Move over Hollywood, here comes 'Calypso Dreams'

Trinidad Guardian

Saturday, March 4, by Debbie Jacob

I was sitting in the middle of my worst nightmare - the extempo preliminaries at Strand Theatre - when Lord Superior announced that the movie Calypso Dreams would be showing at MovieTowne.

If you'd told me that night that a movie about calypso could hold its own in a cinema with Peter Pan and The Last Samurai, I would have told you you were crazy.

To say Calypso Dreams is as enchanting as Peter Pan and filled with characters who have mastered the fine, ancient tradition of posturing much like a Samurai warrior, would give you something of an idea of the magic that takes place in this film.

Directors Geoffrey Dunn and Michael Horne have managed to create an effective documentary that captures the essence of calypso. Yes, there's history, a valid explanation of calypso's social context and even an impressive section on the role of women in calypso, but the documentary is really about the feelings that calypso creates. Calypso Dreams showcases the art of calypso in all its complexities. Harry Belafonte points out what we all know - that calypso is our poetry - but he sums it up best when he says, "There's more to poetry than Keats and Shelley."

The biggest sense of accomplishment comes from the directors' ability to present calypso characters. In a musical era defined by singers and performers, one is poignantly reminded of bygone days when calypso characters emerged from the music much as well crafted characters emerge from a book. Much of this feeling comes from the directors' treatment of the calypsonians in the documentary. There are very few stage performances.

Instead, the directors deal with a more intimate setting: a balcony overlooking Port-of-Spain, the gallery and living room of calypsonians' homes and even the pubs, where calypsonians appear to be more at home than the stage. In many ways the settings themselves capture the history of calypso.

Stripped to the simplest environment there is nothing to concentrate on but the characters. Excellent editing that strings together a succession of calypsonians making interesting and humorous comments about their craft creates a steady flow and a feeling of continuity in juxtaposing scenes.

The anecdotes in the movie are priceless.

Calypsonians come off as creative, complex, rather happy-go-lucky people deeply committed to their craft. They are survivors who are able to transcend life's vicissitudes.

David Rudder says it best when he explains that Trinidadians are a people who can smile through the pain. There's often laughter, he says, but there's a sword underneath that laughter.

Calypso Dreams presents a virtual parade of who's who in calypso. It would be easier to tell you who's not in the movie. SuperBlue is one vitally important calypsonian who is missing.

Still, getting so many calypsonians together to make a movie is no easy feat.

The true testimony of Calypso Dreams undoubtedly lies in the fact that patrons of MovieTowne passed nine slick Hollywood movies to pack Theatre 10 so that they could experience Calypso Dreams.

The experience was amazing. After the movie I went and begged the ticket counter to keep the movie one more day so that I could bring my children. I've never done that before. While Calypso Dreams is highly entertaining, it is also a valuable teaching tool. Every student should experience it, to get a sense of history and to see how poetry comes alive through calypso.

When last did you go to a movie that had you laughing nonstop, singing and sighing aloud and applauding enthusiastically at the end of the movie?

Calypso Dreams has been doing just that and Trinidadians are clamouring for more. MovieTowne says they have been receiving so many calls from people still wanting to see the movie that they are considering running it again.

Lord Superior says he will do his best to oblige a grateful audience and find a way for MovieTowne to repeat the movie.

Could we really be so lucky to push aside Hollywood and make room for our own culture once again? Stay tuned and find out.



Calypso Dreams, Facing Reality

Trinidad Guardian

Saturday, February 20, by Fitzgerald Hinds, Member of Parliament

Movietowne, the ultra-modern cinema and shopping complex, played host to an appreciative gathering of cultural connoisseurs and pseudo-connoisseurs, as well as a very significant number of our calypsonians, as we gathered on Tuesday past to witness the premiere showing of a recently documented history of "calypsodom." The film is titled Calypso Dreams.

It was much more than elements of the history of calypso though. We were taken on a journey through slavery, World Wars I and II, race relations, life in the USA and England, life in our ghettos, the way we were and the way we are. We were taken through the blues, jazz and other "mother" music.

This feature was no doubt a revelation to many. There were some very sad elements, but like calypso itself, as I would confirm, the technique is to put a very serious message across while disguising it with some humour. As David Rudder and Cro Cro explained, calypsonians make you laugh, but behind the laughter there is always a blade.

An interview with Lord Pretender, now deceased, revealed that this great artiste, the master of the art of "extempo," lived his last days in very, very spartan circumstances.

Our Brother's Brother

In my view, something is wrong about that! Do we not collectively owe a duty of care to men like Lord Pretender who contributed to making us known and loved to the world? An artiste who brought us such joy and made us what and who we are? In fact, we owe such a duty to all of our citizens.

The calypsonian, given his general background, his history and root cause, is hardly likely to be a big business operator and functions in a seasonal environment, specially deserves this collective support. As such this writer holds the view that our society should encourage and support this special group of citizens to access state-funded low-cost housing wherever necessary and possible.

The late great Andre Tanker was still pursuing a home of his own before he died. There are many others who need and deserve their country's support in this regard.

Still, the feature generated much joy and laughter. We were to hear Lord Blakie's perennial laugh which punctuates all of his songs. This laugh was described as "mischievous, cunning and wicked" by David Rudder, a supreme poet himself, who served as an anchor-man in the film.

This writer viewed in absolute awe as thoughts of the life and times of the featured calypsonians unfolded. The depth and range of topics that our bards have dealt with over the years are awesome.

Calypsonians have sung on every imaginable topic one could contemplate. Nothing has escaped those watchful eyes, their curious and grassroot minds and, in some cases, a fascinating imagination.

Mighty Spoiler, who was also featured, was undoubtedly the master of expressing vivid imagination in song. Brother Valentino, who was present, sat quietly as explanations and demonstrations of the art were highlighted. I wondered how he could have been left out of the calypso finals and how did he feel? After all, his 2004 offering, "Where Kaiso Went," achieved in four verses and a chorus as much as the film was attempting to do in two hours.

Paradise Lost

It is frightening to think that a number of powerful songs that have been rendered this year received no airplay and would be lost to the world. Having attended several calypso tents and having heard many songs, one is aware that many are never heard on radio. This happens every year. One estimates that 80 per cent of the songs offered each year fall off the edge of the "seasonal conveyor belt" and get lost in the wasteland of oblivion.

This is inefficient, wasteful and even sinful. This raises a second issue. Why are our bards not clamouring more loudly for legislation to ensure more local content in radio programming? There is a very strong case for this demand and the Government is very open to hear these arguments. Certainly the inefficiency and waste described earlier would be minimised.

One is aware of an application by the calypso representative body, TUCO, for a radio licence. Clearly now is the time to intensify this call. How beautiful it would be if there was a radio station owned and managed by TUCO which would feature the powerful work and impact of this unique group of men and women who contribute musically to the well-being, sanity and balance of our society, in the face of our many challenges. If this became reality, then maybe the call for 50 per cent local content may lose some force.

The Highest Standards

Talking about reality, one remembers Cro Cro's "Face Reality." My only concern about this song is its low score in the department of "sensitivity." From the reaction of the crowds wherever he performed and the many encores he has received, this song, while severely criticised by some, is loved and thoroughly enjoyed by many others. It may be that Cro Cro is expressing a sentiment shared by the many who applaud him enthusiastically.

One can easily understand the feelings of those who may have experienced the brutality of a kidnapping. For me, the song scores low in the "sensitivity" department. One cannot understand, though, how it could be classified as a racist song. I also understand Cro Cro to be criticising crime and wrong-doing, though paradoxically he offers a "blood for blood" and "an eye for an eye" philosophy to deal with wrongdoers.

Today, calypsoes are assessed by the highest intellectual standards. They often form part of discussions in schools and universities. Public figures often quote lavishly from them and the public is influenced by them. The phenomena of the partisan-political calypso is testimony to this.

From its inception, calypso was, of necessity, political. The partisan-political calypso is a more recent development. Calypsonians who "put down" lyrics that could "make a politician cringe" could no longer get away with lies or inaccuracies, just because the words rhyme.

Every sentence, every word, is now being analysed by very high standards. One might ask: is this fair to the art and the bards who sometimes, without the benefit of intellectual training and discipline, simply express it as they feel? And when they do, they do so not of themselves but as conduits through whom the song "passes" back to the people from whom it first came.

Sensible, Not Over-Sensitive

One remembers Sparrow's "Marajin" and "Raykhan" by some other calypsonian. How would these songs be viewed today? Would "dirty, stinking, drunkin" Raykhan now take offence?

I remember Karl Hudson-Phillips, SC, once called former President Robinson the nickname Raykhan. He did so derisively in political picong. He did not see Raykhan as an Indian, he merely saw a play on the syllable "Ray."

Today Denise Belfon's "Indian Man" is criticised for offending our Indian brothers. How would "saucy, sexy" Marajin now fare?

Clearly, we are all being judged by different standards today. So sensitivity on all sides, from the people and from the calypsonian, is requisite. After all, the song comes from the people through the calypsonian as "griot" and back to the people.
May I sincerely commend and thank all those who dreamed Calypso Dreams. May I thank those who made it a reality. May I thank all our artistes from the pioneers to today's calypsonians and rapso artistes. Thank you for the wisdom, the skill, the love and the countless moments of joy and laughter you have given while we take the "blade." Long live calypso!