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!

 

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Good Company, Great Food, the Best Music: A Special Sunday Afternoon in Dominica!

Lise and Hans are the owners/managers of the award-winning Champs Hotel, Restaurant & Bar in Picard Dominica.  They first opened their doors in 2008.

Lise and Hans are the owners/managers of the award-winning Champs Hotel, Restaurant & Bar in Picard Dominica. They first opened their doors in 2008.

I had looked forward to enjoying a special outing to The Champs Hotel, Restaurant and Bar in Picard (near Portsmouth) Dominica to DSCF0301partake of their monthly Sunday Live Jazz Lunch for some time.  Part of the appeal was The Champs perfect venue – set high on a hill overlooking  pretty Prince Rupert Bay with the scenic Cabrits National Park and Fort Shirley in the distance and the expansive Ross University Medical School directly below.

Morne Aux Diables is a prominent massif of almost 3000' which is north of De Champs.

Morne Aux Diables is a prominent massif of almost 3000′ which is north of De Champs and towers over the town of Portsmouth (far left).

Prince Rupert Bay and the Cabrits National Park (centre left) feature promoinently from The Champs.  Ross University Medical School Buildings and Housing in Picard are in the foreground.

Lovely Prince Rupert Bay and the Cabrits National Park (centre left)  as seen from The Champs. Ross University Medical School Buildings and Housing in Picard are in the foreground.

Michele's back-up band consists of  very fine musicians.  Her husband' Junior' is on the  front right of the photo.

Michele’s back-up band consists of  the finest  Dominican musicians. Her husband’ Junior’ Delsol (right) is on the bass guitar.

The  afternoon’s exceptional entertainment would be provided by none other than  acclaimed  singing sensation Dominican chanteuse Michele Henderson and her Band.  And of course, the food! A delectable dinner menu was being prepared by American chef Eric Subin, who has definitely  made a name for himself on Dominica.

Chef Eric Subin  concentrates while his  cheerful assistants await his instructions. preparing the delcious menu selections for De Champs' Sunday Live Jazz Lunch.

Chef Eric Subin concentrates while his cheerful assistants await his instructions as they prepare the creative menu selections for De Champs’ Sunday Live Jazz Lunch.

My Canadian friend Nancy offered to drive, so I was able to put my feet up and enjoy the seaside sights on the hour plus drive up the west coast from Roseau to Picard.  I had not been at The Champs for over a year, and I was excited to renew old acquaintances, revisit a lovely property and partake of some of the best food and music that Dominica has to offer!

When we arrived around 12:30 p.m., we were cheerily welcomed by Hans & Lise and directed to our table for two with a lush coconut palm tree-lined southerly view of the Picard area  and the sparkling Caribbean Sea beyond it.  As we sipped refreshments and perused the menu, Michele (pronounced Mi-kel) came over to say ‘hello’ and hugged me warmly.  Although she was due to start her show at 1 p.m., we had a few moments to catch up on news and have a chuckle or two.  Her spontaneous outburst of merriment was prompted when I produced a photo of her with me and Marilyn Smith as the singers in the Beau Bois Ensemble back in 2003!  We reminisced and I gave her recent greetings from Marilyn, who now lives in Canada.

The Beau Bois Ensemble in April 2003, just before Marilyn returned to Canada.  Those were the days.  We had a great time, that's for sure!

The Beau Bois Ensemble in April 2003, just before Marilyn returned to Canada. Those were the days. We had a great time, that’s for sure!

As well, I asked the Dominican singer about her latest international and local performances.  Delightedly, she informed me that she was received extremely well at the recently opened Crescendo Jazz Lounge in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia by large crowds  for three nights in a row.  In Virgin Gorda (British Virgin Islands), she and the Band headlined an event called “Jazz on the Hill’ to great reviews.  Her feature at Dominica’s annual Jazz ‘n Creole pleased the huge audience tremendously.  Then she mentioned that she would be traveling to Sydney Australia  in the near future to participate in a church event to raise funds for some social programs.  As usual, she left me nothing short of impressed and she hadn’t even started to sing yet!

All of a sudden, it was 1 p.m.: time for Michele to start the show and for Nancy and me to make our lunch selections from the detailed menu.  Our helpful server answered our questions about ingredients and dietary concerns. Nancy chose the tuna dish and I opted for a vegetarian Indian specialty.  While we waited for the meals, we listened pleasurably to Michele on flute as she warmed up the diners for the afternoon’s  entertainment.  Her superb musicality was clearly evident in a funky Chick Corea rendition that had me tapping the

Michele is an accomplished trained flautist, as well as a superb soprano vocalist.

