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Letter to the Editor: Saving calypso from itself; a kaiso lover takes dead aim at TUCO

“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:

Photo: Terri Lyons sings her calypso "The Unfortunate Phrase", at the 33rd Annual National Calypso Queens Competition on 13 February 2017 at Queen's Hall in St Ann's. Lyons placed fourth in the 2017 Calypso Monarch finals. (Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)
Photo: Terri Lyons sings her calypso “The Unfortunate Phrase”, at the 33rd Annual National Calypso Queens Competition on 13 February 2017 at Queen’s Hall in St Ann’s. Lyons placed fourth in the 2017 Calypso Monarch finals.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

“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.

Photo: Young Helon Francis was the breakout star of 2016 with "Real Bandits" and "Paradise" which earned him second place in the Calypso Monarch final.
Photo: Young Helon Francis was the breakout star of 2016 with “Real Bandits” and “Paradise” which earned him second place in the Calypso Monarch final.

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.

Photo: Dr Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool performs “Learn from Arithmetic” at the Calypso Monarch final on 26 February 2017 at the Queen's Park Savannah. Chalkdust copped the crown for a record ninth time. (Courtesy Wired868)
Photo: Dr Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool performs “Learn from Arithmetic” at the Calypso Monarch final on 26 February 2017 at the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Chalkdust copped the crown for a record ninth time.
(Courtesy Wired868)

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.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago calypso legend Slinger "the Mighty Sparrow" Francisco, whose "Jean and Dinah" has endured for over 50 years. (Courtesy Jayblessed)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago calypso legend Slinger “the Mighty Sparrow” Francisco, whose “Jean and Dinah” has endured for over 50 years.
(Courtesy Jayblessed)

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.

Photo: Soca star and entrepreneur Iwer George had a hand, hand, hand, hand, hand in the palace coup that put Gypsy at the helm of TUCO. (Courtesy Turnitupson)
Photo: Soca star and entrepreneur Iwer George had a hand, hand, hand, hand, hand in the palace coup that put Gypsy at the helm of TUCO.
(Courtesy Turnitupson)

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.

Photo: Lornette "Fya Empress" Nedd-Reid performs her calypso "Guilty" at the Calypso Monarch finals on 26 February 2017 at the Queen's Park Savannah. Despite her very visible casket, she failed to bury the competition, placing 15th among the 17 contestants. (Courtesy Wired868)
Photo: Lornette “Fya Empress” Nedd-Reid performs her calypso “Guilty” at the Calypso Monarch finals on 26 February 2017 at the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Despite her very visible casket, she failed to bury the competition, placing 15th among the 17 contestants.
(Courtesy Wired868)

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30 comments

  1. Angry calypsonians storm TUCO
    JOAN RAMPERSAD (Newsday)
    Monday, March 20 2017

    A handful of calypsonians stormed the offices of the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) Friday, to protest a number of ills plaguing them as members of the organisation Most vocal was Alana Sinnette who told Newsday that she registered two calypsoes, one for the Political Monarch entitled: “No White Colour Criminal.” She said when she got her scores she realised the song was judged in the wrong category.

    Following that, she said she sent for her registration form but it was not given to her brother, who cheekily took a picture of it with his phone.

    With the registration form verifying what she believed all along she had her lawyer send TUCO a pre-action protocol letter that she said was never acknowledged by TUCO. Sinnette said the scores that were given out didn’t match the comments of the judges, and complained that TUCO does not know how to communicate with people.

    She also stated that it was a conflict of interest for TUCO to be running tents when they are supposed to represent all calypsonians. Impulse (Wayne Modeste), who was also at the protest held up a placard that read: “25 Years, We Renting Still”, while Lady Gypsy (Lynette Steele), held another stating: “Who is the Ali Baba”.

    Sinnette said Impulse sang before judges but there were no judging scores for him, and he was not alone in that situation.

    Other placards read: “Save the Outlaws”, “We Want Judges’ Scores Not TUCO Scores”, “Constitution Reform”, “Fairness”, “Credibility” and “Transparency”.

    Sinnette said the group has real issues with the management of TUCO and would like to see the present executive moved. When asked why since TUCO recently held its election she said: “That election is another thing by itself but I will not get into that.” TUCO president Lutalo Masimba and other executives came out to talk with the protestors but they are still peeved.

