Once regarded the engine room of the calypso art form, the calypso tent is in peril of becoming an endangered specie. This has been a concern of calypsonians and fans for many a year as attendance to the calypso tent has significantly dwindled.
Many reasons have been suggested by commentators, among these the increase in crime and the bards singing songs that reek of racist undertones. However, the folk actually in the belly of the engine room are optimistic about the current health and longevity of the art form.
Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (Tuco) chairman and National Carnival Commission (NCC) board member Lutalo Masimba (Bro Resistance) feels that calypso tents are in good health and, despite challenges, have a bright future ahead. He said: "Calypso tents are alive and well in Trinidad and Tobago. However, in the general Carnival landscape, they are being marginalised by external forces, especially highly competitive and aggressive commercial forces.
"This past decade the Carnival culture has become so much fast-paced and commercialised that the tents have not being able to keep up. In the past decade, the management of calypso tents have not stepped up their game to create a greater awareness and support for the tent."
Successive governments have played a major role in the calypso tent business, especially in the area of funding. Said Masimba: "There are five tents directly owned and managed by Tuco. In addition, there are affiliate tents like Kalypso Revue and Icons, plus community-based tents which number about ten across the island.
The community-based tents are usually owned and managed by the artistes themselves, or the Carnival committee of the area. The community-based tents are a welcome phenomenon in Carnival as it is a creation by the people, for the people.
"Government supports every tent in some way or another. No government has ever interfered in any calypso tent as far as I know and we have been aligned to different governments since 1998."
Masimba expressed pride and satisfaction over the success of his tent, Kaiso House, based in the Queen's Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain, this year. He said: "The marketing approach and strategies of Kaiso House over the past three years is now bearing fruit, thus the reason for our sold out shows nightly."
Expressing optimism on the future of calypso tents, Masimba said: "The calypso tent is a traditional institution but we must keep apace of the times. Looking at William Munro's Kingdom of the Wizards, and Spektakula Promotions' tent, you realise that there is a job to be done by the management of all calypso tents.
"The mission of Tuco is to eventually establish the calypso tent as an independent entity, standing on its own. Eventually, we do not want to rely on subsidies from government."
Veteran calypsonian Short Pants (Llewelyn McIntosh) expressed a divergent point of view. He said: "Calypso tents are clearly not flourishing as they once did. I agree with a recently published newspaper article by Debbie Jacob which suggested that state funding is creating a negative effect on calypso tents.
"I grew up in the era when men like Jazzy Pantin, Syl Taylor and Theodore Guerra, as businessmen, operated calypso tents as privately owned businesses. This is not to say that they didn't get some assistance from the state, but, with or without assistance, because of their astuteness as businessmen and their vision, these guys ensured that their tent would operate."
"These tents would have 'genuine' auditions which was a critical facet of the tent. Singers back then knew that he had to come up with a song that would be acceptable to management.
"Management then had the option of selecting a variety of songs so that they could plan a well balanced cast and songs, ensuring variety and quality of your programme.
"I am not so sure that is what happens now. What I suspect tent managers and operators do now is they sit back and wait on a government subvention to run their tents.
"If they don't get government subvention they will not be able to open a tent.
"In the old days, nobody could tell Jazzy or Syl what they could do. The old adage of 'who pays the piper calls the tune' applies. It is logical, not to mention fair, that if a politician invests thousands of dollars in a calypso tent, why should he do so to pay people who are singing against him or his government?
"It is also stupid business if your income cannot cover your expenses and overheads. There is also a trickle down effect on the subsidising of calypso tents by the state.
"As a calypsonian, it is only human nature that if I am assured of a salary that I do not need to create anything special from an artistic point of view. My paycheque is guaranteed anyway. This means that the quality of song I may create or perform may not be of the best."
Contender (Mark John), the 1966 and '67 junior Calypso Monarch, is the chairman of Tuco North Zone. He said that his tent, Klassic Ruso, maintains
a "healthy relationship" with government and the powers that be. Last year, the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism initiated a pilot project of chosing a calypso tent and assigning experts in various entertainment disciplines to assist the tent produce a professionally run production. Klassic Ruso was the chosen tent for the experiment.
"The pilot project was a resounding success," said Contender. "People visiting the tent this year expressed pleasant surprise at how professionally it was run in every facet, from the placement of the band on stage to the length of our programme, and the stage craft and attire of our artistes.
"The experts assigned to Klassic Ruso taught us about decor, wardrobe, punctuality and even make up. The ambience inside our tent has improved and we have consistently began our programme promptly 8.30 pm. Other tents have adopted a lot of what we did last year and, for instance, the latest any tent goes to now is midnight. They all have tight, well managed and entertaining programmes."
