“If calypso is to be saved and the best interests of calypsonians protected, TUCO needs to get out of the tent business and return to its original mandate of looking after the interests of all calypso and soca performers, including the establishment of the much needed pension plan.
“To save calypso, we must also take a serious look at the judging. (…) Over the years, the so-called “trained” judges have given us a brand of calypso which is alien to the calypso that the public knows and loves… Calypso lovers have been turning off for over a decade.”
The following Letter to the Editor was submitted to Wired868 by veteran calypso lover Eric St Bernard, now living and working in the USA:
“The art form come like CEPEP or URP right now.”
Leroy “Black Stalin” Calliste in Trinidad Newsday, December 26, 2006
Some years ago, Brother Valentino sang “Calypso in trouble.” And in the aftermath of the 2017 Carnival, his insightful declaration remains acutely relevant.
There were several reports of calypso tents with 15-20 people in the audience. While many calypsonians love to blame radio DJs, they rarely—if ever—put the focus on the lyrical content at the tents which eventually ends up on the main stages of calypso’s biggest showcases, the Calypso Fiesta at Skinner Park and the Calypso Monarch competition at the Queen’s Park Savannah on Carnival Sunday night.
TUCO, the organization responsible for representing the best interests of calypsonians, currently controls four tents, all state-subsidized. The cast at TUCO tents appears to have guaranteed spots for members and executives, regardless of their songs’ public appeal.
In trying to satisfy their membership, the TUCO-operated tents are not motivated to seek new talent or aggressively recruit young artistes with “big-chune” hits.
Three titbits to ponder before we proceed:
(1) Some years ago, we played on the radio Drupatee’s “Careless Driver,” aka “Lick down she nanny.” Right after the song was played, the Revue’s “Jazzy” Pantin called asking for Drupatee’s contact info. The then largely unknown singer became a hit at the Revue that year. The Revue’s strategy was to sell their tent beyond its core audience.
(2) When Spektakula Promotions’ Frank Martineau and his team decided to include Chinese Laundry, Zoom (Soca Elvis), Denise Belfon and other soca singers in their tent, several senior calypsonians quietly complained. Some knew they would get benched and replaced by the new recruits if their offerings were not up to public acceptance.
Martineau would regularly ask DJs what songs were “happening.” He was always looking for talent that had the potential to pull people into his tent. The market, not the artistes, dictated Spektakula’s cast.
(3) Contrast the above with the case of “Dutty child father,” sung by a young, well-established artist with T&T Millennials, Pternsky. The song is real kaiso but the singer was unable to make it into a tent this year. It’s social commentary with sampling from Lord Kitchener’s “Trouble in Arima.”
It has a structure that appeals to both the young and the mature.
Asked about his omission, someone within the TUCO circle responded, “Who say he want to be in the tent?”
No indication of any effort to recruit Pternsky into the tent. Another opportunity for attracting millennials into the tent lost.
Conclusion? If calypso is to be saved and the best interests of calypsonians protected, TUCO needs to get out of the tent business and return to its original mandate of looking after the interests of all calypso and soca performers, including the establishment of the much needed pension plan.
All tents should be private sector ventures. To encourage investors, the government should allow privately-owned tents to operate tax free.
When we had privately run tents, the quality of calypsoes was much higher because the tents were driven by seeking out and selecting calypsoes that would attract mass audiences of cosmopolitan T&T. No one, not even the established performer, was guaranteed a spot on the cast.
State-funding of TUCO-run tents has promoted complacency and non-kaiso agendas that have killed the spirit of enterprise that had brought tents to life. Most of the prosaic material now ritually presented at Calypso Fiesta and Dimanche Gras bears no resemblance to true-true kaiso.
To save calypso, we must also take a serious look at the judging. Those in the know openly talk about judges with conflicts of interests—they write calypsoes, they are political activists or they enjoy close relationships with active calypsonians.
Over the years, the so-called “trained” judges have given us a brand of calypso which is alien to the calypso that the public knows and loves. Selections that capture that elusive thing called the “spirit of Carnival,” boast memorable melodies and poetic lyrics have given way to long-winded prosaic sermons and boring melodies.
Calypso lovers have been turning off for over a decade. It’s time for kaiso to be judged by persons with musical backgrounds and members of the public with great love for calypso.
Judges should serve for only one year. A selection of three persons with a musical background and four members of the public from a random pool may just get us back to memorable, enjoyable calypsoes.
The famous test for separating the chalk of today’s offerings from the cheese of great kaiso is to ask any calypso lover to hum the tunes that won the last 10 Calypso Monarch competitions. Then ask them to hum songs like “Bun dem,” “Calypso Music,” “Stranger,” “Soft Man,” “We pass that stage,” even “Jean & Dinah.”
How many of the most recent monarchs have been getting bookings in the diaspora after Carnival? Then how can we claim we’re using Carnival to sell our music to the world?
TUCO needs to be an artistes’ union focused on the well-being of all calypso and soca performers and the negotiation of prize money and the setting of rules and regulations for all contests. Most importantly, the organisation must re-focus on the original plan to set up a pension for its members so that bona fide calypso or soca artistes will not find themselves in need in their retirement years.
The idea for of TUCO was spawned in the Queen’s Park Savannah. Present at the birth were Gypsy, Rio, Funny, Protector, Lady B, Tigress, Singing Sandra, Marvellous Marva and Valentino, among other calypsonians, wanna-be calypsonians and calypso lovers.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, we got together as the Kaisoca Touring Team to play cricket or football. After the games, we would hear all the great untold calypso stories from the practitioners but a recurrent theme was artistes not having a pension.
A palace coup was needed to take over the then existing calypso organization, a completely toothless. impotent tiger. Iwer George brought a posse of young performers from Point Fortin to pool their votes with calypsonians from the Kaisosoca Touring Team and so put Gypsy, our president designate, over the top after two rounds of voting.
The new TUCO opened an establishment called “the Soca Boat.” Luta and Gypsy negotiated with William Monro about Soca Monarch. TUCO became very actively involved in seeking the interests of all calypso and soca artistes, including the introduction of a pension plan.
But the regime changed and with it came a change of focus.
If TUCO gets out of the tent business, that should create room for the private sector to drive the promotion of quality calypsoes and so the dream of setting up a pension plan might yet be realised.
If the government gives the tents real tax breaks, investors are likely to be encouraged to take the risk. Instead of taxing artistes on their income, the government can have all artistes pay the taxable income to TUCO as operating income and to fund a pension fund. With all the proper checks and balances put in place, the pooled taxable income should assist all artistes equally.
There are, I’m sure, other ideas floating around to save our beloved calypso. However, to pursue any or all of them first requires that we stop burying our collective heads in the sand and face up to the reality that what passes for calypso today is neither attracting the younger generation nor holding the interest of the mature, die-hard calypso fan.
Letting it endure is signing our own death warrant.