“I don’t speak out in Parliament, so I must sing it in the kaiso tent.” – My Victory, Red Plastic Bag, 1987
The official opening is still a few weeks away, but Crop Over has already begun for many Barbadians.
Kadooment bands have been advertising their costumes, new songs in the various sub-genres of calypso are already on the airwaves, calypso tents are launching, and the National Cultural Foundation’s new directorate have been outlining some of the changes they are bringing to the table as they strive to keep the “Sweetest Summer Festival” relevant and different from a growing list of competitors.
Ever since the musical aspect of the festival became more commercially oriented, many an observer has complained about the quality of the lyrical content of the calypsos released for the season.
From as far back as 1998, Sir Henry Fraser lamented the “bumper and belly culture” that was becoming associated with Crop Over.
Former Education Minister under the Democratic Labour Party administration Ronald Jones complained about lewd lyrics and urged calypsonians to do better.
And just this weekend, Minister of Information Senator Lucille Moe was the latest voice added to a chorus of disapproval as she admonished the entertainment fraternity to be aware that their music influenced the thoughts, actions and behaviour of the youth and as such, they should create music that is more positive and uplifting.
Perhaps it was DJ Grandmaster who, unknown to himself, created the proverbial monster back in 1994 when he urged revellers to “Put a Hand on de Bumper”. Then we added excessive alcohol consumption to the mix about a decade later with the likes of Contone and Gorg as a sub-genre we now call “bashment soca” developed.
That type of music gets most of the airplay on the stations geared towards younger audiences, and since the producers of this music are savvy social media mavens it travels even further now in a shorter space of time.
From the days of the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener in the 1950s, sexually charged lyrics have been an integral part of calypso, to the extent that people from older generations saw calypso as a genre for the so-called lower classes and kept away from it.
Like every other commercially-driven genre, the sexual content has grown more explicit; nowadays the performers and their back-up dancers have the attire to go with the attitude as well.
Yes, “slackness”, as people in the dancehall genre called it years ago, is indeed a problem, but there is a bigger issue that we believe those in authority are failing to address when it comes to the lyrical content of our calypsos.
There was a time when the calypsonian was considered the “voice of the people”, as the Red Plastic Bag song we referred to earlier suggested. Those of us who were around in the 1980s remember when social commentary calypsos were something to look forward to. Calypsonians took their time to isolate themes and fully develop them.
There are many examples, but some that stand out include Black Pawn’s Vision (1986) which looked at Caribbean unity from many different perspectives, and America in 1987 which dealt with the control the US wanted to exert over the world. John King’s Family Ties (1988) examined how the US and UK supported South Africa despite its apartheid policies, Gabby’s West Indian Politician (1985) dealt with the Westminster model’s influence on how Caribbean politics and Adonijah’s Woman (1984) urged us to see women as more than sex objects and respect the contributions they make to society. These are all modern classics of Barbadian calypso.
Also, when calypsonians added new verses to their songs for the Finals, they related to new events pertaining to the theme of the song, rather than crass personal attacks on rival competitors.
Can we say the same today? Much of the commentary produced over the past couple of decades has been irrelevant beyond the year in which it was created, and essentially strings together a list of the more salacious activities or headlines printed in the newspapers… and that would be it.
We understand the desire not to mash any corns or say anything potentially libellous about people in high places or corporate entities of any kind, but a forgettable superficial treatment of current affairs does not do us any favours in terms of truly addressing the concerns of the wider society or even pointing those in authority to situations they may need to examine more closely in the community.
If the NCF truly wants to see a resurgence of interest in the Pic-O-De-Crop calypso monarch competition, they must examine the issue of songwriting more closely. In the same way that senior calypsonians help children in the Junior Calypso Monarch to craft their songs, the NCF should hold such classes for the adult composers, too. Andrew
A nation’s music reflects its values, and there is more to Barbados than to drink ‘nuff rum and wuk up on a bumper.
The theme of this year’s festival is #CropOverCorrect. So we appeal to calypsonians and other figures in the festival to come correct by looking beyond the immediate gratification of getting to perform at a few fetes and carnivals elsewhere in the world and truly create something that can make a difference to the society in which we live.