Protecting The Integrity of the Calypso Art Form on Montserrat

Protecting The Integrity of the Calypso Art Form on Montserrat

Wonford L Duberry

Release Date

Monday, June 10, 2013


Calypso Monarch Competitions in Montserrat have been marred in recent years by a total lack of respect for the Calypso art form and the Calypsonians.

It's a regrettable trend, which encourages mediocrity as our accepted standard. We are a musical nation that produced the world renowned King of Soca, the late Aphonsus 'Arrow' Cassell, Everton 'Reality' Weekes and recently KeithRoy 'De-Bear' Morson. These men are emblematic of our capabilities when we maintain integrity in our art form and with the added principal of respect.

Consistent with the present trend of mediocrity, such elements as poor selection of Judges; poor use of judging criteria as it relates to bad judging practices and poor musicianship continues to cripple the art form year after year and thus discourages artistes from taking part in the competitions. These negative forces were once again on full display during the 2012 Calypso Monarch Competition.

In the course of my argument here, I will focus on the three very important points, those which I have listed above as the root causes of bringing the integrity of our Calypso art form into question. I will outline in detail the problems as I see them with viable solutions for restoring the credibility of the Calypso art form on Montserrat.

Poor selection of Judges:

The problem
Quite often it would appear that persons selected to judge our Calypso Monarch Competitions in Montserrat are selected based on nepotism and the inflated egos of some people, who seem to believe that they are deserving of such an honor because of their names, social affiliations and or positions of authority rather than their qualifications for the job of judging. As such, it has become common practice for the more relevant disciplines of the art form to be overlooked; which means that the outcomes are more likely to be flawed than not. Nevertheless, these flawed outcomes whether through plain incompetence or strategic foul play, are conveniently covered by the imposed doctrine of Judges Decision is final.

The Solution
The qualifications of persons selected to judge a Calypso Monarch Competition should be consistent with the disciplines of the art form as it relates to the composition of a Calypso and it's execution in a performance by a Calypsonian. One must be able to understand and identify the role of a calypsonian in a performance in relation to the musical accompaniment i.e. the band; the marriage of lyrics and melody complemented by a unique musical arrangement and the relevance of message to its time with respect to its creative theme compared to that of others.

It is therefore reasonable to suggest that this knowledge cannot be acquired by simply attending a few judges' workshops or by merely being a long-time or a part-time listener of Calypso. Since judges are exempt from accountability under the present doctrine, one must take into account the ethical issues of a person's conduct as it relates to their views and public behavior past and or present. I argue that this is of fundamental importance, because a person's beliefs whether religious or political and indeed their personal likes and dislikes of an individual or group can often lead to biases. It is therefore my opinion that persons who are being considered for the honor of being a Calypso competition judge, should be bound by a set of strict vetting rules to ensure authenticity and if nothing else to protect the professional integrity the competition.

These are measures which can be implemented with the formation of a Calypso Committee or Board of which I am sad to say there are none in place on Montserrat. So year of after year the fate of Calypsonians and indeed the Calypso competition, is placed in the hands of persons who couldn't give a damn about the art form, the Calypsonians , our culture and our Festival for that matter.

Poor use of judging criteria:

The Problem
Too often we've witnessed Calypso Monarch Competitions in Montserrat where we the audience are left perplexed by the judge's decision. Putting aside any allegations of foul play, poor use of judging criteria tends to be another troubling factor which challenges the integrity of art form. This has nothing to do with the intellect of some of the judges per say, but rather their ability to understand and apply the Judging criterion set before them to a performance in a Calypso competition, as it relates to the original composition of lyrics and melody tied together with the smooth flow of vocals and accompanying music played by the band. The importance of the band cannot be understated. The band must be musically capable of executing its part in the performance and in my opinion this quite often has not been the case on Montserrat.

Judges lacking the appropriate background and or experience in the disciplines of the Calypso art form are less likely to identify how the various components should fall into place for the purpose of awarding points in each category. Although the Calypsonians are the ones being judged in a Calypso contest, downplaying the role of the band, especially a band which doesn't possess musicians who are capable of reading music, is one of the biggest flaws of judging in any Calypso competition and I will explain in more detail why in the next segment.

The Solution
Judges in a Calypso Competition must be able to interpret each sub-category within a category of a judging criterion and this is not something which should be taken for granted. Unlike the criterion used by the audience, a Calypsonian should not be able to win a contest simply because their song sounds good on the radio, related to a veteran Calypsonian or because they have a great singing voice. I will explain.

LYRICS: 35 Points

In any lyrical composition the root foundation is the topic from which all else flows. This is the appeal of and adherence to the selected theme. Second is composition, which is the way the topic is being explored and developed into a logical flow and third is construction, which is the structure of the song, i.e. the poetic form and rhyme scheme. Lyrics absent of any of these three elements would only be confusing and therefore regarded as poor.

