The Death of Trinidad Calypso
Photo : Ramdath Jagessar
Reports and warnings have been coming from all sides that Trinidad’s national song, calypso, is dead, dying, walking dead or in a terminal coma. This is serious business for Trinis and deserves some critical analysis.
My approach is to look at the main factors that would make a success of calypso as Trinidad and Tobago’s national song, and check if they have been present in the last 50 years or so, and if they are present now. Then we can issue a death certificate or life certificate for calypso.
Here we go.
(1) The national song calypso must be national in scope, with support and active participation from all classes, races, cultures and regions of the country.
(2) Calypso should have an abundance of good quality songs and quality music all year, many uplifting songs as well as witty, entertaining, social commentary, non-partisan political commentary, love and folk songs.
(3) The national song should have appeal to local as well as international audiences, good record sales, many performance venues and concerts that support the singers and musicians as artistes.
(4) The calypso artistes and musicians must strive to become independent professionals in their trade, people of integrity and talent who can be role models and leaders in the society.
I understand that most, if not all, of these big four factors are applicable to the Jamaican national song reggae, which gets a big life certificate. Salsa, rhumba, bolero, timba and other styles are alive in the very vibrant Cuban music scene. How does Trinidad calypso compare? Not well at all, I would say.
Trinidad calypso has never been national.
- It has always reflected the attitudes, life style and culture of urban based lower class black, and never the culture of Indian people living mostly in the countryside. Indians have been always close to 40% of the population.
- Probably less than 1% of the calypsonians over the last 60 years have been Indians, and Chinese, Whites, Syrians, Portuguese also in very tiny numbers. Hindus, Muslims, Pentecostals and even some Catholics have not been enthusiastic about calypso. I give calypso a failing grade for the national scope.
- Audiences in the calypso tents have always been mostly black, and in recent years Indians have all but abandoned calypso tents and sponsorship of calypso.
Calypso has never produced good quality songs and music all year.
- There’s a very short calypso season that ends at Carnival and that’s it.
- The quality of these calypsos has been declining dramatically in recent years, and now many say less than a dozen decent calypsos are produced each year, not enough to sustain a national cultural form.
- Witty and entertaining calypsos are in very short supply, and so too good social commentary and uplifting love songs.
- Too many calypsos are just trash, vulgar and crude sex songs, of the “I want to jam you” variety, or the “jump and wine” type.
- The anti-establishment bite of calypsos almost disappeared when blacks became the establishment and leaders of the government. Calypsos satirizing the rulers and ruling classes have all but died out. PNM calypsonians gave the PNM a free pass.
- Many, many calypsos are so abysmally bad that they should never be allowed on the airwaves or sung in calypso tents.
- A huge proportion of the calypsonians fail dismally as composers. They are just not up to the job of producing a single good calypso PER YEAR. The burden of creating quality calypsos is too much for most calypsonians
- The most offensive parts of calypso relate to political commentary, some social commentary and a certain type of song related to Indians in Trinidad. Since the fifties most black calypsonians have been seen to be, and have behaved, as supporters of a single political party, the People’s National Movement. This is nothing less than artistic suicide. Instead of being non-partisan in their political commentary the calypsonians have openly praised the PNM and attacked the Indian based parties such as the DLP, ULF, and UNC. Indians are half a million people in a population of 1.3 million! So was lost the chance to chance to get the Indians to support calypso on a national basis.
- Just as idiotic was the long standing practice of using calypso to berate and ridicule Indians, to “keep them in their place”. Indians and Africans have been in heavy political competition for decades. Using a so called national song to criticize and denigrate Indians, one of the two major racial groups, is madness. Why would Indians want to support an art form that is attacking them?
- For decades black calypsonians have been producing songs about black men having sex with Indian women, even though they know quite well that most Indians do not like those songs. I believe most black women don’t like them either, as they show the black man preferring an Indian woman to his own black woman. What kind of dumb-ass calypsonians would continue to sing songs that antagonize TWO THIRDS of the population? The stupidity of the calypsonian knows no bounds, but there is a cost. Most Indians have abandoned the calypso tents, and since the advent of Indian radio stations in 1993, apparently abandoned listening to calypso at all. Why haven’t the Calypsonians’ Association or somebody intelligent advised calypsonians to drop these anti-Indian calypsos?
Calypso has lost its international appeal and audience.
- The pre-1950’s internationally recognized calypsos with universal themes, foreign record sales and genuine appeal of the golden age of calypso is simply gone. There are now almost no crossover calypso hits, calypsos on world billboard charts since the time of Harry Belafonte!
- Localization and excessive Trinidianization of the language (too fast), the themes (too local) have turned off much of the international audience that once loved the slower, more melodious calypsos of the past.
- International sales of calypso records are poor.
- I understand local sales of calypso records are also poor, and Trinidad calypsonians are not in high demand for performances abroad except for the West Indian audiences. Few calypsonians can make a good living from their art all year round.
- Performance venues for calypso performances on an all year basis are few. Restaurants and clubs seldom hire calypsonians to perform, as is quite common in nearby Venezuela for their singers. Calypso shows outside the Carnival season are scarce compared with chutney shows for Indian artistes all year round.
Most calypsonians cannot be considered to be professional artistes or musicians.
- There are some full time calypsonians and calypso musicians who do justice to the word artiste, but the majority are no more than part time amateurs and their work shows it.
- There is a gross shortage of programs that train composers of calypsos, and schools to train them to sing calypsos. How then can untrained and often poorly educated young people be expected to produce polished calypsos and performances? As far as I know, there is no core of able lyric writers who can offer quality calypso lyrics to aspiring singers.
- The glorification of calypsonians as poets and opinion makers who cannot be criticized has backfired. Calypsonians singing racist, libellous or just criminal lyrics have been allowed to do so without penalty, as for example one dumbo who was advising his audiences to “kidnap them”! Few or no calypsonians can live up to the pedestal of being like Shakespeare or Paul McCartney!
I am aware that this looks like a hit list for guaranteed failure and tombstone for calypso. So I will ask if there is or was anything good about Trinidad calypso? The answer is yes there was, and no there isn’t much good about Trinidad calypso today.
From the thirties to the fifties Trinidad calypso was much admired and supported locally and internationally. Great artistes like Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole and the Andrews Sisters were singing Mama Look a Boo Boo, Rum and Coca Cola, Matilda she take me money and gone Venezuela, and Never marry a woman prettier than you. Many calypsos were lively and catchy, full of humour and double entendre. You could take your mother to a calypso tent! People bought calypso records. Calypsonians went abroad to sing on cruise ships. The Dimanche Gras show was full of class. There was no politicization of calypso, gross and crude calypsos were not allowed on the radio and some not even in the calypso tents. It was a kinder, gentler age according to our elders, the golden age of calypso.
Why it went wrong and is now today little more than an abomination is the subject of many books and articles by people like Hollis Liverpool and Gordon Rohlehr. I leave those experts to find solutions. As a Trini expected to be a consumer of calypso, I have to say I don’t like the product offered today, and I hope I have given good reasons above for feeling that way.