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Our festival now a Carnival of tata

February 23, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE was a time not many years ago when I used to heap scorn on "Trinis-in-the-flesh" who chose to go abroad or to the beaches over the Carnival weekend. Now, I find myself getting perilously close to being uninterested in the nation's biggest festival, and worse than my own creeping alienation from Carnival, I find there are many other one-time calypso and pan "peongs" who share that view. It's frightening, really, to think that the splendour of mas and the surfeit of witty calypsoes and infectious, haunting melodies have all but disappeared, taking with them tens of thousands of "Trinis-to-the-bone", including, it seems, cultural icons like David Rudder.

If anything, the pre-Carnival bacchanals, the fights among those who have "hoffed" the mas' from the masses, prove to be more exciting than the festival itself. People actually look forward to the annual battles between the so-called "special interest groups" and the National Carnival Commission (NCC). No one is surprised by or interested in the split between the big bikini and thongs bands: maybe if Richard Afong and "Big Mike" Antoine were to square off over going naked on the streets, that would create much more excitement among the disillusioned. And if Pan Trinbago decided to take the Panorama to Cedros, the annual panfest might well draw a more positive response than that which the "reverse" semi-finals did last Sunday.

I have long argued that in our bid to rival Rio mas with all its nakedness and vulgarity, we are shooting ourselves in the feet. Because we'd never be in a position to attract more tourists who are that way inclined. Our Victorian laws, while they allow some lewdness, will not countenance the debauchery that is Rio's mas'. Our imaginative and creative masmen like George Bailey, Harold Saldenha, Cito Velasquez (to name a few of our pioneers) built the Trini Carnival reputation of colour and class. The intricate handiwork that went into crafting even the most basic of costumes worn by masqueraders of the golden age of Carnival was what made us unique among world carnivals.

Today, except for a few lonely "Indians" who roam the streets and a handful of other bandleaders who still insist on some level of design and crafting in their costumes, what we have in the city on Carnival Tuesdays is "Maracas come to town". Any wonder town is now going to Maracas, in droves?

And the music! Or should I say what passes for music? I note that fellow journalist BC Pires has come under heavy fire for an article in which he was critical of the "tata" that passes for calypso music today. I stand squarely behind BC. My friend Terry Joseph argues that we always had lewd calypsoes, and that simple ditties did make it big on the road for Carnival. He is correct on both scores. But most of the former were well-crafted to the extent that one could not help but admire the skills of the composers, who, in the main, also sang their songs.

Sparrow sang some of the most vulgar calypsoes ever (Elaine, Harry and Mama; Benwood Dick; Mae Mae; Castro eating Banana). But put any of those songs next to the "ah cyah sh*ts" of today, and you are talking blackboard chalk vs Camembert cheese. Kitchener's "Dr Kitch" has made a comeback this year, and in it there are lessons aplenty for those who want to explore this side of the art form. And if his "My Pussin" were played in any party, no one would be offended. Blakie ("Hold the Pussy") was also a master of making smut palatable, while Funny ("Ah Soul Man") and Zandolee ("Iron Man") dared us to find fault with their clever use of words and rhyme.

As for simple ditties that made it big, one does not need a better example than Nelson's "La La" that rocked town (and country) in a matter of weeks. Or Rose's "Tempo", which was also a very simple song. But-and this is where I disagree with TJ-they all had melody. In fact, they were such beautiful melodies that if "La La" or "Tempo" were played in fetes today, they would make the rat-tat-tat "jams" sound like... well, "rat-tat-tata"! And I think that's the point the calypsonians who aim for the party circuits are missing.

If I may look at it from another angle, examine carefully what Shadow did with his blockbuster song, "Stranger", a few years ago. He took the very "wine and wave" that had become the staple of today's fetes, put some decent lyrics and a simple story to the song, and added a generous dose of melody. The results we all know: he beat the young party bards like bobolees on the fete circuit and on the road. I need add that many of today's young, rat-tat-tat bards do have talent, and given the times and the mood of the partying public, I can't blame them for the quality, or lack thereof, of their works. I've heard them sing otherwise and must say I'm impressed.

But in chasing fast Carnival bucks, they sacrifice opportunities to break into mainstream world music, which is where the megabucks lie. Abroad, their popularity is restricted to Trini parties and other carnivals. The big record labels we have been hearing about for decades have never produced works by these bards. Worse for artistes like Impulse, Machel, Treason, Wanski, Benjai and those who target the fete circuit, that, too, is suffering from declining numbers of patrons (as the tents are). And it's not because people aren't spending money or they are scared away by high crime.

Another distasteful aspect of the music side of the business is when artistes "fudge" melodies from their fellow artistes or from foreigners and pass them off as their own works. There is nothing wrong with remakes or re-recordings, or even singing people's songs in public. But one should at least give credit to the original composers/singers, if not pay royalties to them. It might be argued that the Jamaicans do it as a matter of course. In fact, many Indian songs are wholesale reproductions of Western hit-songs.

Can someone explain to me how Roger George, who has an excellent voice, could win Young Kings with an entire chorous-melody taken from Bryan Adams' "Heaven" or Kansas' "Dust In The Wind", both of which were monster international hits? And how, quite possibly, he could end up on the Savannah stage singing a melody that clearly is not his own creation? The thought of a calypso monarch with a winning song that has so much foreign content must be...well, alien.