I’ll never forget the first calypso show I
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
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
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!
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.
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!