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The calypsonian’s licence

TREVOR SUDAMA Monday, March 20 2017

LEST I BE regarded as an inveterate philistine viscerally antagonistic to the indigenous art form of calypso, let me make it clear that I do enjoy a calypso with good lyrics, infectious rhythm and beat, enjoyable musical accompaniment and forceful delivery, which are now sadly few in number.

The vast majority of calypsoes, in my view, signify pathetic lyrics and an absence of creativity. However, I would support the calysonian’s freedom to compose, sing and disseminate his/her products provided there is some minimal observance of accepted norms of taste and restraint However, some would vehemently disagree with me and proclaim that the calypsonian is an artist and thus should be free to express himself or herself without any constraint or inhibition lest we subject the practitioner to a form of censorship.

In other words, the calypsonian is placed on a social pedestal and is deemed to have unfettered licence in free speech which is not available to the rest of us mortals.

The question therefore that must be confronted is whether calypsonians are exempt or ought to be from any societal, normative or moral constraint on their freedom of expression in the name of art and culture, such as it is.

My own position is that there are normative boundaries which ought not to be breached if artistic expression is not to be merely regarded as boorish, distasteful and offensive.

Art should also be uplifting and inspiring.

I am also of the view that all of us including calypsonians should be sensitive to the fact that we are a diverse society with legitimate differing ethnic, cultural and religious interests, traditions and perspectives, however uncomfortable it may be to some to acknowledge.

Thus far, we have managed a tolerable level of harmony and understanding which ought not to be jeopardised in the name of entertainment merely because it is fashionable in some quarters to caustically deride, ridicule and condemn what may be perceived as anachronistic beliefs and positions. Even if they are so perceived, are we justified in using the most disparaging and demeaning language of vilification? If such a prescription requires calypsonians to express themselves with a certain degree of self-censorship in the larger societal interest, then so be it.

After all, self-censorship is not alien to the vast majority of calypsonians when an Afro-Trinidadian- dominated administration is in office.

It is in this context that I refer to Chalkdust’s winning calypso at the Dimanche Gras show, Learn from Arithmetic and the award of the handsome prize money of $700,000.

Many have commented on the vulgarity incorporated in the calypso.

Ralph Maraj, himself a drama artiste, actor and playwright, stated that the calypso was “pathetic, a questionable, tasteless and tuneless rendition (which) descended into the cesspit of ugliest smut” (Express 5/3/17).

He made reference to a Newsday editorial which had concluded that Chalkdust’s calypso was “a thinly veiled personal attack…blatantly one-sided, attacking one race, one member of the Hindu community.” Dr Fuad Khan, MP for Barataria/ San Juan, is not known to be a prude, is an organiser of Carnival events, represents an ethnically diverse constituency and has demonstrated time and again his independence of thought. He has insisted that Chalkdust “must apologise to the population for his ‘vulgar and reprehensible behaviour’ both on and off stage.” He lamented that “a song describing the lubrication of a copybook with margarine for sexual depravities would secure him his ninth win in the competition” (Express 6/3/17).

One Horace Desormeaux from Maraval, in a letter to the Newsday (10/3/17) headlined “The bad and the ugly of Carnival,” would surmise that “The expressions in the winning calypso were in very bad taste and shameful.” Can we say that all the negative and condemnatory views quoted above are misguided, misinformed, misconceived and mischievous? * To be continued

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