June 20, 2014

Calypso and politics

I was struck this year by the number of calypsos with political commentaries. There are those who see this as a bastardisation of the art form, but this has a long tradition, for calypso and politics are really soul mates. For a long time I have had a keen interest in the calypso art form, not only in the calypsonian as an artist, but in the story telling aspect of this art form, in its oral history, in its social and political commentary and in fact, I look on the calypsonians as the peoples’ spokespersons.{{more}} This was particularly significant when the masses had limited avenues for expressing their views. Today, with the growth of the social media and a host of radio stations, one would have thought that that latter role was no longer important. But, funny enough, it is and Trinidadian author Vida Naipaul was obviously on to something when he said that “it is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality.” True enough, he was speaking about Trinidad, but we simply have to substitute SVG for Trinidad, for it is clearly applicable here. The calypsonian is able to convey in song what many are afraid to say; moreover, he has his ears close to the ground.

There has long been a debate on the origin of the calypso, but one that is acceptable traces it back to West Africa. Surely the calypso would have evolved over the centuries and if we accept its relation with Africa and see it emerging from the slave quarters, we must realise that the form which we know today would have evolved from that of the slave period; but when we examine the song and dance of the slaves, we are able to begin to make a connection. The historian Bryan Edwards drew attention to the slaves’ ability to ridicule in song not only each other, but also to do so “not unfrequently, at the expense of their owner or employer.” Mrs Carmichael, who commented on the entertainment of slaves in St Vincent, particularly with regard to song and dance, declared “Negroes have fertile imaginations; and it is not unusual for them to compose impromptu words to their songs, very often of the most ludicrous nature, one sings it over once and the rest join in chorus.” What is called the double entendre was used, that is saying one thing and meaning another. The slaves would, on occasions, ridicule their masters with songs that they enjoyed without realising that they were actually poking fun at them. Ridicule in calypso, biting satirical commentaries have long been in existence and with that the relationship with politics, whether it was the ‘politics’ of the slave plantation or politics of today’s national plantation. How many of us remember the times when some calypsos were banned from the lone radio station? There were also occasions when songs being sung on the night of the finals were blocked out by technical difficulties that emerged at the precise moment the calypso was being sung. The truth is that the politicians hated it vehemently when the calypsos were directed at them, but perhaps, as Selwyn Ryan says about Trinidad, “Today, the critical calypso is accepted as a sacred part of the national tradition.”

One of the points of discussion among scholars in the field is whether calypsos mould or simply reflect public opinion. This is obviously an interesting discussion. In making the point about the relationship between calypso and politics I had to go back to an interesting scenario that occurred in 1984. Elections came shortly after Carnival. Becket’s “Horn for them” was the popular calypso of the season. It did not necessarily have a political relationship, but on the evening of the Dimanche Gras show, word got around that the new candidate for the New Democratic Party in Kingstown, was John Horne. On Carnival Monday, people began to make the connection with Horne the candidate. So, a calypso that appeared to have no political intent was taken over by the people, who made the political connection and turned it into the theme song for the campaign.

In 1985, I did a paper entitled “Calypso and Politics in St Vincent and the Grenadines with special reference to the role of the Calypso in the 1984 General Election.” This was presented at a conference at the University of Western Ontario, Canada and a revised version was delivered at a symposium in Trinidad in 1986. The anthropologist Frank Manning, in an article “Challenging Authority: Calypso and Politics in the Caribbean,” used parts of that paper. In commenting on the role of the calypso, he said calypsonians “are social observers who lyricize, usually in a mode of satirical humour, about the everyday world around them. The calypsonian lampoons authority, inverts normative systems to expose their underlying absurdity and injustice and reveals the comic underpinnings and possibilities of situations that are usually taken seriously.”

The calypsonian observes closely what goes on around him. It is this that inspires him and provides the content for his calypso. It is in this way that he relates to the people, because the issues he raises are their issues. I can find no better illustration of this than Poorsah’s ‘Mouth In Me Moma’. “You is a joker – you tell me shut up and that’s all, I’m saying no Sir, I’m human after all. You think you have the plaster for each and every sore; Yo Vincentian Peter Bohta, we can’t take any more; you done indicate to we, You control the sun; whatever order you give we, they shall be done.” There are obviously other calypsos I could have used, but conveniently I had in my possession the lyrics of that calypso. Really calypso and politics are inseparable.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.