JUST DENNIS: Politics Feeds Calypso

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.

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  1. Can't help but say
    February 13, 2015

    Hi Dennis & readers!
    It’s always a pleasure reading your weekly or biweekly posts/articles.
    There are a few in DA ,who stand out in whatever they do and or say and are subject to much critique as the dull, ignorant and logical see it.
    I may not be of your political ilk etc but you sure make your points. This piece is no different. Congratulations on a job well done.
    That having been conveyed, allow me to add:
    The Doc at the State College took the cake last week with his controversial statements.
    It was the great, exceptional Slinger Franscisco not FranciscoTelemaque (smiles FET)
    who in the 60’s sang “tell de damn Doc you know you not federated no more.”
    A song is appropriate telling de damn Doctor federation has a limit.

  2. The truth
    February 13, 2015

    With all that being said and taking into consideration our calypso history we are still stuck in the same place. There has to be change if our calypsonians have to move forward. I know change is difficult especially when it comes from someone who isn’t popular and is trying to effect such change. We have a young man that has been King for several years yet he isn’t recognized internationally. The market for music is out there but your product has to be marketable in order to survive on the global market. Do we honestly believe that our calypsos are at the standard to survive and help our calypsonians financially? This is a question that they have to answer for themselves for where I stand history has said otherwise.

  3. george Fontaine
    February 13, 2015

    I trust that Dennis Joseph will be considered to deliver a few lectures at the DSC on the intended Calypso studies. Unless the universality of the excercise is not the objective.

  4. Just Observing
    February 13, 2015

    I would have love to hear Denis play or allowed to be played on DBS Radio the song “Sankey” by Spider. Notice too that Denis singled out Kelly the Ghost as one of the writers he used to support. He did not say why he stopped liking “the ghost”. But we all know. It is nothing other than partisan reasons. A historical fact that Denis may not want to bring to the attention of the public. Remember in January 2000 when “Kelly The Ghost Williams” staged a one man demonstration outside the studios of DBS Radio? Do you know who it was who ruled, more controlled access to DBS Radio? Ask Kelly. So no wonder that Denis USED to support him. But Denis is not only twisting historical facts too, He wants the Dominican public to forget his role in sanctioning certain calypsos that were critical of the ruling party at the time when he served as Director of Communications under Patrick John. Denis is no innocent player in Dominican politics. Indeed he has a not so envious record. Keep writing…

    • Views Expressed
      February 14, 2015

      Where did Dennis say, or indicated, or you know or arrive at, or concluded that Denis does not support Ghost??????

      Please explain.

      Denis many Thanks..

      • Observer
        February 19, 2015

        Views Expressed. What is the logical conclusion to the following statement taken form Mr. Joseph’s article? “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”. I would like to believe he has serious issues (dislike) for the Ghost who does not writes as he (Denis) says “without fear or favour regardless of their own personal biases”. Has Denis written anything that is complimentary of government? Are you suggesting that every time Denis writes something that is critical of government he is representing the truth? As has already been said. Denis is not an innocent commentator. He has had two periods all to himself to direct and control what goes in and out of DBS Radio and indeed the GIS. Even with all that Denis has a right to write as he sees and thinks. I believe in that.

    • george Fontaine
      February 14, 2015

      Why is it that every time a Dominican expresses his views, some people ignore those views and focus of the individual instead? Are you saying Dennis no longer has a right of speech? Grow up…

  5. Governance
    February 12, 2015

    Mr Joseph

    Good piece. Using Sparrow’s success is unfortunate. Sparrow was king at that time and in a different era. Name me the songs this carnival I can play at a Caribbean party which party goers will easily identify,other than Daddy Chess’s first song. International song writers are now strategic writers to capture the moment – our song writer must now be strategic writers.

    Take Hot Hot and Lauraine (these two come to mind), any party: black & white will dance and they are not rum songs.

    We can have songs for local consumption, the time has come for the calypsonians to be regionally exposed. Our calypsonians are not being given the opporunity to showcase their talents due to the lyrics they are given. I agree with you re the competition, I would say an OECS Calypso competition for starters.

    Daddy Chess & King Dice songs on Haiti. Two songs that could make it internationally, at the park on the finals, the crowd was not interested – we need to also educate…

  6. Pen Noir
    February 12, 2015

    Great article…. Song writer, teacher, band manager and everything else. Articles like that is Food for Thought. I like it (lol)

  7. Not a herd follower
    February 12, 2015

    Yes, Dennis, I concur. We must defend the calypso as political and social commentary. Down with those who want to limit the content of calypso songs to suit their own narrow ends!

  8. February 12, 2015

    Way to go Dennis! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this commentary. It was informative, providing historical background not only to the discipline of calypso writing, but also to specific songs that were not immediately evident. It is also a timely and effective response to the suggestion that calypso has a short life if it is local. If, however calypsonians owe a debt to our ancestors to speak out against evil, it would also follow that they could also speak out from a positive angle, on the things that go well in the community of the nation. There is a lot of good in our schools, homes, and even the opposition side of our government that make good material for writing. But to your commentary in general I say “Kaiso”! as in Bravo!

  9. calypsonian
    February 12, 2015

    Imagine in this 21st. century, when oppressed people all over the world are fighting for their freedom, justice and equality, against Bad Gov’t that keep them in the dark, while all kinds of secret deals are going on, their are those who advocate about, “too much politics in calypso.”

    Remember, king Dice was not allowed to sing any of his topical calypsos at our WCMF 2014. King Dice, disrespected Big Time, was instructed to sing instead Old Road march songs. Some people continuing to give support to the ills in society by those in “Power” cringe when the calypsos hit on and expose the issues affecting the nation. The WCMF, the world should not hear King Dice, sing about Change, about being Patriotic?

