It’s always struck me as odd that Caribbean music, without a doubt one of the most significant cultural gifts that has been bestowed on the world, has been the subject of so few films of any international significance.
We had The Harder They Come, the wonderful Jamaican movie starring Jimmy Cliff as Ivan O. Martin, in the early 1970s. It became a cult hit, and the soundtrack played a major role in introducing millions of people to a rather special music called reggae. More than twenty years later — quite a gap — Ry Cooder, the pioneering American guitarist, went on a musical pilgrimage that brought us first the Grammy-winning CD Buena Vista Social Club and then the acclaimed documentary movie of the same name. They resurrected the careers of remarkable talents like Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, and Ibrahim Ferrer, and, in turn, played a major role in introducing millions of people to the music of Cuba.
Now, after another rather lengthy gap, it’s finally, at long, long, long last, the turn of calypso. And the big question just about everybody who’s seen it is asking about Calypso Dreams — a critically acclaimed documentary that belongs in the same rarefied cultural stratosphere as both these classics — is whether it’s going to have the same sort of impact, globally, on the “mother music of the English-speaking Caribbean,” to borrow the well-chosen words of the great calypsonian David Rudder, one of its narrators.
I hope so. Fervently.
After watching Calypso Dreams something like half a dozen times and counting, and being mesmerised each and every one of them, I’ve concluded, with some delight, that this is the film that calypso has been waiting for. And, with any luck, it’s going to turn out to be the film about calypso that the world has been waiting for.
Calypso Dreams is the realisation of a long-cherished, idealistic dream of two Americans, Geoffrey Dunn and Michael Horne, whose heartfelt love for and appreciation of calypso and calypsonians couldn’t be more profound if they’d been born and raised within earshot of a Port of Spain panyard.
It was conceived almost two decades ago, when Horne, a music producer and concert promoter, introduced his friend Dunn, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and award-winning journalist and author, to the music of Trinidad. It wasn’t a particularly difficult cultural conversion: Dunn readily admits he was hooked, instantly and irrevocably, when he heard the first few seconds of Rudder’s 1986 hit The Hammer.
Before long, the two, along with Dunn’s filmmaking partner Mark Schwartz, were planning to make a film about the music and culture of Trinidad. But they ran into a multitude of problems, mainly of a financial nature. For much of the 1990s, the project was on hold, and the dream looked like remaining just that.
Then, in February of 2000, something happened that changed everything: Lord Kitchener, calypso’s revered Grandmaster, died. A distraught Horne returned from his annual trip to Trinidad Carnival and told Dunn that they had to make the movie, and make it ASAP, no matter what the problems were. The genius they’d hoped would be one of its central figures, and who had been encouraging them for years to make the film, wasn’t around any more, and many of his contemporaries, who were to have been his co-stars, were getting on in years.
Money was still a problem, but by Carnival the following year the three, along with cameraman Eric Thiermann, were on their way to Port of Spain. They’d scraped together enough cash to get the project off the ground, and they figured that with a total of three weeks of shooting they’d have the film in the can.
The three weeks turned into numerous trips to Trinidad spread over almost three years — a filmmaking saga liberally sprinkled with the frustrations, problems, adversity, adventures, and rewards that are all part and parcel of doing business in the Caribbean.
The end result: a stunning landmark movie that captures, from beginning to end, the essence of calypso. A movie that gives neophytes to the music a crash course in its history, its complexity, and the characters who make it happen, and at the same time earns the admiration and respect of the most hard-to-impress calypso audience of them all — Trinidadians. It was first shown in Port of Spain just before Carnival 2004, and, after a few minutes, the audience were laughing, singing, and applauding. Even before that momentous screening, a rough cut of Calypso Dreams had won a best Caribbean documentary award at the Jamerican Film Festival in Montego Bay in 2002, and the completed version got rave reviews following its formal world premiere at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival in California in 2003.
Magic moments? Calypso Dreams is full of them.
There’s the legendary Lord Blakie — who passed away early this year — lighting up the screen as he sings his 1954 Road March, Steelband Clash . . . complete, of course, with his trademark laugh, twinkling eyes, and an assortment of fellow calypsonians and cronies joining in the chorus as the rum and Carib flowed at the Good Times Pub on Henry Street in the heart of Port of Spain. I’d give my right arm to have been there.
There’s Kitch himself, captured in vintage black-and-white footage, singing London is the Place for Me as he arrives for what would become a 15-year sojourn in England on 21 June, 1948, one of thousands who made the trip from the Caribbean on the Empire Windrush — an epic voyage now enshrined in history as the beginning of a wave of West Indian immigration that was to change, forever and for the better, the face of the United Kingdom. There’s Kitch again, prancing and dancing on stage with his friend, rival, and fellow genius the Mighty Sparrow. And again, delivering a joyous, spontaneous rendition of Africa My Home, a song that perfectly captures the highly political and conscious side of calypso’s incomparable Grandmaster.
