Friday, January 19, 2018

Saving calypso from the death warrant

“The artform come like CEPEP or URP right now” —Black Stalin

Newsday, Dec 26, 2006


Brother Valentino's “Calypso in Trouble” has never been more relevant.

In 2017, some calypso tents were reporting audiences of 15-20 persons. For this, many calypsonians blame radio DJs while ignoring the tents' low lyrical quality which eventually ends up on Calypso's biggest showcases—Calypso Fiesta at Skinner Park and the Calypso Monarch show at the Savannah.

The calypsonians' organisation, TUCO, currently controls four tents, all of which are State-subsidised. The cast at TUCO tents appear to have guaranteed spots for members and executives, regardless of their songs' public appeal. In trying to satisfy their membership, TUCO-operated tents are not motivated to seek new talent or aggressively pursue young artistes with “big hits” or

“good chunes”.

Here are some facts to ponder:

• Some years ago, we played on radio Drupatee's “Careless Driver” aka ‘Lick down she nanny'. Right after the song was played, the Revue's “Jazzy” Pantin called asking for Drupatee's contact information. Drupatee became a hit at the Revue that year because of the Revue's strategy of selling its tent beyond its core audience.

• When Spektakula Promotions' Frank Martineau and his team brought Chinese Laundry, Zoom (Soca Elvis), Denise Belfon and other soca singers into their tent, several senior calypsonians quietly complained, fearful of being benched and replaced by the new recruits. Frank, always on the hunt for hot new talent, would regularly ask DJs what songs were “happening”. The market, not the artistes, dictated Frank's cast.

• Contrast the above with the case of “Dutty Child Father” by Pternsky, a young, well-established artist with T&T Millennials. The song is real kaiso with social commentary with sampling from Lord Kitchener's “Trouble in Arima”. Both young and mature audiences will appreciate it. Asked about his omission from the tents, a TUCO insider responded “who say he want to be in the tent?” No indication of any effort to recruit him. Another opportunity lost for attracting millennials into the tent.

To save calypso, TUCO needs to get out of the tent business and return to its original mandate of looking after the interest of all calypso and soca performers, including the establishment of the much-needed pension plan.

All tents should be private sector ventures with tax incentives to encourage investors. In the old era of privately-run tents, the quality of shows was much higher because the tents sought out calypsoes that would attract mass audiences of cosmopolitan T&T.

Not even established performers had guaranteed spots. State-funding has promoted complacency and non-kaiso agendas which have killed the spirit of enterprise from which tents were born.

To save calypso, we must also review the judging process to eliminate judges with conflicts of interests as calypso writers and those who are political activists or have close relationships with performers. Poor judging has elevated a brand of songs which is alien to the calypso that public knows and loves. Spirit of Carnival, memorable melodies and poetic lyrics have given way to long-winded prose and boring melodies. Calypso lovers have been turning off for over a decade. It's time for kaiso to be judged by persons with musical backgrounds and members of the public with great love for calypso. Judges' terms should be limited to one year.

To understand the depth of the mediocrity that is being rewarded with titles, just ask any calypso lover to hum the last 10 Calypso Monarch songs. Then ask them to hum songs like “Bun Dem”, “Calypso Music”, “Stranger”, “Soft Man”, “We Pass That Stage”, or even “Jean & Dinah”. How many of the most recent monarchs have been getting bookings in the diaspora after Carnival? If not, how can we claim to be using Carnival to sell our music to the world?

The concept of TUCO was born in the Queen's Park Savannah among a group that included Gypsy, Rio, Funny, Protector, Lady B, Tigress, Singing Sandra, Marvellous Marva, Valentino, wanna-be calypsonians and calypso lovers. Every Tuesday and Thursday we got together to play cricket or football as the Kaisoca Touring Team. Afterwards, we would be regaled with great untold calypso stories from the practitioners. A perennial concern was about artistes not having a pension. A sort of coup d'e'tat was implemented to take over the then moribund calypso organisation. Iwer George brought a posse of young performers from Point Fortin to pool their votes with calypsonians from the Kaisosoca Touring Team to put Gypsy over the top as president after two rounds of voting.

The new TUCO opened “the Soca Boat”. Luta and Gypsy negotiated with William Monroe about Soca Monarch. TUCO became actively involved in seeking the interests of all calypso and soca artistes, including the introduction of a pension plan. With regime change came a change of focus.

If TUCO gets out of the tent business, the dream of setting up a pension might yet be realised while creating room for the private sector to drive the promotion of quality calypsoes. There are other concepts floating around to save our beloved calypso.

However, pursuing any would first require that we stop burying our collective heads in the sand and face up to the reality that what passes for calypso today is neither attracting the younger generation nor holding the die-hard calypso fan. Surely, that's a death warrant.