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A TALE OF TWO CALYPSOES
Although the Carnival festivities are behind us, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Dr Hollis ‘Chalkdust’ Liverpool on the winning of this year’s Calypso Monarch title. His performance titled Learn From Arithmetic is of the calibre of the social and political satire that traditional calypso is supposed to embody. The issue of child marriage, as few in number as they are, is obviously a major concern for the citizens of T&T. And I applaud ole ‘Chalkie’ for possessing the skill to pull it off in song, showing that even scathing criticism can be entertaining.
In that same protesting spirit, I wish to submit some lyrics for possible entry in 2018’s competition. It’s called—Bitter Woman: “Oh teenage girl living along the east-west corridor/Busy making children numbering no less than four/Not like any of them going to end up in UWI/With little education they’ll end up criminals-in-trainee/You’re sleeping for your supper, not really looking for a spouse/Ending up on TV, begging the ministry for a house.”
I have no doubt that some will not like this composition. And there will be accusations that it’s racist and maybe even anti-PNM. But isn’t that exactly what contemporary calypso has degenerated into, a tool of biased propaganda instead of a form of cognisant discourse. The golden days of Sparrow’s Jean & Dinah are long over and what we have now is a mere shadow of the glory that was once an art form we could all enjoy.
Let me be clear—my opinion is in no way a defence of Mr Satnarayan Maharaj’s seemingly one-man crusade to reinstate the Hindu Marriage Act. Though I do not believe he has adequately convinced the relevant authorities of this law’s necessity to the Hindu community, he is free to continue voicing his opinion on the matter and to pursue any legal avenues that are open to him. Now, with regards to Dr Liverpool’s composition, my problem isn’t with the content itself, but with the ‘topical’ tunnel vision that he and his brethren suffer from. Even before they get to the chorus, it’s easy to guess what the song is going to be about. And it comes as no surprise who and what they stand for. And even more telling, who and what they stand against.
Putting aside the other Dimanche Gras stalwarts, if the focus is placed solely on the good doctor’s 50-year career in the calypso arena, we would find there’s a common theme that permeates most of his songs. It would appear that as far as he is concerned, our indigenous music serves to parlay only one message. This was made very clear in 2003 with The Rowley Letter, where he said that both ‘pan and kaiso’ are the PNM’s salvation, and that the lyrical loyalists should thus be rewarded/compensated with ‘dollars and diplomatic passports’ when the party triumphs. Even when he does widen the scope to comment on crime, as with 2006’s The Bandit Factory, it ultimately becomes an anti-UNC message that assigns blame instead of accepting that both parties are at fault.
This isn’t to say that their expression must be devoid of personal preference. Like the ever-resolute Sat Maharaj, they too have the freedom to sing whatever they please. In fact, it might be all about supply and demand, and they are just giving the people what they want. If that be the case, then it begets two negative outcomes. Firstly, they aren’t doing the listeners and, by extension, the national community any favours by perpetuating adversarial stereotypes that seek to denigrate and demonise. And secondly, in appeasing the ‘like-minded’ bloc of the population, they have alienated the ones that are not. And since calypso has lost its mass appeal, with attendance at the tents and the revenues they generate on the decline, steps should be taken to reverse this trend else it will continue to subsist only by the graces of government subventions.
It’s this unilateral pontification that has stripped calypso of its once-hallowed reputation as being a free and honest messenger of our societal shortcomings. Don’t the lyrics in my introduction relating to teenage pregnancies—repugnant as they may be—highlight an issue that’s of equal importance? Why aren’t those same poets purveying the other inconvenient realities about T&T? Where is the equal self-righteousness regarding the academic under-performance in government schools? Or the lambasting of the current prime minister and his cabinet members when they falter? No topic, regardless of how unpopular or sacrosanct, should be ignored because even truth can lose its virtue when used simply to fulfil an agenda.
It’s interesting to note that our ‘calypso’ music shares its name with a minor female deity in Greek mythology, one who also used singing, albeit augmented with special powers, to enchant mortals to do her bidding. But while that calypso was a sassy, independent maiden, ours could be personified as a malicious woman who is forced to prostitute herself. And the fault is ours for turning it into a ‘Bitter Woman’.