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The Demise of Calypso




My ten year old daughter is just about to start High School and in a recent conversation with her I attempted to find out where her interests lie. Well to my surprise young Miss Mitchell informed me that not only does she enjoy being on stage but she is most interested in singing calypso. While my initial response was to scream No! my paternal instincts took over and I pledged to support her in any of her future endeavors, calypso included.

I then questioned myself as to why did panic set in when my daughter expressed her interest in calypso. That thought led me to thinking about calypso and its future.

Since 1914 when the first calypso recording was made, to the birth of calypso tents in the 1920s, to the success of Atilla the Hun, Lord Invader and the Roaring Lion in the 1930s, to the 1956 success of Harry Belafonte, calypso has always been poised for global commercial success. Unfortunately, that kind of success never materialized and when the world focused on the Caribbean for its music it was reggae that became a commercial sensation.

One can make the argument that since the Caribbean was enjoying attention in the 1970s and 1980s for its music there was once again the opportunity for Calypso to hold its own on the world stage. Additionally Caribbean style carnivals were becoming increasingly more popular in Europe and North America, providing a ready-made market not only for things carnival but its related music - calypso.

So while avenues and opportunities were opening up for calypso outside of the region some significant things were happening in the islands that would significantly and adversely affect the prospects of success for calypso and calypsonians.

One noteworthy change that was taking place was the redefining of what calypso music is. The centerpiece of Calypso, Carnival Sunday nights in the various islands, was beginning to undergo some changes.

During the Sunday night competitions the pace of the second song began to quicken. But instead of embracing the evolution of the music what happened was the creation of another genre of Calypso – Soca; with its own competition – Soca Monarch. So artistes such as Inspector in Grenada, Iwer George in Trinidad and Andy Armstrong in Barbados now had no reason to compete on Carnival Sunday nights, because they had a more attractive and more lucrative option.

Instead of having to compose two very powerful songs, one was now required to come up with just a hook, wrap some meaningless lyrics around it and suddenly you could have a title and a good pay day.

In the meantime fewer people attended the Sunday night competitions as the Soca Monarch competition became more and more appealing to an increasingly younger audience who didn’t require much to hold their attention.

Since that initial separation in the early 1990s the segregation of Calypso has continued. If you are a fan of reggae then you cannot be a calypsonian, so the genre “raga soca” was born. If you are of East Indian persuasion then your genre became “chutney soca”, for the Christians among us the term “gospelypso” was coined and if you have a very good voice and admire the likes of Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston then your genre is now “groovy soca”.

While we continued to define and redefine all of what should be calypso some other developments have also contributed to the ruin of the artform.

With Carnival Sunday receiving less attention those competing on that night became more controversial in their attempt to garner as much interest as their younger counterparts were enjoying on Carnival Friday nights. So no longer were calypsos social commentaries, but their evolved into contentious political commentaries. A great example of the transformation is Gypsy’s classic “Captain The Ship is Sinking”. The song was a fantastic social commentary that is applicable to almost any political situation in any of the islands. However, Cro Cro transformed the song into a very biting political commentary calling names and well taking no prisoners, no pun intended.

As expected politicians were not going to rest easy while the Calypsonians attacked. Another new trend developed with soca monarch contestants joining political campaigns in an attempt by the politicians to ride on the growing popularity of soca music. Conversely, attempts to muzzle calypsonians began and still continue.  Opposition politicians encourage calypsonians to ‘give the government blows’ and the ruling parties want calypsos to be uplifting and ‘positive’.

What both sides fail to recognize is that much hasn’t changed since our ancestors began beating drums on the plantations. The genre and everything it entails is geared to inform and amuse and carnival Sunday night is set aside for this special brand of entertainment, the interpretation of social issues through song, dance and music.

The practitioners of the artform must quickly recognize that as with everything else in life change is inevitable. Calypso has gone through many changes recently, however, that does not necessarily mean we have to invent a new brand of music or a new sound with each such change. Calypso is the only genre recognized by those outside of the region. All the definitions just serve to water-down an artform still struggling to maintain an identity and still struggling to find support from the policy-makers and politicians who can make the conditions feasible for commercial success.

Throughout the Caribbean the same complaints resonate after each individual carnival season. The judging was biased, the conditions for competitions left a lot to be desired and on and on the grievances go.

Everyone seems pre-occupied with the meager success of a carnival season, but most of the artistes do not recognize the importance and benefits of intellectual property rights and copy right.

Maybe, just maybe the time has come for the politicians to stop worrying about the content of calypsos and worry more about our future as a people, our culture, our ethnicity, our heritage and our identity.

Next time my daughter says to me she stills wants to be a calypsonian I should not panic but I should feel comfortable that it will be a noble undertaking not only because it could be commercially viable, but also because it will allow her to understand where we came from as a people and also enrich her development as a person.

by - Dexter Mitchell

Contact: email - | voice - 435-4156 | 403-1455

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