By Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, ORTT
While watching the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States on January 20 th., between work and the occasional nod, I was called on phone to participate in an ongoing discussion of calypso lovers and enthusiasts from New York, Toronto, New Jersey, Baltimore and Boston by Gil Figaro, the Founder and Director of Sunshine Awards Inc. These folks who reside in the U.S. usually get together to hold timely discussions on aspects of our Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and include calypsonians like Sparrow and Alberto, musicians like Frankie McIntosh and Errol Ince, as well as show producers and collectors of vintage calypso recordings. Well, the inauguration of the American President was an event that motivated the discussion on calypso as one of the females in the telephone webinar, obviously moved by the appointment of a woman to the Vice-Presidency, provoked the telephone crowd by stating that instead of inviting Lady Gaga to perform at the formal function in Washington, Biden should have invited Calypso Rose.
Well, the discussion of having Rose sing at such a high-brow affair brought on more discussion and Trinidadian-style ‘old talk.’ Could Rose’s “Fire Fire” be an appropriate song for such political lovers of democracy? One musician remarked: “Rose go pelt she shoe in the crowd; suppose she shoe hit Kamala Harris in she face?””Why not Cro Cro?” a Grenadian man shouted. Some felt that Biden would have loved to hear Cro Cro sing a calypso at Capitol Hill in which he was “cussing” Trump for all his unethical behaviour in the White House. Others objected, “Gypsy, Relator, Sugar Aloes, Luta, GB and Rudder in Trinidad, Short Shirt in Antigua, Gabby and Red Plastic Bag in Barbados would do a better job, since the event called for serious calypso that would appeal to young and old.”
Well, the chairman or the chair-moderator brought the discussion to a serious debate when he asked: “What kind of calypso was needed for such an historical event?” The crowd, searching in introspection, became quieter and spoke thereafter in slow, searching, audible steps. Calypsonian Alberto from London joined the occasion and received a standing ovation of applause, as it were, when he said that the calypso that was needed for such a function was one like Sparrow’s “No Apology.” In that calypso, Ted Koppell, the well-known British American broadcaster, wanted Mandela to “condemn Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, and Yasser Arafat right there on TV,” for siding with him when he left prison in South Africa and became President of the South African Republic. Well, in support of Alberto’s choice, Gil Figaro sang the calypso No Apology for us, the webinar crowd, outlining the lyrics of Mandela informing Ted Koppell: “These people helped me when apartheid was on the rise; I dealt with them out of necessity; I will never apologise.” Of course, Mandela also informed Koppell, via Sparrow, that he bore all the wrongs made against him patiently and ended up by saying: “Thorns and Thistles have been laid on my head to curtail my rest…I will never apologise for my identity.”
“Not a man move,” as we used to say in cricket when Gary Sobers was batting and hit a ball for four. All agreed that a calypso like that demonstrating truth, history, interest, well-measured lyrics, and apt music that spoke to the entire world was the kind of art and artform needed for that black-tie event. “It must be a calypso where the lyrics must be drawn up with malice towards none and charity towards all,” said another. Moreover, Gil and others pointed out that the singers who could have made that type of calypso were the Roaring Lion, Attila the Hun, DeFosto, Beginner, Duke, Composer, Merchant and Pretender, but they have all gone to their rest in paradise. The audience all agreed and concluded that with Black Stalin unwell, “The only ones alive who could reach that standard of composing with lyrics that rhyme and make sense, while yet displaying that air of authority on stage, are Sparrow and Chalkdust.”
Of course, I was asked my opinion and not wanting to be accused of bias and self-praise, I used the opportunity to therefore inform the crowd of calypso enthusiasts that the ambassador for Trinidad and Tobago in the United States/Canada would have done an immortal job, if he had used his position in New York to secure a calypso on the Biden programme, in the first place. “Do you know what a calypso on that stage would have done for Trinidad and Tobago,” I asked? Agreeing with me, a few musicians joined together to say: “We need ambassadors with a calypso mission and vision out there. A calypso on the Biden inauguration, broadcasted to the world of over 400 million listeners would have shown to people everywhere the composing ability and capacity of our nationals and spread our artform to the ends of the earth, for in truth and in fact, there is no music like the calypso when it comes to capturing an event, especially a historical one.”
Now, I am not supporting the use of calypso because I am a calypsonian. Rather, I am stating a fact that studies of ethnomusicology have shown that in terms of peoples’ participation, crowd appeal, rhythmic rhyming lines, poetry in music and a people’s culture wrapped beautifully within the lyrical lines, no art form in such Biden-like circumstances can beat or prove better than the calypso. My Grenadian friend Syllo chimed in: “Only one thing was missing from that event, a calypso from Sparrow.”
In addition, in terms of the importance of a calypso at world events such as the US Inauguration, a few calypsonians from Canada raised the point that instead of holding a virtual Calypso Monarch show for Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago this year, the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) in conjunction with (Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) has planned a Soca contest to display mainly “a calypso road march.” The question was asked who will benefit from such a display of road marches without revellers on the road? Surely, the crowd in the New York webinar noted, if TUCO understood the value of calypso, if they understood that, in the words of the Mighty Sniper, “by calypsos our stories are told,” then they would organise a calypso contest to show the impact of the Covid pandemic. Then and only then, they would know “what is calypso” as described by the Mighty Duke: “an editorial in song of what we undergo.” A “true-true calypso” contest of “true-true calypsos” according to Pretender, would lift the artform and slow down its probable, impending doom.
Imagine ECLAC in year 2020 has asked a Trinidadian to research the impact of Covid-19 on calypso and TUCO has shied away from its role, not seeing that TSTT/bmobile will make all the money from text messages and phone calls needed to take the place of calypso judges and laugh at us, TUCO members, in the bank. Indeed, the New York audience therefore found that TUCO was running away from a once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity to show the beauty of Savannah calypso and thereby demonstrate the composing abilities of locals. “But calypsonians have said nothing for a whole year; the world is anxious to hear Sparrow and GB, and TUCO don’t want to give them that microphone?” retorted a young female singer from Boston. Thus, a nail will have been driven into the coffin of calypso when the Calypso Monarch contest, already fighting to stay alive, is not supported by the body that represents calypso. I know that some will say that soca and jump up songs are also calypso genres but the art of composing Savannah calypsos a la Shadow, Pink Panther, Composer, Superior, Gypsy, Gabby, Sparrow, Striker, Melody, Rudder, Spitfire, Terror, GB, and Short Shirt, to name a distinguished few, will be lost soon if such decisions are taken by an esteemed body like TUCO.
Mr. Martin Daly, on the Sunday Express of January 24, has also testified to this. Daly made the important point that the excitement from a calypso tent audience shouting out timely outbursts of “Kaiso, kaiso boy,” cannot be replaced by TUCO’s virtual road march. Need I say more? As such, I wish to tell Mr Daly: “I am not lonely anymore; I am dissolved among learned men.”
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