UK Calypso Monarch to reign at Toronto’s Harbourfront (video)
25 July 2012 One Comment
By Anya Wassenberg
Alexander D Great“I’m in a time when Calypso is seen as a dying art form,” notes Alexander D Great.
Special Guest of the Calypso Stars
July 31, 2012 at Harbourfront Centre
If it’s a dying form, his own career shows no signs of it. As reigning Monarch of London’s vibrant Calypso scene, Alexander D Great is just about to embark on a North American tour that will see him playing Toronto’s Harbourfront as a special guest of the Calypso Stars event on July 31. He’ll be performing at events that celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence in Trinidad and Tobago well into the UK’s Black History Month in October — and there are also the London Calypso Monarch competitions in late August.
He first won the title two years ago, a feat he repeated in 2011 when he won with Debra ‘Pan Diva’ Romain. “Since 2000 until I won in 2010, all the competitions were won by the girls,” he says. “We have six brilliant Calypso divas.” Last year, he also penned the song for runner up Helena B. “We came in first and second last year. It was a great year for us.”
Performing isn’t the only aspect to his musical career. Alexander combines the singing experience with a BA from Dartington College and PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) from Roehampton. He’s taught music at the secondary and post-secondary levels and presented lectures on Calypso at various universities in the UK. He adds to that a role as a broadcaster on BBC Radio.
“I’ve done 12 years –I’m still Calypsonian-in-Residence,” he says. For the first seven of those years, he recorded a two-minute spot every week. True to the roots of Calypso, it was a commentary on the news. “I’ve made my whole career being controversial as a Calypsonian, but I do my research,” Alexander says. “These people, they believed two minutes was the limit — and I had to cover three topics.” It left him exactly 40 seconds to cover each topic in musical form. His Calypso news weekly was broadcast by local BBC stations with an Afro-Caribbean audience.
Calypso began as a musical form of communication that evolved among enslaved Africans in Trinidad and Tobago. Forbidden from speaking to each other, they sang to each other instead and developed a distinct form of often biting commentary full of double-entendres and inventive use of language. Alexander points to the traditional role of the musician in folk culture — the West African griot was the keeper of history and storyteller. “He needs to write an ode about something that affects the village,” he explains. “The Calypsonian is, to the Caribbean community — or used to be — the same role. It was the people’s newspaper. They covered all the world news.”
In the Caribbean, the lyrics of songs would be the topic of public debate. “As it’s become easier to become more outspoken, it’s now easier to write anything and get it aired.” It’s clear that it’s a development he relishes. “I’ve got a song called Haiti. It was written about six months after the earthquake,” he says. The song’s lyrics talk about how slowly aid has come to Haiti — and he’s sure he knows why. “They had the unmitigated cheek to have a rebellion.” He points to other examples where foreign aid and clean-up have come much more quickly. “Haiti’s two-and-a-half years on and nothing’s been done,” he says. “They’re going to let them sink.”
“I’ve been a Calypsonian now for over 20 years.” He can still sing the lyrics of the first Calypso song he learned — Boycott Carnival by Mighty Sparrow — by heart. The song talks about the fact that the parade’s winners got $25 while the Queen got $5,000 and a car. “She only pretty is all..,” he sings. Born in Trinidad, he’d immigrated to the UK at age four. “I’m thinking he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth!” he laughs.
His musical journey actually began with the music of the times. “As a teenager, I bought Bob Dylan,” he recalls. “I played in two or three original bands.” He performed with musicians from Roxy Music, Thin Lizzy and others; it was Brit rock and blues, and for him it eventually wasn’t quite enough. “Nothing satisfied my desire to shoot my mouth off,” he laughs.
At nearly age 40, he was brought back to Calypso. “My Calypso is fused with a lot of influences from my other musical life. In Britain, my stuff is completely different from anyone else’s. I actually call my stuff the soca blues. The word ‘blues’ adds gravitas to the word soca.” His didn’t care for the “smoothed over” sound on his first Calypso recording. “I don’t use computer generated anything. That’s why I only produce an album every 5 years or so.”
His tour coincides with the release of his latest album. “There’s a new song called Fifty Years of Independence,” he says. “Canada will hear it before they hear it in England.” At that, it may be a fitting place for its debut. “David Rudder is Calypso’s last hope — and you’ve got him right in Toronto.”