Dominica’s Calypso Fever: It’s Contagious!

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Showdown Mas Camp is one of two popular weekly ‘tents’, where enthusiastic audiences watch and hear member calypsonians in the run up to the formal competitions during the Carnival season in Dominica.

I’ll never forget the first calypso show I

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King Dice did it again!  He won the 2016 Calypso Monarch competition last night – that’s his 8th crown! (Photo taken in 2012).

attended in Dominica. It was Carnival season 1998 and I walked in to the Stardom Monarch of the Tent competition at the Sisserou Hotel with a young Dominican lady that I had only recently met.  The place was packed – with hardly a space to move, but somehow this attractive young woman was able to charm bystanders so that we could step in front of them to stand directly below the stage.  I looked up at a handsome man, known in calypso circles as ‘De Hunter’ who was dressed in traditional Kalinago attire.  He was singing a composition called  ‘Carib Bacchanal‘.  I was so caught up in the  powerful refrain, the throbbing beat and the sweet repetitive melody that I instantly fell in love with this special genre of music. And that year, ‘Hunter’ went on the win the big Carnival Calypso Monarch  competition with that enduring song.

Since then, I don’t attend as many shows as I once did:  too many late nights for me in the damp, chilly air (relatively speaking) that prevails in January and February.  But that doesn’t stop me from continuing with my deep affection for this art form.  I listen to all the songs each year, the detailed professional commentaries and  also contribute to lively discussions with friends and strangers alike.

So, what makes calypso so ‘hot’ on the Nature Island?  “Let me tell you something…” to use a Dominican expression.  It’s true, it didn’t originate on the Nature Isle.  That honour belongs to Trinidad, where Carnival, in which calypso plays a huge part, is a  VERY big deal. But that being said, Dominica’s brand is not to be underestimated. Part of the fun is the intimacy of the performances, the familiarity of the political and social issues and the overall popularity of the songs amongst a small population that gives tremendous support to its calypsonians.

The concept of calypso evolved from a fusion of West African and Latin rhythms, with the idea of a lead singer with crowd responses about social injustices during the periods of slavery and colonialism.  A more detailed description of its background can be found on the web site of local historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch, right here. In Dominica, calypso competitions became formalized in the 1950’s, where one singer discreetly performed/presented a certain social or political issue to a listening audience. More details are available in a previous piece on Ti Domnik Tales right here.

The Dominica Calypso Association is a formal organization that ensures that standards

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Daryl “De Bobb” Bobb is a gifted and  longstanding calypsonian who also writes his own lyrics.  He placed second runner up in the Calypso Monarch 2016 competition.

are met in terms of the art form and the calysonians’ performances.  If you think that writing a calypso or performing it is just a simple matter of venting one’s concerns in any old way, then think again!  Specific guidelines exist that outline the way in which this genre of song must be written, composed and performed. A detailed breakdown of the components required in a calypso song can be found  here on the avirtualdominica.com web site.  Lyricists must cleverly disguise the outstanding theme in the literary guise of double-entendres, puns, metaphors, similes, and parodies, with plenty of satire, allusions and sometimes parables.  The point is that the message is not supposed to be glaringly obvious, but it can be deciphered by the listeners as a result of the careful crafting of the composition: the obvious subject often alludes to an entirely different matter.

When I taught students  English Literature at Orion Academy, I derived tremendous pleasure from using examples of literary devices from the calypso songs of the day to illustrate their meaning and usage.  The kids really enjoyed it too.  On one occasion, we were graced with the presence of prolific veteran calypso songwriter Pat Aaron, who writes exclusively for 8-time (2016) Calypso Monarch Dennison ‘Dice’ Joseph.  He had written lyrics for a calypso entitled ‘Animal Farm’, which was performed by ‘Dice’.  It was based on themes presented in the allegorical novel, ‘Animal Farm‘ by George Orwell, which I was teaching to second formers at that time.  He carefully explained to the class  about his methods for incorporating some of the ideas from the novel into the calypso song, making it relevant to various political, social and topical issues of the day in

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Tasha ‘Tasha P’ Peltier was the first woman to ever win the Calypso Monarch Competition in 2011.

Dominica.

