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Competition hurting culture?
Last week, Fantastic Friday marked the countdown to the big Carnival weekend as final competitions got under way—International Soca Monarch (ISM) on Friday night, Panorama finals on Saturday night and Calypso Monarch on Sunday (Dimanche Gras) night. What does the Soca Monarch offer to the genre? And has Dimanche Gras lost its appeal?
Competition diluting soca?
On the soca front, after the announcement of the finalists for the Soca Monarch competition, Erphan Alves voiced his hurt on social media, expressing his disappointment for not being chosen in the final 21. He said he had a good song but he felt the judges may have been hard of hearing.
For Alves and other participants, the International Soca Monarch competition has become a marketing tool or soundboard for their product.
According to Dr Suzanne Burke, lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, ISM serves as an opportunity “to harness emerging talent in the soca arena.”
“The competition was formed to fill a void in the festival space since the calypso competitions were not recognising the soca as a legitimate art form, where they consistently placed soca practitioners low in the order. Left up to the calypso gatekeepers, the soca may not have had its rightful place,” Dr Burke said.
Before the competition became a spectacle which has annually filled the Hasely Crawford Stadium, it was located a stone’s throw away, in the landfill opposite (which is now used by Customs for imported cars), where a minimal crowd supported the venture. William Munroe, the brainchild behind ISM, persisted with the competition. Over the years he made the claim that the show contributed to the development of soca, providing a platform for neophytes and seasoned performers to improve their talent.
Dr Burke has noted a double-edge purpose of the competition. “The ISM has proven to be a vehicle to improve the visibility of soca,” she said. “In the main, the ISM represents one of the main vehicles through which soca has been taken to the region and the world. The reigning Soca Monarch gets more cachet and bragging rights which transfers into greater earning potential for the year of his/her reign.”
On the other hand, she countered, the competitive element, with its marking schema, can sometimes force participants to engage in formulaic presentations to ensure they gain marks in certain categories.
David Rudder, who has won Road March and Calypso Monarch titles, agrees that the ISM can be used as a measuring stick. Using his experience when he was crowned in 1986, Rudder said his objective was to use the competition as an outlet to be recognised. “I achieved my goal and moved on,” he said. This is no different for the ISM, he said. “You have to pace yourself,” he said.
The challenge is not to get stuck in a rut to focus on writing or performing for the sake of the competition, he said. “There is a lot of instruction in the performances – you know, wave your hand left or right, and the new ones (performers) get stuck in that. If you find yourself in that, either pull out or address the monotony,” Rudder advised.
Dr Burke noted that there has been an improvement in the production, giving soca artistes better opportunities to improve their craft.
“There has been training and development of soca artistes before they are allowed to enter the competition to improve the soca product; increased investment in the industry as opposed to the show/event. And there’s an emphasis in moving from event to industry,” she claimed.
But veteran musician and producer Carl “Beaver” Henderson said placing the focus on acquiring the top prize money can reduce the quality of soca music production and consequently the perception of what is required in the industry.
“Now, the actual craft of writing and producing is to hustle a prize. True musicians are limited as a result. They (writers and producers) have removed the music and creativity from it,” he said.
Henderson said most of the songs nowadays have a limited scale or what he terms “flatline music”, because the dynamics of harmony and melody are stripped.
On the other hand, he added, he noticed a trend going back to what people consider the roots of soca. For example, Rudder’s Welcome to Trinidad uses the calypso style of the 1940s; Ultimate Rejects featuring MX Prime have an element of calypsonian Shadow’s bassline in Full Extreme; Bunji Garlin’s 1995 gets nostalgic about feting with the use of a brass arrangement; and Sekon Sta used the heavy iron percussion reminiscent of a steelband’s engine room in his song Kings and Queens.
Sekon Sta, the son of the late lyricist and calypsonian Merchant, said his song (co-written with Preedy) had a lot to do with what he knew growing up. “I am a reflection of what I know,” he said. “I am my father’s son. Calypso is my forte. It is reminiscent in my writing, in my authentic direction.”
