Calypso-wow! I just finished reading another book in my Dominican writers collection-Calypso Drift. I was riveted to his narrative-if I may call it so-by one of Dominica’s intellectuals, great speaker, radio personality, quiet at times, yet very gifted and knowledgeable-Steinberg Henry.
Calypso Drift stands out as one of a kind in Dominica’s literary circles. Stein Henry has written or compiled a thesis of Dominica’s calypso: The writers, singers, events, topics and situations, the hidden messages, double messages, the history and growth of calypso in Dominica, albeit from 1962, Slasher and “Honourable Frank Baron.”.
Stein has been able to look at the numerous calypsoes; calypsonians who sang them; but more specifically, at the writers who have penned these calypsoes and who serve as the moral or social policemen in Dominica, highlighting the ills, joys, and difficulties of our society.
I find this book a very impressive one as Stein dissects the many calypsoes that, throughout the years, have hit the airwaves and have been performed in venues such as tents or, different stages on the way to the national finals. He has done a wonderful job in marrying the art form to situations within Dominica and the role that calypsoes have played and continue to play in bringing those situations to light whether political, religious, sexual, ethical, moral or immoral.
As I read through the chapters, or segments, as Stein referred to them, I could hear that unique voice of his relating the story so eloquently, like he always does, bringing the book to life and bringing back or resurrecting, I dare say, some of the calypsoes that were once “masterpieces,” but now buried somewhere or packed in a cabinet gathering dust or on tapes crumbling with time.
With magnificent flow, Earl Ettiene’s artistic images also bring the book to life: the end of each of the fourteen segments which make up Calypso Drift is marked by festive images. Those paintings feature Bellaire dancers, carnival revelers, singers, Dominica’s national wear and its traditional musical instruments. Those images can cause a drift even in their stillness!
Interspaced with a few humorous words, phrases or statements and his references to the words “calypso” and “drift,” this book transported me to the various venues in Roseau, Newtown and Goodwill where the competitions — eliminations, quarters, semis and finals, as well as events at the tents were held. There, the aspirants and the seasoned campaigners tried to weave their musical magic and artistry towards winning the coveted calypso crown.
At a time when the only drift I seem to be familiar with in North America is snow drift, it was a heartwarming, educational, historical drift with Stein. No, I was not drifting in the wind like a loose kite, but I was tethered to his delivery on something or a bit of our history and cultural heritage, that we, as Dominicans, seem to cast aside on Ash Wednesday. I personally got a lesson in the theatrics of calypso–the little tactful battles between writers and singers; singers and singers and the crowd involvement in all of this.
I applaud him for the research he did in compiling this book and all the work he has put into this to take us along a journey with him as he drifted from Krazy Coconuts, to Harlem to Windsor Park and the Grammar School grounds. He showed us the creativity and craftiness of those who penned the calypsoes especially Pat Aaron, Tim Durand, Freddie Mendes (May he rest in peace,) Karessa, Patrick John-yes, the former Prime Minister, Gina Letang and Ian Jackson.
And, it was not only about calypso and the calypsonians. Stein drifted to the Carnival Queen events; the numerous shows held to coincide with carnival, and all that circle around this great calypso spectacle. His view through wide angled lens of his mental camera, focused on all participants in these events who hailed, not only from Roseau, but from country…yes. We are no longer “country bookies.”
Calypso has grown from being something that the slaves sang; then regarded by some as something that viex neg sang, (just like we once viewed pan players), and today, like Stein says, everyone participates: Police officers, teachers, church men, ministers of government (Ian dog Las’), women (Tasha P-2011 Monarch, Tarina – 2007 First Runner-Up), radio personalities, high school kids…It is the medium through which we have been able to express our disgust, hate, love or appreciation, of whatever we are inclined to gripe, w(h)ine, sing praises about, not just to win the crown, but to make the voices of the people heard through them–de calypsonians.
As I read the book wanting to know what came in the next chapter, I felt a bit unhappy that those responsible have not been able to put a compilation of Dominica’s calypsoes on sale throughout the year. Is it government? Is it the Calypso Association? Is it Cultural Department? Or is it the musicians themselves? Why, I wonder?
This is ours and yet, unlike cadence-lypso, bouyon, reggae and the other music forms, our DJs, and those in a position to make these songs become part of our Dominican experience, send them to calypso cemetery-does this ring a note? “Mas in De cemetery?” I am of the opinion that this “one time and done” mentality has short-circuited the growth of our calypso at home and in the region.
As you read this book, and based on what I have heard, you realize or you are reminded, that there have been many great songs that calypsonians in Dominica–not Trinidad or St. Lucia or Barbados–in Dominica, have performed throughout the years, but now languishing somewhere, not played by our DJs who, surprisingly, spin songs of non-Dominicans…but, listen to this, the non-Dominicans, as Stein so well stated-DO NOT PLAY OURS!!! You catch my drift? I hope you do:
The songs like those from the late Spider (Shilo 1980); Picky (Dear Dragon 1977—Picky keeps going like the Eveready battery: He deserves a national honor for longevity in the art form); Ency (Consider Me 1985); Dice (Roll The Dice 2008/These Are The Days 2006); Tarina (Lifeline 2007); Shakey (Dayba Pou Dayba 1977); De Rabbit (Marry De Gir 1985); Lord Tokyo (Tennis Shoe Scandal 1970); Karessa (Pastor Rod 2009); Tronada (Dey Fraid 1982); Tasha P (Woman Time/Let The Children Be Children 2011); Daddy Chess (Destiny/Somebody Have To Pay 2001); Hunter (Typical Dominican 2007); Mighty Solo (Mas In De Cemetery & one of Dominica’s threepeat Kings in 1975, 76, 77); De Idol (Ilene)– (another threepeat King in 1964, 65, 66); Lord Breaker (IncomeTax Rebel 1967); De Brakes (Workers 2000/Keep The Candles Burning 1999); De Hurricane (Wounded Lion 2000/Utility Pressure 1990) and others, get us on the dance floor whenever they are played. However, unless the calypsonian has the means to record his song, it becomes just another calypso. Will we ever stop singing “Mas in de Cemetery?” or “Tennis Shoe Scandal?” I doubt. Why then, do we not have something that we can have as a memento? One that we can play anytime we want rather than wait for the DJ on the radio to play when he wants and also something that the visitor can take away with him after coming to Dominica for carnival or any time of the year.
Calypso is us. It is our way of saying what bothers us and others, though sometimes to the extreme. It is where the coward feels fearless; where the introvert becomes the Road March king making us all jump, whine or is it wine, as in “Pastor Wine?” Look trouble eh, with Dominica’s calypsonians!
Calypso Drift is a remarkable account of our history in song–our social commentary from our own pulpit; our own courtroom; our own roadside meeting as seen from the perspective of a quiet, yet deep thinking individual, who leads us by the hand lest we go adrift from calypso island. Calypso Drift is a book, or a story, or a history about Dominican calypso and all that encompasses it during carnival season. Anyone who is a carnival lover; anyone who is a calypso lover; anyone involved in any aspect of our island culture: art, music, story-telling, education; anyone who wants to have an insight, or breakdown, or post-mortem of Dominican calypso, should avail himself or herself with a copy. Using a bit of our local parlance…This is a zye ouvert (an eye opener)–jouvert, papa— into the calypso machinations in Dominica.
Stein, I know your dad must be proud of the job that you have done. So too, am I. Well done bro.
Calypso, mama! Calypso!