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Can Sandra silence Voice in the Big Yard? St Bernard previews Sunday’s sizzling Calypso finals

The 2018 Calypso Monarch Finals promise to be the best in about 20 years. This is so although the judges only got about 70% of the selections correct. The mix will be excellent, not simply in terms of musical variety and lyrical content and style and pace but also in terms of personalities—gender (there are five ladies among the 16 finalists) and age.

There really is a good chance that this year’s Finals could hit the reset button and serve up for the genre a generous helping of the younger generation of fans.

Photo: Aaron “Voice” St Louis, who copped two successive Soca Monarch titles, has thrown his hat in the ring for the Calypso Monarch crown in 2018.

But first a word about the missing 30%. To leave out young Ronaldo London makes no sense; his “Tomorrow,” if you will excuse the pun, is not just about the future of calypso but also about where the art form is today.

Omitting Cro and Tammico Moore (Spicey) merely reinforces the perception of political bias in calypso. If you take a stance against the PNM, it seems, your chances of making it to the Big Yard immediately take a nosedive.

The issue, however, is more complex than its seems; perhaps the crowd will allow you to be anti-PNM without your going so far as to be pro-UNC. On Saturday, singing a song entitled “Belated” which is critical of some members of the current PNM Administration, Cro Cro won the privately organised and sponsored “People’s Choice” competition. The judges, not in tune with popular sentiment, didn’t find the four-time monarch good enough on this occasion to make the top 16.

Spicey’s “Muzzle D Dog” is a sharp reminder of the tradition of calypso being the voice of the people. It takes on Dr Keith Rowley directly for some of his utterances, for which every major newspaper has chastised the PM. In fact, I have heard it said that if Spicey’s song was about Kamla, there might well have been signs at Skinner Park proclaiming “Kaiso, gyurl,” “Big Yard Song,” etc. Instead, there was toilet paper and the thumbs-down from the judges.

One prominent calypsonian has already publicly referred to the annual Calypso Fiesta as a “PNM Convention.” This is an understandable view.

Photo: Veteran calypsonian and reigning Calypso Monarch Dr Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool.

The semifinal audience gave Sugar Aloes the royal 21 pieces of toilet paper salute while he was singing his “Finally,” a song in tribute to Kitchener! Why? Because some years ago, “PNM till ah dead” Aloes sang “She’s royal” for then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Although he subsequently explained that he had merely taken a job, the crowd’s resentment has endured into the present.

Over the years, the Skinner Park audience has repeatedly shown the same contempt for any calypsonian they perceived to have crossed over to the wrong side of the political divide. Gypsy had to deal with their active hostility for years. As did De Fosto. And Crazy and Mba had their share.

So it’s a valid question: if calypso lovers are unrepentant PNM lovers, why would those who support other parties or who reject them all feel encouraged to attend calypso events? Why should they?

And so to the 70%. Years ago, I invited a young police officer from Grande going by the sobriquet of “Stinger” to bring his guitar and demonstrate on my radio programme what an excellent composer he is. In 2018, for the first time in many years, a calypsonian, the same Stinger, has been selected for the Sunday night Finals on the basis of a humorous calypso.

Humour stalwarts like Funny and Rio are probably wondering what took the judges so long; for years, they have written gems which didn’t make it even to the Fiesta, much less the Finals.

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.

Calypso insiders are likely to be cheering for Stinger because they know that a genuinely humorous calypso is the most difficult kind to write. And Stinger’s “Chinese Tuition” makes you laugh heartily when you hear it. Dimanche Gras patrons are in for a treat on Sunday!

Humour is normally Myron B’s happy hunting ground. Not in 2018. This year, he is exploring social commentary. Some calypso observers have remarked that his “The Great Nation” is akin to King Austin’s “Progress.”  I wouldn’t go that far. I prefer to leave that discussion for those who feel that way and for Winsford Devine, who wrote “Progress.”

This year’s contestants also include Helon Francis, whom I openly backed three years ago. Helon’s is a unique voice and he has a new perspective as a young writer. His training in music shows through in his compositions and his stuff differs from the fare the calypso judges have been force-feeding us over the years.

