Is Calypso Dying or Dead?

When most people think of Caribbean music, the first genres that come to mind are reggae, dancehall and soca. Very few people will mention Calypso as one of the Caribbean’s top musical genres. Over the years, calypso has lost much of its appeal, especially to the younger crowd; a fate that has been experienced by the likes of Jamaica’s Mento. To this end then, is calypso dying? Or is it dead? What is the future of calypso in the Caribbean? Today, we explore a musical tradition in the Caribbean that many say is quickly losing ground.

The Importance of Calypso

Calypso is an incredibly important genre of Caribbean music. It’s the kind of music that documents important events, and it’s the backbone of West Indian carnival. In Trinidad & Tobago, the Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) recognises calypso’s vital role in the Caribbean and celebrates the art form during Calypso History Month in October. “Calypso is alive and more than that, Calypso celebrates life,” says Lutalo Masimba, the president of TUCO.

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The Calypso Tent

Once upon a time, Calypso was considered the ultimate Trinidadian musical form. A major highlight of carnival was a trip to a Calypso tent to hear humorous ditties along with the political and social commentary of the day. But for about three decades, there has been a steady decline in attendance that has led many a Calypso connoisseur to question whether the traditional Calypso tent will survive. This is one indicator as to the weakling of the Calypso genre.

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Political Infiltration

To a large extent, extensive government involvement in delicate cultural matters often leads to problems. Calypsonians are known for social commentary and those that are attached to a particular political party often lash out at others in a rather subtle way. This however incites a state of standoffishness by others in the industry who view such statements as threatening. For instance, Calypsonian Gypsy, a popular calypsonian has been constantly attacked due to his political affiliation.

As an Afro-Trinidadian, he was perceived by many to be a traitor because he was a UNC MP. However, for some time now calypso tents have been perceived as bastions of the African-based People’s National Movement (PNM). Such actions lead to instability in the industry as it prevents worthwhile collaboration and government support. It promotes division and factions that only end in a decline of the music itself.

Support by Youngsters

Calypso is not exactly what one may consider ‘hip’ music. It’s a laid back, easy going kind of music that is akin to Jamaica’s mento or rock-steady. While people who were around in the ‘golden years’ in that era can appreciate the sounds of this type of music, most youngsters do not. They prefer the modern, hip sounds of dancehall, rap, hip-hop and soca. As such, support for calypso among the young is weak and is being threatened more every day as the Caribbean becomes more americanised.

In spite of the problems, calypsonians aren’t giving up. Former national calypso monarch Weston Rawlins, the Mighty Cro Cro, became the manager of the Icons Calypso Tent three years ago, and will return to City Hall in Port of Spain with it this carnival. ‘The older heads still love kaiso (calypso). They come out for the political competitions.

The Future

One thing calypsonians agree on is that if the music is to survive, calypso will have to get with the times. This is not only in terms of marketing their product, but to modernise the way they go about doing this. This includes the kind of instruments that are used as well as the content of the music. They need to reel in more young people onto the calypso scene as most of the calypsonian veterans have died or retired.

The music needs that fresh, young talent with their energetic style to add a modern twist to calypso. Of course, there is the fear that this will destroy the essential nature of calypso. For example, calypso expert Dr Gordon Rohlehr says the vintage calypso shows outside of Carnival are still very well supported, “But the audience of traditional calypso is aging.

They’re still looking for new calypso like the ones they knew in the 70s and 80s and they’re not finding them. To this end, while change is necessary, it is also important to maintain the core nature of the music and to present that as its primary offering while adding the changes as toppings on the cake. As such, in some ways, change may derail the certain aspects of calypso, but it is necessary to propel the genre into the future.

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Can anyone argue that Calypso is not in peril? Do calypsonians need to find new acts to stay in the entertainment industry? — As it lags behind its popular son, Soca — To remain relevant, they need to change and adapt. With all the problems however, with the love calypsonians exude for their craft, we believe calypso will last far into the future, as despite the diminishing of support, it remains the very rhythm of West Indian life.

By: Norvan Martin

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