Old Kaiso Bards Retiring

Arley Gill

by Arley Gill

In recent times, some of the old kaiso bards, and true, true badjohns in kaiso have experienced ill health and have had to be hospitalized. Even so, as one of them sang, “old age have no remedy,” we have to appreciate that they are not young anymore.

In the last few years, the king of them all, the Mighty Sparrow, has been suffering with diabetes and its complications. A couple years ago, Black Stalin suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Singing Sandra, and now Shadow, have both had to be hospitalized.

It should be noted that the kaiso fraternity lost Rootsman last year, after a long battle with diabetes. May his soul rest in peace.

As these bards reach retirement, due to sickness or old age, the question we need to ask is: “Who will replace them?” These calypsonians have entertained, educated and inspired generations and they have made a significant contribution to our Caribbean civilization. We cannot expect them to continue forever; after all, they are mortal beings.

Younger Trinidadian calypsonians like Sugar Aloes, Cro Cro, Gypsy and so on, are not so young themselves; while Devon Seale, Karen Asche, Duane O’Connor, Chuck Gordon, Kurt Allen — the self-styled “last badjohn of calypso” — are among a younger breed that seems prepared to carry on the tradition of kaiso in a land where soca reigns supreme.

What concerns me, though, is that this younger crop of artistes appears not to be having the regional appeal as the old bards. Indeed, when there are calypso shows in islands outside of Trinidad, the old bards are still the ones to create a stir.

These young guns have the material, the craft, the pomp and the zest. But, for some reason, unless you are a very ardent kaiso lover, persons outside of Trinidad do not know much about them or their material. They are easily overshadowed by the soca artistes.

In Grenada, calypsonians are not known to be active in their old age. Most of our successful calypsonians either migrate or simply call it a day long before they reach old age. That phenomenon may have resulted from a host of reasons, which I do not wish to get into now.

Those, who in recent years have been outstanding stalwarts of vintage Grenada calypso compositions, already are showing signs of leaving the stage. The Black Wizard, over the last 10 years or so, has been off and on, in terms of competition. King Ajamu has competed for the last two years and won the monarchy on each occasion. Scholar, after a few years out of the scene, continues to make his presence felt. Mr X, one of the most gifted writers of his generation, does not seem to be as motivated as he once was.

Sour Serpent, in my view, appeared a few years ago to be the next standard-bearer; unfortunately, he has yet to fulfill that potential.

Rootsman Kelly, a former Junior Calypso Monarch, is a breath of fresh air; whilst Big J is a calypsonian with genuine talent. Rico, who did not compete for a couple of years, is another real talent that we have on the calypso scene.

Unlike the young Trinidadians, however, the youthful Grenadian calypsonians have to work hard on their writing skills and stage craft. They are ineffective in the use of their body parts on stage. Absent from their writing are double entendre, the utilizing of pun, and the witty use of language including applying complex rhyming, allusions, satire, metaphor, personification and other figures of speech.  Instead, our kaisonians seem to rely on exaggerated props, rather than really mastering the art of composing and performing.

So sadly, the quality of calypsos has deteriorated in Grenada. Topics are not as varied as in the past; as well, the treatment of topics has been poor and superficial, to say the least. There is a real need for quality writers to come to the fore. Grenada has a tradition and culture, where calypsonians write their own material. But, the world has moved on; the successful approach is for writers to write and singers to sing. The greatest example of this in the calypso world is perhaps the combination of Winsford Devine and our own Mighty Sparrow. Devine wrote many of Sparrow’s hits – including “London Bridge”; “Phillip, My Dear”; “Miss Mary”; and “Ah Digging Horrors” — and Dr Birdie sang them masterfully.

In recent times, the leading calypso writer arguably has been Christophe Grant. He’s penned winning compositions, and indeed classic songs, for Singing Sandra, Karen Asche, Devon Seale and others. We’re not to forget Gregory Ballantyne, an iconic composer; and Larry Harewood, a genius wordsmith.

Grenada calypsonians need to spend more time reading and researching their topics, instead of just  composing on gossip and “ole” talk. The calypsonians of long ago, in spite of their academic qualification, always demonstrated deep knowledge of local, regional and international issues.

Moreover, they dealt with these issues in such a way that even the teacher in the classroom had to learn from them.

Our young calypsonians have to do their “home work.” They must know that what a soca song can get away with, a calypso will not escape with doing that same routine.

I cannot help but comment on the level of adjudication in calypso in Grenada as well. If it were not so sad it would have been laughable. The adjudication of calypso in recent times has been unacceptable. For calypso competition to maintain its integrity, and for calypsonians to have the confidence that they will get a fair deal, judging needs to be improved dramatically.

Poor results will breed poor calypso; and breed poor calypsonians, too.

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