    Who could stop the true calypsonian singing his political song? The fans love it.

  10. But wait
    February 12, 2015

    I never knew we were trying to produce our calypsos for export? What is wrong with a local product for local consumption? If Calypsos speak to local issues then we must hold that dear, and encourage it, not attempt to overturn it…to make money? Instead of trying to dilute the potency of our political messages, I think we should use the calypso competition as a filter for identifying emerging talent. Let them stay true to the local calypso but afterward they can branch out into new fields for the global market.

    In short, lets be careful not to change too much of who we are that we lose who we are!

  11. February 12, 2015

    Dennis i got a headache with your long, long comments. I agree in many respects. I only have 1000charaters as set by # DNO. may be i should start writing about things and agenders that suit my friends at D. Know. but im all about the fun. In case you forget my friend. The Country Nice Boy.

    • To Modara
      February 15, 2015

      You are one JA.Saqway sort

  12. Francisco Telemaque
    February 12, 2015

    “Many of the early calypsoes were sung in French Creole(patwa)and is believed to have been first called ‘kaiso‘”

    Denis, it is not my wish, nor ambition to contradict anything you write, nevertheless, the author need to be at all times accurate when writing in order to be informative. If you read any of my comments to Donald comments regarding Calypso, perhaps you may remember I said Calypso is traditional in our culture, it was brought to the Caribbean by our slave ancestors, and it was indeed known as Kaiso! Even to this day many people in Trinidad, and even the great: Timothy stage name “The Baron” I heard him refer to Calypso as Kaiso, at one time in the 1960, they considered reclaiming the name Kaiso. The French has nothing to do with the name Kaiso. It came with our Slave ancestors, that is a fact!

    • Francisco Telemaque
      February 12, 2015

      Daughter of Titan Atlas Calypso [ka-lip-so] which means ‘Hidden or Hider’ was a nymph in Greek Mythology. She lived on the island of Ogygia. In Trinidad and Tobago the indigenous music form is Calypso and it’s variations. Some debate of it’s modern usage of the word seems to be a derivation of an West African word, ‘Kaiso’ (a shout of encouragement, Bravo) while others state it came from Spain’s ‘Caliso’ which is a tropical song. Whatever the terminology, it Definitely arrived in Trinidad with the African Griots with a mixture of the French Carnival. The first recording of a Calypso song was in 1912 by Lovey’s Orchestra. Originally it was the voice of West African slaves who would deal with the French patois. It finally gained momentum when the English defeated the Spanish in the Battle for the Island that Calypso assumed its permanent place in Trinidad, since everybody now spoke just one language. The slaves of Trinadad were not allowed to talk during work but they coul

      • Francisco Telemaque
        February 12, 2015

        The slaves of Trinadad were not allowed to talk during work but they could sing. The Lyrics were used in the music to deliver teases or commentaries of social issues (aka Gossip) or political figures of the day (called Picong) to converse while working. The true calypso of today, the kind heard in Calypso Tents during pre-Lenten Carnival has a slower beat and it is characterized by the very commentaries of the lyrics. Calypso music is deemed as the World’s most happiest music which is probably why the first watered down Calypso LP (Bellefonte) in the history of music to sell more than 1 million copies!

  13. shaka zulu
    February 12, 2015

    I agree with your perspective. You are correct.

  14. Marcus Hill
    February 12, 2015

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Donald!!!

  15. February 12, 2015

    I would suggest that Calypsonians take some time and read this article it is right to the point as I said the songs must have good lyrical content to be able to go beyond Dominica , We have some very good songs even songs from those who didn’t make thru those are the type of calypsos that we need to market, . Calypsos that will not make it outside of Dominica are those with personal attack no one will go to the record stores to purchase those songs. So guys get with it and treat the art form with respect .
    Thank you Mr. Dennis Joseph for expressing and exploring what the writers are doing because they are the ones together with the Calyupsonians who brings it to the stage all around not only in Dominica, We have some very good songs this time around and we should say thanks to some of the writers like Karessa and Pat plus others . Good luck to everyone Saturday evening. Tasha P 2016

  16. Righteous
    February 12, 2015

    Great piece albeit a bit bias for your notable exclusion of certain writers and calypsonians. Perhaps next year should be declared the Pat Dice or the Aaron Dice Carnival in recognition for Pat’s and Dice’s contribution to Carnival because Pat is indeed “the King Maker” but he too must remember that “In time, it became ‘calypso’ and ‘ kaiso’ is mainly used to chant up an exceptional rendition (“Dat is kaiso, man).).” He too must recognize that “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,” not just political authority.

    Again great piece on the Kaiso.

    One Love Dominican and May God continue to Bless this Commonwealth of Dominica

  17. HEHEHE
    February 12, 2015

    i wasn’t lucky enough to have a genius like you as one of my teachers in school
    teach me teacher
    You know i saw de article by Dr Peters of Dominica State College and his views.
    I get de impression dat de guy is just upset dat we taking our foot to cry down our leaders in government.
    I don’t think that his appeal for a Calypso writing course is genuine.
    i think it is just a reaction to what he feels “is pressure”
    personally i think he would have been more receptive if he was making an appeal to teach a song writing course at de college and not particularly attacking calypso songs he doesn’t like so he wants to teach people to sing Koombaya songs for our ministers and leaders in government.

    Dennis i appreciate your comments
    I have alot of respect for your clarity and purposefulness!

  18. goodie
    February 12, 2015

    Poor Dennis, South Stars manager, you trying very hard we remmenber you. It might just be too late.

    • Titiwi
      February 12, 2015

      Sacharine satire not needed here, keep that fake goodie for yourself. I don’t always agree with Dennis’ views but I know he can look after himself

      • goodie
        February 13, 2015

        oh yes he can, you and I sure he can.

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