Calypso Carnival

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

"A lot of older people say that what they're doing today is not calypso, because calypso must have melody and lyrics, it must have content," says Andrews. "The younger people say, 'We don't care about lyrics, we want to jam and wine [gyrate] and throw our hands up in the air.'" Andrews isn't thrilled about this development. "I don't know if it's the promoters who think that the only way calypso can spread is with this dance soca style," he says. "Calypso is really about how you master the words."

Not any more, counters Yves Pierrepoint. "Our music is evolving the same way that rock is still evolving," explains Pierrepoint, alias MC Fed, a 34-year-old Trinidadian who lives in Miramar. "When you go to a party, you're not going to sit there and listen to music. You're there to dance and sweat -- that's the music that people want now. It's like in the old days, you had the big bands and Frank Sinatra and those guys. Then you move on."

MC Fed fronts a party band that plays techno music -- what he refers to as soca house. His manager pushed him to enter the competition, he says, figuring his style would appeal to the younger set and give him some exposure. "My music is unorthodox," he says. "But you must move forward. You can't stay stagnant."

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For Patriot, it's pointless to even try to define the boundaries of calypso. "Everybody has a different style," he says. "It's like here in the United States, where you've got Barry White and you've got Michael Jackson. You've got different entertainers that specialize in a particular area. Sure, a lot of people go for the party songs -- what we call the juke, jam-and-wine songs, and those are the calypsos that sell. But some people want to put out a calypso to voice their opinions, to sing against the system, to sing against the tourists, to sing about man's achievements, and whatever, with humor.

"In Trinidad today, we've got every Tom, Dick, and Harry singing calypso," Patriot adds. "People from different areas, from different races, are singing it. Workers from the bank are singing it, air hostesses are singing it. Police officers are singing calypso, schoolchildren are singing calypso. For us, calypso is an everyday thing. It's our music, our culture."

A few nights later, in the courtyard of the Joseph Caleb Center in Liberty City, vendors are filling tables with stacks of T-shirts emblazoned with flags from Trinidad, Guyana, the Bahamas, Antigua. Some shirts are covered with bright graphics and slogans like "Trini Posse in the House." "I May Be a Cruel Heartless Trini Bitch but I'm Good at It," reads another. Food sellers unwrap large pans full of chickpea sandwiches and beef curry and heat up vats of spicy corn soup. People start to arrive, and their varied features and hair textures and shades of skin from matte black to pale white demonstrate why Trinidad is sometimes referred to as "the rainbow country." Men wear derbies, baseball caps, porkpies, crocheted berets, and African-print skullcaps. Several generations of West Indian women are present, dressed in pastel business suits, sarongs, jeans and halters, party dresses, leopard-print leggings. A crowd gathers around a steel drum band that includes several small boys, led by a man with long dreadlocks.

At 9:00 p.m., the announced curtain time for the calypso show, most of the public is still outside. "Trinidadian time," shrugs Forde, having just arrived himself, decked out in a dashiki and mustard pants. His assistant Jill Garland looks regal in a long dress and elaborate turban that match Forde's outfit. They unpack trophies and plaques from a cardboard box, displaying them on a table at the side of the stage. Even the lowest-ranking contestant will get one.

Some of the calypsonians are milling around backstage, still in their street clothes. Jahbaba, a 35-year-old air-conditioning technician from Antigua, is standing in the corner wearing a Black History Month T-shirt. As the only non-Trinidadian West Indian in the show, he's the sole representative of the so-called small islands in the Caribbean, and he feels a responsibility to remind the audience that the West Indies means more than Jamaica and Trinidad.

After living in Miami for sixteen years, he still spends most of his time with other Antiguans, playing dominoes in his front yard in north Dade or dancing to soca blaring from a pair of giant speakers in his living room. For a few years Jahbaba hosted an AM radio show called the Authentic Caribbean Showcase, and he'd spend some of his airtime reading from a book of Caribbean history. When he goes on-stage tonight, he'll wear an orange-striped dashiki and cap and sing about the region's slave ancestry and the lack of island unity. Three friends will join him, shirtless and holding a wooden ladder over their heads in a pantomime of men chained in a row in the hold of a slave ship. "I want to tell the prejudice-minded individual that before you start having certain opinions you better think back to where you came from," he explains. "My purpose in coming here is to make a statement. If I'm not going to make a statement, who will?"

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