Saturday 8 August, 2020

A Case for Calypso: Reflections on a singular art form

Nobody knows you better than the information-hungry tracking software and cookies that record your every move on the internet. No surprise then, when on a visit to YouTube I was randomly recommended a video from an American broadcaster I infrequently watch. My guess is that YouTube assumed I would be interested due to the guest featured on the thumbnail. They were not wrong. It was an interview with Kes the Band's Lead Vocalist 'Kees Dieffenthaller' and his big brother and fellow band mate, drummer, Hans Dieffenthaller on popular, American, hip hop radio show, HOT 97's 'Ebro In The Morning'.

I listened out of sheer duty, wanting to support a group of hardworking, bonafide Caribbean folk. Once the interview wrapped however, one point stuck with me. In the opening of the clip Kes says, "Calypso music was the first record to sell a million records..." He stated this while answering a question on the Caribbean's contributions to American music. I, along with host Ebro and his co-hosts, noted the point with surprise. "Which record?" Co-host, Rosenberg asked.

It felt like serendipity was out in full force when I came across Kes' statement, as days prior I had been pondering the Caribbean's (more specifically Saint Lucia's) current relationship with calypso music. The declaration immediately warranted a bit of research.

It was Harry Belafonte's album titled, "Calypso" that had swept the world in 1956. The 8 track record features the popular "Banana Boat Song" famous for its "Day O" chant, as well as the singer's very first single, "Matilda" which catapulted his music career and placed the even tempo-ed melodies of calypso music on a global stage. The record was the first to sell a million copies within one year and Belafonte was also apparently dubbed "the King of Calypso", though he never embraced the title having never won any calypso monarchs.

Harry Belafonte's was a voice I was made used to as a child, but it was the smooth beckonings of songs like "Skin to Skin" that breezed through our house on a Saturday morning, and not a 26-year-old Belafonte who was then weaving socio-political messages into and over familiar, Caribbean sounds. He, who is also known for his activism and support of humanitarian efforts like the Anti-Apartheid Movement and his contributions to the United States Civil Rights Movement, I learned, is also the son of Jamaican parents.

Merely a couple of days prior to hearing and reading about Belafonte's musical strides, I was putting together a news story about Mighty Lily and Sweet E, Saint Lucia's 2019 Junior Calypso Monarchs. I was thinking then how cheering it is to observe primary and secondary school students expressing themselves via cadences native to the Caribbean, thanks to our West African roots.

While the school's calypso tent is a welcomed initiative in Saint Lucia, with a few institutions continuously using the opportunity to highlight the talent of some gifted youngsters, in general, Calypso music is not as celebrated as it once was. Based on the crowd sizes alone, Soca and Dancehall shows pull the largest numbers. The average millennial also does not perceive the genre as sexy, as, in Saint Lucia, our most celebrated local artistes amongst youth are Soca and Dennery Segment singers, with others dabbling in more internationally trendy sounds like Afrobeats, R&B and Hip Hop. Instead, Calypso is mostly celebrated by our older generations who year after year fill the seats at local calypso tents, which raises questions about the future of the genre in Saint Lucia.

I have long held the thought that one key fact about Calypso should set it apart as one of our more valuable art forms. Currently, in Saint Lucia, Calypso music is the only genre that successfully fulfils one of the Arts' most appreciated benefits; It captures the essence of current times and embodies a level of consciousness that paints pictures, from various perspectives, of our reality by addressing political and social concerns. Decades from now, Calypso music can be looked to as a source of information on the things 21st century Saint Lucians-civilians, politicians, lawmakers, business conglomerate's, constitutional bodies alike-had their hands in. That reason alone should inspire the young to want to skank to a Calypso beat rather than only gyrating to the bass of quicker paced melodies. Or, at least sit and listen, if not appreciatively, sedulously.

Understandably, a person cannot be forced to like a genre of music or a song. Glamorizing an age-old musical category also does not fall on the shoulder of consumers. Yet, we live now in a world where our own voices seem like more of a whisper amongst the more dominant powers. Through media, American pop records and already lauded genres manage to achieve sonic dominance, making it easy to be lured to the embellished, idolized and heavily commercialized industries that keep them going and more difficult to embrace what is ours in order to find ways to make it both influential and profitable.

I can't be the only one to find it ironic that the first record to be an instant, international sensation, to raise eyebrows and get the world both moving and thinking was of the same genre that is so deeply embedded in our culture but now with a questionable future. Is it just that we fail to appreciate what we have? Or will the Caribbean's brilliance and influence, across genres and fields, continue to shape the world, but with little nod back or tangible benefit to and for the place it originated from?

Get the latest local and international news straight to your mobile phone for free: