Dr. Kwame Nantambu

Calypso: art form or form of art

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
February 24, 2005

Within recent times, much currency has been given to the notion that Trinbagonians are not flocking to the tents to hear calypsos as they did years ago.

Now, calypso tents are a business and in the business world, there are the market forces of demand and supply. If the supply (calypso) is not of a high quality then the demand (crowd attendance) will fall. It is just that simple. Patrons are not going to pay for a second-rate, mediocre product called calypso.

So in essence, the managers of the tents should not blame the consumers (Trinbagonians) for not supporting their cultural business; on the contrary, the onus is on these managers, albeit businessmen/entrepreneurs, to hire calypsonians who would satisfy the demand of the patrons.

Hence, it is no great surprise that Trinbagonians flock to patronize "Back-in-time" calypso shows. These vintage/classic calypsos satisfy their demand for quality calypso. The present crop of calypsos just does not.

Professor Gordon Rohlehr hits the nail on the head when he opines that calypsos today are devoid of narrative, structure, sound lyrics, story-line, etc. This writer takes this contention one step further and suggests that what exist today are songs not true calypsos.

These songs are choreographed with the maximum use of flags, rags, waving and pelvic-gyrating winnin couched in overt sexual overtones. Sex is the spinal cord of these songs. Sex and unimaginative simplicity have taken over this art form.

Indeed, when Sparrow sang smut or sex in a calypso, there was a mature, deep narrative, sound lyrics, a story-line, etc. In "Mae Mae", for example, the listener could actually visualize/imagine Sparrow meeting this lady at the railway, taking her to Claxton Bay and having sex with her on the carpet and during the process, "ah sandfly bite meh down dey."

However, the most significant aspects of this sex-oriented calypso are: it was respectful to women; it did not portray a woman as a piece of meat just to wine on; it did not demean any women. Other classy, decent and respectful sexually-oriented calypsos include "Benwood Dick", "Sixteen Million French Men Can't be Wrong," "Big Bamboo," "Bag ah Sugar Down Dey,", "Loraine," "De River", just to name a few.

And when the grandmaster Kitchner sang "Sugar BumBum", it was done with class, respect and taste. So much so that after listening to this tune, one was not motivated to have a few cocktails (as in drinks) and then go outside and wine on the first female bum bum that passes by. The motivation is different in songs today that masquerade under the guise of calypsos.

The quality of today's songs lacks any sense of morals, decency and respectability; hence, it need occasion no great surprise that a singer can feel safe/acceptable to write such lyrics in a song for carnival 2k5 as follows: "You have de nicest pussy I ever eat; you have the nicest pussy I ever meet."

This song was played almost every half on radio this carnival season and at public shows and all-inclusives, women happily and gleefully belted out these lyrics without any sense of personal shame, insult, guilt, disrespect, degradation and/or remorse, outrage.

These lyrics were accepted by society; they certainly would not have been accepted by society yesterday. What does that say about our culture, morals and attitude towards women as a people, but more importantly, what does it say about how women view themselves?

During the carnival, young school girls could also be heard reciting these very same lyrics while still wearing their school uniform.

And to compound this sexual madness, proclivity and insanity, while young women are wallowing in and acting out these lyrics, the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) is advising these young women to Abstain and Condomise. These young women are part of the very same age-group 15 to 24 years among whom newly infected HIV/AIDS cases have increased by 74 per cent. Who is fooling whom?.

Back-in-the-day, calypso had a moral code of ethics; such a code does not exist in song today. There was a line that calypsonians just did not cross; today, singers have completely torn down that line as if it never existed.

This stark cultural reality has compelled this writer to pose the poignant question: is the genre of calypso today an art form or a form of art?

Calypso Monarch Chalkdust concludes that only ten of the calypsoes sung at the 2k5 preliminaries at Skinner Park represented true calypsoes, while veteran calypso icon Nap Hepburn publicy laments : "I don't understand most of those songs playing on the radio these days. The music is drifting. It's not staying in one place." In essence, the music/melody is winnin, waving, jumping and gyrating in all directions.

The fact of the matter is that the current crop of songs represent calypso as a form of art; they are devoid of the basic, endemic elements/components/characteristics of true calypso.

On the whole, there is no creativity, imagination nor originality in these songs. Sex, lewdness and winnin are in your face --- raw, uncensored and unapologetic. Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination. In other words, fore-play has gone out of calypso.

Truth be Told: The average Trinbagonian will be more than willing to hear "Maria", "My pussin", "Sa Sa Yea," "Jean and Dinah," "Ms. Tourist", "De road make to walk," "Royal Jail", etc, anytime after carnival and also during the year. Would that same Trinbagonian be more than willing to hear the current crop of songs 24-7-365?.

The answer is obvious. The reason why the answer is obvious is because the former were vintage/classic calypsos as an art form; today, they just simple, shallow and superficial songs as a form of art.

Even the roadmarches of yesterday had sound lyrics, a narrative, a theme, story-line, a conceptual framework, etc.

As such, one has to distinguish between a true -grit calypsonian versus an entertaining singer with all the winnin, waving and pelvic gyrating machinations. In the 1960s, the debate was whether someone was a calypsonian or a calypso singer; today , the debate is whether a piece of work is a calypso (art form) or a song (form of art).

The fact of the matter is that as long as this waving, jumping and winnin trend continues, then this aspect of our culture will only be a seasonal, cyclical and fleeting exercise. The current lyrical form of art is both destroying and killing the immune system of calypso as an art form, "Sans Humanite." Ergo, Bro. Valentino has been forced to ask: "Where de hell calypso went?.

Truth Be Told: When an Indian-Trinbagonian entertainer sings Chutney, he/she sings in his/her original Indian tongue, language; when an Afrikan-Trinbagonian entertainer sings calypso or soca, in what tongue or language does he/she sing?.

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani Labour College.

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