Last Thursday I was invited to go with some friends, John and Margaret Cooper, to the Extempo competition. Extempo is one of the traditional forms of Calypso. Authentic Calypso (also called Kaiso) is quite different from the popular forms you hear sung by people like Harry Belafonte. It developed during Colonial times among the slaves as a way to spread the news and avoid censorship. A good Calypsonian had not only to be able to sing but also to be able to make up new lyrics quickly complete with rhythm and rhyme. Calypso became the forum where you could say things that would get you in trouble any place else. Songs involve a lot of humorous but biting political and social commentary as well as comedy and sexual innuendo. Double entendre, word play and even puns are an important part of the art form.
Extempo is a test of a Calypsonians ability to do all those things on the fly. In the first round, there were eight competitors. In turn, each competitor drew a topic from a hat. The topic was read aloud for the audience and the judges. The band then started up with the classic Extempo melody and after about 15 seconds of music, the singer had to sing 4 verses on the topic. They were judged not only for clever on topic lyrics but also good rhythm and rhyme. In the first round the topics were all based on recent local news items. Some dealt with characters and events from the recent elections, others dealt with the recent crime wave and gangs. One singer drew the topic “Too much bikini in mas”, a frequent complaint made about the skimpy costumes worn by many in the Carnival parade. Another drew the topic “Brian Lara is back”. (Brian Lara is the Trinidadian hero of Cricket).
Following the first round, four singers were chosen to advance to the semi-final round where they were paired off against each other. Each pair drew a topic from the hat. The first singer would sing a verse on the topic and then the other had to sing a verse in response. They alternated back and forth until each singer had sung 4 verses. In this round the topics were designed to provide the singers ample opportunity both to boast of their own virtues and insult their opponent. The first pair drew the topic “personal hygiene” and the second “I could teach you Extempo”. The best two singers from this round advanced to the finals which was organized the same way except that each singer got 6 verses to prove his superiority to his opponent.
The final two singers were an older man who goes by the Calypso name of “Short Pants” and a younger man who goes by “Lingo”. Evidently, Lingo had been a student of Short Pants and it was evident that the two knew each other well and were skilled at playing off each other. Their verses had the audience roaring with laughter. In the end, Lingo won the crown and composed one last verse as an acceptance speech.
In between the Extempo rounds, we were treated to the final competitions in several of the Calypso categories including political commentary, social commentary, comedy, soca chutney and vintage Calypso. The winner of the political commentary did a parody of the opposition leader who lost the recent elections. In the vintage Calypso category the winner sang a song much of the audience knew very well called “Two at Twenty-five” which is about the woes of having a 50 year old wife. The title gives you a hint at the remedy the song proposes.
Friday night I went out with the Coopers and a group for their friends to a Calypso Tent just down the road in St. Joseph. A Calypso Tent is a show featuring a Calypso band made up of brass instruments, bass, keyboard and drums and a variety of singers who perform a mixture of new songs written for this year’s carnival as well as classic numbers. Once upon a time Calypso Tents were actually held in Tents but now they are held in theaters and halls. The show featured several younger singers who had qualified for the finals in the King of Calypso competition to be held on Carnival Sunday as well as older singers performing vintage Calypso. To qualify as a Vintage Calypsonian you must have to have been performing Calypso for over 40 years. The newer numbers contained a lot of social and political commentary. The best one, at least in my opinion, was titled “I’m sorry” and was the tale of a father apologizing at the grave of a son killed in a gang fight for not being more involved in his sons life. The vintage Calypso was all of the humorous and often racy variety. I suppose that political and social commentary go out of fashion much faster than laughter and sexual innuendo. One of the funnier Vintage numbers was called “The Boogie Man” and was about an exhibitionist in the Carnival parade.
All this was tied together by a young Master of Ceremonies who did a bit of stand up comedy between the numbers. He started off wearing a Cowboy hat, imitating a Texan drawl and making jokes about American culture. As the night wore on his act got a quite vulgar at points. Enough so that the Coopers who had invited us all along were quite embarrassed but not so much that it spoiled the fun of the evening for me.