Is greatness, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? The question is broached in a not-very-good Calypso History Month piece penned by Debbie Jacob in a recent Newsday article under the headline: ‘My top ten calypsoes’. Alas, she offers no answer.
“When it comes to narrowing down all the great calypsoes in our history,” Jacob writes, “on any given day, any number can play.”
And any number does play in her list. “[I]n no particular order,” she identifies 10 calypsoes “for their timeless messages, memorable melodies, literary merit and stellar representation of calypsoes’ various roles.”
Perusing the list of her top ten, I conclude that she is more than a little confused. Is her list in her judgement a list of great calypsoes or is it merely a list of her favourite calypsoes?
Or, alternatively, is it a list designed merely to remind us of “the contribution calypsonians have played (sic) in vocalising this country’s socio-political issues”?
“No two people,” Jacob asserts, “should agree on any such list.”
Why, I ask. If given the same criteria she uses for making her selection, why should others not largely agree with her? Or is that others will take issue with the criteria she identifies? We’re not sure. But we need to be lest we end up trying to compare pommecytheres and pommeracs.
While it is likely that everyone will respect her right to select the tunes she includes in her “top ten”, many will not agree, I suspect, to confer the epithet “great” on all ten of her selections.
What immediately makes me sit up and take notice, however, is the complete absence of both Lord Kitchener and Sparrow from Jacob’s list. It’s asking a lot of readers to believe that two calypsonians who between them have 19 Road March and nine calypso Monarch titles have not produced a single great song.
Almost universally recognised as the unofficial Calypso King of the World, Sparrow, remember, twice won the title officially. He copped his first Road March and Calypso King title in 1956 with “Jean and Dinah” and his last Road March full 28 years later in 1984 with “Doh back back”.
It would be another eight years before he captured his eighth and last Calypso Monarch crown.
Kitch notched 10 Road March titles In the 13 years following his “The Road” in 1963. His record total of 11 (his 1946 “Jump in the line” was recognised as the first official Road March) still endures. There is, it goes without saying, no Road March without calypso (or arguably since Shadow’s 2001 “Stranger”, without calypso’s offspring, soca).
Yet not one of Kitch’s 11 winners makes Jacob’s list. Mind you, the stellar representation of calypsoes’ various roles” is one of the identified criteria. And to make matters worse, the second identified criterion is “memorable melodies.”
Frankly, I don’t find the brief notes Jacobs offers in defence/explanation of her selections very helpful. Is well-crafted smut “protest music that challenged the social mores of colonialism”?
Does that make Zandolie’s “Stickman” a great calypso? Does it help us to understand why she deems it a better kaiso than his “Ironman”? Is Crazy’s 1985 Road March “Soucouyant” well-crafted? Does any of the late Kenny J’s “Paintbrush”, “Alexander” or “Cork in her hand” challenge the social mores of colonialism?
From King Austin’s “Progress”, Jacob cites “I see consciousness abate as we live recklessly” as an example of “thought-provoking lyrics about the price of progress that remain relevant today”.
Has she stopped, one is forced to wonder, to examine the lyrics or does she, like scores of self-styled calypso lovers, allow herself to be carried away by King Austin’s high-sounding phraseology?
Offered the tune by its author, a persistent rumour runs, Sparrow, a good judge of quality, turned it down. Whether or not it is true, should not the existence of the rumour give us all pause?
More than anyone else on Jacob’s list, Cro Cro and Chalkdust force us to ask the question about “timeless messages.” It’s not easy to demur when Jacob claims that “[r]ight or wrong, Cro Cro provoked important debate about the education system.” But do rumshop arguments really qualify as “important debate”?
In what fora did the song provoke debates about education rather than about race and class? It would be interesting to discover whether Jacob is of the view that Cro Cro’s 2005 sequel “Chop de hand” is also about education and is also the work of a calypsonian as “agitator.”
Frankly, Cro Cro’s defence of the Black man is at the centre of his oeuvre. Prejudices generally get translated into partiality but strong anti stances are often refined into art. But there is a certain crudeness.
Among her top ten, only Shadow’s “Bassman” has any chance of getting into my top 20!
My list comprises the 20 calypsoes I would want to have with me if, like Napoleon, I were banished to Elba. Or if, like Robinson Crusoe, I were to be shipwrecked on some island with only Woman Friday for company.
There really is no accounting for taste.
Debbie Jacob’s Top Ten List
- Wait Dorothy by Black Stalin (Leroy Calliste) – Stalin
- Corruption in Common Entrance–Cro Cro (Weston Rawlins)
- De Stickman –Zandolee (Sylvester Anthony)
- Portrait of Trinidad –Mighty Sniper (Mervyn Hodge)
- Progress –King Austin (Austin Lewis)
- Bassman –Shadow (Winston Bailey)
- Gimme More Tempo –Calypso Rose
- Dey Ent See Africa by Chalkdust (Hollis Liverpool)
- The Ganges and the Nile –David Rudder
- Get Something and Wave –Super Blue (Austin Lyons)
My Top 20 List
- Calypso Music—David Rudder
- Caribbean Man—Black Stalin
- Flag Woman—Kitchener
- Hosay—David Rudder
- Kerry Packer—Sparrow
- Life is a stage—Brother Valentino
- Maxi Dub—Bally
- The Letter—Black Prince
- Voices from the Ghetto—Singing Sandra
- Ah fraid Karl—Chalkdust
- Ah put on mih guns again—Chalkdust
- Calypso rising—GB
- Haiti I’m sorry—David Rudder
- Mr Trinidadian—Maestro
- Steelband clash—Blakie
- Sugar Bum—Kitchener
- Ten to one is murder—Sparrow
- Too much man family—Zandolie