By Mickel Brann
Every so often, an artiste comes along to break the cycle. In 1995, with message songs ruling the staid scene, Bankers of the Dread and Baldhead fame upended things with his reggae-infused calypsos Ah Me De Ras and Fire Go Bun Dem. His calypso yorker caught the field off guard, including the then three-peat king, Smarty Jr. But revisionist history has tried to regard this as an anomaly, and anyone daring to venture into anything remotely crossover has paid the price. Just ask Promise ’04-’05 and, someone could argue, Ark 2019.
King Onyan would take Bankers’ baton the following year and go on to win a record four successive times, putting him in a league of his own. When the purists and pundits railed about two jumpy songs trumping the ‘97 field and tried to put Onyan in a box, he returned a year later to bless us with one of the most enduring calypso anthems, Stand Up for Antigua. Added to Ghetto Life, the king proved that he could beat the proverbial ‘them’at their own two-serious-songs game. And when his playful Swim drove them further into calypso apoplexy in 99, he returned in 2000 to deliver a master class on the criteria.
In ’99, while Onyan was schooling folks long in the calypso tooth, over in the breakaway tent, a bombshell-to-be, Lena Philip, introduced herself to Calypso Land, with her freshman tune, Welcome Ivena.
Four years later, after having her way with the now-discontinued Calypso Queen show, Ivena would stamp her dominance on the monarchy, and not just as the first woman to wear the crown. Her petite frame belied her power. Full of conviction, seemingly fearless and claiming ownership of both her material and the stage, Ivena had a maddening effect on people, fan and foe alike.
Enter Tian Winter in 2019. Newcomers, especially when they carry an irreverent swag, are good for the competition and the artform. They smoke folks out of their comfort zones, build interest, invigorate, and they provide those who know how to spin it to their benefit with fodder for their own performance – here’s looking at you, Bear. And they bring new audiences to the artform.
The soca artistes on the Liberta riddim offered something worthy to the festival this year, especially calypso, which was, a couple of years ago, demoted from the coveted Sunday night to Friday to make way for show-du-jour, Party Monarch. Tian took it to another level by throwing his hat in the calypso ring.
Like it or not, people have gone to the tent specifically to witness the Winterman in a new environment, including those who went hoping to see him fail. Yes, ‘they’ were there, too, and quite vocal. And, miss a beat, a few words, or bus’, whatever the characterization of what was a somewhat minor issue, if someone can bring new people to an event that belongs to no one in particular, and everyone generally, where’s the beef?
Beyond bringing people (back?) to calypso, here’s hoping that the freshness that is Tian, in this case his festival-themed Let Loose, will cause the judges (some of whom need to be retired) to listen to so-called jumpy/party songs with fresh ears and new respect—the kind of respect (and knowledge) the adjudicators had back in calypso’s heyday, when it was the calypsonian who juggled his commitment to biting commentary with providing the music for the party and the road.
The marking down of artistes who have dared to offer spirit-of-carnival songs in favor of the so-called message songs, especially those with universal appeal over homegrown issues, is simply perverse. Artistes like Panman, an unheralded calypso great, has had his pan and party songs routinely disrespected and disregarded. Give honorable mention to folks like the energetic Byke for what he’s brought in recent years, too.
Thanks to Tian, the judges will be forced to listen to all contenders, regardless of the bpm, because who amongst them is going to convey to the party monarch and king of the party vibes that his song isn’t relevant? And if you don’t believe that the rising tide is already lifting all boats, check Sammy C’s success with Jam Me coming out of Quarters.
Speaking of the judges — why should calypsonians need to threaten legal action to receive their scores from the Quarterfinals when said scores are a tool to help them improve and prepare for the next round? Rhetorical questions actually, because when the same set of people can see and hear the same thing, yet scores range from 60-90 on a single song, something is not just wrong; it’s terribly awful, perhaps personal. And don’t bother to come with the subjectivity of the task because there’s the matter of the science also known as the criteria.
Open the gates, man. Welcome the calypso virgins and vibes that they bring (Shout-out to Hard Knaxx and youthful fresh air). Let everybody do wha’ dey (they) want. That’s everyone but the judges. They need to do what they ought.