Perspective interviewed Professor Rohlehr
Q. Are there lessons for the contemporary Caribbean, in general, and for Trinidad, in particular, from past analysis of calypsoes, say, since the beginning of the century?
Most definitely, there are many things happening now in the calypso world that happened then. For example, the conflictual nature of social experience in Trinidad. We have come from so many different places in Trinidad, we have had to sort ourselves out, and this has led to a lot of conflict. Conflict is still stronger than consensus. We see that in our politics quite clearly. I note that throughout the period I have studied, calypso themes have been dealing with all sorts of conflicts -
I looked at how humour has developed in calypso. It gives us a clue as to the kind of people we are. Our humour is a form for working out all of these conflicts. If we were to look at the things we laugh at, how we laugh and the nature of our laughter, we will see that humour, aggression, conflict and ways of resolving conflicts are all interconnected. I see it as a continuous thing.
During the 1930s, social upheaval, political confrontation, problems with labour and with depression led to the same conflicts and to calypsoes that were very, very socially conscious.
At the same time, they led to moves by the regime, at that point in time, to contain comments that came out of calypso; there was a very active censorship. Indeed, one of the new things that the book will add to what we already know about calypso in a very specific study of censorship of the thirties and forties. This is based on new material that was found in the archives in Trinidad which contain lyrics of calypsoes, which had to be sent to the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Port of Spain for censorship, before the record could have been brought in.
The decisions were never written up elaborately, but every now and then you could see they censored this or that. You got a good indication as to how they thought and the things that they thought were worth censorship.
Q. When you look at the political upheavals in the 1930s with what has happened in Trinidad in the 1990s, can we expect something like the censorship of that period to transfer itself in the 1990s?
Censorship has always been a possibility in the world of calypso. It took different forms. Some times it is extreme -
Then there was the use of competition. Throughout the seventies, we had complaints that the judges for the calypso competition during Carnival were biased either in the direction of class of politics. For example, Chalkdust with “My Grandfather’s Backpay”. He was told in 1985 that he just couldn’t sing it. Shorty’s “The Art of Making Love”, was brought to Court in 1973 and 1974. Most of the really biting calypsoes were seldom played on the radio, and this is a very effective form of censorship, because the radio station managers are liable.
What happens is that a certain game is played, because the calypsonian tries to define over and over again the scope of the freedoms which he or she can exercise. If you say he can’t sing, he will find a way of singing it anyway and sometimes this leads to a better more subtle calypso which says precisely what you want to say. He might sing it metaphorically, like Penguin when he sings:
“Yuh ‘fraid de devil, Yuh ‘fraid him bad, Look the devil in yuh yard.”
The other way is to sing the thing more crudely, more openly and more viciously, and this has been developed certainly over the last four to five years. Calypso has increasingly been more bitter, as the pressures on the public seem to have increased.
Q. The changes that we are experiencing in the post-
We were aware of and certainly very much part of the apocalyptical upheavals of fifty years ago. Calypso documented that, and I deal with that in very great detail in the book. If we are talking about changes relating to the world at large, the calypso served us extremely well indeed in the late thirties and forties; there were great documentary calypsoes sung by, for example -
People were allowed to hold small parties in clubs, etc., nobody wanted to ban the upper class mass, but they wanted to ban the mass on the streets, and the calypso was the thing that carried the entire spirit of carnival. People used to come to tents as late as the Tuesday night, that was the last lap, it became everything.
Looking at this period, you will see many calypsoes that deal with international issues. South Africa has long since been a theme. We can go back to the sixties when Pete Simon was singing on South Africa, and come to the seventies and eighties when all the major calypsonians sang about South Africa -
As to the specific changes taking place -
Q In the Caribbean, calypso is still the great essence of our oral tradition and our history. What seem to be the major waves of consciousness and action in defining the history of the Caribbean?
As a student studying history -
Oral history changes the way one looks at issues because oral history has of necessity to put the people’s voices at the very centre of the historical process.
An economic change will be presented in terms of how it affected our buying power in the supermarket. Look at Relator's great calypso in 1981 -
Similarly, we get people’s reactions to political change. The vocabulary which politicians have been using over the past few years has a very intensely-
When we approach the thing from the oral tradition, we get a clearer notion of how change impacts on people’s mentality. It is a very important dimension to add to the histories that we have.
