Dennis Joseph

Dennis Joseph

There are things that defy change in Waitukubuli like changing the government which with a bloated voters list  seems just a dream, changing the Speaker of the House which with her command of the love of the Prime Minister is an near impossible adventure, changing the mentality that worships authority over truth rather than the other way around which is a legacy of our colonial past, or stopping the allegations of corruption which is a scourge of politics but  all of that is juicy political stuff for a calypso writer.  One other thing that does not change is while almost everybody sings of their love of calypso the only time you notice that they may truly mean it is at carnival time and do not try to hold a calypso show any other time or you will have more calypsonians on stage  than  audience. To try to change any of those things is increasingly an exercise in futility as is trying to stop Dice from winning crowns of calypso. Dice may falter from time to time but so long as he has the genius writing skills of Pat Aaron on his team together with the choreographing skills of Randy Aaron, backing his formidable talent nine times out of ten he will be victorious in any calypso competition. In 2001, the Trinidad Carnival Commission declared the celebrations that year as The Sparrow Carnival in honour of the man’s incredible work in the field perhaps next year could be declared The Dice Carnival in recognition of the work of Dice. But therein lies the rub according to the bard. Success can be difficult in both journey and destination.

Years ago  when  I was a calypso writer composing songs for the top guys like Breaker, Bingo, Spencer and others, just like Dice is today,  Breaker was then the super talent and the one marked for attack. Just as it is today with Pat Aaron I became, yes, the target of offensive tackles and accusations of exploiting the singers. I was condemned by the nuns when I wrote about the Convent High School girls gone wild, by certain family and friends for Rebecca, the Inland Revenue was displeased with Income Tax Rebel and even Pointe Michel Girls brought out allegations of ulterior motives. It got to a point that when I agitated for more prize money for the winners of the calypso finals the other calypsonians decided at the last minute not to support me leaving me high and dry to proceed with the ultimatum of a boycott. Fortunately, the Gaylords tent had the top competitors and my stand could not be ignored resulting in negotiations on the morning of the Finals that indeed increased the prize money. However more importantly I was hammered for writing too many political anti-government songs notwithstanding the fact that I was a fanatic Labourite at that time and the Labour Party was the government in office. Today it is Pat Aaron being pummeled for his political songs.

The calypso writers are supposed to write as they see it and there are many who love to write about political and social situations. While calypso is the voice of social conscience, it is not Soca, which is a hybrid of the art. Lord Shorty of Trinidad in the 70’s introduced this somewhat different rhythm combining various traditions with calypso music and called it Soca. It has become more commercially attractive and some writers   in Soca style prefer to write simple songs about rum and party.

However, the calypsonian owes our ancestors a debt which is to speak out against evil, graft, corruption and bad governance whenever it emerges and in a small island it is usually with the government and their agents. Calypso is the product of slavery and was developed as a masked form of protest mocking the slave masters because obviously the slaves were not free to speak out. Many of the early calypsoes were sung in French Creole(patwa)and is believed to have been first called   ‘kaiso‘.  It also is believed that the word  is  an expression of approval and encouragement similar to ‘bravo‘  that originated from West Africa and the term was brought to the region by the black slaves . In time, it became ‘calypso’ and ‘ kaiso’ is mainly used to chant up an exceptional rendition (“Dat is kaiso, man).).

Calypso remained a largely Caribbean thing for decades until 1944 when America’s hit parade trio The Andrew Sisters recorded an unauthorized cover version of Lord Invader’s song Rum and Coca Cola which became a hit in the States and then the US and the rest of the world came to know calypso as Caribbean music and Trinidad as the calypso capital. In 1956, Harry Belafonte recorded the Banana Boat Song (Day-O) and then Sparrow known as the World King of Calypso launched that same year the era of the political songs with Jean and Dinah celebrating the departure of the US troops from Trinidad (“Yankee gone Sparrow take over now”). In 1958 in Waitukubuli The Observer (not the current one of that name), sang about the Eleven Sisters a song with a theme similar to that of Sparrow’s J&D. Since then both in Trinidad and this land performers have gone to town on their politicians with a barrage of political songs in which Chalkdust of Trinidad has been the Caribbean leader extraordinaire. In Waitukubuli Ency, Hurricane, Spider and others were known for  political lyrics as raw and direct as Spider’s Singing Sankey (death song) for Labour Party. While supporters of the ruling parties may not like it there is no doubt that the large crowds, which follow the calypso shows  are there because they expect it and love it..

I give my kudos to writers like Pat Aaron, Ian Jackson, the late Man Himself, Tim Durand, Patrick John and at one time The Ghost and others who write as they see it without fear or favour regardless of their own personal biases. In the world of changing music styles it is writers like these and performers like Dice, Bobb and Daddy Chess, Karessa, Black Diamond, Sting Ray and some of the ladies now coming onboard that can raise our local music to the level of regional recognition. The job of the Dominica Calypso Association is to organize inter-regional competitions so as to bring attention to the talent of their members beyond our shores. Writing good even classical songs is not enough, as they will all end up in the calypso graveyard after carnival as is with all the other songs that have come before. There are some who say that the political songs are too locally oriented and will not make headway overseas but the Trinidad experience has shown this to be untrue as situations that apply here can apply anywhere and so these audiences can relate to them just as we related to Trinidad calypsoes written for the locals there. Our writers must continue to give calypso a reason to survive not just for rum and party but in the tradition of the ancestors keep focusing our minds on the behavior of the ones who we place in authority over us and for which they should account. Since they hardly ever do account after they receive the mandate it is the calypsonian on duty every year at carnival time that is in charge and strikes anxiety in their hearts on our behalf. Therefore VIVA political calypso and as long as politicians behave badly then let it be known and accepted that politics will continue to feed calypso and the calypso writers will keep on eating.