One of my most memorable calypso moments happened not in a calypso tent or in the Festival Village; not in the cultural centre or in the courtyard at Prospect Reef Resort — though all these venues have been used for calypso shows where I’ve shown up as a fan or a contest judge.
It happened in the classroom at the then-BVI High School! I was teaching literature to a fourth form class of students not generally considered to be readers. I had to find creative ways of keeping them interested in reading.
One day, I introduced them to a poem, “Jaffo the Calypsonian.” They so identified with Jaffo and the poem that we ended up doing several related activities, one of which was to compose and perform their own calypso.
Just when I was satisfied that I had won them over, this young man came up to me and asked permission to write a country and western song instead. That was a turning point in my teaching career. That is when I decided I would spend my teaching career helping learners to value their culture and heritage.
I understood where my student was coming from. The education system formally organised by the church did not embrace calypso, or benna, songs — to put it mildly. Our folk songs, music and dance were considered demonic, inappropriate, backward.
We have come a long and rough way to today when we have Gospel Fest in the Festival Village — even when fans praising, dancing and waving flags and rags to calypso rhythms may very well refuse to use the word “calypso.”
Let me give a high note of calypso praise to the educators, writers, coaches, parents, families, and cultural activists who have gone against the grain to teach the history and art of calypso to our youth.
Junior calypso monarchs like Minni Matt, Shak the Shocker, Princess Dee Dee, and Princess Shi Shi have given us sweet and serious edutainment from the child’s perspective in songs like “Big People Melee,” “Mammy, I Want to Sing Calypso,” and “Kids, Get Out and Play.”
For those who think calypso is old-people thing, check out the demographics of current monarchs and contestants on the calypso stage in the Caribbean. Most started from small and have been nurtured and celebrated in their countries. On the other hand, we readily pay to headline them on our festival stage while giving little or no attention to cultivating the talent of our own young calypsonians.
Most of our young talent will sadly abandon the calypso ship — not because calypso is old, but because we have not supported them in keeping our Virgin Islands calypso fresh, attractive and lucrative.
A few — like 2000 Calypso Monarch and later Soca Monarch Tino Mark — might move to more viable opportunities in soca. Others may join the gospel train. But whatever their niche, they never abandon their calypso roots, because they know calypso is much more than party vibes, jump up and wave.
But do we as a forward-thinking VI people really know and care about our calypso legacy? Are we so ready to let it go?
No calypso show
In this regard, the failure to include a calypso show or competition in this year’s August Emancipation Festival was a very bad sign.
Recently, the premier said he wants us to have a conversation about censorship, and rightly so. Thing is, are we honest and brave enough to handle it?
Like we didn’t think that silencing our calypsonians and their social commentary in the Festival was censorship? And the most sinister type of censorship at that! We need an explanation as to why the calypso show and competition was banned.
But before we get into concerns over censorship and banning, shouldn’t we have considered the rules of engagement in hiring acts for the Festival? And I do not mean any another music festival. I mean our August Emancipation Festival!
‘Silent and passive’
The voice and commentary of our local calypsonians are excluded from the stage and there is hardly a mutter. We remain silent and passive, and we let slide that one opportunity to sing about the social problems that are coming at us right, left and centre. Then when they hit us bam in the face, we start to bawl!
So here we are about to bring in two racy acts of rap and dancehall to perform for emancipation because, according to the premier, the VI Festivals and Fairs Committee selected these artistes based on what persons want to enjoy. I wonder how that conversation went?
Don’t ask me, I might not count as “persons.”