Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Taking calypso forward


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CALYPSO MUSIC continues to be the engine that drives the annual Crop Over Festival and much attention is paid to it during the almost five months of the national event.

Unfortunately, as soon as the period of revelry ends, calypso as a musical expression fades into the background. Little attention is paid to the music and artistes who were household names weeks earlier are relegated to the archives until the festival comes around the following year.

Associate Editor John Sealy sat with music arranger/composer Roger Gittens for a wide-ranging discussion about the status of calypso, how the art form can be advanced and what are some of the challenges facing it.

Gittens, a Barbados Scholar who pursued music at Berklee College of Music, is also an accomplished pianist. He also heads the Performing Arts Department at the Barbados Community College.

What is the status of calypso in Barbados today?

Gittens: I would say that calypso tends to flourish in the Crop Over period. There is the Pic-O-De-Crop competition where you see commentary coming to the fore and there are also the various fetes which would bring out the large numbers of party calypsos. Outside of that summer period there are very few recordings happening of the art form; persons are possibly performing in the nightclubs, but there are very few new recordings outside that period.  

If we really want to see it advance as a major part of the music industry locally, then we would need to see calypsos being performed, written and arranged throughout the year and being used for things other than Crop Over, for other national celebrations and other activities in the society. There is no reason why you could not have musicals like Bimshire that happened in the 1970s where you have folk songs of other Caribbean styles being brought together to create a picture of who we are as a people, what our views are outside of Crop Over.

There are also other possibilities for calypso. [It can be] used as a teaching tool in schools, not necessarily to teach calypso but other aspects of the English language which [calypso] uses quite well.  

There is no reason why you could not have songs that speak to chemistry and counting as vehicles for little children in primary school where there should be other avenues for learning other than sitting and listening to a teacher.

You have painted a very clear picture where our calypso is and how it can be advanced. What is so difficult that other people can’t see that?

Gittens: I think there are two things: lack of vision and lack of funding. It is a small society and there are not many avenues for funding. Let us look at the vision. The persons who are in a position to make things happen I don’t think have a broad sense of what the art form can offer – and partly it is because of their background  [which is] not in music or in the arts, even though they may be in charge of facilitating the arts.

Their experience with the arts may be very limited and I am not sure that people around them advising have any greater experience than they have. So I think there is a lack of vision among the planners. That is a major hurdle.

The other difficulty would be funding. We are in a recession right now and even if we were not in a recession our economy is small, so choices have to be made. Where are you going to place your funds? Unfortunately, music sometimes is seen more as an expense, as opposed to added value. In the hotel sector or even Government, people see the arts – not just music – as being an expense, as opposed to something that enhances what you do or offer.

Let’s point to tourism: how you keep people in a hotel and get them buy more of your product? One of the ways of doing that is through music, having great shows that have people stay in your hotel and patronize your restaurant. But a hotel manager says, ‘If I am to maximize my profit and things are going really difficult, and the number of guests is down, I need to trim’, so you trim the entertainment, whereas the entertainment should be seen as a means of getting persons to come to  your hotel.  

We talk really well in Barbados. We make great speeches. We don’t live things out very well. [The question] is how do you get from the talk into the action, that is usually the difficulty with our people. We are not proactive and we are not persons of action. We can see what the problem is, we can talk about, but we don’t necessarily do it. That is seen not only in the arts but throughout everything we do as a people.

If we are going to compete on the world stage, we need to move to a point where we can get things happening.

What responsibility does the calypsonian have in trying to bring about change?

Gittens: That is a good question. I find that artistes tend to be much more about art. There are very few who tend to be agitators, even though you can point to examples throughout history [of those who are] by and large artistes create art, that is their passion, and there are some who have political passions or social awareness and they marry the two.

But our society is not one where we foster collaboration from school. It is very much an individual pursuit; you sit at your desk and there is not that group activity happening. But the industry is such that you need to draw on the strengths of persons . . . regardless of all of those stumbling blocks that our society presents . . . .

You need to be in a situation where we can marry the [best of talent] not only the music, but the calypsonians. The music industry is not just about the music; music sometimes is a very small part of it. It is the image that you have and how you can sell the culture that comes with that image as well . . . . It is just not a person being able to sing well or write a great calypso, it is how can you shape that person’s image into someone that can captivate not those only in Barbados but outside the region as well.

How difficult is it for the artiste/calypsonian to create this image?

Gittens: It is very challenging. To record in Barbados is expensive. Our idea of a good-sounding calypso is the traditional one that has in live brass, back-ups. Those are persons you have to pay, as opposed to going to a studio where there is one person doing everything on a computer.

Our concept of the music may have to change. We have to produce music for Barbados, competition music that speaks to who we are. But we also need to create opportunities for people to create music that may not sound like traditional calypso, but may be able to move into other markets because it has elements of something that people elsewhere might enjoy. We need not be so closed about what we say because sometimes the labels can stop it. T

here is nothing wrong in saying this is calypso and this isn’t, but what we need to do is give a name to the new thing so that we can move forward and not stay within a particular box. Music is always evolving. We can’t be so closed-minded to figure that calypso is going to fit into this neat box. It will change and it has to change.

For the Pic-O-De-Crop you can decide a calypso has to be XYZ, if you want. You can produce music for us which speaks about Owen Arthur or Freundel Stuart that nobody outside of Barbados cares anything about. But if you are going to talk about a music industry, you have to have persons produce music that speaks to themes that are international, that wherever you are you can relate to.

It is therefore important for the calypsonian to widen his themes then?

Gittens: Crop Over is Crop Over and we are not producing music outside of the season. The music that is [festival-based] will be for Pic-O-De-Crop, Party Monarch, Sweet Soca. There is nothing wrong with that, but we are not producing music in August and September and that music more than likely would speak to those themes . . . . Bob Marley is universal.

There is no reason why we can’t produce someone similar who is touching persons regardless of where they are. But we need to create those opportunities that people can produce that music. Right now it is too expensive and maybe some outlets have to be created where people can be compensated financially or given recognition in some way for what they are producing and then it may encourage some other writings.

What is the role of both traditional and social media in promoting calypso?  

Gittens: Not an easy question for me to answer. What we are facing is a generation gap, where youngsters are putting music out on Facebook or YouTube. We need to be able to marry the experience [engineers] with some of the youngsters who are creating ideas that are “now” with their engineering skills.  

Make sure that those youngsters can get the best videos out and be groomed too. It is more than speech; it is being in the right place at the right time, wearing the right clothes that fit and the style of music that you have and where you want to get to.


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