Pitching a tent for calypso

Culture Matters

Since these locations were temporary and ceased to exist after Carnival, they were called "tents."

ROARING LION, Atilla the Hun, Lord Executor, Growling Tiger, Duke of Iron, the Mighty Destroyer. These are some of the calypsonians who dominated in the 1920s-1930s. Calypsonians had been singing about important issues since enslavement. Cariso, as it was called then, was sung primarily in Patois or Creole, the language of ordinary people.

Mighty Sparrow put it best: “I want to describe the calypsonian as the mouthpiece of the underprivileged...What he does is come out and attack anything and anyone, once he sees it is in the interest of the masses.”

The first commercial tent to open in Port of Spain was the Railway Douglas Tent. The distinction of a commercial tent is important, as there is a debate that other performance spaces existed prior to Railway such as The Chinese Junkyard. Patrons paid one penny and they were entertained in humble settings with “...a sawdust floor, flambeaux lighting and seating for ticketed patrons.”

Other tents in those early times had names like Redhead Sailor Tent, which opened in 1921, the Crystal Palace Tent located on Nelson Street in the 1930s and Victory Calypso Tent, famous in the 1940s.

The unique sound of those days came from instruments such as the banjo, trumpet and clarinet, as well as the fact that several calypsonians favoured the rather beautiful minor key. It was also around this time that the tradition of the backup singers or Jammette Chorus began.

In a few days, about 15 tents will open across TT. They will feature various styles and themes from icons to divas and modern styles of calypso.

Once again, the issue of survival of the tent is being raised, especially since with just about five weeks before Carnival, funds are yet to be disbursed to the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians’ Organisation (TUCO) or other entities.

Shirlane Hendrickson, assistant general secretary of TUCO, admits that survival is not an easy task.

One hundred years after the first tent opened, are we still clear about their purpose? Back then, the simple structures of bamboo, wood and palm leaves were gathering places for the community.

As Roaring Lion remembers, “...when the rain start to fall, if you didn’t want to get wet you had to dodge the drop of rain here and dodge the drop of rain there. We would end up laughing and talking about it. It brought people together.”

At that time, calypso was coming into its own as a musical genre. The first recording was made in 1914 and practitioners were gaining fame and recognition in the US and further afield.

The Golden Age of Calypso saw performers like Roaring Lion writing for stars like Harry Belafonte, performing in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall, New York and even singing for president Theodore Roosevelt in 1934. To earn a living, the bards travelled extensively, but the real test was always the tent on home soil.

Sadly, negative attitudes about calypso and other aspects of Carnival culture persisted. Mighty Sparrow lamented: “Calypsonians really ketch hell for a long time/ To associate yourself with them was a big crime/ And if you sister talk to a steelband man/ The family want to break she hand/ Put she out/ Lick up every teeth in she mouth...”

Today, artistes still battle hostility and, after Carnival, need to find work externally. Worse, as this year’s debate about dancehall in Carnival demonstrates, the calypso still has to justify its prime place in our festival.

Over the years, several tents have closed due to dwindling attendance, complaints over racist lyrics, lack of humour and security concerns. As such, interrogating calypso tents must go beyond finance.

Can we use the prevalence of technology and social media to promote and sustain this institution? How may we encourage young artistes to become more invested in continuing the tradition? What partnerships should be nurtured with stakeholders to make the tent experience more relevant? Is it possible to have a different kind of conversation about this music that came from the depths of our historical experience?

Perhaps the most important question must be answered first: 100 years after the first tent opened, why do we continue to open tents?

Seventy-eight years ago, Carnival was suspended because of the war – only the calypso tents remained open. Our history and that of the calypsonian are intertwined with the tent; if we value our art form, we must envision a future where both can survive.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


"Pitching a tent for calypso"

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