In the height of the Carnival season, The T&T Guardian met with singer/songwriter Kurt Allen at his cocoa house on Mount El Tuche, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Allen intends to build his new home on the hill, near the cocoa house because that environment allows him to be closer to nature and allows his creativity to blossom. Until the actual house is built, for now he spends most of his time in the serene confines of the cocoa house he constructed in honour of his Amerindian ancestors.
We caught up with Allen as he entered the 2014 Carnival season with renewed vigour and purpose, profiling a vision of unity for two music genres in T&T–calypso and soca.
It is on this hill Allen got the inspiration for his new song Mountain which he performed at the International Soca Monarch 2014 semi-finals. This was the first time he entered the competition since his win in 1999 with Dus' Them (Bees in Town).
Time to focus on somethingother than picong
Allen was a semi-finalist in both the Power and Groovy category with Mountain, a politically-tinged song with a soca vibe and Sweet Sizzling Summer (SSS), a groovy tune which takes a light-hearted look at social issues.
In 1999, Allen's aim was to "feed the ego of Kurt Allen" by vying for the Soca Monarch title. However, in 2014 he would like the true winner to be the music. Allen, who sings in the Kaiso Karavan tent at La Joya, St Joseph, has won Tuco's Political Commentary title for the past two years. Last year, his song The Last Badjohn earned him the title.
However, there is a rumour that Allen will make 2014 his last year for singing the kind of political commentary he is known for. But it's false, he says, in that the political commentary will always be a part of his repertoire, but the style will vary.
Allen decided it was time to focus on something other than the picong and bashing of politicians in every song–that's been done.
The 44-year-old, who is the only calypsonian to have won International Soca Monarch, National Calypso Monarch and Young King, released his political commentary Last Psalm of King David, on February 3. Allen describes the song "intervention through introspection," and it urges the public to spend time contributing positively to the fabric of society when they are young and able.
This year, his primary focus is not on winning a title, but instead on eradicating "musical apartheid" in T&T, this is how he describes the separation of soca and calypso.
"The person who was the soca ambassador for the world, SuperBlue, never called himself a soca artiste, he was a calypsonian singing in the calypso tent and he was still doing his job in the parties.
"Sparrow and David Rudder were winning Road March titles and also Calypso Monarch titles. There was no Soca Monarch competition at that time, but if there was, they obviously would have been winning," he said. "So to me there was never a separation."
This year Allen intends to bridge the gap between the two genres–soca and calypso–which he feels are, in fact, one and the same.
As he sat in a low bamboo chair at the cocoa house, Allen spoke fervently about the event that started the separation of soca from calypso–The International Soca Monarch (which was then the Trinidad Soca Monarch). According to Allen, the competition was introduced in 1993 for calypsonians like SuperBlue and Tambu–who's music stood out due to their composition, harmony and infectious melodies that excelled further than that of Kaiso–to get "their recognition as kings, as they are rightfully so, and they were not being fully recognised in the Calypso Monarch," Allen said. "From then things started to drift apart quickly."
Allen said with this separation of the competitions, the younger artistes did not "get the calypso factor," which echoes the sentiments of the legendary SuperBlue who recently stated in a Metro Magazine interview:
"The young people come in with soca roots. I was from kaiso, the mind of the kaisonian different." They no longer wanted to be part of the calypso tents, but instead in the soca fetes and the marketing and promotions created the idea that they were separate.
"I fell victim to that, because people were trying to pigeon-hole me as either a calypsonian or a soca artiste. They weren't getting the connection that my dream was to be like a Mighty Sparrow, Mighty Duke, or the Lord Kitchener," he said with a hint of frustration. These artistes embodied the growth of calypso music into soca music without qualms: "Soca is the son or daughter of calypso," Allen insisted.
However, the widespread interest soca garners frequently overshadows calypso, often to the point where some young calypsonians to turn strictly to performing soca due to its financial benefits. As the years pass by, eventually things began to fall apart for calypsonians. A major obstacle they face is funding.
Artistes funding their own calypsoes
Allen laments that artistes now have to fund their own calypsoes, whereas in the past they received financial backing from producers, who "funded full-length albums, and calypsonians actually made money." Many soca artistes–unless they are with a label–also fund their own music, however often make a successful living through endorsements as well as international tours and local performances during and after the Carnival season which gives them the resources to put back into their music. Most calypsonians are rarely booked to perform after the Carnival season.
Allen, on the other hand, continues to challenge the norm by creating avenues for himself to ensure work never ends. After winning the 2010 National Calypso Monarch, Allen used his success and winnings to create viable avenues for him to earn a living by touring. In 2011 he did a successful tour of the music festival market in the US with 75 performances. He was asked to return the following year, but he received no government funding and was grounded that year.
However, throughout that tour, Allen was able to truly see what the international music market was still looking for when it comes to calypso.
"They associate that type of music still with Harry Belafonte," he said, laughing. "Calypso is a product that the masses buy into and the international market bought into the 'feel good' vibe of calypso music that allows one to create a happy space, representing the nonchalant island lifestyle people outside of the Caribbean yearn for." So, he explains because "calypso has moved away from the feel good music of Rum and Coca-Cola, written by Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco, to more rigid contents about the government, it is difficult for the international market to buy into it as a product."
It seems calypso may not return to its former glory until it is able to once again appeal to the international, and even local market in a big way. As soca continues to grow, particularly on the international circuit within recent years, it seems the separation of these two genres is getting wider which means Allen has his work cut out for him if he intends to educate the masses on the unanimity of them both.