Sunday, May 24, 2015

Kaiso women on the march


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Even as the annual Calypso Monarch competition struggles for survival, this Thursday the women will make the men work even harder for a win. The "lyrics to make a politician cringe" are missing, but a core group of women has emerged from years of semi-final competition and, with a visibly different group of young men, they represent the future of the art form. It's a ray of hope amidst the distress of seeing the craft lose its brilliance, creativity, and impact.

In a 2008 article, I noted that it took 45 years of Road March competitions and 40 Road March winners, starting with King Radio's "Tiger Tom Play Tiger Cat" in 1932, for the first woman, Calypso Rose, to win a Road March with "Tempo" in 1977 and double up in 1978 with "Soca Jam". I also noted that from Kitchener's "Flag Woman" in 1976 to Rudder's "Bahia Girl" in 1986, women were the conspicuous subject of eight of the 11 road marches and, by comparison, in the 26 years since "Bahia Girl" in 1986, road marches have not been about a specific woman, real or imagined, or a part of her anatomy. In my view this was no trifling matter, when you consider the male's prior preoccupation with sexuality and "the boomsie" in the music. It was evidence that the habit of objectifying women was no longer a winning formula.

Now, my attention shifts to the 2013 Calypso Monarch competition. On Thursday evening, seven of the 19 women from the semi-finals at Skinner Park match-up with reigning monarch Duane O'Connor, with every chance that a female monarch could be crowned for the sixth time. Of course, for now we remember O'Connor's "The Hunt is On" from last year, but very few renditions will remain in our memories like previous winning and non-winning compositions. On Thursday, there will be no Explainer's "Lorraine"; King Austin's "Progress"; Stalin's "Caribbean Man"; Chalkdust's "Chauffeur Wanted"; Singing Francine's "Run Away"; or Singing Sandra's "Voices from the Ghetto". Still, the reigning monarch may himself be reined in, a sign of the lack of dominance by any one artiste.

Between 1953 and 2012, 60 years of the monarchy produced 38 different monarchs, including two in 1994 when Luta and Delamo were declared joint monarchs. With eight wins each, Sparrow and Chalkdust have won the most times, and Chalkdust is the most consistent finalist. But, since the 1970s, no performer has consistently dominated the competition.

In the decade of the 1960s Sparrow and Duke shared five titles, Sparrow winning in 1960, 1962 and 1963 and Duke in 1968 and 1969. In the decade of the 1970s Sparrow, Duke and Chalkdust shared seven titles amongst them, with Duke completing his four-straight in 1970 and 1971; Sparrow winning in 1972, 1973 and 1974 and Chalkdust in 1976 and 1977. That would be the end of that type of dominance.

In the 1980s, the monarch battle entered a more competitive period, facing new phenomena which included the movement of front-line singers from the traditional calypso bands into the tents and competitions; the increased use of the calypso composer/trained singer combination; and the increased number of university graduates in the competition. The 1980s produced eight different monarchs, including five who until now have not won a second title. In that 80s decade only Chalkdust and Stalin won two titles, Chalkdust in 1981 and 1989, and Stalin in 1985 and 1987. Relator, Scrunter, Tobago Crusoe, Mighty Penguin and David Rudder each won once. Cro Cro also won in that decade, his 1988 win the first of four.

In the 1990s there were nine monarchs, including the two from 1994. Only Cro Cro in 1990 and 1996, and Stalin in 1991 and 1995 won two titles in the 90s. Three monarchs from that decade would win only once in their careers Delamo in 1994; Gypsy in 1996; and The Mystic Prowler in 1998. Sparrow and Stalin would win no further titles.

Now, Duane O'Connor and his seven female rivals find themselves in the monarch's most competitive period. The 13 competitions since 2000 have produced 10 different monarchs. Five of those were first-time winners who have not yet repeated. Sugar Aloes won in 2002 and 2008, and only Chalkdust managed three titles, winning in 2004, 2005, and 2009. Chalkie's eight titles have spanned 35 years, from his first in 1976 to his most recent in 2009. Only Sparrow had a longer run, from his first in 1956 to his last in 1992.

Many of the women whom Duane O'Connor must keep at bay this year have been consistent over the last decade. As a group, women have moved from 10 out of 35 semi-finalist positions in 2008, to 13 out of 38 in 2009, and steadily increasing numbers over the past three years. The core group is Karene Asche; Lady Alana; Maria Bhola; Marsha Charles; Karen Eccles; Leslie Ann Ellis; Michelle Henry; Marvellous Marva; Heather McIntosh; Kizzy Ruiz; Singing Sandra; Tigress; Nicole Thomas; Twiggy and Gisele Washington. Most have consistently won junior, Calypso Queen and other local titles on the road to multiple national semi-final and final appearances.

The end result is that in the six years between 2008 and 2013, there have been at least four women in each Calypso Monarch finals, with five in 2009 and this year's seven. Karene Asche, the 2011 monarch, is the most consistent with appearances in the last six finals. Singing Sandra has been in four of those six finals; and Leslie Ann Ellis, Kizzy Ruiz and Heather McIntosh three. At the same time, some of the male regulars are fading away or out, their places taken by these women.

Over 60 years of the monarch competition, it's the older renditions that have stuck with us, some toppling governments, others showcasing ingenuity. We have adjusted our expectations, and from this group of women and men, many youthful, the keepers of our conscience must emerge.

(Happy birthday to my

father-in-law Cecil McMillan)

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer.