For the last 27 years T&T’s National Action Cultural Committee, the cultural arm of the National Joint Action Committee, has been hosting an Annual ‘Top 20’ Stars of Gold Calypso and Calypso of the Year Award Ceremony. Gilman Figaro, Chairman/Founder of the The Sunshine Awards, gave the feature address: Excerpts
A Place in the Present for the Past
By Gil Figaro
At the very onset, let me congratulate the National Action Cultural Committee and its leadership for embarking upon this noble initiative of preserving calypso music in its traditional form and for bringing artists into closer contact with the people of Trinidad and Tobago and by extension the world for the past 27 years. In other words, this organization’s recognition of the cultural diversity that pervades its musical forms, not only frames the society of Trinidad and Tobago but also underscores the power of the blending of various cultures and its significance to teaching, learning and human development. I stand before you tonight as a beneficiary of this tripartite result or outcome.
I was introduced to calypso and the calypso tent around the age of 7 or 8 by my uncle, Daniel Emanuel Jardine Gilchrist known to calypso aficionados or enthusiasts as the “Young Killer.” Through him I met some of my heroes and teachers – namely, the Mighty Sparrow, the Mighty Chalkdust, Terror, Bomber and the Mighty Duke. Of course, over the years there have been many others too numerous to mention. It is with deep pride, that as I reflect on my years from pre-adolescence to adulthood that these very calypsonians by their research, their mediation of disputes, their delving into history, their documenting of events, their re-narrations of the colloquial idioms and their ensuring that our African traditions remain alive, have all been instrumental to my learning, education and development. Like the Mighty Sparrow, I am proud to say that in the face of British colonial education, that “If I was bright, I woulda be a damn fool.”
The impact of calypso and the calypsonian has far-reaching implications and is not surprising that researchers and historians alike continue to write about the art form and its artists, many of whom may lack formal education as we know it, yet have made and continue to make significant contributions to our culture. And so my goal tonight is to reiterate that there is a place in the present for the past.
My point, brothers and sisters, is that while many of our veterans did not attend college or university, their compositions, their lyrics, cognitive processes, insights, and melodies have led us to believe otherwise. Their social and political commentaries have helped to shape and expand my understanding and ability to engage in dialog in many circles.
In short, they have contributed significantly to increasing my cultural literacy and equipping me with an arsenal of worldviews that has become commonplace in my daily existence.
I often describe our calypsonians as ‘incubators of knowledge’ because they have educated us using their tools of varied skills, craftsmanship and talent. We therefore owe a great deal to these pedagogical heroes who have used their performing venues as classrooms. We should not forget them even if some are waiting to welcome us elsewhere.
Social commentaries like the Mighty Sparrow’s “Education is Essential,” Duke’s “How Many More Must Die,” (How poignant a title when we relate it to the social breakdown and murder rate in our communities, not to mention the spate of police killings in the US), Christo’s “Don’t try to Live like the Morgan’s,” Chalkdust’s “Black Inventions” and Funny’s “Read a Book” should not only be viewed or enjoyed as advice or counseling in song but should be appreciated in the context of human development and empowerment. Truly, the power of the veteran calypsonians must not be taken lightly but should be contextualized as harbingers of knowledge for the upcoming generation. I am therefore appealing to the veterans to continue to forge ahead with the traditional art form of calypso to ensure that the past transcends the present thereby ensuring a future.
We must also credit the veteran calypsonian with a keen understanding of the fabric of his/her society and the ability to recognize the gap between rich and poor – a gap that reaffirmed his role as the voice and ears of the masses. I am sure that you can recall, as recently as the 1960s calypso was not considered an integral part of the performing arts to the extent that it was not played by radio stations during the Lenten season. The performing artist was perceived as the individual who played the piano or the violin at Queens Hall in Port of Spain for the upper echelon in society.
The same can be said of the very powerful and informative political commentaries from the veteran calypsonian. The calypsonian can set the stage for a democratic society like ours. Gypsy proved it with his “Captain the Ship is sinking,” Chalkdust with his “Driver can’t drive” and the Lord Kitchener with his “Not a Damn Seat For them.” The politician plays a significant role in the affairs of citizens through the crafting of laws, policies and the structuring of society – sometimes creating gaps between rich and poor and favoritism among the citizenry. In stark contrast, the calypsonian often point out these inequities and social ills through his compositions. In other words, the calypsonian, like a journalist can inform, persuade and influence political outcomes.
Moreover, his or her compositions serve to pull the feathers of the wings of politicians to enable him to “fly an ordinary pitch” to use the words of Shakespeare. I often ponder upon this reality asking myself that after playing all these roles, why becoming a calypsonian was not viewed as a respectable pursuit. Is it because of the lower class, African roots of calypso, or is it because the calypsonian is often right?
