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Raffique Shah


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Chalkdust, calypso must change or die

By Raffique Shah
February 16, 2018

Dear Chalkie,

I rarely respond to critics of views I express in my column, unless, like you, I hold them in high regard. Just as I enjoy the freedom to criticise public figures within the bounds of decency, I respect others' right to respond to my opinions when we disagree, or even when they distort facts and resort to abuse.

Like you, too, my brother, I do not suffer fools: I ignore them, leave them to wallow in their folly.

I was somewhat surprised that you felt hurt when I referred to you as "a (calypso) pioneer of sorts". That was intended to be complimentary, not derogatory. I thought of you being among the first public officers (a teacher) who not only dared to enter the calypso arena, but dared to be critical of the Government of the day, which was led by Dr Eric Williams, who did not take too kindly being subjected to criticism, certainly not from a calypsonian.

You will recall that Eric's dogs of war called on him to fire you from your job. To be fair to him, he did not intervene. He was reported to have responded, "Let the jackass bray!"

To have weathered a full frontal assault from the PNM in the latter 1960s-1970s, and to have stayed the course as a primarily political commentator, and the premier one at that, took a lot of courage on your part, and paved the way for other public officers—policeman Watchman comes to mind—to benefit, hence my bestowing on you the title of "pioneer". I am sorry if a misinterpretation caused you hurt.

On the substantive issue I dealt with in my column, the death of the calypso tent as we knew it, I think your omission of the latter qualification (as we knew it) is what provoked a difference in opinions between you and me.

I agree with all the positives of the tent you enumerated: it (I use the singular here in the collective sense) was an incubator for generations of artistes (calypsonians and other genres of singers, comedians, emcees, impresarios, etc.); it offered business opportunities for small entrepreneurs with culinary and craft skills; and most of all it brought wholesome entertainment within affordable reach of ordinary people.

But somewhere along the line—was it the 1980s or 1990s?—attendance first declined, then all but collapsed. I understand on many nights, audiences are smaller than the casts and support staff. There are reasons why the demise occurred, too many to discuss here. I have no doubt that, as you wrote in your response to me, you were very involved in attempts to resuscitate calypso. I did not know details of the courses you designed or taught at The UTT, nor do I question your initiatives at the Revue to teach budding bards "to improve lyrics, melody and delivery of (their) songs".

What I ask, and what most "kaiso" aficionados will want to know is why in spite of all these efforts, of Government-funded tuition (UTT) and subventions (TUCO and the tents), there's a dearth of talent, an absence of spontaneity at the tents from satisfied patrons exclaiming "kaiso, boy", or the nightly pleasure that we enjoyed when artistes like you, Pretender, Maestro and so many others received encores-without-end, and the aforementioned (and others) delivered new verse after verse, extemporaneously?

Chalkie, where is the successor to Kitchener who, it was said, created a new melody when he gargled on mornings, and who delivered melodious, classic calypsos every year, up until he died?

Sure I am impressed with some of the material produced by artistes like Chucky Gordon (last year I thought he would beat you!), Duane O'Connor, Kees, Voice and a few others. But they are too few and they have yet to compose and render anything close to Kitch's "Toco Band", which the Grandmaster sang in his winter year! I dare not ask about bards who come within the melodic and lyrical ranges that Sparrow, Melody, Spoiler, Nelson, Shorty, Relator, Stalin, Valentino and so many others of yesteryear established, songs that outlive the fallen, will survive those yet to make their exits, and which you and I, Chalkie, will hum or croak when they lay us down to a restless hereafter:

It is now a full generation (32 years, to be precise) since our last calypso superstar, David Rudder, burst onto the scene, and he keeps on composing and singing (note the combination of talents) some of the finest songs. Where is his successor? Why have the various programmes you mentioned, or the incubator-tent, failed to produce bards like Rudder, or Merchant and Maestro, who were brimming with talent, but who both suffered untimely deaths?

My main point, Chalkie, is that the tents, and indeed all our approaches to calypso, must change in order to not merely survive, but to emerge with new life that will see them attract new talent as well as new audiences. The earlier generations, ours being one, that saw the tent as a Carnival staple, is transitioning to another dimension, if you get my drift.

As the new calypso monarch Helon Francis sang, we must change not just to be different, but to be better. This advice from the youngster is not only timely, it is sagely. From the mouths of babes...

Nuff respect, my brother.

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