We are now fully fed up and welcome Helon’s refreshing contributions. The hope is that the judges will be able to do the same.

Mistah Shak too is a breath of fresh air. A young veteran of the competition, he is making his third appearance in the Finals. A throwback to Shadow of the 1970s, he is openly challenging the calypso comptrollers and the judging system. He fuses traditional calypso structure with hype Soca vibes. Delivering well-composed lyrics, he is comfortable asking the audience to raise their hands and participate in the joy of his music.

Here too, the hope is that the judges will not simply throw up their hands and write him off.

Photo: Talented calypsonian Selvon “Mistah Shak” Noel.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

When we talk about judges, we often forget the luck of the draw. Who performs before you and/or after you can dictate how you fare. And if you’re the unfortunate one who draws number one, well, you have your work cut out for you to impress the judges. Ask Devon Seale, who opened the batting on Saturday and did not make the Sunday cut.

This year’s finalists also include Lady Watchman, Skatie, Karene Asche, Kurt Allen and Protector, who are all competent, experienced performers with a mission to dethrone the defending monarch, Chalkdust.

Speaking of the defending monarch, there is another issue that needs to be aired. The insider joke is that Chalkdust gets to be judged by people he teaches to judge. Is that fair? Well, you be the judge…

But for me there are three of the contenders who lead the challenging pack. Full disclosure: Singing Sandra and Tigress are both godparents of my son. We tight and I always root for them. That said, let me add that that pair are dangerous in any calypso final… with or without my support!

Tigress has a powerful stage presence. And in 2018, she’s breathing fire. When she sings about signing the letter to fire the Minister of Health—“Ah lost ah son that way”—it’s deeply personal. She and I talked about winning the monarch title to relieve the pain after she lost a second son in two years. So it was easy for her, with her “Rowley to Rowley,” to pass the Skinner Park political test by skilfully positioning the Political Leader and PM as a victim of ministerial incompetence.

Photo: Former Calypso Monarch Sandra “Singing Sandra” Des Vignes.
(Copyright Sokah to Soca)

The Big Yard is different but she’s highly qualified to handle it. As is Singing Sandra. She is in her comfort zone, defending women’s rights. Her “Power in Song” is timely and topical, touching a responsive chord. She can match Voice pound for pound in terms of music and lyrics. I have not seen Sandra this comfortable and confident performing a calypso since “Die with my dignity” in 1987.

To beat her, Voice will have to give the performance of his life; the good news is that he is up to the task.

Sunday night is an opportunity for him to change the direction of the art form, just like Sparrow did in 1956, and to ride through at the head of a new army, like Rudder did 30 years later in 1986. This year makes 32 years since Rudder’s historic win.

Many people would agree that, in the three decades since King David lit up the Savannah stage with “The Hammer” and “Bahia Girl,” the Calypso Monarch competition has become a boring parade of long-winded, uninspired, lyrics-less offerings without poetry or enticing melodies.

Voice can change that. He can motivate talents like Ola, Orlando Octave and Patrice Roberts and help renew calypso and return some focus to the music. His presence on the Dimanche Gras stage can help alter the perception that Calypso is for “dem old PNM people.” It can help attract the 18-34 demographic to calypso and bring eyeballs of persons who are as young as 12-plus, who might well be watching the Calypso Monarch competition for the first time.

Photo: Aaron “Voice” St Louis is a two-time Soca Monarch champion, who looks like he can give calypso a much-needed shot in the arm.

All in all, it would surprise few if Voice were to pull off the victory on Sunday night; if he does, I assure you, calypso will be the big winner.

