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Klassic Ruso: A good night that needs more bite
The most pleasant surprise of the evening at the Klassic Ruso’s opening last Friday was the appearance of Shylocks, aka Sergio Francisco, son of Slinger (aka Sparrow). Unlike his dad who made the badjohn posture his signature, Sergio went in the opposite direction.
His song was a moralistic thing called When you take a life, which went exactly the way you’d expect – taking a life is a serious thing and all that. But what makes Shylocks worthy of mention, genealogy notwithstanding, is his voice. Scion of Sparrow, but blessed with a Shorty-like gravitas, the kid can sing. And as his dad was bouncy and truculent, Shylocks is contained, even restrained, on stage. It would be interesting to see what he does with better material.
That aside, the other noticeable thing about Ruso’s lineup was the presence of the Ministry of Arts & Multiculturalism – apparently the tent is now supported by the ministry. Rudolph Ottley, speaking at the opening (which speechifying was not appreciated by hot-to-trot audience members) visited the public-private tent scenarios’ pros and cons, and once the business started, the difference became apparent.
The proceedings were decidedly mannered. This wasn’t for lack of the calypsonians throwing a punch or three. Typher’s Eat Ah Food took loving aim at his fellow traveller Aloes’s foray into entertaining the UNC, suggesting he might be now called “Sugar Aloo”. Crazy brought out the story of Herb “The Verb” Volney – he who acted as others merely, adjectivally, described – to a mildly interested crowd. Stanley Adams went at the government’s hamper mentality: “If ah minister give you some water / is lights action camera / and you end up in some daily paper”. Lady Spicy managed to get the doubles planass incident, Section 34, and various other government foot-in-mouth moments in Planass.
So they went at the government, like good calypsonians are supposed to, but hearts were not all in it. You got the sense that it’s foremost a job now – perhaps as it always was – but nowadays the edge of the outlaw calypsonian is blunted by the spike of real gangsta: the taxman, the phone company, the cable company, and the food and rent thing. Though the business is not just about cutting up the government and all enemies domestic and foreign. Indeed Kaiso Mac sang despairingly about the conflict between entertainment and the fickle, blood-thirsty public, in The Songs They Want to Hear.
Cutting and blood aside, there was still the entertainment bit of calypso, and here the Hendrickson family figured largely in the Ruso. Shirlaine emceed, her sister, Lady Wonder, performed, and their dad, All Rounder, headlined. And Dad has a few rounds left in him – after a bit of fairly inane moralising about the evils of the gangsta business, he got down and dirty with Going Down Stairs. Literally got down in the crowd, and metaphorically, apparently it’s a bedroom thing which is still outlawed in some Caricom states and many decent, god-fearing Trini homes.
By the end of the first act, 19 calypsonians had performed, and the spectrum seemed to be pretty much covered, but not quite. The second act started off drearily with the obligatory rapsonian, but soon picked up some dark energy.
Another way of saying that is that they saved the vilest for last. This was a fellow with the handle of Dr Rhythm, whose offering, Unisex, provided the obligatory serving of homophobia. It began with a familiar meditation of the unnaturalness of same-sex copulation which occupies the consciousness of some heterosexual men to an astonishing degree. The it moved to “good looking” pigs, sheep, and other animal husbandry, falling victim to depraved livestock. Dr Rhythm’s solution which involved a sharp cutlass. The hook-line is worth repeating, but unfortunately cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.
Vile, yes, but it almost made one wish for the sanguinary humour, vitriol and raunchiness of the days of yore. And just as that reflection began to sink in, came the statutory dose of vice in Snakey’s The Female Plumber. She was, of course, preoccupied with pipes of all dimensions, getting wet, and things of that nature. The intriguingly named Sideways introduced the audience to a sweetman named “Dil” and his desirable (to women) habits. Dil-doh smoke, Dil-doh drink, Dil-do nothing but make a woman happy.
But the wettest slurp of the night undoubtedly belonged to the aptly named Hercules, who finally put the Section 34 business in a useful perspective. The whole imbroglio could be summed in one question: “Wha’ you pulling mih thirty-for?” Speed up the word “thirty”, and repeat the whole question about 20 times in succession, at speed at the top of your voice, as Hercules did, and you should find yourself in helpless laughter.
It was a good way to close the evening, and pleasant to note that Ruso’s time management was efficient. But even the smoothness and efficiency are strange. Something has been gained from the state’s now-overt embrace of calypso, in their support of many tents. But something might have been tamed too much.
Freedom of speech aside, Ruso’s content seemed too aware that folks needed to make a living, and couldn’t piss off the money too much. This is one tent, so no firm conclusion could be drawn, but it would be interesting to see how the other tents’ contents measure up.
Another trend that’s been evident since the turn of the century has been the increasing haplessness of the calypso imagination, and even its terms of reference, confronted with the brave new world. Listening to all various offerings on the government, Section 34, hamper giveaways, and social issues, like gang violence, social degeneration, and alternative sexuality, you hear nothing that you haven’t already heard, and indeed, the opinions merely reflect or repeat what’s out there. So much for calypso being the poor man’s newspaper.
So you won’t hear anything in a calypso tent you haven’t heard in the public sphere. But there is an opportunity here for calypso: to make the listener hear and see things in a way they have not thought of or seen. To do this requires calypso to evolve. Whether it wants to, or can, do this will be evident as the season continues.