Before There Were Girls, There Was Calypso

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Before there were girls, there was calypso. My first love. Growing up on the Caribbean island of Montserrat during the 1970s when the primary source of news and entertainment was the radio, calypso also referred to as kaiso, captivated me early. I was also fortunate to have been there when three-time calypso monarch Alphonsus ‘Arrow’ Cassell, still one of my favorite calypsonians, was in his prime. The music, stories, the characters who told them and the topics they covered provided maximum entertainment for us.

I love to read and I’ve always enjoyed a well told story, whether it’s your grandparents and their friends on the steps in the evening spinning Nancy/Jumbie stories or a calypsonian on the radio creatively dishing out some melee – a well told story, then and now regardless of the platform – audio/print/film – delights me. As a calypso loving West Indian, a good piece of kaiso hits you in the sweet spot like few other things can. Even if you didn’t quite grasp the entire story, there were still elements of a good tune (a hook perhaps, a bass line, some horns) that grabbed you and held on for, in some cases your entire life.

Calypso: Arrow - Sweet Beat Album Calypso Album: Sweet Beat (1978) by Alphonsus ‘Arrow’ Cassell.

I am not quite sure where we were or how old we were, the first time my childhood friends and I heard the Mighty Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah. It didn’t take us long to “get it”. These chicks standing on the corner, down on their luck and posing, of course nobody told us they were selling, that’s not the sort of thing your parents, teachers or grandparents would enlighten you on, but we had a pretty good idea what that “something” was and we enjoyed The Birdie’s revenge scheme. The goods were now on sale for next to nothing and he was going to make sure all of the bad boys knew it.

Even today, so many years later, it is still good for a sing out loud, sing-along and a smile or a chuckle. Calypso from that era touched on everyone and everything. It was funny, witty, social, political and sometimes irreverent. The practitioners of kaiso came from all walks of life and no one and nothing was sacred. Calypso not only made you laugh and dance, it also made you proud of your culture. Montserrat English by the Mighty Arrow, one of his songs from the 1974 competition is one of the reasons why I have always been proud of my accent and have never been shy or embarrassed about dropping some Stratian dialect, at any place, at any time.

We loved calypsonians from Montserrat, Antigua, Trinidad, Barbados and St Vincent just to name a few islands. There were no borders when it came to your calypso. We were as hyped about the battles between Short Shirt and Swallow in neighboring Antigua as we were about the local toss up between Hero and Reality.

Calypso: Might Sparrow - Hot & Sweet Album Calypso Album: Hot & Sweet (1972) by The Mighty Sparrow.

There are some events from our youth that would have been lost to time if it were not for a song. Framed in the context of calypso they became legends in your mind. Unforgettable. For example, Defender was a calypsonian from Kinsale and did a song one year about a big fire in Plymouth. Now the event itself I recall very little about as I did not witness it. I was in primary school at the time and whatever details I got were third hand and at this point sketchy at best. The song was never recorded to disk and was only available via ZJB Radio Montserrat – I haven’t heard it in a long, long time and I am not sure if a copy still exists anywhere. What most of us do remember about said fire though, thanks to Defender is (a) the Toyota place was ravaged some time on August 17th one year and (b) the police were less than competent. I can only recall a few lines from a verse and some of the chorus but it still feels as if I have the gist of the story. They may not be exact.

Seventeenth day of August
Man a vex till a nearly buss
Fire right down in de town
Toyota place burning down

Fire, fire, fire
Toyota place on fire
And de police can only look for Marijuana
But they can’t out a fire
De police can’t out Fire
De police can’t out Fire

Ask anyone old enough to recall “the big fire ina town” and the conversation invariably comes around to “that fire song.” Most people cannot recall the calypsonian’s name, (I had to phone my friend Cepeekee to get it) or the exact title, but they can sing you some lines from the song. That is calypso. That is kaiso.

Calypso: King Short Shirt -  Ghetto Vibes album Calypso Album: Ghetto Vibes (2003) by King Short Shirt.

Another Montserratian calypsonian Lord Meade, penned some of my all-time favorite lines for the Monarch competition. Portraying a farmer having trouble with wayward animals, he exhorts his neighbor to control his animals, singing:

Me ground is office and me hoe is me pen
On them, I depend
Neighbor, tie you livestock them
Neighbor, tie you damn livestock

A farmer’s heartfelt cry, you understood and felt his pain. It was also very amusing. That is calypso. That is kaiso.

Every now and then you run into an ex and something about her, a smile, a laugh perhaps, transports you to another place and time. More often than not, in my experience, a nice place. A really good piece of kaiso has a similar effect whenever you hear it. It rushes directly to the heart of that “sweet spot” and satisfies in a way that you can’t quite articulate with words. If you are like me, living in foreign, often, it takes you straight back a yard. Yea man, love is funny like that. Before there were girls, there was calypso. My first love. The kaiso you grew up on, never let’s you go or vice versa.

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Wayne Dyer aka JMaCwell is a songwriter/poet from Kinsale, Montserrat who currently manages the My Montserrat Facebook page and its website www.stratians.com. His latest spoken word piece is called Kassandra.
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