Archive for Calypso Music

Playing Mas!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , , on September 30, 2012 by playthell

Struttin their stuff in the Road March

 A Bacchanal in Brooklyn

Once again Brooklyn’s beautiful Eastern Parkway was awash in colorfully costumed revelers on Labor Day. It is the biggest annual parade in the USA – although partisans of the Puerto Rican Day Parade dispute this claim.   On this day the Trinidadian tradition of road marches, playing mas and Calypso music is employed to celebrate the cultures of all the English speaking Caribbean.

Its Carnival time in Brooklyn and everybody “jumps up” for the sheer joy it brings.  No matter where I happen to be I make it my business to get back to the Big Apple for the Labor Day bacchanal, a restorative ritual that rejuvenates the Caribbean community through the joy of music and dance, breathes new life into the culture, cements a sense of community, and showers observers of all backgrounds with good vibes that makes the spirit dance!

It is a colorful and dynamic spectacle that is unique among public events in the US, except for Madi Gras in New Orleans, but is common fare south of the border.  Although Carnival serves many functions, social catharsis chief among them, the display of black bodies and the celebration of their beauty is a major raison d’ eter.  It’s one of the main things that attract revelers of both sexes to the Eastern Parkway “jump up.”

The big event of the day is the road march.  This is where those who dress up in costumes – which the Trinis call “playing Mas’ – stroll through the streets singing Calypso songs, strutting their stuff to the beat and trying to compete for the coveted road march prize.  The judge’s standards are demanding and the competition is fierce.  Groups are graded on costumes, floats and music.

This competition is taken so seriously that the different organizations work and plan all year in order to compete on this very special day.  This kind of serious effort is characteristic of organizations that participate in this public Dionysian ritual.  One need only look at the “Samba Schools” of Brazil or the Mardi Gras clubs in New Orleans in order to witness the intensity of the preparations.

Whatever else Carnival may mean it is an opportunity for narcissist of both sexes to display their assets; thus proving a visual feast for those who love human eye candy.   Here are some select images as seen through the lens of the internationally renowned art photographer, Ms. Lisa Dubois.

 The Joy of the Moment Beams from their Faces




Getting down and Dirty!


 The Art of Carnival


 The complexity of design is marvelous
The Goddess Oshun Personified!


 Elegant Erotica!

A Golden Gal


 Paint and feathers are pervasive in the costumes

At Carnival….


…..The Women Rule


Flying the Flags High….


 Celebrating their Island Homes
The Boy’s Rubbing Up!


She’s playing it off …chillin in the groove


 Salivating over the Pulchritude!


Intricate designs painstakingly executed


 A Trini Dougla Gal!


Africa and India meet in Trinidad


 Watch the Hands!


 Jewelry as Art

The Next Generation



 Passing on the Tradition


 At The End Road March

 A graceful stroll down Eastern Parkway


 The Masquerade is over!



Looking to next year


  “Da Mayor” of Harlem Leslie Wytche was There



Partying Hearty Jumpin Up in the Streets!





Photos By: Lisa Dubois

Text by: Playthell Benjamin

New York City,

September 26, 2012

Long Live Calypso!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2012 by playthell

 Aldwin Roberts aka  “Lord Kitchener”

“Calypso Outlived Rock and Roll and Calypso Will Outlive Soul”

Lord Kitchner 

Although it is little known outside of the English speaking Caribbean – formally known as the British West Indies – the Calypso tradition of Trinidad is one of the great contributions to twentieth century music.  Like all great art that rises up from the folk, this music is a sound portrait of the Trinidadian people, a sonic mirror that reflects the deeper precincts of their souls.

Although I have never visited Trinidad, a short coming that I shall one day correct, I have met and befriended many of them here in New York City – the most cosmopolitan city in the world –where there is a sizable Trinidadian community.  I have found them to be a physically beautiful people who are more often than not charming, eloquent, and swift on the cap; which is to say smart as whips.