Editor’s note: Here is the order of appearance of the 16 singers, including the defending champion Chalkdust, who will vie for the title of Calypso Monarch 2018 in the Savannah on Sunday:  

1-Skatie (All Cutback), 2-Stinger (Chinese Tuition), 3-Aloes (Finally), 4-Kurt Allen (Circle Square Science), 5- Alana “Lady Watchman” Sinnette (Deadbeat), 6-Aaron Voice St Louis (Year for Love), 7-Singing Sandra (Power in Song), 8-Protector (We could do better than that), 9-Chalkdust (In the Latrine), 10-Myron B (The Great Nation), 11-Karene Asche (Song of Inspiration), 12-Tigress (Rowley to Rowley), 13-Mr Shak (Rebellion), 14-Helon Francis (Changes), 15-Stacy Sobers (Calypso City), 16-Rondell Donawa (De Problem).

About Eric St Bernard

Eric St Bernard
Eric A St Bernard is a mass media glutton and want-to-be calypso and soca activist. He holds a MSc in TV/Radio from Brooklyn College and has worked extensively, in Caribbean music formats in Trinidad & NYC, events promotions and media advertising.

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52 comments

  1. Rudder took three crowns and there was no Soca Monarch then. Rudder’s accomplishment was definitely bigger but it would still be an accomplishment for Voice.

  2. Let me see voice pull a Rudder with this one❤ as in two crowns. Wait.. Rudder had pulled a road March that time. Lol… Ok enough wine

  3. Voice is my choice for Calypso Monarch.

  4. I predict he’s winning Calypso Monarch 2018

  5. Voice all the way, I have respect for Singing Sandra but,,,

  6. at the end of the day we the citizens passively sit back and take it because we are caught up in party politics. we need equalization across the board, if wrong for one,is wrong for ALL. which other country you know sits backs while successive governments do the same thing and get the same results, that’s INSANITY. We like it so.Sweet T&T

  7. Why should govt give money to “band of the year” when these individuals make a killing, tax free of course…

  8. Ahhhh, now we gehing someplace. I will take it even further: the entire nation has been run in a similar manner by imps who are clueless as to their functions…

  9. CARNIVAL has been run vikey vie, lacks management.

  10. 10,000 paying patrons at an event is not sustainable with sponsors falling over themselves? (Chutney)

  11. Chutney is sustainable; govt had no bleeping business giving george singh no bleeping money. Pan is another of my personal pet peeve, as an old pan man. Pan has no business geh no money. Last year they got about 25M. Of that players got 500 each for about 10,000 of them amounting to about .5M. Wher the rest went? Ask diasss about the X5s he has parked up and the apts in grande he and some of his members are building…

  12. Chutney sustainable and the government gave them 1 million dollars after George Singh threatened to have none after saying NO MONEY. So why Pan got about 7 million, why is PAN Trinbago not sustainable?. More than that, as Martin Daly said NO government has ever created a policy for CULTURE. I may be wrong I don’t think ALOES and CRO CRO did this for themselves , since they are old bards, Thus is bigger than both of them so if shut down Calypso where the young proteges going. You want everyone to sing ‘jam and wine’ because it is marketable, and to whom?

  13. Wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments and assertion that 2018 will be a watershed year for the evolution of Calypso. My only wish, finalists should perform two selections, instead of one – that decision by organizers has set balanced progress and preservation of this powerful and wildly entertaining art form.

  14. Rossana Glasgow, I cannot speak for anyone else nor would I attempt to do so. I love calypso. I sing them and listen to the old ones, having been raised in a different era (@ 63 yrs old). I, like many, have stopped going to the tent, which has nothing to do with the 1%; it has to do with the content, or should I say lack of creativity, which has led to the art form’s own demise. Calypsoes, while having a history of bashing the status quo, became political, to the point of targeting one segment of the population when panday (small ‘p’ intentionally) became the pm; namely the “Indian.” In a society where the population is basically “split in the middle” between two major ethnic groups, alienation of one is a recipe for disaster, financially. But artists, like cro cro and aloes, cared less, because there was “government handouts.” Now that the handout-well has run dry, they’re now realizing the value of support required from the entire population. Calypso has been unable to sell itself for the longest while, through no fault of anyone but TUCO and the artists involved. Chutney in the meanwhile has gone on to become self sustainable. Why the government gave them money again is purely political; most likely not wanting to alienate the Indian population, or come across as blatantly “racist.” A discussion on this topic is long overdue, like many others in this land, with persons who are informed and unbiased. That, however, will not take place anytime soon.

