Long Live Calypso!
Aldwin Roberts aka ”Lord Kitchener”
“Calypso Outlived Rock and Roll and Calypso Will Outlive Soul”
Although it is little known outside of the English speaking Caribbean – formally known as the British West Indies – the Calypso tradition of Trinidad is one of the great contributions to twentieth century music. Like all great art that rises up from the folk, this music is a sound portrait of the Trinidadian people, a sonic mirror that reflects the deeper precincts of their souls.
Although I have never visited Trinidad, a short coming that I shall soon correct, I have met and befriended many of them here in New York City – the most cosmopolitan city in the world –where there is a sizable Trinidadian community. I have found them to be a physically beautiful people who are more often than not charming, eloquent, and swift on the cap –which is to say smart as whips.
In my extensive forays among the Trinis I have never had an unpleasant moment, nor have I ever met a Trinidadian that I didn’t like. There is no other group of people about whom I can say that – not even Afro-Americans – and I’ve met so many people I feel like I’ve been around the world and spoke to everybody twice.
Try as I might, have been unable to muster any armaments to defend against the Charms of Trini Women – From hot chocolate honeys with thick succulent lips and jaunting gluteus maximis, teasing tan Mulattresses, long haired honey brown Dougla gals ….and down Coolies too. And when they wind it makes me lose my mind!
It could be that I have been lucky enough to only meet the best Trinidadians, the exceptions. But I think the mathematics argues against it. For my contacts with Trinis have been too random…too unconnected. Hence I tend to believe that the Trinidadians that I have met are a representative sample; and what I see is what you get from these delightful, graceful, people.
Thus it seems in the nature of things that Trinidadians should produce an art form that is optimistic, humorous, ironic, highly intelligent, inventive, and filled with joi de vivre! That is what we have in the art of Calypso. It is a musical literature for the masses that explore al the issues great literature has always addressed.
It’s themes are universal and address the entire human condition – triumph and tragedy; the nature of morality; the consequences of technology; local politics; world politics, history – ancient and modern – sports, religion, sex, or any issue or topic that should arise in the news of the world and attract the interests of their audience. Calypsonians are the great bards of the people and they have an intimate relationship with their enthusiastic audience.
It is a unique relationship between artist and audience that can elevate the spirit of a nation and provide clarity on the issues, personal and political. That’s why the Trinidadian political philosopher / cultural critic / Pan-African revolutionary /and intellectual polymath C.L.R. James – one of the great independent radical thinkers of the twentieth century – suggested that since the Caribbean politicians couldn’t figure out how to construct a functional federation perhaps “Sparrow should write a Calypso about it” to show them the way.
As lyricists Calypsonians employ all of the devices used by great poets: complex allusions, graphic imagery, extended metaphor, rhythmic complexity, double entendre, allegory, satire, parody, burlesque, pathos, bathos and symbolism. And like the Bard of Avon, the father of all poets who write in English – although Hip Hop poets owe more to the French Playwright Moliere – they tell complex tales in verse. It is difficult enough to write good poetry, but the Calypsonians’ task is complicated by the fact that they must write serious poetry to music. And all the masters have managed to pull it off marvelously!
However, the full effect of Calypso is realized when the text is accompanied by great instrumental music. Some of the best trained musicians in Trinidad work in the calypso tradition. Each band offers an opportunity for instrumentalists, composers and arrangers. The traditional bands that accompanied the great bards usually consisted of a rhythm section and horns, brass and reeds: trumpets, trombones and saxophones.
The horns imitate the sound of voices and punctuate the Calypsonians lyrics, which are delivered with panache as the storyteller assumes the dramatis personae of his characters, and they even laugh and cajole the singer. The Calypso is a unique expression of the universal character of West African derived music. Antiphony, Polyphony, complex poly-rhythms, etc.
Observers who know what they are looking for can easily identify these characteristic in Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazillion, Afro-American music et al, although each have created their own distinct genres. However the inventiveness of Calypso music in instrumental terms is best demonstrated in the art of the Pan. I would argue that the Trinidadian pans, upon which a Chopin etude or the re-bopped be-bops of Charlie can be successfully performed, is the only new acoustic instrument that enriched Western music in the twentieth century.