In my extensive forays among the Trinis I have never had an unpleasant moment, nor have I ever met a Trinidadian that I didn’t like.  There is no other group of people about whom I can say that – not even Afro-Americans – and I’ve met so many people of all nations I feel like I’ve been around the world and spoke to everybody twice!

Try as I might, have been unable to muster any armaments to defend against the seductive bewitching Charms of Trini Women –  hot chocolate honeys with thick succulent lips and jaunting gluteus maximis; teasing tan Mulattresses; long haired honey brown Dougla gals ….and down Coolies too.  And when they dutty wind it makes me lose my mind!

It could be that I have been lucky enough to only meet the best Trinidadians, the exceptions.  But I think the mathematics argues against it.  For my contacts with Trinis have been too random…too unconnected.  Hence I tend to believe that the Trinidadians that I have met are a representative sample; and what I see is what you get from these delightful, graceful, people.

Thus it seems in the nature of things that Trinidadians should produce an art form that is optimistic, humorous, ironic, highly intelligent, inventive, and filled with joi de vivre!  That is what we have in the art of Calypso.  It is a musical literature for the masses that explore all the issues great literature has always addressed.

It’s themes are universal and speak to the entire human condition – triumph and tragedy; the nature of morality; the consequences of technology; local politics; world politics, history – ancient and modern – sports, religion, sex, or any issue or topic that should arise in the news of the world and attract the interests of their audience. Calypsonians are the great bards of the people and they have an intimate relationship with their enthusiastic audience.

It is a unique relationship between artist and audience that can elevate the spirit of a nation and provide clarity on the issues, personal and political.  That’s why the Trinidadian political philosopher / cultural critic /  Pan-African revolutionary /and  intellectual polymath C.L.R. James – one of the great independent radical thinkers of the twentieth century – suggested that since the Caribbean politicians couldn’t figure out how to construct a functional federation perhaps “Sparrow should write a Calypso about it” to show them the way.

As lyricists Calypsonians employ all of the devices used by great poets: complex allusions, graphic imagery, extended metaphor, rhythmic complexity, double entendre, allegory, satire, parody, burlesque, pathos, bathos and symbolism.  And like Sweet Willie, the Bard of Avon, father of all poets who write in English – although one could argue that Hip Hop poets owe more to the French Playwright Moliere  – they tell complex tales in verse.  It is difficult enough to write good poetry, but the Calypsonians’ task is complicated by the fact that they must write serious poetry to music.  And all the masters have managed to pull it off marvelously!

The full effect of Calypso is realized when the text is accompanied by great instrumental music.  Some of the best trained musicians in Trinidad work in the calypso tradition.  Each band offers an opportunity for instrumentalists, composers and arrangers.  The traditional bands that accompanied the great bards usually consisted of a rhythm section and horns, brass and reeds: trumpets, trombones and saxophones.

The horns imitate the sound of voices and punctuate the Calypsonians lyrics, which are delivered with panache as the storyteller assumes the dramatis personae of his characters, and the horns even laugh and cajole the singer.  The Calypso is a unique expression of the universal character of West African derived music:  Anti-phony, Polyphony and complex poly-rhythms.

Observers who know what they are looking for can easily identify these characteristic in the music of Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Americans, et. al. – although each have created their own distinct genres. However the inventiveness of Calypso music in instrumental terms is best demonstrated in the art of the Pan.  I would argue that the Trinidadian pans, upon which a Chopin etude or the re-bopped be-bops of the great Jazz innovator and saxophone virtuoso Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, can be successfully performed, is the only new acoustic instrument that enriched Western music in the twentieth century.

In the Trinidadian pans we can clearly observe the relationship between culture and environment.  For instance, the invention of the musical pan would not have been possible if there had been no oil industry in Trinidad.  The pan is half of an oil drum, two thirds of a barrel or the entire drum – depending upon whether the instrument is pitched in the bass, alto, or treble clef.  The great Trinidadian craftsmen convert these oil drums into musical instruments by tuning the metal to the notes in the European scale. This enables the skilled musician to perform a wide repertoire.

