Calypso Carnival

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

Patriot has decided not to wait backstage. The crowd is starting to thicken, not yet at the expected number of 500 but getting there, and he takes a seat in one of the front rows. "When you're backstage you're thinking, hoping the band gets it right, hoping that you get it right. You ask yourself, is my outfit good, are the props that I did right? And then before you go on you're thinking about your problems. You start thinking if you put on a really good performance you can win a cash prize and that will help you in your financial situation. Maybe that can be a driving force to sing better, but some people are thrown off by it because they start to think about the money, not the performance." In an aggressive attempt to not think about the money, he decides to concentrate on plotting his positioning on the stage.

It's after ten when the master of ceremonies, Tommy Joseph, a comedian brought in from Trinidad, appears. The audience rises for the Trinidadian national anthem, played by a fifteen-year-old on a steel pan. Then there's a minute of silence for Soca Ninja, a Miami calypsonian and former contestant. Ninja worked for the parks department and was on the job in Miami Springs when he was killed by a falling tree.

Despite the memorial, the audience members find it hard to keep quiet, and they're still chattering excitedly when the first contestant, Ricky B, comes out dressed in tight ski pants, cowboy boots, and a striped satin shirt that suggests a jockey's silks. Ricky B has an agreeable voice, but he seems nervous; he steps tentatively across the stage when he should be confidently sashaying. A group of girls in similar outfits does a music video-style routine behind him, slightly off the beat. Ricky B's song "Down the Track" is about Miami Carnival, which will take place at Hialeah Race Course that Sunday. It is a celebratory anthem of sorts that tells the story of the healing of cultural divisions within Miami's Caribbean community.

Over the past few years, various Caribbean groups produced competing Carnivals; in 1995 there were three events, all on the same day in different locations. Last year the number dropped to two -- one in South Beach, the other in Hialeah. When the Consulate of Trinidad and Tobago opened an office in Miami in June, one of its first jobs was to create a unified Carnival. Last year Ricky B wrote and performed a song about all the squabbling and backbiting among Carnival organizers. "My mother called me from Trinidad," he recalls. "She said, 'I hear you're acting up out there!'" He figured he should do something more positive this year, so he wrote "Down the Track," which commends the community's spirit of togetherness.

After Ricky finishes, an older woman in an exotic robe and headdress appears and begins to chant over a rumbling drumbeat. Her name is Lady Pearl, and her calypso is a commentary on the music's slave heritage and its link with the history of the West Indies. When she exits, the volume goes up and MC Fed appears, marching around the stage making monkey noises and birdcalls, blowing on a coach's whistle, and shouting, "Sweat rice!" Every time he says the words, women in the audience shriek and giggle. Some put their hands over their faces or cluck their tongues in mock horror and shake their heads. "Sweat rice" is the recipe for a folkloric West Indian love potion: If a woman wants to get a man, she takes off her underwear and squats over a steaming pot of rice. When she feeds the rice to her beloved, he's hooked.

The contestants keep coming. Led by his nephew, Giant is dapper in lime pants, print shirt, and derby. At the conclusion of his energetic act he performs a series of donkey kicks and then lowers himself to the stage. "You don't have to see to licky-licky," he sings. "Disability is not inability." Peter Francis Matthews, who calls himself Picoplat (a kind of bird), is a tiny man in his late fifties, dressed in a gold suit with a gold tie wrapped around his head. An extremely popular performer -- he won the competition's people's choice award last year -- Picoplat sings a wildly off-key calypso: "Caribbean pee-PUL in the place, sweet music play-ING, everybody jump in, party music keep it in the country, let it be our destin-EE." Then there's Patriot, who appears dressed in white boxing trunks and boxing gloves. As he sings his first verse, a woman walks across the stage holding a sign that reads "Round One." For the first time all night, people are singing along, and by the end, when Patriot tussles on the ground with the signholder, everyone in the first ten rows is shouting "bite me!"

The audience's giddy mood changes when the emcee announces the title of the next song, by Marlon Sirju. It's called "The INS." The room suddenly quiets down. One woman gasps. "Mmmm-mmmm," she shouts. "We don't like that!" On-stage, in an imaginary apartment, a man and a women sit on chairs, talking. A plainclothes police officer approaches and the man takes off running. Sirju appears and starts to sing:

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