In the Trinidadian pans we can clearly observe the relationship between culture and environment. For instance, the invention of the musical pan would not have been possible if there had been no oil industry in Trinidad. The pan is half of an oil drum, two thirds of a barrel or the entire drum – depending upon whether the instrument is pitched in the bass, alto, or trebel clef. The great Trinidadian craftsmen convert these oil drums into musical instruments by tuning the metal to the notes in the European scale. This enables the skilled musician to perform a wide repertoire.
All of the things that I have described can be clearly observed in the music of great Calypsonians such as Lord Kitchener, Crazy, Chalk Dust, Calypso Rose, The Mighty Sparrow, Black Stalin, et al. They are an interesting and eclectic group of personalities, and each speak in a unique voice. This is a basic requirement for Calypsonians; just as to win the respect of one’s colleagues and gain a following a Jazz musician must find his own voice on his instrument.
The Calyponians also bring different gifts to the art form. For instance Chalk dust holds a PhD in history from the University of Michigan, and Lord Kitchener is a first rate musician who plays the double bass. Hence if you listen to the Calypsos of Chalk Dust you will hear the most artful blending of historical analysis and narrative poetry one is likely to find. Watch his performance of “I in Town Too Long,” on You Tube *(see link below”) it is history epic poetry, Homeric.
Griot of the Nation
In his narrative of life in this Trinidadian town Chalk Dust aka Dr. Hollis Liverpool, relates the saga of a nation. His performance is deeply moving. This is no accident, for Dr. Liverpool believes that the analysis of society rendered by Calypsonians is just as incisive and it should be considered on par with academically trained social scientist.
In a 2008 speech at the University of Trinidad and Tobago UTT – where he is Honorary Distinguished Fellow, he offered the following analysis. “Most governments never recognized calypsonians as being intellectually stimulating in the same way as social scientists…. governments don’t see artistes as capable of research.” But he argued that both groups analysis “depend, to a large extent, on common sense,” and that compared to the work of social scientists the observations of Calypsonians were just as “potent, authoritative, and true…and their conclusions are the same in most undertakings.”
To hear Kitchener in all of his glory as a virtuoso instrumentalist just check him out on Be-Bop Calypso, a panegyric to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two Afro-Americans who created a genre of instrumental music so complex it demanded virtuosity from every member of the band. Kitchener and his boys swing very hard, playing the” re-bopped be-bops” that Ralph Ellison heard in Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse without accent!
Spouting Prophetic Visions
Looking like an old testament prophet in space age robes, Edwin Ayong, whose stage moniker is “Crazy,” is a great Calypsonian. He can write “Jump Up” music for bacchanals, or brilliant social and political commentary that incites the imagination such as “In Times to Come.” This moving Calypso, an epic poem whose arresting imagery and intoxicating beat captivates the careful listener, combines a broad intellectual grasp of current events, technological developments, social and cultural criticism, a sharp irreverent wit, and the apocalyptic vision of a futuristic prophet fired up on high grade wisdom weed.
Crazy recalls proudly that when he predicted America would have a black President “They say I singing stupidness. They pelt the tapes at me!” He dismissed them as “Doubting Thomases” and declares “I am happy to live to see history in the making. I may not live to see my other predictions. But I live to see this one. This is the big one, baby, as Sanford would say.”
Here Crazy was referring to Redd Foxx’s sitcom character Fred Sanford. This reference is an indication of how Calysonians gather ideas from all forms of popular culture. On Barack’s election he says “This is great for America. This is fantastic for black people all over the world.”
Finally there is The Mighty Sparrow’s erudite and uplifting Calypso “Barack the Magnificent.” No American songwriter to my knowledge has written anything that remotely approaches the intelligence and esprit de corps of this insightful panegyric. It is no wonder CLR James thought Sparrow could instruct the politicians on the problems of Federation in the West Indies.
Through the magic of You Tube, all of these Calypsonians can be seen and heard everywhere in the world 24/7, with just click on the links at the bottom of this essay – often they are performing live before their primary audience. Check them out; they are the greatest song poets in the world!