Caught Up in Calypso: A Dominican Passion*

By the time Carnival season has rolled around after Christmas each year,  thousands of Dominicans will have succumbed to calypso fever!  During my first few years on the Nature Isle, I tried to resist this unfamiliar form of song and rhythm.  But when I really started to pay attention to the lyrics and appreciate the Afro-Latin beat, I was hooked!  So what’s the attraction? Let me give you some background on this popular seasonal obsession.

In 2011, ‘Tasha P’ Peltier became the first woman to win the Calypso Monarch crown in over 50 years of competitions. She is the reigning Calypso Queen (2011 + 2012) and recently placed first runner-up in two regional shows. While she lost the coveted Monarch crown to ‘Dice’ this year, this talented young lady will no doubt be a strong contender again next year.

Calypso music has roots in island folk music, but was strongly influenced by Latin American rhythms when it first gained prominence in Trinidad.  By the late 1950’s, calypso  shows and songs became an enduring part of Carnival festivities in Dominica.  Every year, talented songwriters, calypso singers and instrumental musicians create a new crop of lyrics and melodies which always seem to appeal to their large audiences.  Historically,  calypso songs have provided opportunities to address societal problems and speak out against oppression. A common focus of the text of the songs  draws attention to specific current events so that the public is better informed and can perhaps do something to improve certain circumstances.  As well, some calypso songs focus on celebratory situations.

Apart from the catchy beat and  an often memorable musical  refrain, the lengthy lyrics are cleverly constructed  with puns, doubleentendres, satire, irony and parody.  An English teacher’s dream!  But one doesn’t have to be a literary expert who can name the technical terms to “get the message” relayed by the Calypsonian.  This form of music seems to bring everyone together – regardless of political stripe or religious persuasion.  Calypso fever is infectious!

People in Dominica truly love their calypso.  Between January and Lent, there is no escaping it!  The songs are heard everywhere – on radio stations,  in shops and restaurants, on the buses, along crowded streets. You might even find a tour guide humming one of the tunes along a mountain trail!  And not only that,  constant commentaries and conversations  appear to focus on this one thing!  So if you’re a little shy, but you have an opinion about a calypso song, then you’ll have plenty of opportunities to share your views!  Everyone has something to say when it comes to calypso.

As for live performances, there are usually at least two informal shows each week in the season, called “Tents” or “Camps.”  At these venues,  performers can perfect their songs and please their loyal fans as they try for a place in the formal competition, which includes general eliminations, quarter and  semi-finals and then the grande finale. At the Calypso Monarch Final, nine competitors  vie  to take the crown away from the previous year’s winner.  This event draws thousands of excited fans and takes place on  the Saturday night that precedes Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

2012 Calypso Monarch Dennison ‘Dice’ Joseph is the youngest person to have won the crown five times. He really knows how to wow a crowd, whether on the stage or during the Costume Parade in Roseau.

In this year’s (2012) bid for the crown at the Final, Dennison ‘Dice’ Joseph emerged victorious for the fifth time in his young career.  His two songs, written by prolific lyricist Pat Aaron, pleased the crowd tremendously. People were also captivated by Dice’s sensational stage presentations. His first calypso, entitled ‘Teacher” honoured these dedicated professionals with the respect they are due, despite less than ideal working conditions and low  salaries.  His  other piece, called “Back to Country” dealt with a perceived loss of patriotism by many citizens and a plea for its reinstatement.

Calypsonian Murphy ‘Sye’ Jno Jules is the 2012 Road March King. His popular song entitled “Just Burn” earned him this award as it was played during the Carnival Monday and Tuesday street jump-ups more than any other number. He was also a Calypso Monarch finalist. Photo taken at a Showdown Mas Camp.

There were so many fine performances over the entire season – from both novices and seasoned artists.    I was truly entertained and instructed time and again.

Above all, calypso songs give me greater insight into both  the societal  issues and subjects to celebrate  in my adopted land.  This unique performance art helps me to understand Dominica and its people on a deeper level.   I may be inspired to write a calypso song too!

For more information, refer to the website of the Dominica Calypso Association.  There, you will find out  more about this type of performance art, its local history, profiles of calypsonians past and present and even some of the songs!

*This post was originally written in 2012.

One comment on “Caught Up in Calypso: A Dominican Passion*

  1. Karen says:

    Isn’t that Observer, not Sye? Love the piece. Love Calypso.


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