Celebrating Calypso History Month from then to now
The celebration of Calypso History Month in October is a time to reflect on the contribution of this beautiful artform. The basic foundation of calypso was brought to this part of the world by the enslaved Africans. The African slaves, as they worked on plantations under the whip of their masters, they used the ‘call and answer’ strains of the calypso to urge each other in terms of staying strong and not giving up hope despite the misery and brutality of their assistance. The art-form was used by the slaves to entertain themselves when they had the opportunity.
When chattel slavery ended during the 1830s, calypso began to flourish and by 1912, the first calypso recording was done. However, during the period of colonial rule the calypso artform; which tells stories in song about different aspects of life, was used to highlight the poor living conditions of the masses.
The colonial rulers did not take kindly but the early pioneers of calypso persisted. Even when the British colonial rulers in Trinidad dumped the recordings of calypsonians in the sea, as singers were returning from New York with their new records, calypsonians never gave up.
As fate would have it, Uriah Butler had risen as the champion of the down-trodden masses. He took up the cause of the calypsonians by going to the then legislative council (parliament) and moving a motion to legalise the institution of the calypso tent. Butler’s motion succeeded and from then to now, the calypso tent has been an integral part of the cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago.
According to recorded history, it was Railway Douglas who first set up a calypso tent in Trinidad and Tobago. Since then, the stage of the calypso artform had been graved with such greats like Executor, Sir Galba, Growling Tiger, Roaring Lion, Lord Invader, Beginner, Pretender, Spoiler, Kitchener, Melody, Terror, Sparrow, Lord Blakie, Mighty Duke, Ras Shorty I, Black Stalin, Composer, Calypso Rose, Shadow, Super Blue, David Rudder, Tobago Crusoe, Merchant, Maestro Bunji Garlin and Machel Montano, to name a few.
Some factors have contributed to a lowering of the standards in terms of the artistic value of the calypso art. Large financial prizes have attracted individuals who are not concerned about learning or developing the finer art of the calypso. Unless, the trend can be reversed, the genuine art and skill of calypso could be lost in the maze of the almighty calypso dollar.
In Tobago, we must not forget some of the early pioneers who kept the calypso art alive in Tobago over the years, such as Sacki Holder, Aggressor, Wind Jammer, Mighty Boogie, Stanley Payne, Lord Nazi and Tobago Crusoe. Others such as Axeback, Joe Tempo, Banner, Cutcake, Gerry, Calypso Prince and Happy are among those who have made sterling contributions to the art.
It is important for the mass media to reorient their programmes in order to give more prominence to the calypso artform. It is essential for the education authorities to find ways to introduce positive calypsoes in schools because the history of the nation is embedded in the work of calypsonians over years gone.