Friday, February 23, 2018

Since calypso found religion


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By the time I had flicked to the channel, I could catch only a snatch of what must have been a longer interview. The talking head, that of SuperBlue, was wrapped in the signature dappled-blue headscarf.

His soundbite that I scrambled to scribble said: "There's no old school--just one school. And I'm the principal." 

SuperBlue could say that, believably, because his period, sensationally now continuing, straddles generations. He commands rhetoric precisely adequate to convey his meaning, as he debunks the old school/new school dichotomy, and asserts the presence of a single discipline, of which he is dean.

The casual swagger is recognisable as that of a calypsonian assuming that his accomplishments easily belong to a fund of common knowledge. It brought back an encounter with SuperBlue, one night about ten years ago, when he was walking in the direction I was driving.

He got into the car and immediately took command of the conversation. We had both just left the Mas Camp Pub where Sparrow was performing. Looking forward to a concert of calypso classics, I had walked out when Sparrow began the Frank Sinatra torch song, "My Way".

Exactly why did I leave, SuperBlue wanted to know. Turning the tables on the journalist, as we drove to St James, he interrogated the reasons for my disappointment. Just past Smokey and Bunty, he got out and at once disappeared into the gloom.

Continuing the drive home, I weighed the meaning of that one-on-one with SuperBlue in the passenger seat. Over those ten minutes, he may have derived some sliver of "market" intelligence. I had "got" nothing—not where he was going, why he too had walked out on Sparrow, what he was doing musically—no story.

 Seeing him on TV last week reminded me of the package of attributes in the make-up of the essential calypsonian, the producer of calypso. They seem to include, of course, swagger, mystery, precision of expression, a capacity for sharp data gathering, and an unaffiliated imagination.

Against that precious tradition, the image of the calypsonian today identifies someone with "side". A calypsonian is now, increasingly, a woman who sings calypso, a version of a media talking head.

It's all part, as I see it, of the de-secularisation of calypso. I have never, thus, quite gone along with the transition of Stalin (1970s tent emcee, all aplomb and wit) to the sacred figure of The Black Stalin, with the four-foot mane of grey locks. Or Valentino ("Life is a stage, and we are the actors") to the Rasta-plaited, biblical prophet's likeness of Brother Valentino.

Calypso, or key aspects of it, found religion.  Some godhead is always available to be invoked. Obsessive soca winers, upon receiving a COTT award, can be heard thanking, first, "Almighty Gawd".

The calypso tents, sustained like museums by State subsidy, no longer beckon me, nor most people. 

As I watched Calypso Fiesta and the Monarch finals on TV, I concluded, with sadness, that it's all now about good and evil, not about unreconstructed human life observed with curiosity, or sympathy or not, but always employing wit and humour.

A Rasta righteousness prevails, in an age signalled with Stalin's 1987 "Bun dem". From being an individual, even eccentric, self-expression, calypso sounds scripted for purposes of sometimes party-line political correctness, in a process extending to the placards raised, and roti and other trash flung, against Sugar Aloes and DeFosto in Skinner Park last weekend.

The common separation of composer from performer results in an emphasis on "production values". Performers must more nearly look the part. In so many cases, it seems, they must look vexed, in keeping with the scripted outpouring of attack words.

Now, "moral authority", in so many words, can be a theme of championship calypso. Alana Sinnette, on that theme, delivered a chilling performance, her face a mask of anger, but taking care to say "allegedly", as she assailed the Education Minister: "You have no moral authority. None! Before you lecture black hen pickney/ Go home and fix your son."

Such Carnival as remains, is unaffected by calypso. Less and less is calypso conceivable as a vehicle for personalised self-expression.

Folklore recalls that Sparrow, when in trouble similar to Machel Montano's today, was inspired to write and sing a brilliant chronicle of self-vindication in "Ten to One is Murder", thereby acquitting himself in the court of public opinion. Montano's multiple assets today include no capacity comparable to Sparrow's in the 1960s.

The Carnival we have left—the monster bands and the exhibitionistic conga-lining and wining "feters"—continues to draw condemnation such as voiced by an 1893 Chief Justice: "We cannot say how many hundred are flaunting their want of shame."

Many more thousands are flaunting it, and triggering a contemporary line of attack against the "rum songs" supposedly emblematic of a new decadence. Never one myself to speak a word against rum, I hail my own favourite road-march in a "riddim" song by Yankey Boy, that defiantly lists the behaviours and consumptions he had been religiously admonished to avoid: "They say if ah drink white rum ah go dead…But ah still here."

Kaiso, Boy!