Photo: Nizam Najaar.
I discovered calypso music when I discovered Lord Invader (Rupert Westmore Grant). He was born in 1914 and died before reaching old age, in 1961. The first thing I heard of him was his album ‘Calypso in New York’ that has twenty songs, most of which were recorded in the fifties and about half of them never reached the public before album release in 2000.
It is said that Lord Invader tried, in this album, to sing in a way that would appeal to the ears of American listeners and that his contingency of calypso musicians did not like that. As for me, I fell in love with his music and was mesmerized after listening to that album. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the origins, features and history of calypso music.
The album’s songs cover a range of different topics, through which Lord Invader moves seamlessly--stories, political opinions, funny observations, frustration, anger, love and passion; listed next to each other without friction or dissonance.
A calypso singer is an entire cultural institution, beyond the borders of signing, and to realize that function it is important that they succeed in becoming embraced and celebrated by the people. The social intelligence of the calypso singer is shown when they are continuously tested in their ability to communicate with fans every time they get on a stage. A calypso singer has to gain interest, maintain and renew it from the audience through the topics of his songs.
A calypso singer sings about everything. They are a voice and conscience of their society; hence, a political commentator and a romantic relationships expert, its living memory and cultivator of dreams, a playboy and gentleman (if a man), a clown, a comic and a wailer, a breaker and healer. A calypso singer is a radio channel and a local newspaper; a sports commentator who is expected to commentate on life as a whole.
The diversity of topics in one album is not just that; as a single song is a complex world itself. Some songs differ from each other on the basis of tunes, alternating between genres embedded in traditional negro-spirituals that are like time machines. Africans who were taken by force from their small villages in West Africa, so they can be sold as property in the New World, carried with them the voices of these villages, their rhythms, beats and anguish, sang general after generation without much change, except for original languages that faded slowly with time and survived as accents or dialects in the European language that replaced them.
Six of the album’s songs I hear in them those traditional tunes I tried to describe, but their topics vary although the genre is the same. Songs formed by human voices and drums alone. All of them, without exception, speak to those sharing the common feature of black skins. The other songs are laden with woodwind and string instruments, with stories telling about Lord Invader’s life as a black African. Other songs are directly talking to the white man--explaining in anger or discussing something.
It is important that the listener keeps the time period - in which these songs were created - in consideration. Obviously, it sometimes contains political incorrectness or silly opinion. However, all things considered, we are still in the presence of a monument of beauty, consciousness, audacity, and struggle for a people’s rights.
In this exhibition I am going to try to paint like I am singing the calypso. I will tell you stories about migration, about politics, and about my crises of identity. I will talk about my children and about my failed love relationships.