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Guilbault casts critical eye on calypso and soca

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Kevin Baldeosingh

As with so many other aspects of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture, it has taken a foreign scholar to produce an account of the country’s music.

Guilbault, a musicologist from the University of Chicago, focuses on soca and calypso, her central question being: “What is it that the new Carnival musics perform that calypso does not?”

In a sense, this is the least interesting aspect of the book. She examines the cultural claims new style like chutney soca make in relation to politics, as well as the claims about authenticity and permissible traditions made by various practitioners. But all of this is anthropological interpretation and, as a general rules, anthropologists’ ethnographic data are far more valuable than their theoretical interpretations of such data, since as an academic discipline anthropology is often closer to ideology than science.

So Guilbault traces the origins of calpso, concluding that “what is today called calypso may have combined, as it often still does, different song forms, musical instruments and musical values commonly associated with several musics...some derived from African influences and others not.” This alone is a useful corrective to Afrocentrists, and even racists who criticise calypso on its supposedly African foundations.

Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with early history of calypso and Carnival. “By 1939 the colonial administration and bourgeoisie in Trinidad were dedicated to holding calypso tent competitions to elect the Calypso King of the Season—which, after countless battles, finally took place in 1953 as the first true calypso competition,” Guilbault notes. So State and business support for the festival is a longer tradition than many suppose, especially those who claim that the PNM started this practice.

In respect to the vulgar behaviour annually criticised every Carnival, Guilbault also shows that this is nothing new and, in fact, vulgarity was worse in bygone days. Back in the early to mid-20th century, the jamettes would not only dance rudely but bare their breasts and proposition men. “The gestures and rebellious attitudes of the jamet [sic] women spurred the strongest reactions and condemnations among the middle-class and white colonial elite,” Guilbault writes. So that, too, hasn’t changed much.

Relatedly, she notes that Calypso Rose was once called “The Queen of Smut”—an unofficial title now airbrushed from Rose’s history since she became an icon. But, says Guilbault, Rose was condemned by “feminists, church members and male chauvinists.”

Criticism of soca also stems from conservative interests and perspectives. Those individuals, from traditional calypsonians to commentators who dismiss soca are reproducing arguments made about popular music in general. “By positing party music as a trivial and interchangeable commodity, this approach reproduced the same kind of critiques addressed to global pop…it not only ignores the artistic investment and positioning of its makers but also neglects the aesthetic discrimination and value judgements of its consumers.”

Guilbault, however, argues that new forms like soca and chutney still exclude many of the groups that traditional calypso did, singling out excludes gays, whites, artists from other racial and ethnic groups. Except for homosexuals, however, this point is somewhat tendentious.

Indeed, many of Guilbault’s assertions are arguable and her prose is not especially friendly. But, as an overview of Carnival and its music, this is the best book available. Most importantly, it includes a CD.