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Kaiso House the old, the new, the true blue
Listening to the impressive line-up of the Kaiso House tent last Thursday night at the Savannah, I found myself wishing Bodyguard and GB could be there. Then they could both listen to Bunny B’s Milk, and hear how a skilled lyrical technician can hit the brigands where it hurts, without loutish references to an entire religious and ethnic group. Milk looked at the nutritious qualities of the national treasury, and their effects on our beloved government, which seems to be feeding furiously therefrom. Sporting a prosthetic gut, Bunny B speculated on the hefty, rotund physiques of the ministers. He observed that “Moonilal fraid to wear tie to work / Cause his neck get so fat he go choke,” and how “the PM tell the nation we shall rise / But is she who putting on size.” There’s more, of course, which I can’t quote (libel, you know). Milk is one of the more muscular offerings, but not the strongest. Combining lyrics, delivery, and sheer force of presence, the best sortie of the night came from Mister Shak’s Bois, about “all who dance the calenda/With a hidden agenda.../ I doh business with who they are /They getting real bois” —again, the better lyrics are a bit, ahem, much to repeat here. They involve politicians, ram-goats, tiefing and infidelity.
The effects of the Bois, though, were interesting to observe on the various members of the Cabinet who sat with President Anthony Carmona at the tent on Thursday night. Ministers Lincoln Douglas and Prakash Ramadhar, and Speaker Wade Mark sat in the audience, and for the most part, they took it manfully. They were no doubt cheered by their Cabinet colleague Gypsy, waxing lyrical about following dreams from the stage—yep, Gypsy sang. Nonetheless, the PM would be well-advised to play a video of Bois before every Cabinet meeting. And the PNM might well buy the rights for the next election. Politics and the government took up a fair bit of the evening, but there were noticeable differences from previous years. Barred from the full-frontal crudity (to borrow a term from Prof Rohlehr), most of the calypsonians went the other way, on to higher ground. The better ones channelled animus into craft and lyrical technique, and were successful in varying degrees. Karene Asche returned to her favourite theme of Jack and Kamla with her Malice in Wonderland, sneering corrosively at the once thick friendship now worn thin by the violence of politics. Kassman’s This is My Party took an equally rancorous look at a lady named Doolarie with a big job and a drinking problem. The dancing girls in yellow saris were great. One senses that Doolarie’s feelings on this might be not so good.
But the tent’s appeal is that its variety goes beyond statutory political blows. The standard genres were essayed: black unity, nation-building, humour, raunch—and each varied from banal to bawdy, to occasionally brilliant. Through the grassroots offerings, calypso continues to provide an interesting window into the mind of its constituency—mainly the black urban underclass. Shadrah McIntyre opened the show with Dey Doh Know, responding to people who think “we ain’t educated, and we ain’t like we own.” Deh Doh Know along with Sister Ava’s I Feel Like We Cryin’, Marvellous Marva’s Black on Black Killing and (Shadow’s son) Sharlan Bailey’s It Won’t Done (and a few more), recapped the major themes of Trini black populism—togetherness, resistance, black achievement, what have you. Singing Sandra took the sentiment transnational with Madiba, a stirring tribute to Nelson Mandela, marred only slightly by the “sampling” of lyrics from the Lion King in the opening chorus. The “black uplift” genre remains (as in previous years) stupefied at the violence in the largely black urban communities. There was an interesting, self-exonerating aversion of the gaze from the facts of violence into the tropes of despair, pleas for peace, and too-gentle self-reproach. If the vigour of perception that calypso as a whole brings to examining the PP’s every move could be brought to self-examination of its constituency, the grassroots calypso would be everything it thinks it is.
There’s nothing objectionable about being focused on the urban African grassroots section of the population. But it must be recorded that this is where the consciousness and focus of calypso are concentrated, since many people still believe that calypso represents the whole country. There are exceptions: some songs reach out of those limitations, like the always reliable Valentino (Respect the Icons), who has the gift for making the inane fresh. The grassroots songs elided into the nation-building calypsoes like Lani K’s A Song of Hope, Duane O’Connor’s A Nation’s Call, Explainer’s Only We (can build back the country), which appealed to a crime—and violence traumatised population to take charge, and which involved a fair amount of off-script preaching. The least satisfying songs were competently executed if banal. O’Connor and Bailey especially are younger singers blessed with powerful voices and stage intelligence, which await better material. Outside and away from this it was interesting that such humour as there was, once separated from the tragic political and social environments, fell flat—as in Allan Welch’s Soil Technician and Brown Boy’s Toilet Paper.
The raunch was uninteresting, with the exception of Spicey’s Man in That—a response to the metrosexual male. Apparently the new male adventurousness with tight clothing, sexual curiosity, depilation, and being vocal in the midst of the business, does not find universal favour. It would seem there’s a female sub-constituency which likes the caveman thing. And the final thing worth mentioning about the Kaiso House is its stable of senior talent—Rootsman, Valentino, Mudada, Poser, Explainer—who present an interesting contrast with the younger talent, and not a flattering one. The old hands are smooth, skilful, and appealing in a way many of their juniors are not. Clearly both camps are products of different histories and social and political economies, but the difference and contrast deserve much more study than it gets. (If only there were someone after Rohlehr who could look at calypso critically and without a T-shirt stamped “Defence!”)
And if there’s one figure in the tent who deserves much more than he gets, it’s Mudada.
He’s known for strong lyrics, which I’ve admired over the years, and idly wondered why he never gets much play outside the tent. His song this year, The Parliament Tent, is typical of his low-key, subtle irony (one of the few calypsonians who gets irony). And upon close examination, his verses reveal much more than is readily apparent. Take, for example: “They ent spending a cent/To come to the tent / Is free entertainment / In Parliament.” Deceptively simple, until you examine closer—either four short lines with four end rhymes or two long ones with two end rhymes and two internal ones. He does this a lot, and I found myself listening in awe, as the lines tripped and bounced, pulling you along with them. And as beguiling as the sound technology is, equally accomplished is the discursive movement through the song, which, in one verse, manages to link TUB Butler, Errol McLeod, and Peter the Apostle. To end where I began, the Kaiso House tent has an impressive list of virtues—a variety of performers, youngsters, old hands, second-generation singers (Shadow and Twiggy’s sons are there) oversexed ladies, vex ladies, ethnic solidarity, tears for the nation, jeers for the politicians, and bois-men for those who deserve bois. What more could a calypso lover ask?