The audience at The Tabernacle on Friday night was surprisingly small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm and support for the calypsonians competing in the semi-finals of the 2017 UK Calypso Monarch contest. MC for the night was Coco P, the London Calypso Tent’s pocket colossus of wit and repartee.
As defending monarch, G String (Gerry Archer) automatically had a place in the final, but he certainly earned it with High Blood Pressure, which skilfully blends humour and serious commentary. It can be a hard combination to pull off – there’s a fine line between sermonising on the one hand or making light of tragedy on the other – but G String walks the tightrope with verve. To make his point he leans so far over the edge of the stage that you half expect him to plunge bodily into the audience. But, well-balanced calypsonian that he is, his feet remain firmly on the ground.
Lord Cloak (Errol Brown) had no such inhibitions about leaving the security of the stage, though, and came down to audience level with his tribute to the leader of Flamboyan mas band, Gloria Cummins. As ever, his timing and interaction with the crowd were impeccable and he got a good response from his fans for his well-conceived calypso. And it was good to see another Tent stalwart, De Admiral (Jeffrey Hinds), being well placed for Our Fathers Dey. The lyrics were just what you want from a social commentary calypso, skewering the subject in a few minutes on stage more effectively than hours of earnest documentaries. He is fortunate in being one of those calypsonians whose voice has improved with age, which has really helped his stage presence.
Gloria Cummins also got a mention in Unsung Heroes, from Alexander D Great (Alexander Loewenthal). Let’s celebrate the people who do so much for our carnival and our community while they are still here, Alex suggests – and there they were, in the Tabernacle with us: Cyril Khamai, Sister Monica, Smokey Joe, Dexter Khan, De Admiral… the list goes on! The song was written in collaboration with Debra ‘Pan Diva’ Romain and is underpinned by a lovely steelpan beat. Happily, it’s available on a CD (Lion Valley Records) that includes two other Loewenthal/Romain compositions, Russell Henderson and Pan Woman on Trial.
The days of calypso being the preserve of old men in flowery shirts are long gone, and for many years now the London Calypso Tent has been blessed with a strong female contingent – we think of Sister Sandra, Totally Talibah (a judge at the Semis) and Wen’D, among others – and 2017 is no exception. Helena B (Helena Bedeau) used her lovely voice to great effect on Immigration, which had Alexander’s distinctive stamp on the lyrics, highlighting why we should welcome new arrivals to these shores. There’s no doubting that Brown Sugar (Beverley Browne) is aiming for the top spot this year with her roof-raising rendition of Equal Opportunity. Brown Sugar insists she’s naturally rather shy, but you see none of that on stage, when she gives her all to a song that tears into the comfortable myth of sexual equality: “You’re trying your best, but all they see is your dress”.
And what of her husband, the debonair and imposing Rev B (Berth Browne)? Well, as we’ve come to expect, he delivered his deep and serious message with conviction. In Stop the Killing he wasn’t afraid to point the finger at those who allow innocents to be killed in the street: “I hold you responsible…” The Rev’s challenging lyrics are the antidote to those who believe Carnival is just a drunken party running on repetitive beats.
It’s powerful stuff and will make for a thrilling finals night on Thursday 24 August. The era is long gone when a past monarch could retain the crown as if by divine right and this year every contender will have to prove their mettle before the judges and the crowd. The strength of competition is such that even Tent favourite Santiago (Jamers Walker) had to settle for seventh with Caribbean Creatures, which characterises annoying people as various types of wildlife from alligator to pot-hound. Also in the finals will be Dansa (William O’Garro), who sang They Fooled Us and Dave B (Dave Batson), Saturday Night Soca Party. Those who missed out this time were Clivus (Clive Lewis) with Pirates, Music Man (Michael Nanton) singing Music Maker and Masterlink (Martin George) with Bacalhau (ie saltfish).
The tempo will rise this Friday when The Tabernacle hosts the Groovy Soca competition. The line-up includes Sunshine and Nadiva, Triniboi Joocie, McKenzie Hart (who wowed the Tent on her debut last year), Ms Desire, DeeVine, Carlene Etienne, Soca Kidd and Soca Johnny – all backed by the wonderful Soca Divettes and the ABC All Stars Band. Tickets £12 from eventbrite.com. For more info, tel: 07794 510908 or email: britishcalypsonians(at)gmail.com
G String High Blood Pressure
1. Brown Sugar Equal Opportunity
2=. Alexander D Great Unsung Heroes
2=. Rev B Stop the Killing
4. De Admiral Our Fathers Dey
5. Helena B Immigration
6. Lord Cloak Gloria Cummins
7. Santiago Caribbean Creatures
8. Dansa They Fooled Us
9. Dave B Saturday Night Soca Party at the Calypso Tent