Technology has Emotional Warmth
Q How has the calypso responded to, and itself initiated changes in the art form relative to technology?
Changes take place in the technology first, and then the calypsonian relates to that. For example, in the whole business of record production, that has changed from the days when you had a tape recording machine weighing 300 lbs. Now you have 16, 12-
The question is whether some of these changes are good for or bad for the calypso. Should calypso be always state of the art? If it isn’t state of the art, would it lose out in competition with other popular forms of music? Would people want to buy calypso records if the reproduction is less or lower than other popular music forms, if when they listen they are not hearing what they are accustomed to hear?
Suppose they are hearing what they are accustomed to hearing -
The calypsonian is in a sense returning to the people their own voice. Can the calypsonian keep up with developments that are taking place in the calypso, in the technology of the thing and, at the same time, retain his warmth and his closeness to community?
The recent publication of ‘Voice Print’ seems to signal a recognition of, not only what is publishable, but also what and how Caribbean art should be constituted for learning. In this scenario is consideration being given to popularisation, marketing and policy institutionalisation through the calypso?
‘Voice Print’ is a collection of oral poetry, edited by Mervyn Morris of the English Department of UWI, Mona, Stewart Brown of Central African Studies in Birmingham University, and myself. The whole aim was to present the art of poetry of the West Indies, the ones that do not get anthologised. So we looked at such things as oral forms, a few calypsoes, narrative poems, a whole range of oral or oral-
Q. Will this give recognition to that sort of material which the calypso itself needs to have? And, if the calypso needs to have such recognition, what is being done to give that recognition?
I would say that the calypso has had such recognition, and has gained that recognition through the efforts of
people who have recorded it from 1912. After 1927, a lot of the words of calypsoes were recorded by Houdini, Nigel Velasco and after 1934, Lion, Atilla, Growler, Tiger, Beginner and Black Prince, Ziegfield and Decker. The Calypso has had contexts within which it has become known. Long before Belafonte appeared on the scene in the 50s, calypso was well known in such places as Greenwich Village in New York.
We are not at the stage where the calypso needs to be popularised in the same way as oral poetry is being popularised in ‘Voice Print’. We need to find out if there are any new initiatives which need to be taken to ensure that the Calypso survives particularly in this competitive period. Looking at calypsonians, I would say that they have been doing a fair amount to keep their art form popular. Rudder is now well known in Europe, and you can see the impact of the international forum on Rudder’s concerns.
Preserving Our Heritage
If we want to widen the context, we first have to realise that It is already wide. We have got to support the singers who go out. We have got to purchase the records here, too, if we want them to keep singing for us. We
have got to show that we appreciate what they are doing by being prepared to support them. If you are not getting that recognition, then you will become the servants of whoever gives you that recognition.
Here, too, the forces of the market determine the direction that the art form is going to take. I feel it is a wider question of recognition what the calypsonian has been achieving on his own, and supporting that effort in a tangible form at home.
The question of State input of cultural policies and directions and what can the State do -
I see no reason why the State cannot initiate that via a foundation, or a combination of the State, business and the public, e.g. have a sale of shares for the financing of a Foundation to establish a heritage series for the collection of all sort of things -
I would like to see a serious concern for the collection, promotion and marketing of the calypso tradition, that is, the old material which is probably more marketable than we think and the new material which would at last be given a sense of where it is rooted, where it came from, and how it has departed from others.
Embassies abroad should all have cultural attaches who should be locating our material which is all over the place e.g. the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute. If the initiative came from a government as part of its cultural policy, it would be far easier to do this than as an individual.
I can see it being done for the calypso in the pre-
Something should exist in addition to the initiative which the calypso already makes. This is one of the ways in which the state can get interested. A State institution should not over-
Gordon Rohlehr is Professor of West Indian Literature at the UWI, St. Augustine. He is an authority on West Indian literature, calypso, and the oral traditions of the Caribbean. He is the author of “Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite,” and “My Strangled City” and other essays.