Let’s take a look at another area of the calypso genre that our heroes have mastered which has also contributed to my development – the humor in calypso. Humor is an integral part of our cultural fabric. One might even venture to say that Caribbean societies will cease to exist if there is no humor. Humor to our Caribbean society is therapeutic. Medical researchers are even reporting that laughter is important for one’s good health and well-being…. Remember Chalkie’s calypso “You Got to Learn to Laugh.”
Many veteran calypsonians have integrated humor into their compositions, often making it the most important ingredient. I often describe their humor as “creative humor.” Calypsoes like Lord Pyscho’s “My Memory,” Spoiler’s “Himself Talking to Himself,” Lord Nelson’s “Lying Competition,” Dougla’s “Lazy Man” and Young Killer’s “Black Woman named Miss White” are all calypsos that reflect a high level of creative humor and were appreciated by all audiences. It is this creative humor of the calypsonian that finds its way back into the society, where, as part of the socialization process, it frames our personalities and contributes to our national identity. Many foreigners therefore cannot understand why we laugh at events and things that make them cry and why we are so joyful in areas where others find gloom.
Stay with me on this journey and let’s reflect on the calypsonian as an entertainer and the calypso art form as entertainment. There is no doubt that some veteran calypsonians have mastered the art of entertaining others and the public using skills and techniques, language and body movements that leave audiences wanting more and wishing that the performances never end. Actions and emotions to underscore the message from the lyrics clearly define the calypsonian as an entertainer and not just someone who sings calypsoes.
The Mighty Sparrow, Super Blue, David Rudder, Black Stalin, Brigo and Calypso Rose are among those who have thrilled many audiences to the fullest repeatedly answering calls for encores. So my brothers and sisters, in many respects, calypso is much more than humorous political and social commentaries – in fact it is an art form that persuades, informs, educates, motivates, uplifts and entertains.
All these characteristics of the calypso art form superbly performed by the calypsonian helped to persuade and educate me as a young man here in Trinidad and Tobago so that I could embark upon an adult life with the capacity to appreciate other aspects of the performing arts. The joys and excitement of calypso often replaced my need, as a young man in Trinidad, to listen to other forms of music. So powerful is the art form of calypso that it has given birth to other genres: soca; chutney soca; soca parang; and the performers of these new art forms are benefiting from the sacrifices the calypsonians of yesteryear have made throughout their careers. This illustrates that there is a place in the present for the past.
It is this appreciation for the art form and a strong desire to make a difference in people’s lives that gave me the impetus to found Calypso for Africa in 1984 and write and produce the music track “Now Is the Time” with Joe Brown and Ralph MacDonald. A recording that included 72 calypsonians spanning four generations. The objective of that project was to assist our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, Africa.
Following that historic Project, I founded the SUNSHINE Awards to recognize excellence in calypso and steelband music and pay tribute to the pioneers and great contributors. Let me be clear – an undertaking such as this cannot be accomplished single-handedly.
I have had tremendous support from individuals who shared the same passion for our indigenous art form – the calypso and steelband music…
The establishment of the SUNSHINE Awards did not occur without challenges. We had many “naysayers” including the various Caribbean Consulates (including my own) in New York City that clearly voiced their opinion saying – the idea was not going to work – calypso has no track record. There were also our brothers and sisters from other Caribbean countries describing it as a “Trini Thing.” There was the lack of trust in the idea from sponsors, in the Caribbean and New York and the shortage of financial resources – were other barriers to which we were privy.
No doubt, there were times I thought of shelving the idea but felt that I owed this to my uncle, my culture and myself. Moreover, my uncle indicated that once I had Chalkdust in my corner that I would never fail and he was indeed clairvoyant in that regard. …
Tonight, I can proudly tell you that through the years, the SUNSHINE Awards Program has expanded in scope and breadth extending its canopy of awards to America, Africa, Central America, South America and India….
You should also know that following the death of Nelson Mandela, we requested [and got] approval from his family and The Nelson Mandela Foundation to name a SUNSHINE Award in his honor as a tribute and to keep the focus of his works and contribution to our world in the forefront of our minds. …
In conclusion, I note that this special event tonight, coincides with the centenary of the first vocal recoding of a calypso, “Iron Duke in the Land” performed by Julien Whiterose. We should note also that history has recorded that carnival over the years has become the hallmark of the Trinidad and Tobago society. Some historians and researchers still argue that there would have been no carnival without calypso music and the calypsonian.
If we accept that argument then we must accept that calypso is the cornerstone of the rich history and beauty of our society and has been very instrumental in setting the stage for cultural diversity. In that case we, the calypso promoters and calypso lovers must ensure that the cornerstone be not removed and that indeed there is a place in the present for calypso music….
My brothers and sisters, you and I are indeed blessed beneficiaries of the beautiful art form of calypso music – an art form that must be preserved with its heritage for future generations. Let us all embark upon a personal assignment joining hands and hearts with the National Action Cultural Committee and other like-minded cultural organizations to ensure that there is a place in the present for traditional calypso music and the calypsonian.