Is calypso dying?

Once upon a time calypso tents in Trinidad drew massive crowds. These days, some have closed their doors and others are struggling to survive

  • David Rudder. Photograph by Robert Taylor
  • The Mighty Sparrow. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Maximus Dan. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • The Mighty Shadow. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Bunji Garlin. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Prof Gordon Rohlehr. Photograph by Robert Taylor

Once upon a time, calypso tents were considered the temples of Trinidad music. A major highlight of Carnival was a trip to a tent to hear humorous ditties along with the political and social commentary of the day.

But for the past five years, the steady decline in attendance has led many a calypso connoisseur to question whether the traditional calypso tent will survive.

“We have seen numbers slipping since 1997,” says Frank Martineau, co-manager of Spektakula, which was once one of the most popular calypso tents. “We went from seeing 100,000 patrons in a calypso season to 20,000. Everything has changed. It’s difficult to attract the young people into traditional calypso and the tent isn’t conducive to the danceable soca. Everything has its time.”

Two years ago, Spektakula decided to opt out of having a calypso tent, and they don’t plan to open this year either.

In 2003, long before Spektakula closed its doors, three of the tent’s calypso stalwarts—Funny and Trinidad Rio, the uncrowned kings of humour and Luta, a national calypso monarch—opted to bow out of the calypso tent.

“It just wasn’t fun any more,” says Trinidad Rio. “They started to bring in a different type of music,” he says, referring to the uptempo, modernised version of calypso known as soca. “I felt people who come to the tent come to sit down and listen to calypsoes with messages, and the tent was not the place for dance music.”

Soca music aside, Rio felt tents had got themselves into trouble by sanctioning political calypsoes that targeted the Indian population and the UNC, the political party that most people associated with Trinidadians of Indian descent.

“It just doesn’t make sense to target your economic base,” said Rio. “Long ago, when I sang in Shadow’s Master’s Den I used to see Indian patrons coming by the busload. One man used to buy 100 tickets for a night. I could see as the years went by that less Indians came to the tent. Calypsonians started to pound the Indian man.”

Calypsonian Gypsy, known for his traditional social commentary, knows about being attacked because of one’s political affiliation. As an Afro-Trinidadian, he was perceived by many to be a traitor because he was a UNC MP. For some time now calypso tents have been perceived as bastions of the African-based People’s National Movement (PNM).

“I believe calypso tents are going to be a thing of the past if they keep going the way they are,” says Gypsy. “All the tents, starting with TUCO (the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Calypso Organisation), get government funds or they have some kind of political affiliation. There is too much partisan politics and too much vindictiveness. You have to support the government to sing in a calypso tent. You can’t be picked to sing in the calypso finals unless your message is politically correct. Technically the calypso tent is being taken over by the government, and once that happens it can’t survive. It can only survive if it becomes privately owned.”

Rio agrees there is too much politics in calypso.

“Calypsonians allowed politicians to use and misguide them. The strength of the politician is to divide and rule, and calypsonians got caught up in that.”

Even TUCO, which stays clear of the political accusations hurled against it, admits that calypso tents need to take a good, hard look at their future.

“Less people have been coming and we’re looking at new programmes that include both the youth and the veterans,” says Wayne McDonald, assistant general secretary of TUCO. Its flagship tent, Kaiso House, boasts calypso greats like Shadow, Brother Valentino, Protector and King Wellington.

“Calypso tents are going through a metamorphosis, but I don’t think they’ll fold up and die,” says McDonald. “It’s a traditional part of Carnival. They’ll just have to adapt. Eventually it will unfold as something new and traditional. It will remain as something constant in Carnival. It has no other choice.”

In spite of the problems, calypsonians aren’t giving up on venturing into the calypso tent arena. Former national calypso monarch Weston Rawlins, the Mighty Cro Cro, became the manager of the Icons Calypso Tent three years ago, and will return to City Hall in Port of Spain with it this Carnival.

“The older heads still love kaiso (calypso). They come out for the political competitions. You see a sea of people there.

“I find the attendance in town is down because people perceive there is crime there, but we get excellent attendance when we go in the countryside,” says Cro Cro. “Kaiso could never die, because it has a message. People can’t just wine and wine and wine,” he says, referring to the gyrating hip movement that accompanies the fast-paced soca dancing.”

Still, most calypsonians agree: calypso tents will have to get with the times. “I think the management of the calypso tents need to step up to the times in terms of marketing their product,” says rapso artiste Brother Resistance, who performs in Kaiso House. “They’re stuck in the past. Great calypsonians and calypso tent managers like the Lord Kitchener have died, and the new managers…are trying to operate on a blueprint of the 60s. They need to figure out how to market a tent and not an individual, like they once marketed Sparrow or Kitchener. Tents can’t run any more on the personality of a superstar. They’re competing with too many stars in other areas like the fetes.”

Calypso expert Dr Gordon Rohlehr feels there are probably too many calypso tents today.

“They are spreading themselves too thin,” he says. “You have to go to several places, and a lot of people don’t want to do that. There is still a base there, for the older people, but they’re not coming out as much.”

