Calypso Carnival

Brash and bawdy, playful and provocative, an exotic art form gets a local showcase the Miami Calypso Show

February 27, 1968, was Carnival Tuesday in Trinidad, and 22-year-old Claude Clement was rushing to join a band of masqueraders gathered in downtown Port of Spain. Led by a group of parading steel pan players, Clement and the other revelers danced. They jumped. They gyrated. Just as they reached Charlotte Street, a fight broke out in a corner bar and spilled onto the street. One of the brawlers threw a beer bottle, which shattered and sent a shard of glass flying through the air. It landed in Clement's left eye. That had been his only good eye for years; he lost the right one when he stood too close to a gardener with a scythe. And now it was only another bad eye, one that would deteriorate gradually until it was as stone blind as the other. Ask him today what he remembers from that incident and he'll tell you about the eye. What man can forget losing his sight? But he'll also tell you about Carnival, about the costumes and the energy and the public joy. And the music. Especially the music.

Today, his face obscured by sunglasses and his head topped by a black newsboy cap, Clement stands in the living room of a tract house in a quiet North Dade neighborhood. For the past decade, he has lived in Brooklyn, where he makes handicrafts and sells them through an organization for the blind. But more important business has brought him to South Florida: a chance to become Miami's calypso king.

On this Monday evening in October, Clement isn't the only one dreaming of calypso stardom. A half-dozen men fill the curry-scented room, sitting on rattan chairs and a brown sofa, restlessly jingling their car keys, sipping bottles of Trinidadian Carib beer, and talking quickly in richly accented English creole. They wear long shorts and polo shirts; on their feet are sneakers or flat woven sandals. In their daytime lives these men are electricians, cabinetmakers, salesmen, and students. During their off hours, they call themselves calypsonians. And as calypsonians, they have more than a passing interest in the Miami Calypso Show and Competition, which is just three days away. For weeks contestants have been privately working on their entries: sharpening rhymes, fine-tuning melodies, planning costumes, and devising props to use on stage. Tonight the six gathered here in North Dade will take turns going over their music with the show's back-up band. And for the first time, they will be able to size up some of the others who have their eyes on the competition's thousand-dollar grand prize.

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When most Americans think of calypso, they think about cruise ships and Harry Belafonte. Caribbean natives will clue you in to the real calypso, a sophisticated colonial and postcolonial performance art that incorporates singing, lyric poetry, social satire, and bawdy stand-up comedy. Most calypso is competitive, a way for practitioners to test their quick wit and showmanship; as a result, calypsonians tend to use magisterial and martial stage names to intimidate their rivals -- the most famous have included Roaring Lion, Lord Executioner, and Attila the Hun.

Clement, a slight man whose beanpole legs protrude comically from his black denim shorts, goes by Giant. A nephew who lives in Fort Lauderdale has accompanied him to the rehearsal. Now he guides Giant to the back of the room, where Barnes Baptiste, the owner of the house and leader of a soca dance band called Enajetik, sits on the floor tuning a guitar. Four of Baptiste's nine children assist in the proceedings: A daughter stands behind a keyboard, one son wields a trumpet, and two more are posted at electronic drum machines. Giant takes a microphone and begins his calypso, which starts not as a tune but as a story recited in a deep, singsong voice.

Time and time again
People come to me
Some things they ask me really amazes me
Like one evening this man walks up to me
And he gets me so vexed
When he turn and ask me how do I see to have sex
So I decide to give him an answer
And make him think twice to ask a blind man
Such a stupid question ever

Giant's feet, sheathed in black-and-white Nikes, start to pivot on the floor. He grins, stretches his arms out, and beckons as he struts back and forth.

I say: If you have a wife bring she
If you have a sister bring she
If you have a daughter bring she
Bring them all by me
And mister man you're going to see

Now the song has Giant in his grasp. He's rocking his pelvis back and forth, bending his knees, jumping up and down.

You don't have to see
To ride a po-nee
Disability is not inability

He puts his hands on his hips and circles them around, winding down low to the floor.

You don't have to see
To shake it ho-nee
Disability is not inability

Several women who have emerged from a back bedroom to watch the act are shrieking with laughter. Some of Giant's fellow calypsonians laugh too, but more guardedly. Norris Forde, the man who is organizing the competition, isn't laughing. He looks distracted. He checks his beeper for the fifth time in as many minutes and leaps up when Giant ends his song. "Tomorrow I have to go downtown and look for a crown," he announces, and goes to make a call.

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