My father was a Gemini. As well as being a polyglot, he had an eclectic taste in music and the sounds from scratchy 45s and LPs was anything from Schubert to jazz, Bing Crosby to gamelan, Sousa to bierkeller oomp pah pahs and everything in between.
It is he who introduced me to calypso. Not, as you might think, sung by the Trinidadian greats of the day, the Mighty Sparrow or Lord Kitchener or even the American calypsonian Harry Belafonte, but rather the unlikely Danish – Dutch husband and wife duo, Nina and Frederik. I’m sure I never asked why a white couple sang calypso so convincingly. I learnt later calypso entered Frederik van Pallandt’s life when his father was the Dutch ambassador to Trinidad. The Danish connection came, not as I had thought, through historical links to the US Virgin Islands which were the Danish West Indies until 1917, but when Dutch Frederik fell in love with Danish Nina.
It is one of life’s ironies that my daughter now lives in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The country to which I swore I would not return after a year spent in the south, in San Fernando, in the mid 1980s. There is much beauty in the country but, for me, way back then it was a time of strange isolation. A difficult time politically with tensions between black and East Indian contingents. As tradition would have it, political commentary came through calypso and blared from speakers before, during and after Carnival.
When Kate extols the virtues of soca and ska, I remind her it was her parents who exposed her at an early age to the rhythms of the Caribbean. To Edwin Ayoung, aka Crazy, who won the 1985 Road March with Suck Meh Soucouyant and which we heard without cease when we lived there. For those unsure of the term, a soucouyant is a shape-changing character – by day a wrinkled old woman living in a shack surrounded by tall trees and by night, reverting to her true self and her pact with the devil, flies through the sky as a fireball searching for victims.
Trinidad and Tobago also lays claim to Calypso Rose. Born Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis in 1940, she started writing songs at 15, turned professional at 24, and at 76 and about 800 songs later claims, as the lyrics in Calypso Queen say, “my constitution is strong”.
St Croix has just celebrated Three Kings Day. Part of the Carnival activities include competing for the Festival Calypso Monarch. Won again this year by Temisha ‘Caribbean Queen’ Libert. Her entry, as others, took the opportunity to highlight flaws in local politics – a time-honoured calypso tradition no doubt a little uncomfortable for any politicians present. One of her songs, written by Carol Hodge, asked the question, “How could we smile? No way, no way”.
Another competitor, Campbell ‘King Kan Ru Plen Tae’ Barnes went so far as to say politicians were worse than Satan, suggesting some get elected by invoking obeah – sorcery, of the bad kind – perhaps similar to the type of interference reported in the presidential election!
It would seem, having heard Meryl Streep’s powerful speech at the Golden Globe Awards about the president-elect and his unvetted family and cohorts, that we need entertainers of every stripe to remind the rest of us to hold our politician’s toes to the fire. To not let them ride roughshod over We the People.
Though not a polyglot, I too am a Gemini with an eclectic taste in music. My father died a number of years ago but just maybe, one day, on a giant turntable in the sky, he will listen to a tragic (or perhaps comic) opera describing the events of the Trump presidency. Until that opera or calypso is written, I take comfort, as inauguration day looms, from the music of that other great Caribbean singer, Bob Marley. Because I have to believe “every little thing gonna be alright” and that, as Calypso Rose assures us, the “constitution is strong”!