Commenting on the popularity of calypso tents, Contender said: "Attendances to calypso tents are not what they used to be years ago, and there are a number of reasons for this. The main factors for this are headed by the crime scourge. Secondly, the calypso population has dwindled. A lot of the people who used to come out to the tents have either died, gotten too old, or are just scared to be out of their homes at night.
"In the old days, outside Sparrow's tent, there used to be police on horseback to control the crowd. Today, many people seem to see soca music as a replacement to calypso music. While no succession planning was done to ensure continuity of the tent business, we have a lot of young people coming back into singing calypso. There is a resurgence in recent years, and there has been increased tent patronage.
Contender doesn't share the view that calypso or the tents are dying. "People want to hear calypso," he asserted. "Imagine Kaiso House had a sold out show last Sunday night."
Commending the government for its assistance to calypso, Contender suggested vigilance on the part of tent managers. He explained: "Tuco and tent managers must always be on guard against being manipulated into what a singer can sing, and that the authorities never dictate who sings in which tent, and what they can sing."
Reluctant to comment on the subsidy from government this year to run the tent, Michael Osouna (Sugar Aloes) seemed disappointed by the eventual quantum of assistance he received from the state to operate the Kalypso Revue for Carnival 2013. Last year when, under fire for singing Tarrus Riley's She's Royal to Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar on a People Partnership platform, the two-time National Calypso Monarch said he did so to merely earn an income, and secure funding for his Kalypso Revue tent.
Preferring to comment instead on the state of Kalypso Revue for C2K13, Osouna said there was neither increase or decrease in attendance at the SWWTU Hall calypso tent, located on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. "Basically, the same amount of people attended this year as last year."
Osouna, claiming to be fully recovered from his exclusion in Thursday night's National Calypso Monarch final, expressed concern about the future of calypso tents. He said: "It isn't like long ago when people used to line up to get into the tents. The first thing that has to happen is that work has to begin from the outside as the main problem is something tent managers have no control over.
"People need to be assured of their security so the authorities need to reduce crime in this country drastically. Long ago, a calypso tent programme could go up to 1.30 am but now I make sure my tent is finished no later than 12.30 am. But now, people are simply scared to come out of their homes. One of the benefits by me is that I am able to provide a secured parking lot. For the rest of the week, we are open every night, except Thursday night. On Saturday night, our final night, the special is two patrons on one ticket."
The Young Kings Monarch of 1987, seasoned calypsonian Bally, doesn't share the view that calypso is a dying artform, or that calypso tents are losing favour with the public. He said: "I have been in Calypso Revue for the past five years so I can speak of our tent. This year we had a few sold out nights and generally attendance has been consistent over the years. I think the quality of calypsoes in any given season is what determines whether people attend the tents or not. I think that this year has been the best set of calypsoes we've had since I joined the Revue.
"Overall, I think the quality of calypso has been alright this year. There hasn't been anything that really grabbed me this year. However, the two songs that caught my attention were Protector's Lick Them Down and Kurt Allen's Political Sin Phony. I have noticed a marked improvement though in the soca genre and this year the outstanding song has been SuperBlue's Fantastic Friday."
Diane Dupres, with her signature blue tinted hair, is one of the most easily identifiable calypso and pan aficionadoes around, and she paints a rather dismal opinion on calypso and the tents. She said: "I attend the calypso tents but not as often as I used to. Long ago I used to go at least three times to each tent for the season. I even used to attend auditions and rehearsals. But now, I find the calypsoes are very boring.
"Calypsonians now are either preaching or bashing. I cannot pay my hard earned dollars to go to listen to stupidness. I have reached the age where I do not wish to hear many of those old fellas. Thank goodness though there are some young people out there now who are really talented, with good voices and good delivery. What worries me about today's lot though is that you can hear a calypso and know exactly who the composer of the song was. It seems as though the calypsonian no longer seems to write his own song. Today, when you go to the tents, you are actually hearing calypso singers not calypsonians."
Kaiso House–Queen's Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain
Kalypso Revue–SWWTU Hall, Wrightson Road,
Klassic Ruso–City Hall,
Kaiso Karavan–La Joya, EMR, St Joseph
Kaiso Showkase–Palms Club, San Fernando
D Divas Cabaret International–De Nu Pub, Woodbrook
Generation Next–CWU Hall, Henry Street, Port-of-Spain
Junior Roving Tent
CDC Tent–Henry Street