Calypso Carnival

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

Calypsos gradually incorporated Spanish melodies and French ballroom-dance rhythms, and English creole lyrics replaced French patois. Early on, performers were backed by a tamboo bamboo, a group of musicians playing bamboo tubes of various sizes by striking them on the ground or hitting them with sticks. The calypsonian himself often played a gin bottle with a spoon. Later, French-style bands incorporating guitar, violin, flute, and cuatro (a four-string Venezuelan guitar) were brought in.

By the late Nineteenth Century, calypsos were appealing to wide audiences. Although they were no longer the songs of slaves, they were still associated with Trinidad's jamet, or lower class. The calypsonians were rebels and provocateurs who had reputations as badjohns -- sweet-talking, hard-drinking vagrants who turned scandal into song. "The powers that be tried to ban certain kinds of news -- like if the governor was found with somebody's wife, the paper would never carry that," Andrews explains. "But a calypsonian would get the news and disguise it in such a way that his words came off as wit. Everyone knew what he was talking about, but he told everything using double-entendre. The police would raid the calypso tents to arrest the singers for sedition, but they couldn't prove the calypsonians were doing anything wrong."

Although the calypso singers often tricked the law with their euphemistic lyrics, topical or risque calypsos have frequently been banned in Trinidad and other Caribbean countries. A 1934 ordinance passed in Trinidad even required calypsonians to submit their songs for review before performing them. A calypsonian named Radio spoke out about the censorship in his song "Sedition Law," written that year:

They mean to license we mouth
They don't want we talk
I agree with any man who speaking for their rights
But you cannot say everything what you like
There's certain things would affect the authority
Who was the strength and the force in this colony
And when you get the blow in the jail you'll walk
You wants to be versed in politics
I mean, you got to be cocky with lots of tricks

While some calypsos offended the government by their salacious lyrics, others tackled more serious issues, such as colonialism and labor struggles. Contemporary calypsos have decried discrimination and promoted black pride, or have criticized tourism's effect on the Caribbean.

But the way Jerry Dolabaille sees it, the gossipy, tabloid-theme stories still make for the best calypsos. "I like the storytelling aspect," he says, adding that for Trinidadians calypso is a diversion, like cricket or cards, and the songs shouldn't be too serious. "Someone goes out to hear calypso to forget their troubles. If they wanted to think about problems, they'd stay home and worry about their bills." Dolabaille, also known as De Patriot, moved to Miami from Port of Spain four years ago. Here he works the late shift at a silk-screen printing shop; in Trinidad, he coached a national volleyball team called the Patriots. Tall and gangly, he first entered the calypso contest last year on a dare from a friend and came in ninth. Now, in Barnes Baptiste's house, he steps in front of the band and coolly takes the mike.

Imagine my calamity
One night I lookin' at me TV
Friends, this really happenin' to me
After watchin some boxin' on the TV
Everybody know the Mike Tyson fight
And how he give Holyfield a bite
I and all before I go to bed
You know me wife
She almost kill me dead
She say bite me on my leg
Bite bite
Don't care how I beg
Bite me, bite me on me knee
Bite bite up me belly

Well, I say this bitin' thing has to stop
And she say well if you can't bite you have to...
She want me to go down low she want me to go down so
So no matter if you're black no matter if you're white
When you're feelin' to bite just take a bite
Remember when you bite not to cause no hurt
Don't do like Mike Tyson and Marv Albert

Satisfied with only one run-through, Patriot wraps it up and sits down. "Now this song," he says with a little smile, "this is a song that everyone can enjoy."

Calypso used to be big business. It used to be high-profile. It used to be gold. In the Fifties Harry Belafonte put a clean face on the island tradition and sold it to the world -- his 1956 LP Calypso, with the huge hit "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)," was the first LP ever to sell a million copies. The New York-born Belafonte didn't write his own material, but he allowed more authentic calypsonians who had emigrated to New York and London after World War II to find larger audiences. Lord Shorty, who has had a long, genre-jumping career in the decades since, is perhaps the best-known of those early-Sixties calypsonians; the late Sixties and early Seventies were dominated by the Mighty Sparrow, a Grenadan performer (born with the equally bizarre name of Slinger Francisco) who recorded several best-selling albums.

By the late Seventies, the stronger rhythms of reggae and salsa had pushed calypso to the fringes of the international scene. But the growing number of Trinidadians in New York and those back on the island were listening to soul, disco, and Latin music, and some of them began experimenting with a new kind of calypso dance music that moved the emphasis away from the words and put it on the beat. Soca (soul calypso) was more contemporary and proved to be more marketable. In the years since, soca artists such as Arrow ("Hot, Hot, Hot") have scored huge international hits, and soca spinoffs such as ragga soca (soca with a reggae rhythm) and chutney soca (soca with an East Indian flavor) are popular in the islands. Soca is both Carnival parade music and club music, and singers have recorded thumping electronic soca versions of classics like "Old MacDonald" and pop songs such as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and the Police's "Every Breath You Take."

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