by Arley Gill
One of the most disappointing aspects from Spicemas 2017, to me, was clearly the quality of the judging of the calypso and soca competitions.
I judged calypsoes for quite a few years myself; in fact, judging was my first direct involvement with carnival. I was probably the youngest judge in those days. I was encouraged by Michael Jessamy to attend a calypso workshop, and, after much reminders and cajoling by Michael, I actually attended. He knew of my addiction to calypsoes.
At that first workshop there were musicians, teachers, intellectuals, poets, playwrights and other persons of national repute. I cannot recall who were the facilitators then; but, I recall myself and Chris De Riggs had a heated debate on whether calypso can be defined or whether it is a concept.
I then went on to judge both junior and senior calypso competitions. Pomme Rose Primary School used to be my favourite stop every year to judge the junior semis. Teacher Eddie, and another teacher playing the keyboards, gave yeoman service to that cause. For many years, this used to be my official start of carnival.
Soon, myself, Colin Dowe, Lerry Barry and Alan Robinson formed something of a new cadre of youthful judges. We joined older judges like Clyde Belfon, Aaron Moses, Bowen Louison and William Joseph.
Later, a few of us would have pioneered the Judges’ Association so as to put some structure to judging. It was also to insulate calypso judging from outside influences including political and calypsonian influence, as much as that could be humanly possible.
Now, that association is no more and so, too, is the quality of the judging. I wrote 2 years ago expressing my dismay that someone could essentially forget their lines (bust) and still win the monarchy; well, it has happened again. Never thought it would.
Rootsman Kelly clearly forgot his lines in the 3rd verse of his 1st song, errantly fumbled some words from his 1st verse to attempt to cover the forgotten lines and won the crown. You don’t have to believe me, check it out yourself on YouTube. In that 3rd verse, the singer’s theme clearly was about workplace bosses seeking sexual favours; then, he went back to mention stepfathers from the 1st verse. Now, when that happens it disturbs the story of the song; which speaks to development of story from introduction, body and conclusion, and creates incoherence in the lyrics. This, naturally, negatively affects the lyrics and rendition criteria on the judges’ scoresheet. I was asking myself, did the judges see and hear that? In other calypso competitions elsewhere, the crowd picks it up and makes noise. The singer then waits for the next junction to leave the stage. Not in Grenada; you can go ahead and win the crown.
Rootsman Kelly’s song itself is not strong: the hook-line is nothing new and creative, in the sense that it was used several times in calypso before. So, it is not a novel idea. Moreover, Kelly’s performance was far from convincing. He looked timid and a tad nervous, as if burdened by the weight of expectations.
The presentation in that song is stuck in the theme of the 1st verse and essentially does not address the themes of the other verses. In other words, it raises the question of appropriateness and the fact that more could have been done. If the judges were of that view, then he could not have maximised points in that criteria.
His next song was, ‘Another WMD’ (weapons of mass destruction). When I heard it my old brain clicked. I knew Scholar had a WMD song over a decade ago. Google here I come. There it is Scholar WMD 2003, arranged by Brian Hurst.
In those days WMD was topical; not now. Scholar’s WMD is far more superior, but the use of theme is the same as Kelly’s. It means his originality suffers. You see, in assessing originality, it is an objective test; it matters not if Kelly heard or knew of the song. The fact is, you will never know if an artiste is aware of another’s work, but once the work is published the assumption is he ought to have knowledge.
At the end of the day, both Kelly’s songs and performances would not have passed 65 on a proper scoresheet. He will be middle of the pack.
Now, this is how you dissect and analyse calypsoes and performances. You have to do research, get into the ‘know;’ be ruthless and clinical, and when a man wins on your scoresheet, he knows he did well. So, this analysis is to show readers the levels that the judges have to go in their assessment. It is nothing personal about Kelly; me and him good; mutual respect exists for our varying contributions over the years. I recall when he won the juniors, and there is no one happier than me to see him back on the stage. He is a true, true calypsonian. But, that does not mean I will not give him a fair critique.
The truth is, I am not impressed with the quality of calypsoes in Grenada. Most of the songs are too pedestrian; I refer to them as ‘ABC’ songs. No double entendre; lacking in depth and in the use of nice language; and also lacking in interesting and creative use of topics. The writers have to work harder. Creativity is so absent. Friends, the only calypsonian this year that is worth listening to, or inviting outside of Grenada to perform, is Scholar. Big J and Sour Serpent can tag along. Serpent knows that I think he should be far better than he is now, with a couple crowns already under his belt. Big J continues to improve but I need to chat with him when next time our eyes meet. I owe him a personal scolding.
Now, another troubling issue – apart from the application of criteria – is that of ethics. I wrote some years ago that fairness is the most important of all the qualities of a judge. If that is so, a brother cannot judge a brother, or an uncle cannot judge a nephew in a national competition. That judge should recluse himself; if he fails to do so, other members of the panel should refuse to sit with him. Yeah, I know judges of old who would do just that. You see, even if he scores fairly, the perception of bias is alive and you don’t want that.
Similarly, you cannot have 5 judges from St David, especially when all the argument on the talkshows is about St David against St Patrick. The administrators must be more astute. As I pointed out, the eventual calypso winner bust and still won; this makes it easier for fingers to be pointed at the judges and for people to say, ‘yeah, they from St David.’ It compromises the process. It smacks of a setup, even if it was not meant to be.
Now, even when the judges get the 1st position right, it does not mean that the scrutiny is over or ‘commess’ was not made. For instance, Boyzie won the Power Soca Monarch hands down, but Luni Spark and Electrify beat Lil Natty and Thunda just as easily. And, while Specky may still be relevant, his material is weak and he could not justifiably beat Dash in the Power Soca. Judges cannot be swayed by sentimentalism or emotions. Smile. Their pens must be nerveless!
Generally, ties in competition are as a result of mathematics. When the highs and lows are removed and the mean is found, you may well get a tie. It is nothing new nor is it surprising. However, it can be a result of uncertainty and confusion by the judges.
A practical example is the 3-way tie for 2nd place in the Groovy Soca. It means that not enough judges had Blackadan 2nd, where he should comfortably have been, in front of both Lava and Terror. If all or most judges did, then there would not have been a tie.
To me, the judges went in with preconceived ideas of the ideal result and as such, when they observed that something different was happening in front of them, they became confused. Judges, as much as possible, have to block out what they hear on the streets and judge what is in front of them. Whenever they do so, they will find that they can defend their score.
My advice is that judges have to immerse themselves in the music. Listen and follow calypsoes all over the region. If they can afford it, attend competitions in other islands; call up a friend and stay with them. In my time we used to do it. So, by the time Grenada carnival rolled by, we knew the quality of calypsoes in most other islands for the year; and, trust me, it used to be fun. With the technology, you can follow all these things online.
The long and short of it, we have to get it right or else we will continue to be a laughing stock for others.
Of course, I am willing to assist in any way that I can.