Nature Sounds: Seen and Heard at Dominica Calypso Monarch

February 28, 2012

Words and Photos by Erin MacLeod—

Watching the Calypso Monarch competition in Roseau, Dominica, I couldn’t help but think that the antics of a Skerrit Bwoy–what with the role-playing and the dramatics, the costumes and the lewdness–have more to do with carnival and calypso than soundsystems and dancehall. If you don’t believe me, check his Twitter–the man otherwise known as Major Lazer’s hype man may be “saved via Christ,” but he was “born to Calypso.”

Calypso on an island like Dominica (or Antigua) has theatrics galore, and also tends to remain gloriously local. The songs released in the run-up to Carnival reference the politics, culture and quirks of the country. It’s probably the best finger on the pulse of the public you can get anywhere. The crowds for the Dominica Calypso Monarch competitions are large and passionate, with the final drawing nearly 20,000 people—almost a third of the population. They try to sway the final say of the judges with cheers and through knowledge of every single tune. It’s a hard won fight to get to the final, with various regional rounds, quarterfinals and semifinals. I’ve tried to find links to as many tunes as possible, however the recorded versions don’t equate even slightly with the live performances–no costumes, no elaborate set, and no calypso-obsessed crowd.

Each calypsonian in the final had the opportunity to perform twice–all with the same band, the Swinging Stars. The Stars are legendary in Dominica, and they switched from artist to artist with ease. Explosion disappointed in the first round by forgetting the lyrics to his otherwise strong song “Win, Lose or Draw.” He couldn’t put that past the audience, let alone the judges.

Vigilante’s first tune “Back to Front” had the excellent line, “Everything is upside down; everything is back to front and if I didn’t know better, between you and I partner, I would swear that is what the politicians dem want!”

Rastaman Soul Puss attempted to connect with the countryside, carrying a machete and dressing as a farmer while performing “Back to the Soil”, but the complaints he lodged in performance of his “Never Be a Slave Again”–a tune which complains about Chinese and Venezuelan involvement in Dominica–resonated even more with the audience. Also singing about the recent scandal surrounding the alleged sale of passports to foreigners (“economic citizenship”) was the third place De Webb, with “Where have they gone?” Webb had apparently convinced various foreigners to walk on stage in t-shirts reading “I am Dominica, are you?,”making a mockery of the tourist board’s slogan.

Tasha P, last year’s Calypso Monarch, performed “Cradle Robbery,” attacking the double standard that sees it as acceptable for men to date younger women but not the other way around. Her use of masked men picking up scantily clad ladies from cribs was pretty effective, but her surprise second number had not been released in enough time to really have any traction with the audience.

Policeman-turned-calypsonian Checko had a hit with “AM PM,” but couldn’t touch fourth place finisher Bobb’s “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” a number featuring a Catholic priest and a pastor fighting against a silver devil as well as large piles of painted cardboard box walls being kicked and thrown into the audience after each chorus.

Coming in second was Karessah, who put on quite a show, dressed as a neglected baby complete with smeared peanut butter meant to look like, well, you know what. This performance of “Who Will Care For Me?” was as elaborate as his second song, in which he came on stage in torn clothes with bloody scars on his face and head. Chased by a large transvestite, he sang “Rose Giving Me Blows.” Sure, a song about a woman beating a man with her shoes but, given the symbol of Dominica’s ruling party is a pair of shoes, the tune takes on a whole different meaning.

King Dice, however, lived up to his name and was crowned Calypso Monarch for the fifth time. His first tune was an emotional call to “Stand Up for Teachers” instead of politicians. It was well received, but he brought the house down with the patriotic “Back to Country (True Confession).” Dressed in military regalia with a set of what can only be called S1Ws, Dice had the crowd in hysterics.

I do have to say, however, that a couple of the best tunes weren’t even performed at the final–but were everywhere come the Carnival parade days. Sye’s “Just Burn (Sicko Secko)” was pretty darned catchy, which explained its incredible popularity on the road. In the final analysis, Sye took the road march crown, edging past Checko’s “AM PM” and the oh-so-thinly veiled innuendo of Wuk Suk’s hilarious “Finger Licking Chicken (KFC Time).”