Above: Musicians perform in a calypso tent in the late 1950’s. Photo by Kingsley Lyndersay/lyndersaydigital.com
By Mark Lyndersay
Whether the Kalypso Revue closes this year or manages to squeeze some more cash out of the Culture Ministry, there’s one thing you may be sure of – not a thing will have been learned from this humiliation.
The collapse of the Revue is not the failure of kaiso as an art form, but it is a strong indicator of the failure of its practitioners to acknowledge a reality beyond the stage and to understand new channels of distribution and engagement that have left tents financially unviable for more than a decade and positioned its putative managers and leadership as suckling supplicants at the teat of government support.
Did tent leader Michael Osuna explore all of the business strategies available for the tent under his management before he opened its doors to the public?
Did he analyse the balance sheet of the enterprise as a running concern, examining costs and revenue from the 2017 season?
Or was this another year of waiting for government benevolence to fund a tradition that was born and flourished in defiance of political power?
It’s not such a risky gamble. No government wants to enter the history books as the administration that killed a whole cultural tradition, but a truthful narrative of the decline of the people’s reportage will note that it was a case of auto asphyxiation as an unlikely couple arrived at an unwelcome climax in an unholy rendezvous of conflicting interests.
From the moment that calypso tents leaned on government subventions for their survival, a compact with the public was breached.
But it wasn’t the first unspoken social agreement between the bards and their audience to be unceremoniously shattered.
When angry calypsonians abandoned topic and all too often reason and fact to beleaguer the first dominantly IndoTrinidadian-led government with blunt ad hominem attacks and horrid slurs, it cost them more than an audience willing to entertain fair, witty criticism.
Also exiting were people who were unwilling to be part of what was, ultimately, an abuse of power in the name of culture.
People power applied with cruel disdain is doubly unfair.
Further undercutting the fortunes of calypso tents was an arrogant disdain of anything resembling show management and the concurrent rise of parties that became the premier forum for the growing popularity of soca performers.
It’s not as if there weren’t models that tent managers and performers might have considered.
One of the first shows I worked on as a callow teen was the All Theatre Production of King Jab Jab in 1981, a revue styled show which featured young theatre performers building a loose narrative out of vintage calypsoes, a script by Felix Edinborough, who made his debut as a Pierrot Grenade in the production, and direction by Helen Camps which was brisk, entertaining and most important, tight.
You could go see King Jab Jab, have dinner and party until three on a weekend. Successor performances of the production would feature calypsonians Crazy, Relator and Superior and a tour of Europe expanded further to include Jit Samaroo and the Samaroo Jets.
More recently, Kurt Allen spent big to recreate the atmosphere of the earliest calypso tents with The Barrack Yard, a show that eschewed narrative in favour of diversity in entertainment and performance.
This was a show that managed to effortlessly mix Rikki Jai, Lord Nelson and pannist Dane Gulston into a fast-paced, engaging experience.
Allen has remarkable stories to tell about the official reaction of his peers to this experiment in showmanship, and they are definitely his stories to tell, but in summary, his experiment was not welcomed with enthusiasm.
Despite their disinterest in creating an actual show out of a parade of talented calypsonians, calypso tents, right up until the late 1990’s, remained an experience worth having.
There was enormous diversity in their material, from ribald ditties to incisive commentary across a range of issues and a pervasive sense of fun that was astonishing to experience.
The encores might have sometimes been gently forced and gone on too long when earned, but there was a sense of pleasantness about the experience that went a long way toward easing the agony of sitting on hard metal chairs.
Some of that has been tapped for the newest edition of Calypso Spektakula, a series of four shows which ran from January 25 – 28 and starred a mix of classic calypsonians (Funny, Chalkdust), popular young talent (Nailah Blackman, Chucky, 3-Canal) and those between (SuperBlue, Rikki Jai, Rudder).
I reviewed many calypso tents for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990’s, and there was never a shortfall in material, whether it was the Revue (before they adopted the fashionable K), Spektakula Forum or Shadow’s all too short-lived Kingdom of the Wizards.