    Calls to Massiba’s phone went unanswered.

  2. VERY POWERFUL CALYPSO FROM THAT WOMAN SORRY THE JUDGES WAS PIS ASS IMPS…I’m dead already

  3. I am glad to see people making recommendations for solutions as opposed to just criticising, it is a refreshing escape from the Trini penchant for negativity

  4. Lasana, does this sound familiar?

    “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.” ”

    I rest my case, brother.

  5. 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.

  6. You are asking a person with a slave mentality to think about it as a business. The master didn’t provide for them fully and they are lost. All the groups who only work properly if government gives them money. They are childlike in thinking or I would say slave like. The master provides food clothes water and roof bed and woman for them. The children is not theirs so they don’t care. So ask yourself since the existence of TUCO, PANTRINBGO, NCBA, emancipation committee and all art forms. How can you be vex with the government when you don’t raise money for yourself.
    Take for example every tent close after carnival, the more enterprising steel bands make money all year through but. They are few far between. Everything is a hand out.

    • Well said! 👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾 The question is how do we move out of the slave like thinking?

    • It’s call for a total shift from how we think. TUCO should be having after carnival regional tents all over the country with a small prize between $5000-$10,000 so those who where not heard will be. An why are all the tents closed after carnival. Go around the country and do small tents for the regional community. Same thing with PANTRINBGO. Smaller shows, bring back pan is beautiful and
      World Panorama so they can make their money. An why don’t the mas bands don’t put up their own prize money and therefore reducing how much government puts.

      • Earl Best

        Marc, Rhetorical questions now, of course; you started by giving us the answers and then asked the questions.

        Implied in what you say (“It’s call for a total shift from how we think.”) is a criticism of the education system. But we generally restrict our criticism to the formal system while the informal system is no less culpable.

        Is there not an important lesson in the fact that Kenny De Silva decided to resign “after reading Express editorial”?

        We have powers we don’t know we have…

    • Marcus Alexander Clarke…Exactly! Because those tents are competing with other time sensitive carnival events. The tents can be run throughout the year. Do we only have tourists for carnival? Why is it nobody has an all inclusive vibe, with mix of different types of music including pan-so ppl have options during the year, instead of only boat cruise or the avenue clubs. Tents can roam to take the culture to the ppl-not everyone has to come into POS. But seems like ppl from the outside have vision and ideas.

    • Marcus Alexander Clarke do I have permission to quote you?

  7. Earl Best

    Maybe I am completely off the mark here but I am reminded as I read about Gypsy’s role in the formation of TUCO of the line from Shakespeare’s Julius caesar which talks about “…spurning the base degrees by which they did ascend.”

    Eric, can you shed any light on Gypsy’s relationship with TUCO when he was minister? And now?

    Would it be impolitic to discuss that in this oh-so-public forum?

    • Earl, he was very supportive. I believe it was under him they had Carnival Village. I know he had made arraggements to have Rio, Funny & Lutha travel around the country, mostly in rural areas to perform and take the art of calypso to people who would not travel into the cities.

      The best (no pun intended) information to give his state of mind, as a minister, was a speech he gave for the opening of The Big Apple Tent in NY. I don’t want to misquote, so allow me a couple of days to find the video.

      Last Carnival he performed in one of the TUCO tent.

      • Earl Best

        Thanks, EStB. That should make interesting listening/viewing. I’ll hold my horses and suspend further judgement until…
        Signed, BESt. Ha ha ha!

  8. Calypso is dead .. all we hear is rhythm with hands in d air and wine

  9. ..Anything that is dependent on the State for its very survival ultimately stagnates and dies..

    • oh yeah? Maybe there are forces that does not want the state to be successful on the services that they are required to provide for the least of these. If what you say is true and it is not, the why have a state at all? Let us all become dependent on the private sector for everything and let’s see what would happen to those who cannot play the role of perpetual consumer. I pray that you would never have the experience of not having any money.

  10. I thought there were some really interesting suggestions in there. Very good food for thought.

  11. Yet another occurrence where government subventions contribute to a lack of competitiveness, driving private investment out and persons running a “Trini-style” business. Set up shop, don’t care if it runs at a profit or a loss because you know state funds would keep you afloat and your pockets lined. Steups!

  12. Interesting. Didn’t know that those tents were state owned. I agreed with judges serving.one year, I hope the same goes for the steel pan as well.