WIN OR LOSE in the national calypso competition on February 11 at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, Dillon Thomas has already created history: he’s the first Tobago monarch to gain automatic entry into the final of the event.
Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) president Ainsley King said at a prize-giving in Tobago on December 1, 2022, that the body was examining the possibility of allowing the winner of Tobago’s October carnival calypso monarch competition to qualify automatically for the national finals.
Now that the plan has been approved, Thomas, 31, said he is ready to perform against some of the heavyweights in the calypso fraternity.
“That is very exciting for me. I hope that when I go in, I can do something good and make a good name for the people in Tobago, and give them a good introduction. That would be a great start,” he told Sunday Newsday.
Thomas said King’s proposal showed his interest in bringing greater national attention to the talents of Tobago artistes. The diminutive artiste believes Tobagonians have been at a disadvantage until now.
“I think it was a good proposal, because to me it does not have a fair chance when it comes to Tobago in Trinidad competition. More than a decade ago, four or maybe less made it into the semifinals at Skinner Park…
“That should never be the case. It is one country, and (yet) you hardly ever have a Tobagonian in the finals.”
Thomas is hoping to change that reality.
“For me, getting to express at least one song in the final, to see how it is judged against the other qualifiers, will give it a wider range as to what really does be going on.”
It was on October 21 last year that Thomas walked away with the Tobago monarch title and $100,000 after a keenly contested show at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex.
He beat a field of 11 artistes, including two of his sisters, Nicole Thomas and Wendy Garrick, who placed third and fourth respectively. Nicole won the inaugural October monarch competition in 2022.
Thomas’s calypso, It Wasn’t Me, composed by his brother, Sheldon Reid, dealt with the infamous THA “audiogate” controversy, which involved Chief Secretary Farley Augustine. The cleverly written song, which earned him 281 points, had the audience in stitches.
With just over two weeks to go before the competition, Thomas said he is modifying some of the lyrics.
“We changed up some of the verses to give it a little more bang. It is really just about rehearsals on my part.”
Thomas, who works with the Public Service Transport Corporation in Scarborough, said he rehearses at home and at his workplace.
He has also performed at several events since winning the Tobago crown.
“So I am using those as well to prepare for my final presentation.”
He intends to incorporate some Tobago actors in his presentation.
The last of ten children, Thomas was raised in Mt St George, a village between Hope and Goodwood, along the Windward Road.
At an early age, he was exposed to various aspects of the island’s heritage, and three of his siblings were also active members of the island’s calypso scene.
Thomas himself got his start in Carnival at eight, portraying an individual character for a junior mas band.
But he recalled it was a role in a production at his alma mater, Roxborough Secondary School, which paved the way for his entry into calypso. At 14, he performed in a school play and was voted best overall actor. He was asked later to participate in a skit for a tourism competition the school had entered.
Proud of the name he had won through his acting, Thomas said he quickly consulted his brother, Reid.
“He was singing long time and writing calypsoes long time, and was glad that I was interested in wanting to do it.”
Reid wrote two verses and a chorus for him.
“I had to learn the two verses and the chorus in the two weeks for the competition, and placed first.”
Thomas said his brother felt he had talent and encouraged him to continue singing., and he has never looked back.
“From then to now, I have been entering competitions, singing in shows, writing some songs.”
His calypso sobriquet, Dilly Suede, comes from basketball.
“Friends initially gave me the name Black Suede. So Dilly Suede was just an upgrade from that, meaning dark and short.”
Over the years, he has participated in numerous competitions and claimed several victories.
In 2012, he won the vintage calypso monarch competition and a year later, the Windward Monarch, National Action Cultural Committee Starz of Tomorrow, Tobago Young Kings and Tobago History Calypso Monarch titles.
He won the Young Kings competition and Tobago History Monarch title again in 2014.
In one of his winning performances, he paid tribute to his mentor, fellow Tobagonian Lord Nelson (Robert Alphonso Nelson).
Thomas, a certified theatre practitioner, has been selected for the national calypso monarch semifinal on three occasions. He described his victory in last year’s October monarch competition as the “top of the cake.”
Although Tobago has a cadre of calypsonians who have been consistent and have a genuine love for the artform, Thomas believes there is much to be done to allow artistes to truly showcase their talent.
“There has not been a steady platform where calypsonians could advertise their art and even get more education about it.”
As a result, he observed, “Some of these artistes develop slower than others and they participate in competitions and do not place because they don’t have the confidence to be able to come out and say, ‘This song that I produce does not have the content and the necessary things it needs to be able to win a show or crowd.’
“So because of that lack of responsibility on the part of the government, I think we might have been moving a little slower.”
He said avenues must be created for artistes to develop their craft.
“TUCO and the THA have been doing their part. Between the first October carnival in 2022 and last year’s, there was a step up in terms of education, because people were going into the schools and teaching different things about writing and calypso.”
Thomas advised young people who may be interested in calypso to follow their heart.
“I would say do it. Build the confidence, sing in the mirror. Sing to your family, your friends and whoever else to impress them – and then go out and do it.”
Singing to his family, neighbours and friends, he said, “built my confidence and helped me to see myself in a different light.
“From a young age, I used to be writing stories, and songs and my nephew and I would just sit down in a circle and write one word, one word until we came up with a full story and would try to produce it for our own selves.
“We would then gather everybody and tell the story. Some would laugh. Others would say what we could have done to make it better.”
He believes parents should support children who show an interest in the performing arts.
“They have to look at their offspring and see their potential, their mindset and what they want – because it is not just about what we want or what the other person might want.
“If their mind is focused on academics, there is no way to force that child to do creative things. In the same way, if a creative mind wants to sing, dance and do different cultural things, then there is no way to force this child to do academic work. It will be more difficult for the child to follow in that line.
“It is all about understanding your child and helping them to become what they want to be.”
Thomas has his eyes set on performing internationally: he has never performed outside TT.
But for now, he’s focused on winning next month’s calypso monarch crown.
He already has a comfortable head start.
Asked about his hefty, $100,000 cash prize from last year’s October monarch competition, he responded, “The writer and everybody else who was in the process will get what they deserve, and I will also receive mine.
“There is not much after that, just preparation for the Savannah. So is really about saving and putting towards what is necessary, and getting ready for the Savannah.”