A commander of the stage and a clever lyricist, Maria Bhola is now stepping out of the spotlight, shifting her focus to composing calypsoes for others.
The former national calypso queen told WMN the impact of the messages incorporated into her craft matters more than any prize.
Bhola, 42, has been involved in the performing arts since she was a student at the Carapo RC Primary School. This continued throughout secondary school at the Northeastern College, Sangre Grande.
She began participating in the Prime Minister's Best Village Competition at age five, and at 12, she won best all-around female performer.
It was in 1990 she began singing calypso as a junior performer, and has since gone on to win competitions and earn high accolades.
She placed second in the Junior Calypso Monarch competition in 1999, qualified for the National Calypso Monarch semi-finals many times, and in 2007, she won the National Calypso Queen competition. She has also had several regional monarch titles including Sangre Grande, Arouca and Arima.
To her, calypso is "a platform to voice views and opinion on matters...
"And that, to me, is very important. Having a voice and actually using it? That's something very close to my heart."
Bhola draws inspiration from local legends such as the late Zandolie, The Mighty Sparrow, the late Mighty Shadow, and the late Singing Sandra.
"These are the ones I gravitated towards in terms of their varied styles.
"I love Zandolie's humour, Sparrow's versatility, Shadow's writing style of short and to-the-point, and, of course, Sandra's way of immersing her soul into her performance."
She told WMN her calypso journey has been a "very rewarding and quite a learning experience." But, she added, the local scene has changed a lot since she first joined.
"One major change is the quality of the calypso product, and we see the negative effect of that reflected in the general lack of interest in calypso shows and the calypso tent experience."
She said, "I think calypsonians have become very timid in terms of approaching or tackling certain topics
"What you would find now is people writing more for competition and what they believe would, perhaps, win a crowd as opposed to really tackling the issues and the things that need to be discussed. There is more conversation about what would win, what the judges are looking for as opposed to what the people want to hear, how can we entertain the people, educate them, edify them..."
It is for this reason, she has now opted to step out of the limelight, but aims to continue delivering meaningful messages with her writing.
"I continue to strive to improve my craft consistently."
Her first experience of helping another person write a song was when fellow, former national calypso queen Terri Lyons asked her.
"(Lyons) had reached out to me when she was desirous of entering the National Calypso Queen competition several years ago. She wanted to do a song in tribute to her mom. It was her first time in the competition and she placed second. Years later, (in) 2020, it was Terri again I had the absolute pleasure of writing for and the rest is history."
She said many people think she has been writing for others for some time, but it is only a recent development.
"But it's something I truly enjoy and hope to develop further."
She has written songs for five women this year, among them Respect de Tribe by Stacey Sobers, Sorrow Borrow Prayers by Anastacia Richardson, and Dem Advisors by 2024 national calypso queen Naomi Sinnette.
Dem Advisors speaks of domestic violence and the need for more action to protect women and men who are victims.
"'Leave,' that's what they told me. 'Go, pack up and run, girl,'" Sinnette sings. "And as I contemplate what might be my fate, I'm standing here in the dark alone...
"They really say talk is cheap, 'cause now all them talkers asleep and it's me to catch on my own. But they keep talking, talking, dem advisers..."
It also speaks of the domestic violence statistics in Trinidad and Tobago, needing to have an escape plan, hearing others call victims foolish and weak, among other things.
Asked how the songwriting process differs when it is to be performed by another person, rather than herself, she said it is quite similar.
"I compose first then decide if I will be the one to sing it or not...I like being free to create without having to be boxed in by specific topics or someone's vocal or performance limitations, etc.
"When the song is in process or completed is when I make a judgement call on who might be the best candidate for the piece."
But, she added, she does not encourage others to come to her for songs as she does not like the idea of having a "waiting list."
"I like being able to create when and if I feel to and also to decide who may be the best candidate for putting across the message."
She is thrilled whenever young people take interest in the artform.
"I am even more thrilled when there is an interest to compose their own work."
This year, she said, she decided to shelf her song and not to compete "until fundamental changes take place within the fraternity."
"The concept of competition needs to be revamped. I don't think we focusing on the right things. We are too competition-minded.
"Calypso has evolved into a product that, in its current state, is not marketable or entertaining. A lot can be and should be done without the competition aspect. We really need to take time to improve this product."
She said each calypsonian has a place and function, and that everyone cannot and should not sing about the same topic and in the same way.
"There are those who would tackle (issues with) humour, but sometimes I think people believe (those types of songs) are just little jokey songs.
"There are very serious issues that can be tackled in a humorous way, but the judges sometimes don't see it as a real contender and just an act to make up numbers."
Competition or not, Bhola loves and lives for calypso. She said to her, accomplishment is "when people could reach out to you and tell you the impact your song has had on them. That, to me, is really personal."
She said after Sinnette won the 2024 Calypso Queen competition, "My inbox flooded with women, and conversations from mostly women I did not know, bearing it all, telling me very personal things that had happened to them, that they're experiencing, their friends are experiencing, how helpless they feel...
"These are the things that are more meaningful to me than placing first in a competition – the message, its clarity and its impact."