The subversive power of calypso music

Calypsonians who stayed in Trinidad were able to influence its political culture. In 1986, the governing People’s National Movement (PNM) party lost an election for the first time in 30 years to the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). The NAR chose as its theme tune Gypsy’s The Sinking Ship and was aided by Déplé’s catchy Vote Dem Out (“Vote dem out with calypso & joyous refrain / Let’s put our country together again”). On the back of this landslide victory, Gypsy released Respect the Calypsonian in which he warned: “I could write a song to make government strong, / I could write a song to bring government down”. He continued:

I write the songs that champion the poor man’s cause,
I who write the songs that circumvent the laws,
From slavery to emancipation, I’ve made my contribution.

The role of the calypsonian, in the words of Black Stalin, is as “the people’s watchdog / Elected for life”. Indeed, the artist acclaimed as The People’s Calypsonian, Bro Valentino, sang: “the calypsonian is the only true opposition”.

In Leader of the Opposition, the Watchman lampoons calypsonians such as Sugar Aloes who still endorse election campaigns (“Now that the PNM win / Aloes has naught to sing / He can’t bite the hand that feeds him”). Just as Attila successfully entered politics in the 1940s, Watchman himself became a police chief – yet in the calypso tent he retained his scrutiny:

Is criticising your government really the wrong approach?
Are all leaders in parliament above & beyond reproach?

In 1945, the Andrews Sisters scored a huge hit with their sanitised version of Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca-Cola, stripping the original of its critique of prostitution near a US naval base in Trinidad. The upbeat cadences of calypso were always likely to be misconstrued (or, some would say, misappropriated) and critics argue that Carnival in the diaspora has lost it social consciousness. Yet in Trinidad, the political tradition continues today – a rare example of a truly democratic art form. After all, in which other genre would an artist title his song, as Contender did in 2003, More Elections the Better?

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