Another trend noted is the fusing the soca music with global elements such as EDM (electronic dance music), which Henderson also supports. “There is nothing wrong with change,” he said. “But don’t strip the craft.”
Rudder said EDM is passing in the tradition, as did Sparrow who had a Latin edge in some of his calypsos, Clive Bradley with Funk Kaiso and Ras Shorty I who absorbed music surrounding him. At the same time, Rudder said the outside influence is looking at what Trinidad is doing.
“The EDM Trinidad music is looking at Europe. That sound (EDM) dominates but it should be the other way around,” he said.
As a member of the next generation of soca, Sekon Sta believes music has to go with the direction the world is going, but in accepting that fact, the T&T identity in the music should not be sacrificed.
“The fusion is going to be there, one way or the other. I have no problem with that. At the end, so long as there is that distinction that it’s truly us,” he said. Calypso and Dimanche Gras Dimanche Gras traditionally served as a foundation stone for calypso. As a lyrical gayelle for the best calypso bards at the Queen’s Park Savannah, the show served as both entertainment and a form of identity for some people.
According to Ngozi Liverpool, who has done postgraduate research on the topic, the Dimanche Gras of the 1940s to Independence era served as a method of transition. “The nation emerged from colonialism to independence, then to being a republic. Carnival was used as a decolonisation tool,” she said.
The Dimanche Gras of today, however, is influenced more by consumer values and commercialism, she thinks.
“Now the people want to see more,” she said. “What was fulfilling then, is not fulfilling now.”
For the calypsonian, the Dimanche Gras is about politics—the affairs of the nation. Now that the genre is categorised into political, social, nation-building and humourous, there is a stifling of the calysonian’s craft, Liverpool said.
But Cro Cro (Winston Rawlins) looks at the advantages of self-promotion in the competition. “The prize money is decent enough,” he said. “Wearing the crown means going international—so when people hear your song, they respond Kaiso, Kaiso, meaning you are accepted.”
Acceptance, he said, begins before the finals.
“It happens in Skinner Park, where the semifinals are held. If you get toilet paper, it means you have work to do,” said Rawlins, who was Calypso Monarch in 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2007. “It depends on how good your material is.”
By extension, the quality of music is reflected in the attendance at the calypso tents. In the pre-colonial era, the calypso tents were popular venues to express concerns of society and record the events of the time. The French creoles, the upper class in society, decided it was an opportunity to control the topics by managing the calypso tents.
In the post-independence era, the tents were owned by the calypsonians themselves, and were thriving at one point. However, over the years, audience attendance has dwindled. Also, some owners have complained of lack of sponsorship as a major contributor to limited upkeep and promotion of their shows.
“Crime may be an issue but if the programme is good, people will come,” said Cro Cro, who runs Icons Calypso tent. “I know people coming by me.”
Kurt Allen, Calypso Monarch 2010, believes in supporting any forum in which calypso is promoted. Allen has been running the Barrack Yard Tent Experience for the past three years and has faced the challenges of sponsorship. While calypso tents get a subvention from Government, groups like Allen’s do not, and depend on audience attendance to keep going. But Allen believes there is a need for this concept, as an alternative offering for the calypso artform.
The show is presented in a settlement where performers are scripted into vignettes as opposed to an introduction by a Master of Ceremonies. His cast includes calypsonians who are revered for past hits as well as junior performers who are considered next in line in the tradition.
“Looking at the history of calypso, it is a confluence of cultures where neighbours and children were allowed to shine in their own environment. It is a sense of home, a connection,” he said.
Looking at the present, Rawlins thinks the style of composition also makes or breaks the artform.
He says: “I have been a calypsonian for 40 plus years. This is my life... Most people write a poem and then put a melody. But it is a roots thing. The young people strange, they don’t take time to work.”
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