CALYPSO historian and ethnomusicologist Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool describes Theophilus “Spoiler” Philip as the epitome of humour.”
Humorous calypsoes existed before Spoiler, but Spoiler is credited with making it part of the calypso tent when picong and calypso wars served as the most common form of humour.
Spoiler entered calypso in 1946 and he could hold his own with the two most popular calypsonians of the era, Killer and Kitchener. His peculiar sense of humour, and tag line of “Ah wanna fall” defined Spoiler. His humour still serves as the standard for humorous calypso. Gordon Rohlehr described Spoiler as “a genius of the absurd with the wry irony and the most fascinating wit possible.” Rohlehr says, “Spoiler explored the boundaries between sense and nonsense.”
“Spoiler was a storyteller with a sense of absurdity,” says pan historian Kim Johnson.
Spoiler, a former railway porter, sang at the House of Lords Tent in 1946. He won a calypso crown in 1948 with Royal Wedding and another crown in 1953 with Bed Bug, which presents an interesting case for reincarnation as a bedbug with all the hilarious opportunities that could bring if the bedbug was in bed with a lady.
In 1955 Spoiler offered Picking Sense Out of Nonsense and won another calypso crown. His second place in 1957 with Magistrate Try Himself solidified Spoiler’s reputation as a master of humour.
When calypsonian Clifton “Bomber” Ryan began singing in the 1940s, he modelled himself after Spoiler. In the 50s, Sparrow incorporated some Spoiler-like humour in to his repertoire. In 1966, when calypsonians Donric “Funny” Williamson began singing at the Calypso Theatre on 100 St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, he evoked a feeling of Spoiler in his humorous calypsoes.
Funny never saw Spoiler perform. He says Spoiler was “creative and knew how to present humour. You have to use phrasing, tone, expression and Spoiler had that to get the joke over. Sometimes I have a song in my head for years and it stays in my head until I find a way to present it.”
Everyone knows Funny’s 1969 calypso and first recording, Farmer Brown, the story of a miserable donkey, but Funny says his most successful calypso came in 1973 with Soul Chick, a popular slang description for women.
“I was told it sold over 500,000 singles in New York. Jamaicans did it in reggae. I didn’t make any money for it,” says Funny.
Daniel “Trinidad Rio” Brown has dedicated his calypso career to singing humorous calypsoes.
“I believe humour is a satirical art,” says Trinidad Rio.
Rio separates humour from what he calls “a diatribe or picong.”
He says verbal irony is most important in successful humorous calypsoes.
“Words are everything. They must make you envision what I say and laugh. It is not just what you say, it’s how you say what you say.”
Rio says he was born with the responsibility of singing humour. His well-known songs include Travelling Man, the story of all the places Rio travelled in Trinidad, and Body Parts, a satire on creating equality by mixing body parts from deceased Trinidadians of different races, but Rio says Back to Basics and No Drawers, a witty double entendre about a carpenter who crafts furniture with no drawers, are his two most requested songs when he performs.
Like all calypsonians, Rio names Spoiler as the best craftsman of humorous calypso.
“One Spoiler song that registered deep in me was about an Indian woman who put a roti on a radio antenna and picked up music from Calcutta. You can’t get better imagination than that,” says Rio.
He names Funny, Kid Callaloo, Ebony, Relator, Black Prince and Myron B as the best humorous calypsonians performing today.
Rio’s calypso career began in Victory Calypso tent in 1970. He sang in Shadow’s Master’s Den, Spektakula. Last year he sang at Gypsy’s Back to Basics calypso tent.
Over the years, many calypsonians have complained that judges don’t reward humorous calypsoes in national competitions, but Rio says it is because calypsonians have become a bunch of political campaigners. When I go anywhere people say, ‘Do you know how happy your songs make me feel?’ That is worth more than any crown or money. Winning the heart of the people is joy.”
There’s not much calypsonians agree on, but they all agree that calypso humour can trace its roots back to Spoiler.