COLUMN – Ode to calypso tents . . .
I wish to speak today on the state of calypso in Barbados; in particular, the business model of our much beloved calypso tents. This is an area I feel very passionate about, and wish to share some perspective and experiences with you the reader.
I first met Peter Roy Byer around April or May of 1995 when I was still in sixth form at Cawmere. Though in January of that year I applied to UWI, Cave Hill, to read a degree in economics and mathematics as a first choice, and mathematics as a second choice, the truth is, becoming an economist was the farthest thing from my mind at the time.
I wanted so badly to pursue a career in music that I spent nearly my entire upper sixth year in the guidance counsellor’s office in search of some scholarship or other means to pursue. The Associate degree programme at the Barbados Community College had not yet come on stream, and so going overseas seemed the only viable option to becoming a professional composer.
As it happened, Roy wanted someone to play tenor sax with The Kingdom Of Super Gladiators. There was a rich history of Cawmere schoolboys playing with Gladiators, and so I helped to fill that long tradition.
A mutual friend, Pernell Farley, recommended me, which came very much as a surprise because up until that point I had only fooled around a little bit with the saxophone, since my main instrument was the clarinet. (Just as an aside, I was very heartened to finally hear some clarinet in a soca song this year. I take liberties by saying Arturo Tappin’s remix of Lil Rick’s Gym Instructor is very pleasing to all clarinettists. A shame it didn’t make it in the Sweet Soca competition.)
We all know the history of the Gladiators; so, like any true gladiator, I set to work to ensure I didn’t let Pernell or Roy down for the faith they had both placed in me. The following year, I switched to alto saxophone and played with the tent every summer until 2001, before I went on to postgraduate studies.
Roy was a true-true calypso man. No questions asked! Playing saxophone with the Gladiators at that time provided some insights into how tents worked and were managed.
During that time, we spent hours upon hours rehearsing calypsonians who didn’t seem to know their songs. Some of the musicians were not always capable of sight-reading music, which made it doubly hard, as this also meant having to teach musicians rhythmic patterns as well.
All of this was taking place against the backdrop of very poor attendance at the tents in those seven years. During this time, I was pursuing my economics and mathematics degree, and none of this was making much sense to me, because with the exception of judging nights, audiences were almost non-existent.
It quickly became obvious to me that without the taxpayer subsidy (subventions), the tent could not function. Needless to say, some of the moneys received really helped to offset some of the costs associated with attending university.
Despite the rather poor financial returns of the tent and the late payment for services rendered, every year around March or so, Roy would give you a call to check on your availability to play with Power Extreme, the name of the band. I always looked forward to hearing what Roy was planning.
Anyone who knew Roy, understood he was not pretentious and spoke the truth always. We got along swimmingly because we’re probably cut from the same cloth.
It was very sad that there were no Gladiators on stage in 2015.
This year, I attended four calypso tents on their judging nights –– House Of Soca, Headliners, De Big Show and All Stars. There were some very good individual performances, but none of these tents, in my view, served up a truly memorable night. Headliners and De Big Show were both overpriced at $40 for what was on offer, particularly given that one calypsonian dropped the microphone and another forgot lyrics.
Both tents had too many fillers, that only served to prolong the shows unnecessarily. All the tents seem to have young talent, which is an encouraging sign; however, I’m not sure that it is enough to sustain this element of Crop Over, going forward.
Like the sugar industry, the tent scene during Crop Over is on the last toe of its last leg.
I love social commentary, but despite this love I must be real. Notwithstanding the prolonged recession which is a contributing factor to low turnout, the fact that calypsonians are not actually singing anything to bring the crowds to the tents isn’t helping.
If any of the sponsors attended the tents this year, then they must be very concerned about the future viability of these entities. I believe there is somewhat of a moral hazard problem in that the shareholders in Pic-O-De-Crop have recognized they don’t have to sing anything to draw crowds because the judges will send them through regardless of what they present.
Tent managers must find a way to get their cast of calypsonians to understand they must sing something meaningful to draw the crowds, which would serve to protect their investment and which would also encourage sponsors to continue their support.
As one artiste stated, “t’ings too hard for calypsonians to be so soft”. I hope COSCAP doesn’t come after me for copyright.
As I reflect on the tents and their contribution to the cultural landscape, I am faced with the probability that perhaps like everything in life, evolution and adaption are inevitable. It is ironic that one calypsonian lamented this year that “we must learn the Trinidad Anthem”, because it is taking a leaf from Trinidad’s calypso book that could save or preserve the tent culture in Barbados. We must simply evolve to the same point that currently exists in Trinidad where the lyrical content of calypsos are exempt from lawsuits.
The fear of victimization is killing social commentary and in turn compromising the viability of the business model of calypso tents.
If we pursue the Trinidad approach, with better facilitation from BRA it is possible calypso tents, or some variant, could exist and thrive outside the Crop Over Festival.
Let me end on this note: I really enjoyed the offerings of the young stars in the tents this year. The stalwarts and/or shareholders were disappointing, given the wealth of material available for them to exploit. The one saving grace was that all of the bands sounded really good.
Though Cohobblopot is no longer, the basic ingredients are still available. All we need to do is find the right recipe.
Rest in peace, my friend Peter Roy Byer.
(Ryan Straughn is a UWI, Cave Hill, and Central Bank of Barbados-trained economist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)