Editorial from Trinidad Express, 25 March 2009
Pan and Calypso for President Obama
As I drive through the snow in Alaska, I am thinking back to what a great time I had at Carnival in Trinidad last month, where daily I got to hear some of the best music in the world, calypso, rapso and pan, loads of it, night after night. There was so much going on and there were so many difficult choices that whenever I'm in Trinidad for Carnival I wish cloning was possible so I could be in every pan yard, calypso tent, mas camp and competition.
Now in the midst of post-Carnival depression, as the excitement builds for President Obama's visit to Trinidad next month, I can't help but wonder if he is going to experience any of the joy I did. Will he get to hear any calypso or pan among all the official functions and endless meetings?
What better piece for him to hear to reflect his own success than Edwin Pouchet and Alvin Daniel's Panorama winner for Silver Stars celebrating "there can be only one winner" who is indeed "First in Deh Line". President Obama's inaugural poem, Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," had the, by now, famous reference to pan:
Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
I have had the idea ever since that there should be a competition for the best composition that uses that unique instrumentation, with the winner performing for the Summit of the Americas in honor of President Obama's inauguration. I really hope he gets to hear even a few of the many calypsos that are a celebration of his achievement. There were so many calypsos this last year on Obama that I am sure I didn't get to hear all of them. I told anyone who would listen that there should be a CD of Obama calypsos available and given out to all those coming to the summit. Mighty Sparrow's "Barack the Magnificent" was one of the greatest rallying songs during the campaign and the various Youtube versions have been played an amazing 300,000 times.
I happened to be in Trinidad in November at the time of the election and witnessed Trinidad's euphoria with the results. Then, within days, I got to hear Sparrow sing "Barack the Magnificent" live one evening during the week of Silver Star's 60th anniversary celebrations. It had a special meaning to hear him do it live just days after the promise of the song had become a reality. Other fine calypsos on the president came out during the campaign, including Rootsman's gentle, groovy "Calypso for Obama" and Brother Mudada's vibrant "Obamamania". Canada's calypso monarch Macomere Fifi won with her tribute to Obama last August in Toronto. Extempo genius Gypsy, who went up to Brooklyn and Queens this past fall to campaign for the President, transformed his monarch winning calypso "Little Black Boy", whose message of "go to school and learn", has no better example than the 44th president:
So right now I want you to know
Something going on here that you have to follow
A little fella who was born in Hawaii
And right now he is going to rule this country
America will have its own Black president
(The performance at an Everybody's concert in Brooklyn is also on Youtube.) Of course, when the election got close, everyone could predict his likely success. But think back to 2000 when Crazy sang Winsford DeVine's "In Time to Come", with its batch of unlikely predictions. None seemed more improbable than his bold assertion, "In time to come America will have a Black president". May President Obama know that calypsonians not only supported his campaign but predicted his victory years ago! Certainly there were songs from throughout the region from Jamaica's Cocoa Tea and Antigua's Ajamu with his "Rally Round Obama". But no music form has embraced Obama with more enthusiasm then calypso.
Besides the campaign calypsos, there were the Trinidad songs celebrating the election itself. Before the calypso season, Eric Powder had his sweet "Presidential Parang". The calypso tents and competitions were full of Barack songs -- Twiggy won Calypso Queen and made it to the Dimanche Gras final with "One for Obama", a spectacular tribute to both Obama and Miriam Makeba, who died just days after the election. The song was written by "GB", who also wrote "Obama the First", which Sugar Aloes did magnificently and took to the Savannah. Then there was Chalkdust's fascinating "Lament for the Dead" which deplored the sad reign of murder in Trinidad and its unexpected consequence of depriving the victims of living through this momentous occasion.
Perhaps there will be calypsos written to celebrate the president's visit to Trinidad. Atilla's "Roosevelt in Trinidad" celebrated FDR's brief stops in Trinidad in 1936 and boldly proclaimed: "When Roosevelt came to the Land of the Hummingbird, shouts of welcome were heard." Hopefully President Obama can expect such a warm welcome, as Atilla sang:
We are privileged to see the democratic president of the great republic
With his charming and genial personality and his wonderful urbanity
We were struck by his modest style
And we were intrigued by the famous Roosevelt smile
No wonder why everybody was glad to welcome Roosevelt to Trinidad.
While there is too much culture and too little time for President Obama to experience it all during his short stay, somehow he needs to hear an up close bit of pan, a taste of tassa and learn that calypso music has been shouting his praises in song for months from Canada to the Caribbean.
[Ray Funk is a fellow of the Academy at UTT and also a trial court judge in Alaska.]