CALYPSO HUMOUR – by Dave Martins + music videos

CALYPSO HUMOUR – by Dave Martins. – Credits Stabroek News.

Dave Martins

From time to time on this ubiquitous internet that parades things before us; one often sees presentations reminding us of aspects of our lives that are no more. Many of them treat with life in North America where such things as the hand-cranked telephone or the steam locomotive with the operator shoveling coal are no longer in existence, along with ladies’ dresses touching the ground or the looping chain draping a man’s trousers as evidence of a watch in his waist-line.

In a similar presentation in Guyana we would no longer see the street vendor patiently making a “press” with his hand shaver (the shaving now is done by machine, and the product name is “snow cone”) or someone like Garamai, basket on bicycle handle-bar, selling his famous potato balls around Georgetown.    

Things evolve, supposedly for the more efficient or more aesthetically pleasing, as the culture modifies itself; many things become more efficient or come in a different format, and some things disappear altogether.
A regrettable change for me in our popular music is the disappearance of the humourous calypso. I remember like yesterday hearing a calypso recording for the first time in my aunt’s rum shop at Hague. I must have been about 9 or 10 but the song caught me instantly on two levels: one was the lilting, floating calypso drum pattern – strong Africa with a Latin touch – and the other was the striking humour in the lyrics (I think the singer was Tiger). The song was based on an incident in Trinidad with two kaiso men – Tiger and Roaring Lion – on an excursion boat that ran into rough seas and nearly sank. The first verse went:

“I went to Grenada on an excursion,
it was the Lion that put me in the confusion

When I think we going on a serious boat,
it was a stupid contraption that could hardly float
I had to put me life-belt under me head
‘Cause the rocking of the schooner nearly kill me dead.”

I had heard a range of music on the radio, but this was a record on the shop’s gramophone and it was my first introduction to this amazing music with this juicy beat and hilarious lyrics. It was a new world opening up to me, I couldn’t get enough of it. In the years that followed, I remained enthralled by the humour that was an essential ingredient of the music, and the grip on me grew as I discovered Spoiler and Atilla and, of course, in later years, Lord Funny and Dougla and Chalkdust.

Cultures change and we have to change with them, often waving goodbye to what previously consumed us, and while I’m not one of those who rail against the shift in music today to emphasizing “dance” and “party time” above all else, I see the disappearance of humour from our popular music of the day as a loss. For one thing, popular music generally was dealing almost totally with love or emotion or mood, whereas, in calypso, almost any subject one could think of was fertile ground for the gifted song-writer.

A ship sinking in the Gulf of Paria; the Police Force in Trinidad receiving a hefty pay raise; a steelband clash in Port-of-Spain with bottles flying and panmen ducking; stories of conmen, or famous politicians; all of these and more were the subjects of popular calypsos. Everything and anything was fair game, and the hilarity often coming to serious topics was a thing of joy as well as amazement for the ingenuity of the writer. King of the crop, The Mighty Spoiler, was one of the best but there were many of his ilk, including, in later years, Guyana’s King Fighter.

Of course, with the introduction of double entendre, even sexual topics became completely accessible to the clever song-writer and songs from that genre naturally prevailed, our own Lord Canary with his Doctor Beckles and his double-identity “Injection” being but one example. Double entendre writing – with one set of lyrics having two completely different meanings – as in my song “Honeymooning Couple” – is a specialized art that seemingly lives naturally in the Trinidadian culture, and is a phenomenon that doesn’t exist, in that form, anywhere else in the world. It is unique.

It is in its straightforward humour, however, in dealing with societal matters, that calypso particularly shines. It must also be noted that these pieces of music not only entertained, and even educated citizens about current issues, but they were also danceable. One could argue that today’s music has more pulse, propels more energy with its faster tempos, than old-time calypso, but the disappearance of humourous calypso is a loss. Songs such as “Farmer Brown” by Lord Funny and “Steelband Clash” by Lord Blakie are works of genius as well as humour. In particular, they allow the social commentator, using that umbrella of humour, to parade before us and make points about a very serious consideration for the nation – Sparrow’s “Dan is the Man in Van”, for instance or Dougla’s “Lazy Man” or, “Ram Goat Baptism” (the writer’s name eludes me). In our time, for example, when the management of West Indies cricket is causing huge controversy, I could come to that touchy subject and pronounce as I did in a kaiso seven years ago:

“You run the cricket shop on the rocks, alyou take a rest
You make a rasta cuff off he locks, alyou take a rest
You demoralizing I and I, you make Holding and Viv Richards cry
Greenidge cut up he maroon tie, alyou take a rest.”

Notice that if I wrote those words in a serious vein I would be criticized by some; but when I put them in a calypso, folks laugh and applaud; they even play it on the radio. In today’s popular music, we don’t have that. In a time when there is so much to make you cringe, losing such a trenchant source of laughter has to be a major loss.

