The Real Calypso Kings
Calypso Dreams relies on humble settings all around Trinidad to serve as a fitting backdrop for the country's unpretentious troubadours. This is a movie so chock full of colorful characters, so informative, and so much fun that you never want it to end. Each new performer outdoes the last, though none appears to have a competitive bone in his or her body, or a bad word to say about anyone besides Harry Belafonte. Even Belafonte makes a couple of brief, but telling appearances in the film, in which he wistfully owns up to misdeeds a half-century old. He acknowledges that when, "I became the King of Calypso, the Trinidadians went crazy. Boy, they went nuts." He recalls being confronted by some for stealing the music and for then never even coming to Trinidad to participate in the annual Carnival competition.
When most people think of Calypso, the first person that comes to mind is Harry Belafonte and the first place that comes to mind is Jamaica. After all, it was Belafonte who ushered in the Calypso craze of the Fifties, with such popular hits as "Day-O," "Matilda," "Mama Look a' Boo-Boo" and "Jamaica Farewell." In fact, his debut album, "Calypso," was the first LP in history to sell more than a million copies.
Truth be told, however, Belafonte was a bit of a poser, as he was born and raised in Harlem and only stayed in Jamaica briefly, when his struggling, single mom sent him down there to live with his grandmother. But he dropped out of high school, and after a stint in the Navy, Harry ended up back in New York City, working as a janitor, by day, and trying to make it in Greenwich Village as a folk singer, by night.
After his agent suggested that he stop imitating Burl Ives and come up with his own sound, what Belafonte came up with was a watered down version of Kaiso, a relatively sophisticated sound with a rich tradition in its native Trinidad. The word "Kaiso" was derived from a West African exclamation of approval, the functional audience equivalent of "Bravo!" Trinis turned Kaiso into Calypso, so, the music Harry would one day be crowned "King" of, actually emanated from an island in the Caribbean he'd never visited. Where Kaiso generally cleverly concealed subtle political statements about the social order into jaunty tunes ostensibly about everything from language to life to love, Harry's readily digestible interpretation smoothed the rough edges off the genre and served up some relatively sanitized white bread variations on the theme. Though he took a little heat from Calypso's originators, Belafonte basically got away with passing off his watered-down versions of other people's creations like "Momma Look at Boo-Boo" as his own.
Finally, in Calypso Dreams, a documentary which is as much a joyous celebration of the music as it is a belated testament to its legitimate greats both dead and alive, we have a laudable effort to set the record straight. Directed by filmmakers Michael Horne and Geoffrey Dunn, the movie pays tribute to the late Lord Kitchener via archival footage, while simultaneously providing impromptu performances and running commentary by dozens of the music's legends like The Mighty Sparrow, David Rudder, Calypso Rose, The Mighty Chalkdust, Lord Blakie, Brigo, Lord Pretender, MightyProwler, and Lord Relator.
What a treat it is to hear these wise old elders ruminate about their roots, and right on location in Port of Spain, whether while strolling through the town square on Frederick Street or while just hanging out in a crowded bistro. For instance, dreadlocked Brother Valentino explains that kaiso began as a subtle form of rebellion relied upon by plantation slaves, as a means of commenting on their predicament. "Raise your head, Mr. African," Brother Akil subsequently sings to the accompaniment of a chorus of impassioned voices and a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, the Calypsonian instrument of choice. Paying close attention to the lyrics reveals this catchy tune to be an anti-apartheid anthem about martyred student leader, Steve Biko. The political subtext turns out to be typical. An Ice-T look-a-like named Crazy croons about Saddam Hussein, while Lord Relator does a spirited rendition of a number which superficially seems to be a silly song about Rum and Coca-Cola. But that's before The Mighty Chalkdust,, who holds a Ph.D. in history and ethnomusicology, breaks the bouncy ditty down.
For the eloquent educator/entertainer proceeds to explain that it is easy for many to overlook the underlying message about how "Americanism is breaking up the family life of our people." After recounting the line, "Both mother and daughter working for the Yankee dollar," Chalkdust matter-of-factly opines that "He's singing of prostitution." As David Rudder summarizes, "Under the laugh is a blade, always a blade." Calypso Dreams relies on humble settings all around Trinidad to serve as a fitting backdrop for the country's unpretentious troubadours. This is a movie so chock full of colorful characters, so informative, and so much fun that you never want it to end. Each new performer outdoes the last, though none appears to have a competitive bone in his or her body, or a bad word to say about anyone besides Belafonte. Even Harry makes a couple of brief, but telling appearances in the film, in which he wistfully owns up to misdeeds a half-century old. He acknowledges that when, "I became the King of Calypso, the Trinidadians went crazy. Boy, they went nuts." He recalls being confronted by some for stealing the music and for then never even coming to Trinidad to participate in the annual Carnival competition.
And how did the indicted monarch respond to his accusers? Humbly. "You're absolutely right. I've never competed, because I never thought I could... Those who possess the Calypsonian arts are men of remarkable gifts that I'm not privileged to embrace. The fact that I've been called 'The King of Calypso' was not my manufacturing. Deal with those who market and sell you goods that you buy every day. If I have offended you, then I beg your forgiveness." Hear! Hear! At long last, a heartfelt homage from the person most indebted to the island's gifted greats. Calypso Dreams is Trinidad's answer to Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club. Only more satisfying, and an early favorite to land
on this critic's annual 10 Best List.
Excellent (4 stars)
Distributor: Pulse Productions
Note: Calypso Dreams will make its New York premiere as part of the
Caribbean Diaspora Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinema, located at 30 Lafayette Avenue. Three screenings: Sun, Sept. 4 at 4:30pm, Mon, Sep 5 at 2pm & 9:15pm For more info, visit: http://www.bam.org/film/series.aspx?id=28 Or call: (718) 636-4100
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