Michele is an accomplished trained flautist, as well as a superb  and versatile soprano vocalist.

table to the beat.

Nancy delights in the visual presentation of her main course: Sesame-Seared Tuna wiht Sweet Soy Glaze, Wasabi, Jasmine Rice and Temoura Onion.  She thoroughly enjoyed it too!

Nancy delighted in the visual presentation of her main course: Sesame-Seared Tuna with Sweet Soy Glaze, Wasabi, Jasmine Rice and Tempura Onion. She thoroughly enjoyed it!

Then our lunches arrived.

I was amzed a teh generous serving of Chana Masala with Mango-Apple Salad and Jasmine Rice. I really savoured all the Indian inspired flavours!

I was amazed at the generous serving of Chana Masala with Mango-Apple Salad and Jasmine Rice. I really savoured all the Indian inspired flavours!

We gazed at them open-mouthed: yes, we were hungry and the huge plates were filled up with our appealing orders.

By now, the room was packed.  Large contingents of faculty and students from Ross University Medical School were seated at long tables. Other Dominicans and expatriates filled all the remaining available space.  I was thankful that I had made a reservation, as I could see that late-comers could be disappointed or at least have to wait for a while to eat!

Lise and Hans take a little break while the rest of us take to the dance floor.  Sarah (centre) is a well-known restauranteur and food services consultant.

Hosts Lise and Hans took a little break while the rest of us took to the dance floor. Sarah (centre) is a well-known local restauranteur and food services consultant.

Michele doesn't just sing a song: she puts her heart and soul into it too!

Michele doesn’t just sing a song: she puts her heart and soul into it too!

We tried our best to finish everything on our plates.  I felt badly about leaving a bit – but I had already enjoyed some smooth and mildly piquant hummus with pita bread as an appetizer, for which Chef Eric is famous.  And there was no way I was going to pass up dessert.  While we let our dinners digest, we leaned back in our chairs to take in the mellow sounds emanating from the front of the room.  I was touched that Michele publicly acknowledged me from our earlier singing days. Then she belted out many well-known classical and contemporary jazz and jazzed-up favourites:  ‘Favourite Things’ (Sound of Music); ‘Livin’ my Life Like It’s Golden’; ‘Give Me One Reason to Stay Here’;’The Beat Goes On’ (her own composition at my request!); some popular reggae  tunes and many more over two enjoyable hours.

Michele's brilliant and expressive voice always please her audiences, whether she performs in a small room, a large stadium or on a concert stage! her husband Junior is on the bass guitar.

Michele’s brilliant and expressive voice always pleases her audiences, whether she performs in a small intimate room, a large outdoor stadium or on an international concert stage! Her husband Junior Delsol is on the bass guitar.

After that substantial meal, I knew what I wanted  to satisfy my sweet tooth with only the slightest glance at the menu.  I have previously tasted Chef Eric’s chocolate concoctions elsewhere so it is no surprise that the ‘dark chocolate cake’ was my choice.  It was only one mouthful before I exclaimed to Nancy that it was the BEST CAKE EVER!  It’s a good thing that I live a distance from Portsmouth or I might be found sneaking daily into the kitchen to ask for possible leftover slices!

However, I did savour it slowly, and endeavored to work off a few calories by hitting the dance floor with some of the ladies from Ross University. Wow!  Can they move it!  I also met

After my divine dessert (Dark Chocolate Almond Truffle Tart with Coconut-Cashew Crust), I had to work it off to the cool beats of Michele and her Band!

After my divine dessert (Dark Chocolate Almond Truffle Tart with Coconut-Cashew Crust), I had to work it off to the cool beats of Michele and her Band! Orla has her back to camera.  She was definitely groovin’ to the tunes!

up with Orla, a faculty member who had me laughing and singing on the trails during Hike Fest.  It was great to see her again – although at first we didn’t recognize each other without t-shirts, caps and boots!

Just after 3 p.m., the music wound down and we reluctantly dragged ourselves off of the dance floor.  I still had some cake to finish and then it was time to go!

It is such a pleasure and honour to know Michele Henderson. It's also a thrill to watch her career grow locally, regionally and internationally.  I wish her continued and endless success!

It is such a pleasure and honour to know Michele Henderson. It’s also a thrill to watch her career grow locally, regionally and internationally. I wish her continued and endless success!

It was such a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Chef Eric’s culinary creations, Michele’s magical musicianship, the warm hospitality of Hans and Lise and the fantastic atmosphere at The Champs  guarantee that I will return for Sunday Live Jazz Lunch again very soon!