Dave Martins & the Tradewinds – Honeymooning Couple

Dan is the Man (in the Van) – Mighty Sparrow

Lord Canary – Doctor Beckles

Mighty Sparrow – Smart Bajan – Three Coins in the Fountain

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  • demerwater  On May 14, 2017 at 5:01 am

    “Calypsoes are either topical or philosophical”.
    Do not ask me who said that. I just do not remember.
    For a short time in my life I had access to “Armed Forces Radio”. And this one day, they featured a ‘calypso from the West Indies’. I perked up expectantly – only to hear “It’s illegal; its immoral; or it makes you fat.”
    When you have listened – clandestinely, mind you – to “The Mule and the Donkey”; when you have felt the pounding base of Fighter’s “Music Teacher”; when you have lived through the universal appeal of Bill Rogers’ B.G. Bhaji (even my grandmother loved that one), the ‘Andrews Sisters’ come over as ‘aenemic’.
    Carnival in Trinidad; and the ‘tent’ – an absolute ‘must’ – to listen to and watch ‘Picong’ on center stage, is an indelible experience. A member of the audience could write a few biographical items and pass the notes to an attendant; and within minutes, one of the performers would sing out about him/her. I suspect that this might have been the basis for “Congo Man.”
    For the record, “Congo Man” and “Civilization” duel for first place in my mind.

    Thank you, Mr. Dave Martins, for skillfully relating the evolution of the calypso from slaves singing – in code – to relieve the back breaking tedium of their condition. “Sly Mongoose” has had a special meaning for me ever since.

  • Deen  On May 14, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Thanks Dave Martins. You have great recollections of things that resonate with most those of us who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s. You are a nationally treasure, a Guyanese icon. I know you have a lot of memories, and your nostalgic reminiscences in your writings are always a pleasure for me to read. I know you became famous with the Tradewinds band and also as a solo performer. I know you have a lot of experiences and witnessed the political transition of Guyana and countries in the West Indies, and I feel you have a wealth of knowledge to write books. If I may humbly suggest an autobiography, a history of calypso and music, a book of humor, politics and culture. Please do, they will be educational and pleasurable to read.
    As far as calypsos are concerned, I remembered many of those you cited, but you modestly excluded many of yours and the Tradewinds’.
    One of my favorite oldie calypsos is “Come La We Go, Suki.” I think it was sung by King Fighter.
    Once again Dave Martins, thanks for sharing your thoughts, recollections and experiences. Please keep on writing.

  • Bella de clou  On May 15, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    Thank you Dave Martin for the lovely music,, so intertaing

  • Joe Truss  On May 17, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    Hi Dave, so nice to see you still fighting the good fights. You may remember me, Joe Truss, from the days of the Sandpebbles, and I engineered an album for you and the Tradewinds at the Merrymen’s old studio at the Caribbean Pepperpot in the early ’70’s. Thanks for sharing! Peace.

  • Gigi  On May 18, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    Not a fan of the genre. All it does is encourage senseless breeding with its embraced vulgarity. But yellow man trash stuff is worst – whatever it was supposed to be. Chutney is terrible too but it is palatable to hip hop. To each his own, I guess.

    As a fan of classical music, I find that I prefer the soothing sounds of the instruments over the lamentations of human follies even if some voices are pleasing to the ear. The standard joke with country and western music is that when you sing it backwards, you get your girl back, your house back, your car back, your whatever it was that you lost back. A nice feeling. With calypso one gets clap, crabs, syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, AIDS plus children born with disabilities as a result. What’s there to like?

  • demerwater  On May 19, 2017 at 4:25 am

    I am a fan of the genre!
    A good walking rate is 3 MPH; and I walk for an hour, 3-4 times a week. The calypso beat, more than any other, keeps me on time; and on target.
    My thoughts go back to the third form at ‘Saints’. Fr. Scannell introduced us to English Literature; and poetry! – with its rhyme, rhythm and repetition.
    The class let out a collective groan. We, on the threshold of teenage, with its hormones, its rebelliousness, and its raging against the parental generation; could not see ourselves as poets and artists.
    Until the aforementioned Reverend invited us to take a walk along Lombard Street in the early evening hours; and observe little children, swaying and tramping to the beat emanating from the many ‘juke boxes’ along the route.
    “Don’t tell me that you cannot appreciate it.
    You were born with it!”

  • Albert  On May 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Gigi “……….it encourage senseless breeding with its embraced vulgarity.

    So what was your passion growing up in Guyana, if you did. Did you not like Indian Music.
    When I was a teenager growing up among our poorer brethren I must admit the strong desire to grow and experience some of that “embraced vulgarity” with the older women. Some of your environmental experiences of early years remain with you as you grow and mature. I know many of the old Guyanese calypsonians. Many are broke or dirt poor, if still alive. They gave us a form of joy in those tough years. I don’t now endear their music neither do I have contempt. Agree, classical music could be very soothing. I find some of the old time Indian songs bring back a joyful sadness.

  • Ron Saywack  On May 19, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Dave Martins is Guyanese legend and icon. He’s a like a ray of sunshine shining brilliantly across the landscape.

    True Guyanese, indeed true West Indians everywhere, are proud of this genius.

  • Ron Saywack  On May 19, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    Sorry about the grammatical missteps above… an edit function is needed to resolve such eventualities.

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