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Daniell: Good calypsoes being sidelined
Mother Earth is crying, she say to stop the polluting...oy oy oy
Mother Earth is crying, we got to stop the polluting...oy oy oy
Whole attitude got to change, and priorities rearrange
We got to become more competent
The way we protect the environment
And fight, fight for all that it's worth
Fight to save Mother Earth...oy oy oy
(Mother Earth is Crying, 1994, Baron)
Possibly before global groups were formed to address the issue of climate change and its risks, Baron (Timothy Watkins Jr) sang to the issue of climate change in his 1994 composition Mother Earth is Crying. King Austin’s 1980 calypso classic Progress (Austin Lewis) sang to man’s quest for development posing very philosophical arguments as to what constitutes development. Shadow’s (Winston Bailey) 1988 classic Dingolay sang to music’s universality and the common experience it brings to humanity. David Rudder’s 1988 classic Haiti immortalised Haiti’s disintegration.
Some may argue that gone are the days when calypsoes addressed both international and domestic issues but for Alvin Daniell, calypso adjudicator, composer and cultural critic, many people who spend the time to do international songs are often sidelined. Daniell discussed in a telephone interview with the Sunday Guardian why it appeared calypsoes no longer addressed international issues like it once did. He identified two problems which resulted in what he defined as good international calypsoes being overlooked. Low adjudication, he said, often resulted in songs with metaphors and other strong structural characteristics being overlooked. Repetitive topics, he added, are the ones doing well. Daniell said this has become frustrating to people who create better compositions. With wars in various parts of the world, terrorism and other international issues, Daniell said there are many international topics from which calypsoes can be crafted.
“Even when someone does a composition they seem unable to appreciate it,” he said. For Daniell, many competitions need adjudicators at a particular standard although, he did not qualify what those standards were. “Our artistes seem so focused on local competitions. They are not making music for the world,” he said. Daniell, however, sees promise in groovy soca. Power has become boring, he said. Daniell believes many artistes are using gimmicks to sell songs on “crossover rhythms” and presented to international markets it becomes watered-down pop.
The country’s last song that crossed over, he said, was Anslem Douglas’ 1998 Who Let the Dogs out re-sang by the Baha Men and released as a single in 2000. “We are going away from the music that would make it internationally.” He identified Machel Montano, Kees Dieffenthaller and Kerwin du Bois as artistes whose compositions possess the characteristics to become international hits.
Daniell expressed strong views as to why calypso or soca is yet to become an identifiable international genre and he said it all lies in the definition. The root of the problem lies, he said, in calypso/soca’s definition. He believes that the compartmentalisation of calypso has done little to assist the music. T&T’s music, he said, is currently listed internationally as latin, reggae or world music. “How can we earn a grammy if people don’t know what to call your music?” he asked. “Until we can solidify that and market it probably it will always be termed fast food.”
Although he questioned the number of artistes who are able to perform for 45 minutes constantly, Daniell said he was pleased by some of the work heard for Carnival 2013, citing Denise “Saucy Wow” Belfon’s Wining Queen as a selection he is pleased with because of its “outstanding melodic line and rhythm.” When asked about the calypso tents which traditionally produced some of the country’s top calypsoes, Daniell said there were two to three major calypso tents (Kalypso Revue, Young Brigade and Spektakula) funded by private investors. “In order to fill the tents one had to select the best and put together a cast at the highest level.”
While Daniell commended the Government for assisting the art form through funding the tents, he believes, this has created a level of mediocrity. He recalled when Calypso Fiesta held in Skinner’s Park, San Fernando (the semi-final calypso competition held yearly in San Fernando prior to Dimanche Gras night) did not require guest artistes to fill the space. Now, he said, to obtain a crowd many guest artistes are needed. Whether it was Super Blue (Austin Lyons), Iwer George (Neil George) or Tambu (Christopher Herbert) whatever the singer sang was defined as calypso, he said. “At the end of it all, a good calypso is a good calypso. The days when we try to compartmentalise music that was it,” he said.
Rohlehr: No airplay for calypsoes addressing international issues
But Gordon Rohlehr, a professor of West Indian literature and an intellectual who has spent more than 40 years documenting calypso and Caribbean popular culture, said last year many calypsoes were composed which addressed international issues but the problem was that the compositions were not being given airplay or recognition. Rohlehr in a telephone interview said the calypsoes “are not being promoted or played on the radio.”
Last year’s Calypso Fiesta, he said, displayed a range of relevant calypsoes and showcased some promising female singers, many from Tobago. There were many songs which addressed pressing societal issues such as gender, family, the treatment of children. He gave a personal reason as to why the songs appeared to no longer gain public interest—Rohlehr said he believes the society has become hardened. “Their conscience is not as troubled as it should be—there is an absence of response that breeds the casual violence we are seeing right now.”
Over the last ten years many relevant domestic and international issues such as landslides were addressed by calypsonians, he said. He cited Gypsy’s (Winston Peters) calypso which spoke to financial impropriety by Bernie Madoff in 2009. There has been a move, Rohlehr said, away from the calypsonian as composer. In tents, he said, compositions came from an individual who was witty and admired and who kept the audience interested. Although individuals such as these still exist, he said, many only appear in smaller competitions such as those held by companies. Many in the art form, he said, have become professionals who simply records a commodity.
“The cultural product has become no different from the agricultural product…there is a cost to produce it, market it and make it a product,” he said. A professional is unable to do something for fun or to make an impact, Rohlehr said. Like many a device employed in many Shakesperian plays, the all inclusive fetes and the music associated with that acts as a form of escapism from the grim reality of life, Rohlehr posited.
‘Soca is escapist’
“Soca encourages escape—in all its different forms. It is escapist and I am not critiquing it for being that way. Escapism is part of society’s way of creating a path away from a stressful life. What does it mean for calypso? It means no one wants to hear them.” While stating that humorous calypsoes has also taken on a life of its own, Rohlehr informed that in the 1920s there was a Vaudeville (a semi circus) in which one found varying acts and among them calypso. Tents, he said, are suffering from a “scattering of talent.” The tent, he said, is a very traditional institution which emerged in the twentieth century and in this era, “it may very well be that the tent is a dead and dying institution.”
He said many of the contributors to the success of tents are dying and so as the creation of an older generation interest in the tents would wane. Rohlehr likened calypso’s development to the movement from cottage industries to factories in which there is mass production and a sameness to a product. “People are going to experts who possess a limited number of ideas musically so you get a monotony—the monotony of a few minds,” he said. When asked about the lack of passion in the music, he said, passion is found in areas addressing politics but even there one would find the “eat ah food situation” and people “justifying eat ah food.”
“Once you have eat ah foodism, you conceal or sideline your passion in the interest of your own survival,” he said. While not condemning people who did that, he said, there is nothing more withering to creativity than that. Rohlehr called for the complication of calypsoes onto DVDs, CDs and other forms which can be sold or distributed to the public and abroad.
“How are our calypsoes going to survive? We have to make them survive, teach our heritage to a new generation.”