  15. Voice have to cool down he not in ar party

  16. Hopefully Voice is allowed to make this the most important Monarch win since David in ’86. Calypso is again being offered an opportunity to evolve. Let’s hope those judges grab the chance.

  17. Sandra has surely made a great come back.

  18. Looking forward to Dimache Gras!

  19. Ongoing question, which people have refused to address. What is Calypso? Jamoo, Soca, Chutney rapso these genres all emerge from Calypso. Heard many uninformed talk show host saying Calypso dead and the government should no longer fund it. (Aloes and Cro Cro who attempted to keep the Tents afloat) Why don’t people do research before giving uninformed opinions). Kill Calypso kill the MAS (almost dead) Pan off the street replaced by (DJs ) and large bikini-bands has replaced creativity and History. Calypso heading to Laperouse Cemetery according to doomsday fanatics. Every year Tourist numbers dwindling, Why come to T&T when it has nothing to see ,the spectacle that is CARNIVAL is slowly being killed of by COMERCIALIZATION ( the 1% that laughs all the way to the bank) and dictating what the citizens see and listen to aided and abetted by the RADIO Stations. Beside jam and wine songs how many Calypsos were given air play? For the majority of citizens SKINNER Park and Dimanche Gras will be the first time we hear the Calypso. Who fooling who? who Killing the mas? I return to my first question can Calypso and SOC be judged on the same merits?

  20. Somebidy please tell me from where can I stream Dimanche Gras live on Sunday night.

  21. Don’t get me wrong…I like Voice, his music and his positive mssgs…but is that Calypso? I don’t like when the lines are blurred because if they are…better we just make one big musical competition where the best wins!

    • Art forms are dynamic and they shift and evolve.

    • Nicholas, you put a big smile on my face ?. In an interview with Sparrow, he said when he came on the scene,
      the senior bards of that era said he was not singing Calypso. In 1986 I interviewed Rocky McCollin, the great late Calypso expert, he said “what dat boy David Rudder singing is not Calypso”. Case closed ?

    • I agree but shouldn’t tradition keep some uniformity and distinguishing characteristic? Then Xtempo could be sped up and the melody altered, and if Calypso Monarch remains more prize money, we might be see the new evolution replace older ones.

    • I think it’s mostly soca (but if he can compete among the calypsonians why not? It’s up to those who administrate to determine what qualifies) – his lyrics are bordering on calypso because there is a message there more than just partying – but since it’s mostly a repetitive message and the music is not traditional calypso I can see why people may question whether it belongs in such a competition. My problem is not in his song per se but with what I see as the judges apparent lack of consistency in their scoring over the years. They have no credibility in the way they select winners as far as I can tell. It’s some kind of freaking coincidence that all top three performances are by young people this year. How did Chalkdust, Protector, Singing Sandra, and other veterans of the artform disappoint them so sorely this year?

  22. Earl Best

    Eric, in a piece that looks to be about 1600 words long, the defending monarch gets all of a single paragraph with about 40 words. As a fraction, that’s 1/40, as a percentage.025!

    Either yuh doh trust de judges or yuh fraid dem. Or yuh really doh know what to say bout Chalkie after he win with that s..t larse year.

    • Chalkdust is a man of many surprises. His resume speaks for itself.

      • Earl Best

        He won last year with “75 cyar go into 14.” Have you heard it once since? My radio is on almost literally all day, either on 107.7 or 95.9. I have not heard that winning song once in an entire year.
        Is there a lesson in there somewhere? I am inclined to believe so…

  23. Earl Best

    Voice and Sandra don’t stand a chance if Duane O’Çonnor has his way–at least, that’s the impression his attorney’s letter to TUCO gives.
    I giein way my Dimanche Gras ticket if the Court say TUCO ha to make room fuh he. Oh geed!