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!

 

Under the Spell: Carnival Magic in Dominica

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Carnival Queen 2015, Odessa Elie and Calypso Monarch 2015, Gregory ‘Karessah’ Riviere warmly greeted spectators while their float guided the 2016  Opening Parade along the streets of Roseau Dominica.

When the Carnival Dream berthed at the Roseau Cruise Ship Pier on the same

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The Carnival Dream arrived in Dominica on the same day as Dominica’s dreamy Opening Parade!

day as the Opening Parade of Mas Domnik 2016, I felt that it had to be a magical coincidence.

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What’s going on?  This band of ‘Darkies’ wanted everyone to know that it is Carnival time on the Nature Isle!

I arrived at the start of the parade route near the Fort Young Hotel on Victoria Street just before the 3 p.m. start time.  The bands, that is, specific groups of participants were assembling and warming up for this celebratory afternoon.  It would be the first major event on Dominica since the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika in August 2015.  While the country continues to recover and rebuild, I noticed that this much-anticipated Carnival  event brought joy to the faces of the revellers and spectators that afternoon.

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This pretty Carnival Princess contestant  welcomed everyone as she processed in her float along the parade route.

Although the parade started a little late, it was well worth the wait.  To see the smiles of delight on the streets after several stressful months lifted my spirits and brought tears of happiness to my eyes.

Of course, there were hundreds of cruise ship passengers viewing the spectacle too.  I spoke to a few of them and they were completely in awe of the creativity and colour that surrounded them on this beautiful day in paradise.

Traditionally, the Opening Parade gives everyone a taste of what will come over the next few weeks, culminating in two days of street jump-ups on Monday February 8th and Tuesday February 9th this year.  Those particular days precede Ash Wednesday and the commencement of Lent.  You can read more about the origins of Dominica’s Carnival in an earlier post right here.

Beauty pageants, along with calypso song competitions form a big part of the Carnival activities.  All of the Queen, Teen and Princess contestants looked lovely and sported their sweetest smiles in anticipation of winning their ‘crown’.

Here is a peek at some, but not all of the lovely ladies and girls who made their presence known on that beautiful Saturday afternoon in Roseau:

 

From top left: Carnival Princess 2015 Lytleen Julien; Supporters of their  Convent High School Teen Pageant Contestant; Teen Pageant Contestant from Convent High School

From bottom left: Contestant in the Dominica State College Jambouree; Miss Dominica Contestant Nawana Shillingford; Miss Dominica Contestant Tasia Floissac

All of the young ladies sparkled and shimmered in their finery.  I succumbed to the magic of their Carnival charms as if I were walking around  in a fairyland!

But there was much more than beauty on the streets of Roseau that dreamy, steamy afternoon in the nation’s capital.  After the procession of pageant contestants, plentiful beasts emerged en masse, creating an extreme juxtaposition with the earlier serene scene. The prolific masqueraders clearly portrayed what ‘playing mas’ is all about!

Scary  bestial Sensays in horns and masks, the fiersome and feared ‘Bann Mauvé’  with their wizard-like hats from the village of Colihaut, frightening ‘darkies’ covered in black, cracking whips all added to the sinister side of Carnival magic.  Some of them did actually try to scare me as I boldly stepped on to the street to capture them with my camera.  However, I did not succumb to fear for one good reason: despite their attire, they all appeared to be having a fantastic time.  I could only smile and laugh along with them.  What better Carnival dream than that!

Here is a glimpse at what they looked like ‘pon de road‘:

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Then the Carnival dream changed direction again, and I found myself admiring a large band of little boys pushing their cleverly constructed home-made toy trucks, called

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Young boys proudly push their  creative kabouways in the Carnival 2016 Opening Parade.

kabouways. This longstanding Dominican tradition has recently regained prominence, and the craft is a tremendous source of pride – especially for fathers and sons who make them together.

And little girls demonstrated their rhythmic and athletic prowess in coordinated movements, despite the soaring temperature, as renowned ‘Flag Wavers’.DSCF6517

DSCF6451I also admired an ornately-dressed band of Kalinago people from the northeastern village of Sineku.  Their pride of traditions was clearly evident and they too, were clearly enjoying themselves.

After an hour and a half, the late afternoon sun began to cast long shadows, as well as an intense glare on the road. The magical dream switched again and this time gorgeous revellers and other vibrant characters, suggestive of the bacchanal appeared on the street, captivating onlookers with their flamboyant costumes, like this:

This Carnival fantasy just didn’t seem to end.  But I began to return to reality with the pounding beat of the traditional lapo kabwit (goat-skin drum) bands.  Sweat poured from their brows as they marched along the parade route.  But there was no stopping them: the rhythm of the magical Carnival season is in their blood!

 

There were reality checks too:  The Police Band posted this sobering suggestion on the front of their Carnival truck:DSCF6489

As I awakened from my personal revelry, I realized that I did not see the ever-popular stilt-walkers (Bwa Bwa), as they must have entered the parade further along the route.  I’ll be sure to include them in my next Carnival dream!

Once again, I had fallen under the spell of Carnival magic in Dominica.  I suspect the potion should last until Ash Wednesday.  Be assured that I’ll let you know about other reveleries I experience during Mas Domnik 2016!