Calypso Carnival

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

Forde, who works in the computer department at the main branch of the public library, founded the calypso competition seven years ago to coincide with the annual Miami Caribbean Carnival. While Carnival in Trinidad, in keeping with the Caribbean tradition, is a pre-Lent celebration, here it takes place on Columbus Day weekend. It's just one of many such West Indian fetes held during the year in New York, Houston, Boston, Toronto, and other North American cities. In all, Frank Collins, the head of United Miami Carnival Management Committee, claims to know of 42 expatriate Carnivals.

All Carnivals, be they original Trinidadian celebrations or their American counterparts, combine three kinds of musical performance. First there are the masquerade bands: Mounted on flatbed trucks, they enliven the "road march," or Carnival parade, with soca, the fast-paced mutation of calypso that has a beat similar to merengue or Haitian compas. Then there are the large steel pan orchestras: With their shining instruments on wheels, the musicians march in the parade and participate in festive, island-flavored pan-oramas. Finally there are the calypso performances. Months before Carnival, large crowds begin gathering weekly in so-called calypso tents -- originally dirt yards with bamboo roofs, but now rented theaters or clubs. The calypso singers go head-to-head in improvisational competitions named picongs that incorporate insult comedy and boasting, and they keep competing in run-off matches until Carnival week, when a team of three judges selects the year's Calypso Monarch.

Over the course of the past decade, the North American calypso circuit has become somewhat established, encouraging the winners of Carnival competitions to travel to other cities to defend their titles. This benefits the Trinidadian communities in the cities, as well as individual performers. Giant hadn't competed since 1973, when he sang and danced his way through a contest in Port of Spain. In the intervening decades, he stopped writing calypsos and joined a gospel choir. But his love for calypso persisted, and over the past few years he began writing again. Then came this year's huge Labor Day Carnival in Brooklyn, at which he debuted his new material and won second prize. "It's true I haven't been lucky with my eyes, but I can sing," he says. "And now I'm going to keep on singing."

Forde was at the Brooklyn Carnival too, handing out flyers plugging the Miami calypso competition. Thanks to successes of the past few years, the Miami event (and its cash prize) is well-known across the nation. This year there were so many applicants that Forde had to turn about half of them away. The final field of fourteen -- ten men and four women -- is made up mostly of West Indian immigrants from across the United States and Canada, although two contestants are American -- Lady Flamingo, a Jewish physical therapist who lives in Boca Raton, and Bronx, a transplanted New Yorker and Caribbeanophile who insists the steel pan will soon be as prevalent as the guitar. The participants range from semiprofessional singers to first-timers whose tuneless screeching could make a dog howl. Some will supplement their calypsos with homemade costumes and props; some will even bring a small cast on-stage to perform skits that have the spirit of a Rooney-Garland back-yard musical.

"This is an amateur contest," says Mike Andrews, host of Caribbean Connection, a twice-weekly calypso program on WVCG-AM (1080) radio. "A lot of these guys would get stoned off the stage in Trinidad. But calypso shows like this one are good in that they give people a chance to hear a lot of the kinds of calypsos they enjoy."

A native Trinidadian who has been in Miami since 1981, the 43-year-old Andrews plays a broad variety of Caribbean music on his show, ranging from traditional calypsos to electronic soca, compas, merengue, and steel pan jazz. About ten years ago while working for Pan Am, he began buying hourlong slots on WVCG because no one else was regularly broadcasting calypso here. Now his program attracts enough local advertisers -- Trinidadian restaurants, travel agencies, and medical clinics -- that he can support himself. On Saturday morning he interviews guests from the local West Indian community, singers, or visiting dignitaries from Trinidad. On Friday night he just plays music. He says the calypso show has begun to attract more American listeners, and he's not surprised. "Calypso is a folk thing, it's a storytelling thing," he explains, searching for the right word to describe the genre. "Calypso is entertainment."

But as calypsonians, ethnomusicologists, and even your average Trinidadian will tell you, calypso isn't only entertainment. For centuries it has had an important social function, providing a running commentary on the politics and mores of the West Indies. Like American hip-hop music, calypso takes the pulse of the street. Rapper Chuck D has called hip-hop "CNN for black people"; similarly, calypso is often referred to as "the newspaper of Trinidad."

Historians say the word calypso is derived from kaiso, a West African expression akin to shouting "bravo." The music has its origins in gayups, call-and-response work songs of eighteenth-century West African slaves. "The slave masters restricted communication between the slaves, so they started using songs to get messages across," says Andrews, "whether they were complaining about the master or just talking among themselves." Spaniards settled Trinidad in 1532. Two and a half centuries later the French moved in, before the British government finally claimed the country and the neighboring island of Tobago as colonies in 1802. While the French Catholic plantation owners held pre-Lent masquerade fetes, the slaves paraded with burning torches -- canbouley (from cannes brules, meaning burned sticks in French) -- in their own postharvest festival processions. When Trinidadian slaves were freed in 1834, the two celebrations were combined into one Carnival, during which the French often dressed as members of the black lower class and mimicked their "decadent" behavior. The slaves in turn put on airs and otherwise mocked the French planters from behind their masks. The gayups were adapted into snappy, sardonic riffs on the townspeople, and the calypso form was born.

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