MELODY: 30 Points

Melody takes into consideration the creative aspect of a song which is also referred to as originality, meaning that the melodic structure of the song should not be recognized in part or in its entirety to be an imitation of an existing tune. However, this does not mean that if the topic of a song is the same as that of an existing song that the composition and structure cannot be different. This also applies to structure of chords in a song. The second aspect of melody is its musicality or musical form, which must embrace a rhythmical balance, one which conforms to an accepted musical practice.

RENDITION: 25 Points

It can be argued that rendition should be the most important requirement in a Calypso performance for without it a calypso performance might as well be a silent movie. Rendition in a performance calls for two very important elements, the first of which is intonation. This requires the Calypsonian to sing in key for the duration of his performance. The second of these is diction, which is often unified with clarity, but diction is the clarity and pronunciation of lyrics which makes the words of the lyrics/song easily heard and understood.


Presentation in a calypso performance calls for two important elements and the first of these is attire. How a Calypsonian presents his or herself during a performance can either hurt or help the performance and so needless to say, that this requires careful thought and preparation.

The second of these elements is showmanship, which is the Calypsonian's ability to perform and in doing so capture the attention of the audience. Some performers are able to display this naturally by their mere presence on a stage (also known as the IT or X-factor) while others are able to acquire elements of it through practice.

As you can see presentation carries the least points of these four categories, but nevertheless, it has been known to have the greatest influence on the audience as well as judges at times. More importantly, you may have also noted that a Calypsonian cannot win by simply scoring high in any one category.

Given the complexity of judging in a Calypso competition even with the best experiences applied, persons who are selected for this task should be asked possess a recognized background in the following: live musical accompaniment, song-writing and a good and tested understanding in the rules and disciplines of the Calypso art form.

Poor Musicianship:

The Problem
Poor musicianship can be one the most off-putting thing to a Calypsonian during their performance. It can often disrupt the flow of a Calypsonian's performance and may even cause them to forget their lyrics. Nevertheless, in a calypso competition the Calypsonian is the one who gets penalized even when the band is at fault, either as a result of inadequate practice or just sheer incompetence.

As we've seen as recently as 2012, calypsonians complained of poor musicianship by the Black Rhythms Band which is hired repeatedly year after year to provide musical accompaniment to the calypsonians, has become an accepted standard without any accountability. In spite of the indisputable dedication of the band leader, mediocrity appears to have solidified itself as the norm within our Festival. As witnessed in the 2012 Calypso Monarch Competition, calypsonian's who dared to demand a better standard of musicianship, bore the wrath of the powers that be for causing the show to be postponed in the interest of being better prepared. Nevertheless, for these courageous few who placed the integrity of the art form before themselves, I think Sir Winston Churchill said it best Never in the field of human conflict have so much been owed by so many to so few.

Such was the incompetence of the band that some Calypsonians not only chose to bring their own musicians on stage to play for them, but also had parts of their music and lyrics sequenced and sang to partial backing tracks to aid their performances. This is not only highly improper in a Calypso competition, but also disrespectful and unethical to the art form.

The role of an accompanying band in a calypso performance cannot and should not be ignored by the judges, especially if that band is under a contracted obligation with respect to terms and conditions which must be fulfilled. When a Calypsonian is being told by a band that their unique musical arrangement is too complex to play, and therefore they should accept something of a lower standard or an alternative, then there is a problem with the band fulfilling its obligation to the artiste.

The Solution
Bands taking on the role of providing musical accompaniment for a Calypso Competition must be asked to meet essential requirements such as being able to read music and play a musical instrument to a set musical arrangement and or composition piece. In the absence of these, the burden of judging a Calypso performance especially as it relates originality and musicality under the category of melody becomes even more complex. To ensure that the band is fulfilling its obligations as an accompanying band, it must be contracted under specific terms and conditions of accountability and held to those standards. The band does not get to tell the artiste/Calypsonian how their song should be played, once the musical arrangement is presented for them to follow. However, in a situation where the choices are limited and the only available band is one which is incapable reading music, then the need for adequate rehearsals cannot be overstated. Depending on the number of Calpysonians competing, this put an extensive amount of pressure on the band to listen, practice and remember each individual composition piece and I can attest first hand, that this is not an easy thing to do. Some songs the band may remember fully and others they may not.

In a Calypso competition, all Calypsonians must be accompanied by the same band or bands assigned for the role of musical accompaniment and therefore any additional musicians or instrumental line-up other than those listed in the Contractual agreement, must seek full approval from all affected parties.

The first Calypso Monarch Competition to be held in Montserrat took place in 1962. Since then the Calypso art form has earned a deserving place as a respected and upheld tradition within our culture, not only serving as the voice of our people but also as a temporary escape from their pain and suffering.

Calypso became the forum for the poor and oppressed people to tell their stories or listen to their stories being told to a melodic theme. Awakening both a mixture of our joy and pain, some would be left exposed and embarrassed by its lyrical content, while others danced and cheered for the shame of others, especially when those who are being exposed happen to be their oppressors. Simply put, Calypso is the heartbeat of our culture and we should not allow it be diluted by mediocrity. As we look forward to the 2013 Calypso competition, let's be mindful of these things which I have expressed and do our best to protect the integrity of the Calypso art form on Montserrat.

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