Above: The Mighty Sparrow, circa 1959. Photo by Kingsley Lyndersay, LyndersayDigital.com
By Mark Lyndersay. Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Caribbean Beat
At the end of February 2017, MX Prime, the performer formerly known as Maximus Dan and christened Edghill Thomas, was announced as the winner, along with his production and performance team, Ultimate Rejects, the Road March competition.
The song, Full Extreme, was played 556 times at competition venues and the second placed winner, Machel Montano, trailed with 72 plays of Your Time Now.
The Road March competition isn’t like most popularity contests or talent competitions judged by the public. Nobody sits at home to make a call or send a text. To win the Road March, a composer has to write a song that makes people get up and dance, to be specific, all the people who celebrate Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival every year, and keep them on their feet for two days of prancing and dancing.
To stand any chance of succeeding, the modern road march must be the anthem of wining, that rhythmic gyration of the waist, often done in concert with a partner or two, that found wider public notice in a distinctly corrupted form as twerking.
Each year’s road march and its contenders are consigned to history along with the costumes each year, and it’s a rare song that earns a play on the road after its year of glory.
The first Road March title was recorded in 1930, Inveigler’s Captain Cipriani, and a song has won the accolade every year since then, even between 1942 and 1945, when Carnival was suspended during World War II.
There were, of course, enormously popular songs before then, songs so entrancing that they jumped from band to band in an environment that was quite different from the mechanised, industrially-driven Carnival of today.
A Carnival band took to the road with its own music, the earliest form of which were long sticks of bamboo rhythmically beaten to accompany the chantuelle, singer leading the costumed group, who considered life, love, politics and the bacchanal of the barrackyard in his composition.
“The first song sung by almost every band on the road was probably Sly Mongoose,” says Dr Gordon Rohlehr, a historian with lifelong personal and academic interest in genesis of calypso.
The song came to Trinidad and Tobago in 1919 and was sung in a tent by Houdini in 1921, becoming popular on the road in 1923.
“It was likely to have been a Jamaican folk song, but melodies traveled throughout the islands and became songs with different lyrics and arrangements. Captain Cipriani was most likely a melody we know as Ambakaila.”
That music would evolve along with Carnival itself. Popular chantuelles would host visitors to their yard as they rehearsed and eventually a small fee was asked, beginning a tradition that would eventually become the calypso tent.
In search of louder rhythm and smoother melodies, the bands would beat biscuit tins, paint cans and eventually steeldrums, which would be shaped and refined to create the modern steelpan instrument.
In parallel, musicians would accompany the bands, first bringing small woodwind instruments, flutes, clarinets, guitars and violins. These were eventually joined by full-throated brass, as saxophones and trumpets provided a path of influence for big band jazz music to flow into the calypsonian’s repertoire.
Railway Douglas, who won in 1934 with After Johnny drink meh rum, was a key personality in the evolution of this stage of the calypso as the favored voice of the people.
“Inveigler (MacDonald Borel), was Railway Douglas’ assistant,” says Rohlehr, “but Douglas thought that picong calypsoes were demeaning and a throwback to slavery days. He would sing topically about social issues and the scandals of the day.”
Calypso would emerge as a narrative form of storytelling and commentary, the structure of the words in balance with the music even as live band music entered a long period of jousting with the steelband as the preferred music to drive bands along the parade route.
Rum and Coca Cola, Lord Invader’s (Rupert Grant) 1943 hit, would characterise the sentiments of the male calypso fraternity, who chafed at the presence of the American military on the island and the response of local women to the prized “Yankee dollar.”
That response to the social circumstances of the day would find their apotheosis in The Mighty Sparrow’s 1956 winner Jean and Dinah, a song he later admitted was created as an advertisement for a local store that he repurposed into a groundbreaking social commentary and the first crown of his career.
Sparrow’s emergence was preceded by one of the oddest Road Marches of the 19th century, The Happy Wanderer, a German march sung by the Obernkirchen Children’s Choir but better known by its catchy chorus, “Val-de-ri, Val-de-ra.”
The song, says Rohlehr, “was larger in structure than a traditional calypso and may have influenced the form of Jean and Dinah, which also had a long chorus.”
This was a very different era for the road march, one in which any song with a catchy melody might be popular on the road. Advertisements for Tisane de Durbon and Nagib Elias’ lumber business were cheerfully sung along side performances by calypsonians.
It wouldn’t be until 1976 that the popular Tourist Leggo by Antiguan Lord Short Shirt would annoy calypso’s management so much that it would be banned from offical competitions, beginning an unfortunate era of road march insularity. Short Shirt (McLean Emmanuel) would win the Antigua and Barbuda road march competion that year with the calypso.
After Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) won in 1956, the Road March belonged to Sparrow and his career-long rival Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) for the next 10 years, only interrupted by Lord Christo (Christopher Laidlow) and Nap Hepburn, who won a twin competition in 1956 with Chicken Chest and Doctor Nelson, Lord Caruso (Emmanuel Pierre) in 1959 who sang Run the Gunslingers and Lord Blakie’s (Carlton Joseph) plaintive Maria.