There’s the late Ras Shorty I, the creator of soca, singing his haunting Om Shanti Om on the doorstep of his house in the hills, backed by three of his daughters with voices as close to angels as I’m going to hear in this lifetime. There’s the veteran Explainer, blessing us with a simple, reverent rendition of his timeless classic Ras Mas.
There’s Sparrow, accompanied on guitar by his old sidekick Lord Superior — both, by this stage, playing key roles in the making of Calypso Dreams in the roles of artistic consultant and co-producer, respectively — singing Jean and Dinah and Mae Mae on the roof of the Hilton Trinidad in Port of Spain.
There’s Lord Pretender, the beloved Preddie, still proud and still eloquent while only a few months from dying of cancer, reminiscing about his career as he sits among his precious collection of photographs and memorabilia in his humble government housing apartment in the heart of Port of Spain. There’s the Roaring Lion, whose career spanned a remarkable eight decades, singing his classic Caroline in still more vintage footage.
This is calypso stripped to its bare bones, to its essence as the cultural embodiment of the remarkable people of a remarkable country — a nation, to steal again from David Rudder (who better?) where the Ganges meets the Nile.
And, it has to be said, it’s a cultural embodiment that has little or nothing to do with the Road Marches and chart hits of recent years, with their pounding, relentless, repetitive rhythms and lyrics that offer nothing more intellectually challenging than endless exhortations to “jump to the left, jump to the right, jump in the air, shake your bootie, wave your arms, jump, jump, jump.”
That’s not just my opinion. I recently asked Lord Superior, whose career as a calypsonian goes back to 1954, what he thinks of today’s Trinidadian music. Responded Supie: “I admire these soca artists for their entrepreneurship and hardly anything else. Certainly not for the music, because there’s hardly any music. They can whip up a crowd like drill sergeants, but I think it takes away quite a lot from the beauty of calypso and the role that it has played.”
True; calypso, sadly, sometimes seems to be heading for the endangered species list in the face of the onslaught of the jump-and-wave brigade. Can Calypso Dreams take it to a new and broader audience, and, in doing so, help to revive it? If it does, no one will be happier than Messrs Dunn, Horne, and Superior. If Calypso Dreams doesn’t revive the fortunes of calypso and calypsonians, it won’t be for want of trying on the part of the movie’s creators.
As this issue of Caribbean Beat went to press, the hugely successful Putumayo label was reported to be on the verge of picking up the CD and DVD, which would guarantee major international distribution, and the movie is expected to go into general release this autumn. Some major touring for the stars of Calypso Dreams is also on the horizon — and I, for one, can’t wait. The tour is expected to start with a short run of select dates on the US east coast in January 2006, followed by an international spring tour after Trinidad Carnival. You can get the latest updates at www.calypsodreams.com.
I hope it’s all a monumental success. I only wish Kitch, Preddie, Blakie, the Lion, and so many other great calypsonians were still around to be part of it all.
LORD SUPERIOR: “I think Calypso Dreams has been long in coming, but it’s the greatest thing to happen to document calypso . . . There is nothing better. It means everything to me. I put my life on Calypso Dreams. I see nothing else right now to move calypso forward and into the consciousness of the world. Calypso Dreams is that vehicle. It’s well done and very informative. It gives new listeners a new perspective about the history and breadth and the depth of the art form.”
GEOFFREY DUNN: “It’s very nice to have Calypso Dreams be equated with The Harder They Come and Buena Vista Social Club. And it’s humbling at the same time. I think that Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad are the three great cultural centres of the Caribbean, and now Trinidad has a cinematic work that captures its cultural significance. And I’m very proud of that. I only hope that Calypso Dreams eventually has the type of impact that these other films have had. It’s not about the film, per se, but about the culture in general, and the calypsonians in particular. We made this film and have stuck with it through all the rough times to better the lives of the calypsonians and to get them the recognition they deserve. That was our goal. And we are on our way.
“The question the film poses is this: calypso has a vibrant, colourful history, and served as the soundtrack for Trinidadian history in the 20th century. With all of the deaths of the great masters, will it survive? The film doesn’t answer that question; it can’t. But that’s really the subliminal cosmic question of the film. And along the way you get all this great insight and analysis and history and performances — but in the end, you have to ask yourself the painful question: is calypso dying? And I do not know the answer to that, I only know that it’s a pertinent question.”
MICHAEL HORNE: “I first began travelling to Trinidad some 20 years ago. I initially went down to experience Carnival and the steelband panyard scene, but it was the calypso tents that first year that really knocked me out. Kitchener, Blue Boy, Merchant, Roaring Lion, Lord Pretender. Here was a place where anyone and everyone had a voice within their communities. Whether it was political or social commentary, humour or double entendre, if someone put clever pen to paper and wrapped it around a good melody, they’d get a chance to say their piece in front of a crowd. I could go on for hours about the music, styles and personalities that I’ve been lucky enough to witness these past 20 years, but I think it is the “poor man’s newspaper”, that sense of real community that uniquely separates the culture of calypso from the rest. If Calypso Dreams conveys some of that vitality, then we’ve done our job.”