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What is a calypsonian?

By Terry Joseph
March 24, 2006

The brouhaha that erupted at last Sunday's extraordinary meeting of the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) took two unexpected turns this week, resolving one situation, while generating an infinitely more complex problem; although President Michael Legerton remains unfazed by either development.

Last Sunday's meeting broke up in chaos after former national calypso monarch and Junior Culture Minister, Gypsy, accused Legerton of ordering his name removed from the cast of The Last Hurrah, an upcoming TUCO production; expressly created to showcase the work of all calypsonians who scored major national successes on the Queen's Park Savannah stage.

Residual discontent from another fiasco, said to have originated at the Ministry of Culture, regarding Gypsy's exclusion from this year's Calypso Revue cast by fiat, further fuelled Sunday's confrontation which, ironically, took place on St Joseph's Day, the only period during Lent of yesteryear in which calypso could be aired without invoking social bacchanal.

Speaking to the Daily Express, Gypsy said he did not respond to being slighted by the Government-assisted Revue, as it was a private organisation and could be forced to do the bidding of its major sponsor. "In any event," he said, "the Culture Minister telephoned me personally, denying she gave the directive to delete my name from the cast of the tent."

In both situations, widespread feeling in the calypso community is that Gypsy who (like Legerton) was a prime-mover in the founding of TUCO and served as president, is being persecuted for political affiliation with the UNC, on whose behalf he represented the Ottoire/Mayaro constituency in Parliament. Indeed, the frequency of his appearances on calypso stages nationwide waned since.

But Legerton remains calm, refusing to be drawn into that wrangle, except to say Gypsy was one of the finest calypsonians around and insist personal politics must not influence decisions about artistic prowess. "When Gypsy raised the issue Sunday, I told him give me 24 hours to find out the details. On Monday, Gypsy was hired for the show.

Legerton described Gypsy's claims of censure as premature, saying at the time they were made, there was not yet a decision to hire him, therefore could not have been fired. "What happened was that, Elton Scantlebury, who was checking availability of singers, called Gypsy to ask if he would be willing to do the show. He said yes but Scantlebury did not have sole authority to hire members of the cast," Legerton said.

On Monday, Scantlebury tendered a signed statement supporting Legerton: "I hereby wish to place on record and to rebuke statements made by Winston 'Gypsy' Peters that he was hired by me to perform on the show carded for 29 March 2006," the statement read. Legerton said Gypsy assumed more than the conversation promised, presenting perception as fact.

"I would never, on my own nor as part of any misguided conspiracy, join in trying to keep the opinion of any calypsonian away from the public on the basis of political or other personal preferences," Legerton said. "The art is bigger than all of us and I am committed to the fundamental rationale of calypso."

Gypsy later described TUCO's response as "a set of lies," saying he got two calls regarding the show, the first hiring him and another prefacing the reversal with: "I have bad news," indicating instructions had come from "higher up." Gypsy said if he had not been hired there would have been no need for a follow-up call. "They are now lying to cover-up the situation I exposed," he said.

Interestingly, when UNC chairman Basdeo Panday was Prime Minister, he decreed that the State would not fund calypso shows in which singers were likely to knock his Government. TUCO was among the most vehement critics of that position, although it was never implemented.

But arising from the original conflict, a larger issue looms regarding TUCO's revised constitution which, although not limiting membership to calypsonians, accords voting rights exclusively to that cadre, without supply a clear definition of the term.

This caveat is being widely interpreted to mean the current general secretary, public relations officer and the latter's assistant, rapso artistes Brother Resistance, Karega Mandela and Sherma Orr (respectively) have no locus standi in the organisation.

Resistance views the revised constitution as a ruse to evict him and others who oppose the president on certain issues, saying the variation allowing that facility was not properly processed. Reigning monarch, Luta is pressing for a definition of "calypsonian" which, if it reflects the classic position, will also exclude other members of the current executive who do not compose their own songs.

Again, Legerton remains unruffled, describing the issue as one of "pure semantics," saying too that if the corollary is taken to its worst conclusion, it could mean a majority of members who have no direct contact with calypso could comprise the deciding factor on issues relating to the state and future of the art.

"We had to bring some reason to the situation," Legerton said. "A pattern was emerging that would have brought us more trouble if left alone. For example, in the East Zone, I am holding a list of members showing 237 names, less than 80 of which are 'calypsonians' by popular interpretation of the term.

"If this is left unabated, very shortly the decision-making process can result in others making regulations and the calypsonian having the minority say, so we gave associate membership to friends of calypso. Never mind what you hear, the alternative will provide us with much more complex problems," Legerton said.

The row continues.

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