Sparrow and Kitchener’s second ten-year stretch of road march dominance was only interrupted once by Shadow’s (Winston Bailey) 1974 Bassman, but it was a change that fundamentally refocused the competition on music.
Calypso Rose’s (McCartha Sandy-Lewis) 1977 hit Tempo forever ended the Sparrow-Kitchener axis with a road march that was all about melody with a chorus that echoed the percussiveness of Shadow’s Bassman becoming the first female champion of the road to sing triumphantly over a music bed that made liberal use of modern synthesiser technology.
Kitchener, who understood music in a particularly deep and profound way, would put his stamp on the young people’s soca music, the dominant form in play at Carnival parties and on the road, with 1978’s Sugar Bum Bum, but would have greater success developing complex musical ideas for the steelband, most notably with The Bee’s Melody and Pan in A Minor.
The story of the road march after Bassman and Tempo is a narrative of conflict, between the traditional calypso art form and soca, its funk influenced derivative and the rising importance of the disc jockey as the preferred delivery mechanism for the music of the road, eventually overwhelming the role of the steelband and the live performing band.
Soca’s hypnotic beat was cemented as the commanding presence in the road march between 1977 and 1990, but in 1991 the freshly rechristened Superblue (Austin Lyons, formerly BlueBoy) would introduce the lyric-as-command to the road mix with the urgent chorus of Get something and wave.
In the 26 years since, the explosive, post-curfew release of the song, which followed the attempted coup of September 1990, still echoes in soca dance music.
Younger performers, including Lyons’ daughter, Fay-Ann Lyons who won the road march title twice, have taken that song and its successors as the baseline for their own successful songs for the road.
As the music became faster, the lyrics have largely abandoned narrative for pop song hooklines, phrases that can be shouted as you leap forward on the tips of your toes, twirling a handy cloth over your head.
Several popular songs have lifted chord progressions from well-known pop songs and layered them into their music, and the winners of the last seven years have been influenced by the style and structure of electronic dance music (EDM).
Since 1997, Machel Montano has emerged as the most successful architect of the modern road march, blending an understanding of the lyric as supporting framework for the music with a master’s touch in the production of the final work.
Montano has won eight of the road march competitions since 1997, five of them since 2010.
In 2018, the traditional calypso tent, once the stamp of artistic approval for a calypsonian, has shrunk almost into insignificance, subsisting on a lifeline of state support.
Local radio and the Carnival party are now where music is auditioned for public consumption, and the range that’s offered represents only a fraction of the music actually created for the festival.
The calypsonian now finds himself in the position of the chantuelle he replaced more than a hundred years ago, losing ground in Carnival to a more popular music with aggressive, focused practitioners.
But as the success of Calypso Rose in Europe demonstrates, the form still has a lot of life to it. The road march and the creators who compose for it once more look to all the music that makes people dance for its influences.
Shadow – The Change Catalyst
Shadow (Aldwyn Bailey) was a Tobago-born calypsonian who had been working for years to break into the big times, but it was Bassman, which told of a melody gifted to him as he was about “to give up calypso and go plant peas in Tobago.”
That melody, anchored by “Poom Pittity Poom,” sung deep from his chest, was nothing less than a bass run on a pan in a song anchored by a surprisingly funky bass line.
Shadow, an unabashed fan of Teddy Pendergrass who titled one album If ah woulda, I coulda, I shoulda, launched a career of songs anchored by soulful beats and empathic, often psychedelic lyrics that drifted some distance from the more commonplace topics favoured by his calypsonians peers.
Shadow dropped the traditional calypsonian’s superlative soon afterward, shedding a “The Mighty” that was now demonstrably superfluous.
He would win the Road March competition once more with 2001’s Stranger, which effortlessly embraced the road march as stage direction by cheerfully offering party guidance for a festival newbie.
Superblue – Master of the zeitgeist of the street
As BlueBoy, Lyons had already registered two successive road march wins in 1980 and 1981 with Soca Baptist and Ethel respectively, when he changed the pace and focus of the road march forever with Get Something and Wave.
He would infuse that formula across three more winners, Jab Jab, Bacchanal Time and Signal to Lara, characterising them with sharp chord changes across melodies, songs with music enough for three tunes, eccentric, easy to shout lyrics and a profoundly intuitive sense of what makes people go crazy at Carnival time.
Gordon Rohlehr sees a parallel in the relationship between Superblue’s interaction with crowds and the chantuelle’s management of his carnival band.
Thirteen years after his last road march triumph with Pump, in 2000, Lyons returned to form with Fantastic Friday, a song that celebrated the International Soca Monarch competition, with which he had a mutually beneficial synergy in its earliest years.
The Revenge Road March
The Calypso Monarch competition once required finalists to sing two songs for a marking system that encouraged the performance of a “serious” calypso and a party number.
