Grenadians will be interested to know that not so long, in Trinidad, there was a public debate about the decline in the standard of the traditional calypso art form, and the decrease in the number of patrons who were visiting the calypso tents. This debate involved a wide cross-section of people, including some of the “big head” boys. One of these was UWI Professor emeritus, Dr. Gordon Rohlehr, a calypso researcher and cultural critic.
People should dislike being ignorant generally about things, so it is instructional to consider some of the reasons advanced for this decline of standards and decrease of people patronising the calypso tents.
One of the most significant reasons advanced was the advent of the soca artiste. If people are experienced enough or knowledgeable enough or capable enough, they will agree that the soca genre of calypso is different in many noticeable ways than the traditional calypso genre. To begin with, Soca often thrives on a simpler type of lyric and is more activity involved. In contrast, traditional calypso is often more lyrically complex, containing things such as irony, double entendre, picong, a distinct message and humour.
Soca, which often occurs on the plane of sheer entertainment appeals to younger people; those who go to parties and “bashments”. Traditional calypso appeal to a more mature audience, and while it too is meant to entertain, it offers a criticism of men and society. Indeed, while many of our young people can distinguish a soca song from a traditional calypso, a many of them may not be able to identify the qualities which make a calypso a very good or extraordinary one.
This may have serious implications in terms of people’s allegiance to calypso artistes, as well as how calypsos are judged on an occasion like a Dimanche Gras show. Apparently, for many young people the traditional calypso is not a serious rival to soca. This is suggested by the popularity of Soca artistes such as Machel Montano and Iwer George. Incidentally, Machel Montano began his career as a traditional calypsonian.
Dr. Rohlehr saw poor exposure of calypsonians to their art as being partly responsible for not attracting patrons to the tents. Exposure and experience are key factors for people being able to properly appraise the value of a calypso. Unfortunately, nowadays, many people, more often the younger ones, lack the exposure and experience to do so. Exposure broadens our horizon and increases our appreciation of calypsos. Lack of exposure limits these.
Exposure to calypso means, not only knowledge of what is available at the present time, but what was on offer in the past. A limited horizon and appreciation of calypso variable will mean a descent to, and creation and praise of mediocrity.
In Grenada today, the media, especially the radio stations, are not doing enough to expose people to calypos, both in terms of what is available at the present time and what was present in the past. For instance, every year, Barbadians, Vincentians, Trinidadians, St. Lucians etc, sing hundreds of calypsos during the carnival and crop over seasons, yet very few of them are aired by our radio stations. Furthermore, they hardly play the calypso of past masters such as Sparrow, Chalkdust, Composer, Duke, Gabby, John King and Kitchener, many of which continue to be durable lyrically, years after they were first sung.
During the Trinidad calypso debate, Dr. Rohlehr remarked that while soca songs were given hours of air play on radio and television, not so calypsos and though he did not think Calypso was dying in Trinidad, it was in trouble. At present, calypso in Grenada is in serious trouble.
A calypsonian here in Grenada composes a calypso about the Mighty Sparrow, and that is very good as far as his conception is concerned. However, no calypsonian who is serious about his craft, that is one who is not a novice, should be telling us in the song that he searched the dictionary night and day until his eyes got “blurry”, but he could not find any words to describe him. This should make us wonder what type of dictionary he was consulting.
Ironically, he uses the words brave and versatile later on in the song to describe Sparrow. Is he suggesting these words do not occur in dictionaries and are his own creations? Indeed the word versatile has been used for decades to describe Sparrow. He also tells us that Sparrow is one in a million. Any standard dictionary will carry this idiom and explain what it means. Some other words present in the dictionary which will effectively describe Sparrow are engima, unique, genius, witty, shrewd, dynamic, charismatic, extraordinary and inspirational.