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Where calypso went

By Terry Joseph
January 20, 2006

If the wearisome format holds, Dimanche Gras will be another expensive sleeping-pill, burdening its audience with 24 calypsoes, the clear majority of which will likely be forgotten forever by the time patrons exit the venue.

It wasn't always so but calypso, the painfully longer element of the show's two components, has become its downfall. Dirges about social and political issues-invariably bad news-drone on interminably, while the audience snores or hangs out at the bar and upon conclusion of that bizarre exercise, a winner is declared.

The extraordinary thing about calypso at Dimanche Gras is its positioning at the pinnacle of an otherwise high-energy song and dance festival. The contest delivers neither fundamental, having sacrificed them to a number of self-inflicted parameters, heralding the merry monarch with a spectacularly boring event.

Face it: We do not need to hear two calypsoes from each performer, since one is invariably considered the winning rendition and the other universally described as a "second song," in many cases a weak attempt at satisfying a regulation introduced since 1958, for reasons that have long lost validity.

Calypsonians construe the rule to mean one song should be as serious as a funeral and the other humorous, up-tempo or provocative, exploding what was once a single ingredient, as evident in the likes of Sparrow's "Phillip, My Dear", or Black Stalin's "Feeling to Party". Essentially, the rule merely prolongs audience agony, while singers remain blissfully unaware of our plight.

As one who attended every Dimanche Gras since 1973 and judged three calypso finals, I have often wondered how some contestants even made it to that level, their trite props and onerous attempts at theatre lengthening an already tedious process, disrupting a mood earlier buoyed by pre-show daytime fetes.

But calypso's problems begin long before Carnival Sunday. Tents have been hard hit by audience attrition, two of the regular productions-ironically, humorous tents-already withdrawing from the 2006 season and a third still uncertain a mere five weeks before the festival concludes. Those that survive are either assisted or underwritten by State funds.

Years of bashing the Indian Trinidadian community, women, successful businessmen and Government (when the People's National Movement is not in power) resulted in major audience decline over the years; a fact all tent managers acknowledge. Marathon shows make it impractical for those living far from venues to participate and now the surge of nocturnal crime will further reduce attendance.

The reality is that traditional calypso has long lost its place as the festival's power-plant. When Sparrow won his first crown in 1956 with "Jean and Dinah" steelbands, whose choices largely informed the Road March contest of those times, rushed to learn the tune overnight.

During the intervening 50 years, the frequency with which pan played the prize-winning calypso on the road steadily declined, screeching to a halt after David Rudder's 1986 offerings, "Bahia Girl" and "The Hammer", which transcended the calypso tent to the fete circuit and thence to the streets. The ascendancy of band-singers had begun.

Today, no steelband, DJ or brass band plays the winning Dimanche Gras calypso and for good reason-none of the revellers in the parade of the bands wish to hear it. What they want and get is soca, the tempo of which, combined with easy sing-along choruses, is a perfect fit for the wining that has become official festival choreography.

Simultaneous with the falling-off in attendance at calypso tents and the art's lacklustre presence at Dimanche Gras, soca-based events are garnering increasingly larger crowds, who pay a lot more to hear their preferred music during the Carnival season and will have nothing else on the road.

This is no petition to ban traditional calypso, for I still love to hear a well-constructed piece like Brother Valentino's "Where Calypso Went" even if in chronicling the art's evolution from halcyon period to near collapse, it tactfully avoids conceding complicity on the part of complainants.

But calypso is now squarely in the realm of folk-art, alongside limbo and other heritage expressions which proudly present their intricacies to niche audiences. Even so, it has been accorded a status far superior to its comparables, being the subject of two award-winning movies in as many years.

By all means have your National Calypso Monarch competition final but in the age of video-games and I-Pod options, let us not confuse emotion and tradition with reality. If calypso wishes to foist 24 songs upon the public, do it long before Carnival Sunday night and allow Dimanche Gras to return to a compact presentation that triggers rather than torpedoes the Carnival climax.

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