Rohlehr says the vintage calypso shows outside of Carnival are still very well supported, “But the audience of the traditional calypso is aging. They’re still looking for new calypsoes like the ones they knew in the 70s and 80s and they’re not finding them. There’s more morose social commentary and a lack of patriotic songs.

“People lamenting the loss of the way things used to be don’t necessarily like what they’re hearing, so instead of going to the tents, they go to the vintage shows.”

Still, Rohlehr points out, you see people coming out to calypso shows. “They might not go to a tent, but they go to shows Under the Trees at the Normandie or to all-inclusive fetes. Both these places offer a package with a variety of music from the past and present.”Rohlehr also points out that comedy shows spread throughout the year are competing with traditional calypso territory.

“It used to be people went to a calypso tent for the jokes as well, and now there are whole shows, or even calypso tents like Yangatang, that offered humour.

“People are shopping for the type of entertainment they want. A lot of people are bombarded with the sobering reality of Trinidad and they don’t necessarily find it is entertaining to hear the gloom-and-doom calypsoes.”

The good news is, he says, that this generation too will age and most likely develop a feeling of nostalgia. That could bring people back to the calypso tents—once the tents offer songs that fit their needs.

In the meantime, no matter how you look at it, calypso tents are in peril. They’ll have to find a new act to stay in the picture. Still, with all their problems, most calypsonians are not willing to entertain the idea that the calypso tents will ever fold up.

Calypso: the early years

The first tent dedicated to calypso dated back to 1921, when The Railroad Millionaires opened at 26 Duncan Street in East Port of Spain. Chieftain Walter Douglas, a World War I veteran, is credited with creating a whole new atmosphere. He replaced the palm-leaf roof with a piece of tarpaulin, and bamboo benches with actual chairs. He even introduced an orchestra for accompaniment. Calypsonians sang by the light of a kerosene lamps or flambeaux.

The idea of the tent was to “divorce the calypso from its calinda/stickfighting roots by disqualifying tamboo bamboo and bottle and spoon accompaniments from consideration as musical instruments,” writes Dr Gordon Rohlehr in his book Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad.

Information about the early calypso tents of the 1920s is very sketchy because newspapers did not really cover the tents. When newspapers did comment, they complained about the dearth of social commentary. Calypsonians were not held in high esteem. For many decades they were written off as rum-drinking no-goods.

The calypso tents that began to emerge in the 20s were run by middle-class, professional men, “some of “some of whom were believed to be attracted to the lower-class women who frequented tents,” writes Rohlehr. These middle-class men supposedly fed calypsonians with news of juicy scandals among the middle class.

“The tents that developed on; French Shores,’ East Port of Spain between George and Duncan Streets, continued to have a dubious reputation,” says Rohlehr. “For all one can discover from the newspapers of the period, calypsonians were invisible men and tents hardly existed.”

Calypsonians complained that calypso tents were hampered by many of the same problems people cite today.

Calypsonian Lord Beginner said, “People were afraid to come to the tents in the late 1920s and even in the 1930s. We used to have a lot of hooligans in the area.”

The 1930s saw a greater emphasis on calypso competitions, while class and censorship became two major issues in the music of the day. The 40s brought songs about the war, and the emergence of Lord Kitchener, who would own the road in his career with the Road March. The 1950s saw the rise of the Mighty Sparrow, and the Old Brigade Tent, in South Quay, Port of Spain. The 1960s saw the rise of calypso stars and calypso battles in music.

In the 1970s soca, the modern version of calypso, was born.

Over time, the calypsonian found it to his gain to become associated with a particular tent. Calypsonians also began to run their own tents—Sparrow’s Original Young Brigade and Kitchener’s Calypso Revue.

“The tent in this form played a significant role in the development of calypso and calypsonians in Trinidad,” says Rohlehr. “The tent leader, in his quest to maintain the reputation of his tent and surpass that of others, would audition new calypsonian hopefuls every year. Thus each year, new talent was discovered, talent that promised the longevity of his offering, and old talent expanded.”

By the beginning of the new millennium, the calypso tent began to wane. Calypso moved outdoors to the fetes, where a new generation of patrons could dance and prance and jump without ever having to think about the lyrics that have always been an important part of calypso.

Calypso tents of today

Icon Calypso Tent: run by Weston Rawlins, the Mighty Cro CroVenue: City Hall, Frederick, Street, Port of Spain

Kaiso House: the flagship tent run by the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Calypso Organisation (TUCO)
Venue: Strand Cinema, Port of Spain

TUCO North Zone Calypso Tent
Venue: Kavemar Entertainment Complex, Henry Street,
Port of Spain

TUCO South Zone Calypso Tent
Venue: OWTU building, Pointe-à-Pierre Road,
San Fernando

TUCO East Zone Tent
Venue: La Joya Complex, St Joseph

Calypso Revue: run by calypsonian Michael Osuna (Sugar Aloes)
Venue: Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union Hall (SWWTU), Wrightson Road, Port of Spain

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