, Byzantine Glory, Mexico 1519 to 1521, Pacific Paradise, El Dorado-City of Gold and Stephen Lee Heung's China, the Forbidden City.

In addition, fantasy mas which, like fictional calypso, also took root during the mid-1970s, now accommodated costuming of lighter and indeed, less fabric, as mass-production replaced individual mas-making. Musicians travelling on foot, a truly pedestrian determinant of maximum tempo, gave way to powerful electronic systems.

With the luxury of push-button devices, DJs and truck-borne musicians increased music speed on demand or at will. The "steelband" chip, additional percussion generated by leather shoes and "mas-boots" scraping the roadway, was lost forever when sneakers became preferred Carnival footwear. As if at a signal, the most valid reasons for slow calypso, including its hosting of intricately worded storylines, had simply evaporated.

Simultaneous with these developments soca was created, matching the needs of the new reveller, understanding that her mood was subject to change without notice. Tracing the career of eight-time road march champion, SuperBlue, amplifies this analysis.

Trading as Blue Boy, his entry-level speed in "Soca Baptist", the 1980 road march, was 116 beats per minute (bpm) but by the time he chalked up his fourth win in 1991 as SuperBlue, "Get Something and Wave" clocked 128 bpm and the tempo of his last victory to date (2000) was significantly faster than the already blistering 145 bpm at which he recorded "Signal to Lara" in 1995. Ten years later, the fastest contender from his daughter, Faye Ann Lyons, who won the title two Carnivals ago, is "Breakaway", coming in at a mere 134 bpm.

Quite unfortunately, as Carnival went through these changes, government, the festival's exclusive funding agency, stoutly defended the status quo, shoring up traditional calypso by throwing money at it. The State deliberately discarded soca and by that omission, left its fate to impresario William Munroe, who corralled the new-wave music into what is now the festival's biggest event, the International Soca Monarch competition.

The reality is that soca has long been voted "official festival music" by not only the many thousands of revellers here but millions around the world at carnivals spawned by the Trini model, that trend unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. As indigenous folk music, traditional calypso will always have a place but it is no longer appropriate to the needs of the parades or parties, nor will the laws of physics keep airborne a rag being waved in helicopter-rotor style if the music is slow.

Fact is: Today's Carnival choreography needs a much higher minimum tempo than that of 50 years ago when breastplate-wearing legions of Harold Saldenah's Imperial Rome seemed quite fulfilled dancing to "The Happy Wanderer", a German folk-song, that year's official road march; or any one of the top tunes of Carnival 1955, all of which (and hear this) were foreign songs.

In essence, then, no one group of stakeholders is "killing" calypso, as elder bards seem convinced. It is unlikely we will soon return to a masquerade of can-can supported grandeur and today's parade music must bow to that reality-not the other way around. Neither wishful thinking nor focused emotion will suddenly turn the tables. This is where we are along the Carnival continuum. Younger singers merely prefer to seize opportunities made available by prevailing conditions rather than complain.

Traditional calypsonians would be better advised to similarly recognise and position their product, understanding that it no longer enjoys mass-appeal and contenting themselves with playing at intimate venues, deriving less tangible benefits than the soca squad, perhaps able to eke nothing more out of it than pleasure from sheer passion for art.

Without appreciation of the set of circumstances detailed above, the traditional art form will surely become the first festival-component fatality and any entity that ever dismissed the opportunity to update it may be deemed an accessory before the fact.

Who's killing kaiso now? Part I

Who's killing kaiso now? Part II

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