Carnival Culture in the Park, Day One: Calypso
Finally: a real show where you could finally see and talk to real people after half a lifetime of monastic solitude communing with that virtual deity, Zoom. What a relief!
And what a venue. Set among the beautiful gardens and tree-lined avenues of Holland Park in Kensington, the tented canopy and venerable architecture that form the backdrop to the aircraft-carrier-sized stage were a most impressive setting for (in Mighty Tiger’s phrase) “the first music of the Caribbean”. To top it all for a calypso show, Holland Park Opera’s ‘open-air’ stage really is a tent!
By the time the show started promptly at 7.30pm it was obvious that the audience was very different from the one you’d expect at calypso’s usual home, The Tabernacle. Many present clearly had never been to a calypso show before, so MC Coco P helpfully explained some of the background to the music.
First up was Helena B, who brought us Mother Earth is Crying and Crime Does Not Pay. She finished with the beautiful Cool it Down, best known from one of Bill Campbell’s compilations where it was sung by Melanesse. It’s a perfect vehicle for Helena’s voice and her rendition was a high spot of the evening, so let’s hope we hear it again.
By now Tent regulars had begun to realise that something was lacking from the music. Leaving aside some intermittent microphone problems, the sound was muddy and subdued. Soca News was told that Holland Park has a noise limitation to avoid rattling the neighbours’ silverware, but the problem wasn’t so much volume as quality. For a professional opera stage that seemed surprising. It affected some singers and songs more than others. In addition, the scratch band lacked the brass, but also the sheer energy, of the wonderful ABC Band, and the absence of the Divettes was keenly felt.
The sheer size of the stage was itself an obstacle, and the presence of an empty orchestra pit created a most unfortunate social distancing effect that was hard for a solo performer to overcome. If they were to make any impression on that vast space, the calypsonian needed to dress and move with all the flamboyance of an opera star – or, indeed, a frontline masquerader! Is that a pointer for next year? The Holland Park stage would be the ideal showcase for mas, so let’s see the space booked for a costume gala in 2022.
The second calypsonian to do battle with the acoustics was Alexander D Great, who got a cheer when he referred to Sparrow’s Carnival Boycott as “…a protest song, and I’m a protest singer. I stick up for victims of injustice and give a hard time to those who cause that injustice”. The injustice here was that his lyrics were swallowed up somewhere between orchestra pit and canopy. He was able to make more of an impression with the beautiful Haiti. Its combination of poetry and pathos was given added poignancy as that beleaguered country struggles once more with the effects of an earthquake
Perhaps the Takamaka rum from Seychelles heightened the senses, as after the brief interval the perfumes from the gardens grew more intense and the sound seemed slightly improved. If so, Giselle Carter was the beneficiary. It was, she told us, the first time she had performed at a show for several years, and she really brought home to us what we’ve been missing.
Giselle’s first three numbers were Voices from the Ghetto, Nobody Wins a War and Die with My Dignity, all associated with the late, lamented Singing Sandra, who passed away on 28 January this year. Each was a real treat, and Giselle did full justice to these powerful, uncompromising social commentaries. If Sandra could have heard Giselle and the appreciative reaction of the crowd – many of whom, remember, had never heard calypso before – she would definitely have approved.
To finish off, Giselle gave us the most delicious turnaround of Sparrow’s Mae Mae, reversing the sex roles, so the subject became Ray Ray as she subverted Sparrow’s persona and his decidedly un-PC lyrics. Very clever ‑ it was worth the ticket price alone to hear it. And Giselle, alone of the four calypsonians, mastered the stage and made it her own, projecting both the lyrics and her persona across that great gaping divide, right to the back row of seats. More please, Giselle.
G-String closed the evening but seemed to be under time pressure ‑ no doubt the neighbours were looking at their watches and were sharpening their tongues to complain if the show should go a minute over time! Hence The Empire was rather short, and perhaps Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah lacked some of the ‘oomph’ of the original. Calypso Referendum, which works so well at the Tab, fell victim to that flaky microphone. However, Nigeria, though lacking the electric flute intro, went down well, showing that there is an appetite for well-written social commentary, and it neatly complemented Alex’s Haiti. As G-String concluded his set, a chilly breeze began to blow through the tent, as if in sympathy with this sad and haunting refrain.
The mood of the departing audience was upbeat, though. This was a brave and imaginative venture, and Matthew Phillip and his team are to be congratulated for pulling out all the stops to offer us a memorable new venue and a wonderful evening, which added another interesting chapter to Notting Hill Carnival’s history. The problems with the stage and sound can surely be overcome, and there’s no doubt at all that this venue offers huge potential for other Carnival-related events in future.
As one first-timer remarked at the end: “I didn’t know what to expect this evening, but I really enjoyed it.” Carnival Village Trust and ACASA need join forces to exploit that interest and enthusiasm for all its worth. These new audiences are vital for the future of the music.