Wither calypso

Above: Crystal Natalie Ford in her first year as a calypsonian and Hollis Liverpool, in his 53rd. Photos by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1238 for February 27, 2020

Between February 09 at 8:30 am and February 22 at 10:32 pm, I photographed calypsonians backstage at six calypso tents this Carnival.

That experience gave me an unusually intimate look into how calypso tents operate in 2020.

What sustains the business of calypso performance in Trinidad and Tobago, the land of its creation, is what built it in the first place, the determination of calypsonians to perform their work.

There is a surprising range of people showing up to sing.

Young women in their twenties would casually mention that they had been singing calypso for 12 years.

That suggests a major success story for calypso in the Junior Calypso and Junior Soca Monarch competitions and acknowledgement should be paid to the dedicated teachers and parents who offer children of talent an opportunity to experience composing songs of social introspection and analysis in their formative years.

But then the young performers grow up.

What they find in professional calypso is a wasteland where there was once abundance.

I’d drifted from covering calypso for almost two decades. Nobody really wanted reviews of tent presentations anymore as they devolved into set lists with cheerful commentary.

Demand for photographs of calypsonians for editorial use bottomed out to near zero as the marketability of soca artists began to soar.

Making money writing and photographing Carnival has always been marginal, but serious journalistic consideration of, and engagement with calypso dwindled in the face of general disinterest.

Some of this was the fault of calypsonians themselves who after confidently striding through more than a hundred years of Carnival began to think of themselves as invincible.

Tents that opened their doors right after New Years would run right up until Carnival Saturday, creating massive traffic jams outside their halls as crowds gathered to hear the lacouray.

Tent clashes, which brought the best of each participating tent into creative conflict with their rivals were so huge that only the Grand Stand could accommodate the massive crowds. There were ticket scalpers.

Calypsonians then chose to lustily excoriate the politically ascendant Indian population, confidently cutting their audience by half, even as a new generation  chose to experience their Carnival music in parties fuelled by live bands and DJs.

Today, tents will often stage a show in a one-to-one ratio of cast and audience.

Today, tents will often stage a show in a one-to-one ratio of cast and audience. When that happens, another startling thing happens. Calypsonians, usually in a roving tent, perform to pre-recorded music – tracks – because there isn’t money for a live band.

Government subventions are both overt, through direct funding from TUCO, and abstract, as city councils and regional corporations pay for the staging of a free show for their constituents.

This largesse has not been without cost to the artform.

In any business, there is a delicate relationship between investment, audience and product. A dramatic change in one always has an equivalent effect on the others.

Calypso, as any practitioner with experience in the artform already knows, is beyond crisis and approaching collapse.

Shows are intermittent and performance schedules are sketchy. Lyrical ambition is compromised. Music hews to a formula that desperately needs inspiration. Staging is uninspired and often brutally minimalist.

What we see and hear at the Calypso Monarch finals, often the only calypso that many will hear for the season, bears little relationship to the songs that excited audiences during the savagely truncated season.

But calypso must survive. The tradition of the griot is deeply embedded in our culture and our creative expression, even as its creative tradition has become a dogma of repetition.

Our music deserves better. Our calypsonians deserve better.

Without subventions, there is no institutional architecture or business model that allows the successful staging of a traditional calypso tent in this country.

Because there are subventions, there is little incentive to explore alternative models for calypso’s sustainability.

So every year, without fail, the calypso chicken eats the calypso egg and the public is invited to view inevitable result.

About The Calypsonians, 2020.

Backstage at the Kalypso Revue.

Over the last 41 years, I’ve often experienced Carnival through a camera’s lens and the coming of digital technology to picture-making offered a new level of engagement with the festival.

When I started making pictures of Carnival, every image was metered. There was a cost for film, for processing, for proofing, for printing. It was necessary to approach the festival with a budget that had to be allocated according to either intent, need or profitability.

Simply showing someone a picture was a process on its own.

While photography is by no means free, the cost of acquisition after an investment in suitable equipment would be cost apportioned from an accountant’s perspective, using considerations of amortization and depreciation.

But from a creator’s perspective, triggering the shutter for every additional frame is essentially free of incremental cost.

Using that gap between an accountant’s cost analysis and a creative imperative, I proceeded to photograph 107 calypsonians from six tents, amassing more than 3,000 images clocking in at 60GB.

There is no traditional medium that is appropriate for viewing the resulting body of work, currently being culled, post-processed and finalised.

One hundred and seven photographs would fill a newspaper, cost a fortune to produce as a magazine or book and flood any art gallery.

Interest in this documentary curiosity, a sampling of roughly 70 percent of the calypsonians singing in tents for 2020, was acknowledged right from the start as a mission of passion, not commonsense.

But posting three photos a day to Instagram with brief biographies? That’s almost exactly what the technology excels at.

If I’d had any sense at all, I’d have done exactly the same project with the models who wear sample costumes at band launches and my Instagram account would have exploded. Instead, I watched my follower count drop soon after I began, then slowly trickle back up.

So there are the pictures, 107 of them.

The stories, even truncated to Instagram brevity, look to clock in at a few thousand words and then there is the larger story of calypso, a quiet, rolling tragedy that remains largely untold and more critically, not analysed in any systematic way at all.

One tent executive told me, “Let me give you a tip, just photograph us on stage.”

The effort at photographing all calypsonians at all tents was always going to be quixotic. One tent executive told me, “Let me give you a tip, just photograph us on stage.”

A request to TUCO for a list of tent managers and their contact numbers to simplify the project went nowhere. Tobago’s calypso tents simply collapsed in an angry quarrel.

Backstage at a tent was always a chaotic, lively place. It buzzed with excitement, and I made interesting portraits there in an earlier century.

The spaces that I spent much of my Carnival experience in this year, patiently waiting for hours for calypsonians to leave the stage (most preferred to do their photos after performing) to offer them a paper napkin to dry their sweat, were, by comparison, a mausoleum.

Calypsonians would drift into the space, sitting contemplatively with their heads down to await their performance. Occasionally there would be the laughter of bad skylark, a dim echo of the raucousness of the era I remembered.

Mostly, people would show up, put on their performance clothes, do their songs and leave.

It felt, for all the music, like a purgatory for a hell still to come.