By comparison, the so-called “government tent” was the ghetto of the calypso arena, a forum for talent rejected by selectors from the private sector establishments who had an embarrassment of riches to choose from. It was at the government’s tent that newbies and faltering oldies could find their footing with smaller, more dedicated audiences.
How could experienced calypsonians forget that? How could they not know that government subsidy would be the kiss of death, or at least a guarantee of somnolence for their craft?
I remember the very last time I went to a calypso tent. It was, as it turns out, the Revue and I was tagging along with my wife who was insistent on attending with a friend. It was the week before Carnival in 2001 and the place was less than half-empty, a ghost town by the standards of a decade before.
And yet everything was being done exactly the way it was when success was the norm.
The most potent bellwether of the precipitous decline in the range and diversity of our calypso tradition is the Dimanche Gras show, which on the faltering strengths of its kaiso backbone, has been almost abandoned by the most recent generation of audiences to embrace Carnival.
And it is here that we can place the blame for the general disenchantment with calypso directly on the shoulders of the practitioners themselves, as a show that was once the crown jewel of pre-Carnival events stumbled its way into a stunning level of irrelevance.
Quick. Think back. Who were the last three Calypso Monarchs?
If you know that, you’re probably over fifty.
The decision by the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Association (TUCO), to either dismiss or ignore every change in the performing environment of calypsonians will surely stand as the most insistent effort at self-mutilation by a creative industry in history.
If TUCO had spent half of the money it managed over the last ten years doing nothing more than educating its membership and enabling greater participation in modern channels of viewership, audience cultivation, sales and marketing, the state of calypso would be quite different today.
But it did not, so it is not. A few won spectacular prize money. The rest continue to scratch around for chickenfeed.
The one modern element of Carnival that it holds sway over, the Road March, is still managed and tabulated as if the technologies to fingerprint and count song plays along the parade route did not exist.
Today, disc jockeys have more say over the direction of, exposure to and appreciation of road march contenders than anyone at TUCO and that’s entirely on them.
But, enough of wailing and lamentation.
We are where we are.
It is what it is.
How do we fix this?
Calypsonians make no money from their recordings, their only viable income is from performance and it’s going to take years to woo audiences back to tents at Carnival.
The first order of business must be to build awareness of their work, first locally, then globally, and to harness their catalog of creations for those who have produced a body of music.
I’ve long believed in the idea of a virtual calypso tent, where people interested in the art form and others who may have a passing curiosity might view well-produced videos of performers doing their current material.
Ideally such a product would launch directly after Christmas and would feature a rich cast from which visitors might choose to be entertained.
Links to purchase digital downloads of favorites, the availability of subtitles for those unable to follow a thick Trinbago accent and special video performances featuring extended versions of popular songs, basically digital encores, would build a richer base for exploration of the form.
Eventually, that collection might reach back in time to encompass all of the songs that have gone largely unheard over the last decade and provide a foundation for a modern reconsideration and evaluation of calypso.
This is one of the projects that TUCO should have explored with the millions it was gifted by government, but instead it wasted the money in an environment of clearly diminishing returns and did the exact opposite of what producers are supposed to do – represent their artists and guide them to success in the reality of their working environment.
Instead, witnessing calypsonians solemnly shooting themselves in the foot, the organisation created to advance the artform assumed the role of ammunition bearer.
There needs to be action taken to return calypso to its rightful place on the menu of entertainments that Carnival offers.
But we won’t get there from here any of the routes that have been unsuccessfully and adamantly travelled so far.
The wit, the personalities, the rivalries and the creative wellspring of lyricism are missed by those old enough to remember the great years of calypso tents, but there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands who have never experienced that era.
If we aren’t careful, they never will.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. His writing about technology is found at TechNewsTT and his photography is here. A long running series of photo essays, Local Lives, considers T&T culture and its Carnival. He has covered Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations for the last four decades. He writes a weekly column for NewsdayTT and contributes to Caribbean Beat.