There is one caveat, however.  If one is not familiar with the issues of the day in Dominica, then it is more difficult to interpret the message that is being relayed by the calypsonian.  I found this out in my early days here. Apart from being entertained by the spectacle of the staged show, and being caught up in the excitement of the crowd, I often did not understand the disguised message in the songs.  But after almost 20 years on the Nature Isle, I can assure you that I am well versed in the issues of the day, as I follow current events very closely and frequently discuss them with my Dominican friends!

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Janae Jackson is a very talented 17 year old girl who went all the way to the Calypso Finals this year.  While she did not place, she did win the Calypso Queen 2016 award. She is definitely one to watch!

So last night was THE big night for the Calypso Finals.  This enormously popular show is traditionally held on the Saturday before Carnival Monday. While I didn’t attend this year, I was able to listen to part of the show on the radio. But it went well into the early morning hours, and I fell asleep before it was over. When I woke up sometime later, I immediately went to my computer to find out the results.

Calypso fever finally spiked and King Dice did it again – the eighth time in fact! He’s now tied with Trinidad’s  ‘Mighty Sparrow‘, renowned all over the world – who previously captured the crown in his country that many times.  Congratulations to ‘Dice’ for a superb performance and to his songwriter, Pat Aaron, who has an uncanny gift for creating the best in calypso lyrics.  What a team!

I am also delighted for Webster ‘De Webb’ Marie, who was awarded the first runner up position.  I have had the pleasure of singing with this young man in the RiverSong choir many years ago.  He has a wonderful tenor voice and is a natural on stage.  He was a longstanding member of the well-known Sisserou Singers and was the first winner of Dominca’s annual Cadence-lypso competition in 2012.

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I have to update my photo with King Dice, now 8-times a Calypso Monarch.  Wendy Walsh took this photo of me with the talented calypsonian a couple of Carnival Mondays ago.

Now that this year’s calypso fever has broken, I’ll prepare myself for tomorrow’s early morning J’ouvert and all the fun that follows in the next two days (Carnival Monday and Tuesday).  I’ll be on the lookout for the amazing Calypsonians on the Carnival route and will certainly offer my heartfelt congratulations for keeping Calypso music very ‘HOT’ in Dominica!

 

Capturing Dominica’s Creole Spirit: Saturday Morning at the Market precedes a Fabulous Night at ‘The Festival’!*

The stage is dark in anticipation of the start of the Saturday Night edition of Dominica's World Creole Music Festival 2013.

The stage is set for the start of the Saturday Night edition of Dominica’s 17th annual World Creole Music Festival 2013. Digicel, a telecommunications company was the headline sponsor.

On the morning of Saturday October 26th, I slept in a little later than usual.  There were two important items on my agenda that day: 1. go to the Roseau  where a Creole ‘Market Day with a Difference’ was being celebrated; and then later, 2. THE BIG EVENT: attend part of the second night of the 17th annual WORLD CREOLE MUSIC FESTIVAL (WCMF)!

It’s true that I am a faithful market supporter:  I always purchase organic produce from Karen and Roy at Roots Farm

and then I buy other locally grown products from my favourite

Dominica's Prime Minister, the Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit graciously consented to having his picture taken at the Roseau Market Day with a Difference.

Dominica’s Prime Minister, the Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit kindly consented to having his picture taken at the Roseau Market Day with a Difference.

vendors.

These drummers added to the Creole feel at the Roseau Market Day with a Difference.

These drummers added to the Creole feel at the Roseau Market Day with a Difference. The flag of Dominica is behind them.

There was definitely a festive feel in the bustling market place that Saturday. Creole-African-style drummers entertained the shoppers and dignitaries casually moved around the  decorated stalls greeting both the buyers and the sellers.  I have always been impressed with the warmth and friendliness of people in Dominica, and this day was no different.

His Lordship Gabriel Malzaire, Bishop of the Diocese of Roseau stopped to have a friendly chat wit me for a few moments

His Lordship Gabriel Malzaire, Bishop of the Diocese of Roseau paused to have a friendly chat with me in his Creole madras attire.

My  pleasant encounters  with my favourite friendly vendors, as well as the gracious dignitaries were wonderful warm-ups to the exciting performances I would experience that evening.

