Debbie Jacob writes a weekly column for the Newsday
EVERY CARNIVAL I hear the same lament: calypso tents are on the decline. I have no proof one way or the other, but I have the feeling that back-in-times shows seem to be more popular than ever. They satisfy an insatiable need for nostalgia.
There are many people, it seems, who really want groovier calypsoes. There are calypso fans who want the music to slow down. They don’t want frantic tempos and endless commands to jump up. Although, if my memory serves me right, those calypsoes of 30 years ago did command us all to wine.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended Spektakula’s Back-in-Times Show — because I am in that geriatric crowd now. NAPA seemed to be bulging at the seams. The line to get in snaked around the building. I guess we were the same crowd that lined up to see Explainer, Nelson, David Rudder, Baron and Chalkdust over three decades ago.
Much to my surprise, the calypsoes from that night sounded as fresh and new as they did long ago. The crowd put me to shame. Patrons knew every calypso — back to the Sparrow and Kitch selections that Relator played on his guitar as he warmed up the crowd.
Long ago, calypsonians like Relator and Black Sage served as the opening act. Sitting on stage and singing with nothing but their guitars to accompany them, they served as pied pipers who coaxed people to take their seats. This crowd found itself seated before the show started. They weren’t going to waste a moment of this show.
Patrons didn’t merely sing every calypso. They belted out the lyrics, almost drowning out the calypsonians. They knew every song — and songs those days were packed with lyrics.
With only a couple of exceptions, young in this show meant performers now in their 70s. In this crowd, Rudder was practically a baby. He conjured up images of Rudolph Charles with a very slowed-down version of The Hammer. Of course, the crowd appreciated Trini to the Bone.
Nelson, now in his 80s, stole the show with Me Lover. Dressed from head to toe in baby blue, he wined more than any young singer ever could and the crowd could only “Ooh” and “Ahhh” and clap and laugh when he tossed off his hat, followed by his jacket. Dare I describe the reaction when he unzipped his jump suit?
Funny reminded everyone of the demise of real humour in calypso. Once a vibrant, essential part of calypso, humour has declined over the last 20 years.
If you were looking for comparative improvements in calypso, you might have noted that songs insulting women have declined over the years. I never appreciated songs that portrayed women as conniving, dumb or just plain sex objects. It is amazing in hindsight how many of such calypsoes once existed.
Strangely enough, there were no women performers that night. When I asked my daughter, Ijanaya, if I missed one woman performer somehow that night, she said, “No, there were none. Just a lot of misogynists.” But the good outweighed the bad. Timeless melodies prevailed. These days, too few songs leave us with haunting melodies. Who can forget the melody of Explainer’s Lorraine or Rudder’s Hammer?
The Soca Monarch competition tried nobly to recapture those more melodic days with its groovy calypso contest, but unfortunately a return to a slower, sweeter tempo just didn’t resonate with most younger singers. They felt compelled to inject groovy calypsoes with frantic tempos. They never seem to understand that the energy comes from the rhythm and the music — not the tempo.
What also struck me that night was how many old calypsoes told a story. There were stories of pride in who we are: Trini to the Bone and Lorraine. Baron’s voice, melodic as ever, reminded us of when being sexy was more discrete. Rudder reminded us of our history and Ronnie MacIntosh reminded patrons of the adrenalin rush going to a fete used to bring.
In those days even the fetes told stories. So, as calypso tents record less and less attendance and close down, maybe it would do aspiring singers some good to attend some back-in-times shows.
Maybe they need to propel themselves into the future by examining the past. They can ask questions: “What will my music sound like 40 years from now? Will it stand the test of time? Will people be singing their hearts out to my songs decades from now?