In 1974, Sparrow won the competition with a pair of songs tailor-made for the requirements of the competition, We Pass That Stage and Miss Mary.
Shadow performed Bassman and I come out to play, two songs popular in parties.
From early on J’Ouvert on Carnival Monday, it was clear that masqueraders were intent on redressing the balance, demanding Bassman for two days and making Shadow’s vertical prance the dance of the festival.
“That wasn’t revenge as much as it was pure street justice,” recalls Gordon Rohlehr, “there is an element of the mischievous fun in the road march.”
Superblue’s last placings in the Calypso Monarch competition have also provided a rocket’s blastoff for his popular songs on the street.
How is the Road March measured?
One of the most contentious issues in each year’s road march competition is how the results are gathered for the competition.
According to Lutalo Masimba of the Trinibago Unified Calypsonians Organisation, the stakeholder body responsible for all calypso related competitions in Carnival, the number of plays at competition points are totalled to decide the winner of the competition.
There are eight points of tabulation on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
On the stages in Port-of-Spain at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Downtown, Picadilly Greens and Victoria Square.
Additional numbers are gathered on the main stage in Arima, from two stages in San Fernando and the judging venue in Tobago.
The logic of gathering this information at the points where Carnival bands are at their most hyped once delivered a reliable bellwether of the popularity of songs relative to each other.
In recent decades, however, it’s become clear that there are songs created for the stage and songs that are popular on the street where the pace is slower.
Crazy (Edwin Ayoung) who won with Soucouyant in 1985 remembers 1989, when his song Nanny Wine ruled the road but not the stage.
Where it was once impractical to follow a band around to hear what was being played, modern audio fingerprinting technology allows such tabulations to be done electronically at many more points along the parade route.
“We have not considered this approach,” said Masimba, “but if someone technologically adept proposed it, we would be interested.”
The Road March as zeitgeist
There is an argument to be made that the celebration of Carnival on Monday and Tuesday has been influenced deeply by the music of each era of its development. The shuffling march of the earliest Carnivals proceeded to the staccato, almost military beat of the percussive tamboo bamboo. As the music grew louder and more melodic with the entry of the steelband, the words of the songs became less of a chant and more of a sing-along.
The celebratory blast of horns from big bands added the miming of brass playing and the celebratory raising of arms to mostly sunswept skies.
In this heated competition, what made one song the road march and the others merely popular?
The earliest recorded road marches are distinguished by a subversive wit and topical humour.
Between 1935 and 1941, The Roaring Lion (Rafael De Leon) won four of the six competitions with calypsoes that managed to be both bawdy and socially concerned.
Lord Kitchener’s return from England was formally heralded with The Road, a song that remains, to this day, the unofficial anthem and reference point for summarising the annual street party.
The song was also a gauntlet thrown down to Sparrow, and for the next two decades the pair would battle for the attention of revellers on the road.
Kitchener’s melodies were wildly successful on the steelband, and he would increasingly turn his attention to that instrument as the decisive interpreter of his compositions with unparalleled success.
His last road march, Flag Woman in 1976, was both a final coda to the supremacy of the steelband as the driving force for music on the road and a paean to the woman charged with bearing the band’s standard and clearing a path for the heavy steel drums as they rolled through crowded streets.
The next year, Calypso Rose would win with Tempo, a song crafted for brass bands, beginning an era that would run from 1977 to 1990, upbeat songs for dancing that increasingly abandoned commentary for catchy hook lines and tip of the toes prancing.
That trend would go to another level in 1991with a resurgent BlueBoy, now singing as SuperBlue.
His astonishing troika of winners, Get Something and Wave, Jab Jab and Bacchanal Time put down a template for dance focused soca that fundamentally changed the pace and approach of composers, arrangers and musicians who would find the fast time and heated pitch of the songs difficult to maintain on the road.
It was here that two things happened in the Road March Competition.
First, the gulf between the songs that got played on stage to stoke the bands and the music that was played on the road grew wider.
Then it became clear to bandleaders that the music, now prepared in special road mix recordings, was easier played by disc jockeys who also happened to be cheaper than full bands.
That opened the door to more multitracking, sharper cutting on chord changes and deeper use of electronics in creating the songs, just when it became possible for almost anyone to create music on their computer at home.
On its surface, at the level of the lyrics, road marches became instructions to revellers.
“Moving to the left,” sang Nigel Lewis.
“Hold on to the Big Truck,” urged Machel Montano.
“Footsteps…on the ground,” demanded the late Wayne Rodriguez.
On a deeper level, this was music that did more than invite the listener to get up and dance, it was designed to take people already committed to prancing to another level of euphoria and excitement.
It isn’t surprising then to find elements of electronic dance music (EDM) showing up in road march contenders and to see the influence of dance soca bleeding back as it did in Antenna, the breakout single by Fuse ODG (Richard Abiona).
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.