After a quiet afternoon, I headed to Roseau in advance of the 8:30 p.m. start time to familiarize with stage area in the Windsor Park Sports Stadium and receive any last-minute instructions from the Media Coordinator of the WCMF, Ayodele Andrew. It was fortunate that I arrived when things were still relatively quiet, as she noticed that my Press Pass did not have access to the photographers’ ‘pit’ below the front of the stage. She knew that I would need photos for this blog, so Ayodele immediately took me over to the security guard in that section to introduce me so that I could enter the ‘pit’ when it was not overcrowded with professional photographers.  I remain extremely grateful for her help, as I was able to capture some poses of the performers that I will always cherish.  I will be sharing some of them with you here.

“Gwen, you are always here every year!” exclaimed Tim, a Canadian-Dominican videographer with Link InternationalProductions who was working backstage. Some of you who are familiar with the WCMF will be wondering why I have not mentioned the Friday night show.I explained to Tim that  as an advanced member of the ’50+ club’, I decided that it would be prudent to choose activities and events that were of very  special interest to me.  This year, I wished to watch the performances of young Dominican  ‘rising stars’ and see Fitzroy Williams, this year’s WCMF Icon in action.  Of course, I wanted to take in plenty of  authentic Creole music and a bit of ‘Latin’ too!  More about that in the Sunday night review, to follow this one.  I understand that the Friday night show was fabulous.  You can check out some great pics by clicking Images Dominica, professional photographers and friends of mine!

The Signal Band is a young band whose energy is infectious.  here, lead singers Sheldon Alfred and Darvin Labad heat up the house with hot Bouyon, a Dominican styel of Creole music.

The Signal Band is a young group whose energy is infectious. Here, lead singers Sheldon Alfred and Darvin Labad heat up the house with hot Bouyon, a Dominican style  of Creole music.

After opening announcements and Dominica’s national anthem, the Signal Band, an up-and-coming group with a taste for the bouyon beat got the show on the road.  The crowd was constantly drifting into the stadium and many excited patrons made their way to the area closest to the stage to take in the energy emanating from these young men.

I positioned myself front and centre of the stage in the photographers’ pit, as there was still enough room for those assembled to

The drummers of the Karina Cultural Group created strong rhythms to complement the tribal dance by the women.

The male drummers of the Karina Cultural Group created strong rhythms to complement the tribal dance by the women.

move around.  I am glad I remained in my spot, because I was completely enthralled with the drumming and dancing of the Karina Cultural Group.  These indigenous Kalinago people completely captivated me with their traditional presentation.  I admired the focus and discipline of preserving their ancient tribal  dances.  I reminded myself to revisit Kalinago Barana Aute (Carib Model Village by the Sea) very soon to re-acquaint with their culture and traditions.

The powerful determined movements of the Kalinago women held my DSCF0918fascination for their entire performance:

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By now, more media people were in the pit, so I moved out to give the professionals some  more space.  I wandered outside the stadium area and was amazed to observe a

The Africulture stiltwalkers amazed everyone with their sensay-like costumes and amazing balance as they 'hung out' in the Fodd Court area.

The Africulture stilt walkers amazed everyone with their  traditional sensay and Creole costumes and amazing balance as they ‘hung out’ in the Food Court area.

carnival-like atmosphere as the Africulture Stiltwalkers and the Gutter Village Lapo-Kabwit (goat-skin drummers) band were moving around the Food Court.  This reminded me that Carnival season was not so far away! In Dominica, there is always something to celebrate…

I could hear that the next artiste had started to sing so I threaded my way through the thousands of enthusiastic people were ready to take in a little (or a lot!) of Zouk. This particular type of Creole music originated in the French West Indies and its development  is largely credited to Kassav, a band that would be performing late on Sunday evening (I mean, early  Monday morning!)  Like other Creole genres, it is a fusion of various styles, such as compas, but with lots of percussion that gives it such as jumpy beat.  There were hundreds of French Antilleans in “the house” and I can assure you that they were in seventh heaven, along with their Dominican brothers and sisters when the

The Zouk All-Stars , Alex Alexis, Jean-Marc Ferdinand, Lucile Kancel and Patrice Hulman held the huge crowd in their hands.

The Zouk All-Stars , Alex Alexis, Jean-Marc Ferdinand, Lucile Kancel and Patrice Hulman held the huge crowd in their hands.

