Caribbean Beat Magazine

Rapso Revelation

Dominique De-Light recounts her experiences with rapso

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  • Illustration by Wendell McShine

” Yuh can’t do that!” my boyfriend replied when I expressed my wish to sing in Trinidad and Tobago’s Rapso Week. Ignore him, I thought; but my man then was Stanton Kewley, of 3 Canal, Trinidad’s best known rapso group. Maybe he was right. A British white woman experimenting with a Trinidadian art form? Was I mad?

I fell in love with rapso the moment I set foot in Trinidad. The addictive beat, politically-conscious content and street-poetry lyrics attracted me like a moth to a flame. Words poured forth from me like water from a burst pipe. My soul craved expression and it chose rapso as its means.

Rapso, the rap of soca, was born in 1970 with the song Blow Away by the late Lancelot “Kebu” Layne. A proponent of Trinidadian oral culture, Layne’s research during the 60s showed that the African griot – travelling poets who spread news around villages – had become the chantuelle in the “street poetry”, African rhythms and historical content increased political consciousness in the local population. Despite these admirable aims, rapso remained in the musical wilderness for years. It was considered uncommercial and ignored by record companies.

The rapso fire kept burning mainly because of the work of one man, Brother Resistance, now known as the father or the movement. Through his unceasing efforts both at home and abroad, rapso gradually gained in strength. Artists such as Brother Book, Karega Mandela and Cheryl Byron joined Resistance on political rallies, picket lines and demonstrations in the 70s, laying colonies, the praise singer who metamorphosed into the calypsonian in the post-independence era. The strong oral African tradition continued through calypso, Tobagonian speech bands, street picong and carnival characters such as the Midnight Robber – the wizard of wit, hyperbole and political critique. Layne created rapso from local dialect, Orisha drums and the sound of the steelpan, building on that oral tradition.

The art form’s heritage and birth – during the Black Power revolution in the early 70s – gave it an unashamedly political stance. Its use of dialect, the groundwork for today’s flourishing rapso scene.

In 1990, with international encouragement, Resistance and the others established National Rapso Day in Trinidad. This developed quickly into a week of celebration, and then, in 1999, a month.

The 90s saw an explosion of talent on the scene. The seeds sown by Layne and Resistance were finally bearing fruit. Local record companies, such as Mad Bull and Rituals, signed up Resistance, Ataklan, Kindred and 3 Canal. All have had big carnival hits in recent years. Trinidad has finally woken up to what Resistance calls “the power of the word, the riddum of the word” that is rapso.

A staple of rapso’s annual celebration is the Breaking New Ground concert, a forum for new talent.

It was this I wished to appear in. To take part one had to attend workshops run by Resistance, Mandela and two young proponents of the scene, Sheldon Blackman and Anna D. The sessions were held weekly in the old premises of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in Port of Spain, the group established by Derek Walcott in 1959.

That alone was intimidating, never mind the 30 Trinidadian faces that greeted me on arrival. I was the only foreigner and the only white woman in the room. Anxiously, I wondered whether I had any right to be there, but it was too late to leave. Resistance asked us to perform our songs.

Nervously, legs shaking, my skin whiter than usual, I stood in front of the founding fathers of rapso. Would they laugh me out of the room, dismiss me with “white gyal go home,” or worse still, would I be ignored by those I admired? I sang of my frustration, imprisoned in a colour historically associated with prejudice, fighting against “white lies”, with a call for racial unity. As I rapped, suspicious glances turned to welcoming smiles. Afterwards, fellow performers shook me by the hand. “I thought you’d come to steal our music, but I see you’re one of us, gyal. Respect,” said one.

Over the following weeks we were taught performance and techniques by rapso artists and the ever-encouraging, soft-spoken Brother Resistance. The workshops were a supportive and spiritual environment, not the usual individualistic, competitive ego trips of most music industry events. Most of us were new to the scene. Rapso, for us, was a method of empowerment, a way to use street dialect to express our fears and voice our concerns.

As the weeks passed, our confidence flourished and friendships blossomed. My fellow performers were from all walks of life and sang on all topics. There was Gabrielle Hosein, Ms Mastana Bahar 2000, singing Chutney Love, combining Indian and African traditions; the enthusiastic Nacha with his hip-hop style, rapping on AIDS awareness; Brothers for Life had a hard-hitting song about incest, and the girl group, Too Shy, related the history of rapso. There were many more talented folk, and I was made to feel welcome by all. I was grateful for their acceptance.

Finally the big day arrived. The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain, established more than 50 years ago by Beryl McBurnie (a pioneer of Caribbean dance who died this year) for the purpose of promoting Trinidadian culture, was the venue.

Once again I was intimidated by the building as much as the event itself.  The stage was decorated with a red, gold, and green banner featuring Africa, and a raised black fist. The irony of my appearance in front of such a backdrop did not escape me. As the audience of 200 filled the wooden benches, my mouth became dry, my legs weak, and my stomach filled with a ballet of butterflies. Trinidadian audiences are notoriously difficult to impress. It is not unknown for performers to be be pelted with rotten tomatoes and toilet rolls. I cursed my risk-taking tendencies.

Too soon it was my turn in the spotlight. Wolf whistles and a thudding heartbeat accompanied my walk centre. I launched into song, painfully aware of my shaking legs. The stage lights made me sweat and their glare blinded me. Convinced that my voice was no more than a squeak, that my movements resembled a wooden puppet, I wished for it all to end. Finally it did.

To my amazement I heard cheers and applause. Suddenly the audience came into focus. Smiles stretched back as far as I could see. My heart leapt. My brain buzzed. On a natural high, intoxicated with success, I wanted to do it all over again. I was asked to perform at the Women in Rapso concert the following week, but I was booked on a plane to England.

Each year since then, I had a new song ready, but fate prevented me from performing again in the rapso celebrations. I still write rapso though, and one day I’ll sing them in Trinidad or elsewhere. As for those who say yuh can’t, well this gal, she prove she can.