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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
"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."
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?"
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:
I have a partner listen to me
Well, we sit down rappin' one day about this country
He tell me, Marlon, between you and me
The immigration law really against we
Behind the singer, the man and the woman now sit in front of a desk as an INS worker fiddles at a computer. While Sirju sings, two armed immigration officers in white shirts and dark slacks come in and drag the man off.
Boy he sit and he trash this America
He say the INS causin' disaster
He say we work hard and slave in this country
And now they come in with these laws to get rid of we
Is their law, Louie
The immigration law you see
my friend is their law, Louie
the immigration law, hear me
As Sirju nears the end of the song, the officers return in armed pursuit of him, wrestle him to the ground, and hold his hands behind his back. Though everything is exaggerated, even in slapstick the scene is ominous. By the end, the audience has stopped laughing.
Backstage the 34-year-old Sirju discusses his composition. "The song says that my friend lives in America and he has a problem with this law, the way they're deporting people. He thinks that as foreigners we work hard in America, why should we be deported? And I'm telling him: Regardless if you like it or not, it's the American law and we have to live with it."
During the week Sirju sells Jacuzzis and toilets for a Broward firm; on weekends, though, he's a singer -- "weddings, bar mitzvahs, you name it." He has a sweet, soulful voice, and he's usually hired to sing R&B ballads and pop standards, not calypsos. But Sirju has been in the competition for five straight years, and he has placed as high as second. This year he decided to enter an overtly political song. "Calypso is in the blood," he says. "I feel that during the time I'm on-stage I can educate someone in the crowd. I don't even have to come first; the idea is to let somebody understand."
This year the song is especially relevant, with the new Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act requiring all resident West Indians to file residency applications before this past October 23. In the Trinidadian community, this is more than simply another news story; it's a major issue with potentially weighty consequences. About 60,000 Trinidadians now live in South Florida, according to Trinidad and Tobago Vice Consul John Gillette. "That's a working figure," he cautions. "When you're talking about the immigrant community, there is no such thing as official statistics." Gillette says that although some Miami Trinidadians have turned to the new consulate for assistance with immigration issues, the community as whole is not as concerned about its status as other groups may be.
Although more Trinidadians now live in South Florida, most do not come directly from the island. "One of the big waves of Caribbean migration was in the early Seventies, to the northern states," the vice consul explains. "People went to New York -- where our largest expatriate population lives -- to Boston, and other cities. Twenty-five years later, a lot of them have reached the point where they're established and looking to get out of the northern winter, so they're coming here. And we expect that trend to continue. There are well-established ties in the United States already, so our community here is fairly comfortable."
Sirju, a legal resident who's married and has two children, lived in New York for nine years before moving to Fort Lauderdale in 1991. "I wanted an atmosphere like I had in the Caribbean," he says. "Here the weather is warm and the kids can play in the yard. So Miami's perfect, you know. We'll hang out here for a while."
By the time Forde steps up to announce the winners, it's 1:00 a.m. Lady Flamingo comes in tenth. The pretty physical therapist from Boca tried her best, but she couldn't quite match her pelvic thrusts to her singing, which tended to stray off-key. As the rest of the calypsonians are announced, few take the stage; they've either wandered off or are too embarrassed to claim a consolation prize. Picoplat places eleventh, MC Fed right behind at twelfth. Then the cash awards are announced. The audience cheers when Patriot wins third prize, $250. Giant takes second -- $500.
"And Miami's Royal Calypso Monarch is -- Marlon Sirju!" Forde crowns him and hands him a huge trophy. As Sirju's friends mob the stage, hugging him, Forde asks the audience to clap for the best calypsonian for the people's choice award. Patriot wins, aided by some good screamers among his family members, who are sitting up front.
The courtyard outside is full. It's long past midnight and tomorrow is a workday, but most of the people present have taken off from their jobs for the week. Giant, who will leave for New York the next day, holds his nephew's shoulder with one hand and grips his trophy in the other. "I'd like to go to Trinidad and sing at Carnival there," he says as they head for the parking lot. "That's what I'm looking at next."
Other calypsonians are looking for answers closer to home. A few days after the competition, Patriot has decided to copyright "Bite Me" and is looking around for a manager. "People are accepting the fact that one day Miami's going to make it big with calypsos," he says. "If you make calypsos that people sing only in Trinidad, then that market is going to be crowded. You've got to go somewhere new, and Miami's a place where you've got a lot of West Indians. A lot of guys are fighting with calypsos here, hoping that one day they're going to hit on a song that sells. And me, why not? It could happen."
Sirju too plans to record his song, and he hints that in the wake of the contest he's had some interesting offers. Even Mike Andrews, who is somewhat less than optimistic about the commercial opportunities for Miami's calypso winners, is glad that the recent upswing is continuing. "When I moved here in 1981, the only time you'd hear calypso was when someone had a party at their house," he recalls.
Miami Carnival changed that situation, but only for one month of the year. Andrews says that the rest of the year Caribbean fetes are scattered, poorly promoted affairs, and he laments the lack of a really consistent Caribbean music scene that could encourage budding calypsonians. "We still have a lot of foundation work to do," he argues. "For someone to be a successful calypso act here in Miami, the major thing is an outlet where they could sing and earn a few dollars and sharpen their skills. We need an infrastructure to develop the calypso market. We need a club where every weekend there's something going on in terms of calypso -- an amateur night, a soca night, a chutney night. If we had a little club that had an amateur night, then these guys could hone their skills and improve their songs, their lyrics, and their melodies."
The closest thing to that is Merv's Place, a small social club in a strip mall off State Road 441, hidden above a Jamaican restaurant and a Trinidadian bakery. Sometimes on Friday night during the year, local calypsonians meet here to rehearse new songs in front of an audience. At Carnival time, out-of-towners stop by to catch up with old friends from back home. People play pool and cards in the back room while Merv cooks up a pot of stewed meat or some crab and dumplings.
The week after Carnival, a group of calypsonians, including Picoplat, MC Fed, and Lady Flamingo, shows up for an informal reprise of contest performances. The evening is convivial and festive. Even the usually businesslike Norris Forde tells a joke.
The contestants who didn't take home the big money at the competition aren't giving up. In fact, they're performing more ardently than ever. Wearing overalls small enough for a twelve-year-old, with the tape measure from his job as a cabinetmaker stuck in his belt, Picoplat sings a medley of several songs he's written over the past few years. Tonight he's in tune. "I really wanted to win," he says. "But since I didn't, I'm glad Marlon did. Next year I'll make a comeback."
Patriot arrives after midnight and delivers an encore of his song to the faithful few still present. "To be honest, I felt like I should have won," he concedes. "But then, when I left there I did feel like I'd won -- last year I was ninth and this year I came in third, and the people thought I should have been first. The audience picked me. That's all that a calypsonian really wants, to reach the people, you know? That's what makes him happy. For me calypso is like a yardstick. It's a way of proving to yourself that all is not lost. It tells you that you didn't fail. Even if you fail in your daily life, calypso shows you there's something you can do.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.