Zouk All-Stars entertained them with plenty of old-favourites.

Patrice Hulman,m one of the Zouk All-Stars was obviously adored by hundreds of fans in the Stadium.

Patrice Hulman,one of the Zouk All-Stars was adored by hundreds of fans in the Stadium.

The crowd roared with pleasure when they paid tribute to  a late-great Zouk musician, Patrick St. Eloi and then honoured  deceased Dominican Music Icon, Jeff-Jo.

It was timely that one of Jeff Jo’s longtime colleagues and friends was also receiving a big tribute on this particular night.  Fitzroy Williams, who also happened to be celebrating his birthday was acknowledged by government officials and the  thousands of supporters in the Stadium as this year’s WCMF Icon.  He is credited with helping to create the cadence-lypso style of Creole music and for promoting it by playing it with various bands, including the famous Exile One all over the world for more than 45 years!

Then keyboardist and composer  Fitzroy treated us with a huge serving of the music for which is known best everywhere. With back-up from the Cadence All Stars (comprised of members of the popular Fanatik Band) and some other “friends”, the audience reveled, reminisced and regarded the stage with rapt attention.

Fitzroy is an incredible compooser and creator of cadence and cadense-lypso music.

Fitzroy is an incredible composer and creator of cadence and cadence-lypso music.

It was fun to get a close-up of Fitzroy focussing on the keyboards, which was blown up on the big screen at the back of the stage.

It was fun to get this close-up of Fitzroy focussing on the keyboards, which was blown up on the big screen at the back of the stage.

it's easy to tell that Fitzroy lives and breathes his music and that he enjoys sharing it with his devoted fans.

It’s easy to tell that Fitzroy lives and breathes his music and that he enjoys sharing it with his devoted fans.  He is keen on helping young musicians too.

Along came King Dice, Dominca's 6 time Calypso Monarch.  Here he switches gears and performs a Fitzroy cadence creation, in Creole no less!

Along came King Dice, Dominica’s 6- time Calypso Monarch. Here, he switches gears and performs a Fitzroy cadence-lypso creation, in Creole no less!

Flamboyant and highly entertaining Elisha Benoit wowed the crowd with some pof his own well known compositions such as Hosse'y'(in Creole of course!).

Flamboyant and highly entertaining Elisha Benoit wowed the crowd with some of his own well-known compositions such as Hosse’y'(in Creole of course!).

Again, I was lucky to be right in front of all the action and I truly loved this huge portion of Dominican music offered by a mix of the Nature Island’s finest artistes.

The crowd grew to immense proportions as the night   went on.  The real revelers were right at the front!

The crowd grew to immense proportions as the night went on. The real revelers were right at the front! (as seen from the Photographers’ Pit)

Fitzroy smiles as he shares the stage with Carlyn Xavier-Phillip 's powerful cadence renditions. She is lead singer of the highly regarded Fanatik band.

Fitzroy smiles as he shares the stage with Carlyn Xavier-Phillip ‘s powerful cadence renditions. She is lead singer of the highly regarded Fanatik band.

Cornell 'Fingers' Phillip is a prominent Dominican musician, to whom Fitzroy paid tribute.  He is a  renowned composer, arranger and brilliant keyboardist  who has assisted many other musicians on the Nature Island.

Cornell ‘Fingers’ Phillip, creator of Fanatik band, is a prominent Dominican musician  to whom Fitzroy personally and publicly paid tribute. He is a renowned composer, arranger and brilliant keyboardist who has assisted many other musicians on the Nature Island.

By the time Fitzroy and his colleagues had completed their sensational set, it was after 2 a.m.  Time for Gwendominica to get a little rest – as Sunday night promised to be as memorable as  the music I had experienced here.  As I slowly walked out of the Stadium, I had to dodge through a huge mass of humanity.  The Nigerian group Bracket was on the stage and there was no doubt that they were a great hit.  I was pleased to part with their African-inspired rhythms in my head as I headed off to bed – much earlier than the rest!

*Many thanks to the Dominica Festivals Committee for their support and assistance! Special gratitude is extended to Event Director Natalie Clark for reviewing the draft of this post.  Good vibes!

** For more information about other bands and artistes  who performed over the three nights, please consult the World Creole Music Festival 2013 website here.

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.