Following my recent post on the Facebook forum Real BVI Community Board questioning the omission of a calypso show or competition from the August Emancipation Festival line-up this year, I wish to share a few of my favourite moments in Virgin Islands calypso history.
Hopefully, this will spark memories of your own calypso moments. My aim is to remind us of the power of calypso in our festival celebration of freedom, and the contributions of the courageous and creative souls whose cultural work in this precious art form deserves due respect, honour and continuity.
I also encourage our radio and cable media to delve into their archives and give VI calypsonians some generous airtime this festival season and always. Most of the classic tunes before YouTube are not recorded, so the territory’s library services should urgently work with our early videographers to update our calypso collection.
To start, I give a remembrance salute to the first woman in VI history to capture the Calypso Monarch title, in 1984.
As her calypso name, Lady Nightingale, implies, Lyra Vanterpool (1962-2015), of Virgin Gorda, was a gracious woman with a sweet, clear voice. But on the calypso stage, seasoned calypsonian men had to bow to the queen’s command of kaiso!
I knew Lady Nightingale to be very meticulous about her melody, the composition of her lyrics, the power of the punch in her last verse, and the clear delivery of her message to her audience. I’m sure she would want her fellow calypsonians to take care in constantly working on their calypso craft.
The ‘Fungi Master’
The word “calypso” or “kaiso” likely derives from the Efik-language phrase “ka isu,” meaning “go on” — as to urge, encourage, support, or back a contestant. Who are you backing in the calypso ring this festival season?
Today I’m backing an all-time favourite, “The Inventor,” better known as “The Fungi Master.”
“Sing something local,” somebody said after Elmore Stoutt and his band had finished performing his fungi version of “Sooki,” a popular calypso by King Fighter of Guyana. The request came from a guest in the dining room of a hotel in his Long Bay village.
“And you know something?” he told me in his uniquely engaging storytelling style. “‘Fungi and Fish’ was born on the spot there. It became extempo right on the spot. … I took it from there and it just lived on. … It was dinnertime, and somehow I thought, ‘Well, this got to be it, you know.’ And from there, I went on and won the calypso contest with that.”
Adopting the stage name The Inventor, Mr. Stoutt captured the first of his Calypso King titles in 1966. Some 30 years later, I was there to witness Elmore and the Sparkplugs bring One Caribbean together in massive pride and jubilation with their VI signature performance of “Fungi and Fish” at CARIFESTA 1995 in Trinidad.
The calypsonian, like the calypso itself, is brave, versatile, protean, inventive, ever changing, and far from simple and static. Mr. Stoutt is one of the most inventive creatives I know. He’s an educator, an entertainer, a politician, a farmer, a fisherman, a storyteller, a commentator and more. I know of no other VI calypsonian with the skill and wit to read the text and context of our environment and compose on the spot like him.
VI fungi or scratch band music is but one expression of calypso. Calypso is the mother to fungi, soca, papso, picong, mento, zouk, kontwidance, and all the many folk-creole expressions of Africa’s children in the Diaspora.
Therefore, Virgin Islanders, especially the gatekeepers of the culture, would do well to centre and elevate fungi and calypso in our August Emancipation Festival. That is an honourable way to show our highest regard and respect for the inventiveness of our ancestors and our elder calypsonians and fungi maestros like Mr. Stoutt.
This topic will be continued next week with more calypso memories.