All of the things that I have described can be clearly observed in the music of great Calypsonians such as Lord Kitchener, Crazy, Chalk Dust, Calypso Rose, The Mighty Sparrow, Black Stalin, et al.  These great artists  are an interesting and eclectic group of personalities, and each speak in a unique voice.  This is a basic requirement for Calypsonians; just as to win the respect of one’s colleagues, and gain a following,  Jazz musicians must find their unique voice on the instrument.

The Calyponians also bring different gifts to the art form.  For instance Chalk dust holds a PhD in history from the University of Michigan, and Lord Kitchener is a first rate musician who plays the double bass.  Hence if you listen to the Calypsos of Chalk Dust you will hear the most artful blending of historical analysis and narrative poetry one is likely to find.  Watch his performance of “I in Town Too Long,” on You Tube *(see link below”) it is history as epic poetry, Homeric.

Chalk Dust

Griot of the Nation 

In his narrative of life in this Trinidadian town Chalk Dust aka Dr. Hollis Liverpool, relates the saga of a nation.  His performance is deeply moving.  This is no accident, for Dr. Liverpool believes that the analysis of society rendered by Calypsonians is just as incisive and it should be considered on par with academically trained social scientist.

In a 2008 speech at the University of Trinidad and Tobago UTT  – where he is Honorary Distinguished Fellow,  Chalk Dust offered the following analysis.  “Most governments never recognized calypsonians as being intellectually stimulating in the same way as social scientists…. governments don’t see artistes as capable of research.” But, he argued, both groups analysis “depend, to a large extent, on common sense,” and that compared to the work of social scientists the observations of Calypsonians were just as “potent, authoritative, and true…and their conclusions are the same in most undertakings.”

To hear Kitchener in all of his glory as a virtuoso instrumentalist just check him out on Be-Bop Calypso, a panegyric to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two Afro-Americans who created a genre of instrumental music so complex it demanded virtuosity from every member of the band. Kitchener and his boys swing very hard, playing the” re-bopped be-bops” that Ralph Ellison heard in Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse…and they speak the musical vocabulary without accent!



Spouting Prophetic Visions

Looking like an old testament prophet in space age robes, Edwin Ayong, whose stage moniker is “Crazy,” is a great Calypsonian.  He can write “Jump Up” music for bacchanals, or brilliant social and political commentary that incites the imagination such as “In Times to Come.”  This moving Calypso, an epic poem whose arresting imagery and intoxicating beat captivates the careful listener, combines a broad intellectual grasp of current events; technological developments; social and cultural criticism; a sharp irreverent wit; and the apocalyptic vision of a futuristic prophet fired up on high grade wisdom weed!

Crazy recalls proudly that when he predicted America would have a black President “They say I singing stupidness.  They pelt the tapes at me!”  He dismissed them as “Doubting Thomases” and declares “I am happy to live to see history in the making.  I may not live to see my other predictions.  But I live to see this one.  This is the big one, baby, as Sanford would say.”

Here Crazy was referring to Redd Foxx’s sitcom character Fred Sanford.  This reference is an indication of how Calysonians gather ideas from all forms of popular culture.  On Barack’s election he says “This is great for America.  This is fantastic for black people all over the world.”

Finally there is The Mighty Sparrow’s erudite and uplifting Calypso “Barack the Magnificent.”  No American songwriter to my knowledge has written anything that remotely approaches the intelligence and esprit de corps of this insightful panegyric.  It is no wonder CLR James thought Sparrow could instruct the politicians on the problems of Federation in the West Indies.

Through the magic of You Tube, all of these Calypsonians can be seen and heard everywhere in the world 24/7, with just click on the links at the bottom of this essay – often they are performing live before their primary audience.  Check them out; they are the greatest song poets in the world!

Dr. Francisco Slinger aka The Mighty Sparrow
The King!
View Performances of The Great Calypsonians on clips below
Double click on Link to see Crazy
To Hear Lord Kitchener double click on link
(Be-Bop Calypso)
To See Chalk Dust Double click on Link Below
(I in Town Too Long)
To hear the Mighty Sparrow Double click Link below
(Barack the Magnificent!)