Power of Soul of Calypso

Debbie Jacob  -
Debbie Jacob -

Debbie Jacob

THE FIRST time I heard Machel Montano’s Soul of Calypso I felt like I had been sucked into one of those time machines you see in the movies. I didn’t go near a Carnival fete, a calypso tent, Panorama or mas, but that song evoked the essence of Carnival. I could feel Growling Tiger’s presence.

Images of me rushing to finish a feature when I worked at the Trinidad Express and hurrying up George Street to visit Neville “Growling Tiger” Marcano, our first officially crowned calypso monarch, popped into my head every time I heard Soul of Calypso.

After 40 years of Trinidad Carnival, I finally realised that a calypso can be so well crafted that it feels like a piece of magical realism literature. The magic is rooted in reality, and the song feels timeless. In the moment of listening, there is no clear delineation between past, present and future. That’s the essence of magical realism.

Soul of Calypso provides a crash course in history, creates enjoyment in the present moment, and makes us wonder about one song’s impact on the future. The burning question left in the wake of Montano’s Calypso Monarch win is whether he and his hit song will spark an interest for more soca singers to the Calypso Monarch competition.

For now, we can relish Soul of Calypso’s power as a vehicle for inclusion. It is an intergenerational hit that crosses musical divides and bridges the gap between soca and calypso. We are a divided nation, and so any example of inclusion is refreshing. Lord Shorty (Ras Shorty I) argued soca was the soul of calypso when he did his part to “invent” that music along with Maestro and Shadow. The message keeps surfacing, but Montano really made it hit home.

The genius of Soul of Calypso is how Montano reaches party-minded youths with a catchy calypso and creates nostalgia in calypso purists by stringing together lines from past hit soca songs and calypsoes. He traces calypso’s development and includes references to calinda (kalinda), cariso, extempo and musical offshoots like chutney and raga. Then there’s that haunting clarinet, which has vanished from calypso.

The lyrical building blocks of Soul of Calypso are past soca and calypso hits which include When I’m Dead Bury My Clothes, a traditional song passed through the ages and recorded by Growling Tiger. (Anslem Douglas recorded it too.) I stood in Lapeyrouse Cemetery and heard the late Brian Honore, dressed in his Midnight Robber costume, singing this timeless song at calypsonian Popo's burial.

David Rudder’s Bahia Gyul, Nigel Lewis’s Movin’ (To the Left), Arrow’s Hot, Hot, Hot, Shadow’s Dingolay and SuperBlue’s Soca Baptist all make an appearance. There are illusions to Sparrow, Kitchener and Spoiler.

Soul of Calypso reminds us that one of calypso’s traditional roles was to educate as well as entertain. Surely Montano’s work on a master's degree in Carnival studies at the University of TT (UTT) inspired and affected the writing of this calypso. There’s something to be said about that combination of theoretical and hands-on musical experience.

Poor calypsonians like Pretender believed in the educational value of calypso. They didn’t have the means to get university degrees, but Pretender talked about how calypsonians visited the library to do their research when crafting their calypsoes.

Now we’re left to wonder how those combined experiences and the success of this song will affect Montano's future and the future of the traditional Calypso Monarch competition. Is this a pivotal point in calypso where soca singers will try their hand at traditional calypso or are we just looking at Montano’s personal journey?

Most of us forget that William Munro created the Soca Monarch competition because of a lingering feeling that soca artistes were slighted in the Calypso Monarch competition. Soca had better melodies; calypso (supposedly) had better lyrics. That left a vacuum in both competitions. Something always felt like it was missing in both competitions. Was it the soul or the heart of calypso?

We have much to look forward to as we witness Montano’s future as an academically-influenced performer exploring calypso’s history and working down in the trenches. We are mindful that his musical journey began in Spektakula, a calypso tent, then spread to the fetes. It’s the juxtaposition of those two experiences that converge now in a new direction.

We can’t predict the future, but the current lesson is clear. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself and appreciate your roots.


"Power of Soul of Calypso"

More in this section