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: Sunday Night at ‘The Festival’ 2013*

Gwendominica is thrilled to hear Carimi (a Haitian Compas Band) warm-up before the start of the SUnday night show at the 17th annual WCMF.  Photo taken by Kim.

Gwendominica is thrilled to hear Carimi (a Haitian Compas Band) warm-up before the start of the Sunday night show at the 17th annual WCMF. Photo taken by Kim.

What I really like about the Sunday night edition of recent World Creole Music Festivals (WCMF) is the earlier start time!  As I am not

really a late night person, I appreciated  the opportunity to arrive in daylight at the  Windsor Park Sports Stadium, the venue of the event.  And my efforts were duly rewarded!  As I walked through the gates, I was thrilled to hear the fabulous sounds of Carimi, a Haitian-American band that specializes in the Creole compas (kompa in Haitian dialect) beat.  I  love their music.  Whenever I listen to this fantastic group, I just have to move my feet!  They were actually performing their sound check, as they were scheduled to appear later ( wee hours of the morning!) and I had not planned to turn into a pumpkin on this night.  While I have had the pleasure to see them at earlier WCMF’s, my spirits soared to experience a  little taste of their unique sound once again. Although they were the last act  on this third night of the 17th WCMF, thousands  did stay on site to take them into their hearts before they headed off to work  on Monday morning! And if you’ve never had the pleasure – check out their latest album Invasion.”  It recently reached the number 2 spot on Billboard’s Best Selling World Music Album’s Chart (November 2013). I can’t wait to get it!

The Carimi keyboardist knows how to blend the most beautiful arminies.

The Carimi keyboardist knows how to blend the most beautiful compas harmonies.

The Carimi guitarist  makes some magnificent 'licks'.

The Carimi guitarist offers up  some magnificent Creole ‘licks’.

While I waited for the programme to begin, I chatted with a few media and musician friends backstage.  We excitedly awaited another superb evening of the finest Creole music anywhere on earth.

I feel very strongly about supporting young emerging musical talent on the Nature Island.  It was a real delight to see and hear these young people, referred to as ‘Rising Stars’ perform on the ‘big stage’ and  literally sing their hearts out.  While the night was still early, and people were slowly sauntering in to the stadium, I was able to remain front and centre in the photographer’s ‘pit’ for some time.  The singer who really

Rachel Jno Baptiste is a 'Rsing Star' who relly sparkled at the WCMF.  You go, girl!

Rachel Jno Baptiste is a ‘Rising Star’ who really sparkled at the WCMF. You go, girl!

caught my attention was a 2012 talent search winner with whom I was already familiar: Rachel  Jno Baptiste.  I have watched and heard her for a several years and I was very impressed with her presentation at the WCMF.  She has a lovely, rich, powerful voice and intuitively knows how to grasp the attention of her audience.  She also appeared very much at ease (while I can well imagine how stressful it may have been!) and expressively ‘communicated’ the message in each song to the crowd.  She certainly got  resounding applause for her efforts!

There were other ‘Rising Stars’ who clearly put everything they could into their performances and I applaud them for their efforts.  I also encourage them to work very hard at perfecting their craft as emerging

Miss Dominica 2013, Leslassa Armour-Shillingford poses with 'rising stars' Rachel Jno Baptiste,   Leona Peters   and Davin Labad.

From left, Miss Dominica 2013, Leslassa Armour-Shillingford poses with ‘Rising Stars’ Rachel Jno Baptiste, Leona Peters and Davin Labad.

Mel-C is a young lady who is definitely making a name for herself as she has been performing at various venues and events around Dominica.

Mel-C is a young lady who is definitely making a name for herself as she has been constantly performing at various  events around Dominica.

artistes.

The Soufriere Street Swag Dancers sported pretty costumes and danced divinely after the "rising stars' had finished their set.

The Soufriere Street Swag Dancers sported pretty costumes and danced divinely after the “Rising Stars’ had finished their set.

The musicians in Tito Puente Jr.'s band are top notch and put on a perfect show.

The musicians in Tito Puente Jr.’s band are top notch and put on a perfect show.

Tito Puente really captivated the crowd with his Afro-Cuban Latin rhythms.

Tito Puente Jr. really captivated the crowd with his Afro-Cuban Latin rhythms.

Then came the highlight of my night – and it wasn’t Creole music in the true sense, “but in a kind of a way” – as NYC Latin music sensation Tito Puente Jr. might say. This vibrant, energetic, charismatic, seasoned performer graced the stage at the WCMF and truly carried on his father’s legacy as a Latin music legend.  I didn’t stay in the photographers’ pit too long – it was now filled.  I took some quick ‘pics’ and headed out into the crowd to practise a few long-forgotten dance steps – merengue, cha-cha, samba and rumba, to name a few. (Sorry – I don’t do mambo  or salsa – yet!). As Mr. Puente Jr. told the media after his performance, his music is largely Afro-Cuban in origin, hence the Creole connection!  What a fabulous show.  If any Latin music enthusiasts happen to be around NYC, then you’ve just got to check him out (or go see him wherever in the world he has a gig)!

Calypsonian Daddy Chess and Stars back-up singer Phillip Horsford wow the crowd with old favourites.

Calypsonians Tasha P, Daddy Chess and longtime  Swinging Stars singer Phillip Horsford wow the crowd with old favourites.

A little drizzle didn't stop people from jammin' to the beat of Swingin Stars at theri best.

A little drizzle didn’t stop people from jammin’ to the beat of Swingin’ Stars at their best.

I have been a loyal fan of the Swingin(g) Stars since I first arrived on the Nature Isle.  Back then, they played on some Sundays at Springfield Guest House.  Those were the sweetest afternoons and I have fond memories of those jams.  This versatile band truly knows how to entertain a crowd – and they should – they’ve been around for more than 50 years! On this night, they were focusing on outstanding calypso greats of the past 35 years. After a little soca, bouyon and other Creole favourites, lead singers Chester (Daddy Chess) Letang, Tasha (Tasha P) Peltier and long-time singer Phillip Horsford had all the Dominicans in the house tripping down memory lane as they served up the best of oldie-goldie Carnival road march calypsos from years gone by, as well as a few more recent tunes.  Other renowned calypsonians, Daryl (De Bobb) Bobb ,

Daryl Bobb (De Bobb)  is a longstanding calypsonian who sings about social issues with a passion.

Daryl Bobb (De Bobb) is a veteran  calypsonian who sings about social issues with a passion.

Derek (De Hunter) St. Rose  and reigning Monarch Dennison (Dice) Joseph followed them with some well-known renditions.Then it was time for me to go!

Yes, I know – Kassav  from Martinique was on next and the Haitian band Carimi  would close the 2013 show – and I was thankful that I had heard their great Creole music at other WCMF’s.

The WCMF 2013 banner intermittently flashed on the big screen throughout the three nights of pulsating rhythms.

The WCMF 2013 banner intermittently flashed on the big screen throughout the three nights of pulsating rhythms.

Was I crazy to leave then – or what?  Probably – but my mission to hear and support Dominican Creole and Calypso music was accomplished. I left the stadium with a smile, knowing that I’d hear lots more Calypso very soon – as Carnival 2014 was just around the corner!

*Many thanks again to the Dominica Festivals Committee for providing me with a media pass and access to the photographers’ ‘pit’.  Much appreciation is extended to Event Director Natalie Clarke for reviewing this piece before publication.