The Montserrat Calypso Monarch Finals – relegated to a virtual format because of COVID-19 – was held at the Cultural Center on Tuesday, December 29, 2020. It marked 49 uninterrupted years of Montserrat calypso competitions despite two natural disasters and a pandemic. Since Montserrat Festival began in 1962, the calypso show missed only three years (1969, 1970, 1971) and that was due to a boycott.
Although massively constrained by COVID-19 guidelines, the Montserrat Arts Council executed an entertaining show Tuesday. Some of the aesthetics could have been better but the substance is what matters.
When the results were revealed following the almost-five-hour show I was a bit surprised. I’m not a calypso judge nor have I attended a judging workshop. But I have been listening to calypso for a half-century and my eyes and ears don’t often fail me.
As someone who has competed in the Montserrat calypso competition I am aware of the anxiety that encompasses the process. As popular Radio Montserrat DJ Basil Chambers once uttered: “Up dey no easy.” So I empathize with anyone who has experienced mishaps. That said, I am ready to give a fair and honest assessment of the calypso finals.
First, here’s my analysis of the 12 competitors, starting with the adjudicated Top 5:
1. Keithroy “The Voice” Morson ($10,000): The man has no weakness when it comes to this art form. His first entry, By Faith, was hardly a juggernaut but his performance is so commanding that he can take an average song to a different realm. And then there was his coup de grace, the biting commentary Call Daddy. He delivered it with aplomb and even threw in an extra verse. On social media it was virtually unanimous that The Voice had run away with the crown.
2. Trevon “Trevvle” Pollard ($8,000): After dominating the soca monarch competition the past couple years Trevvle entered the calypso arena and had a credible debut, winning Best Newcomer. He is a charismatic performer who is light on his feet and clearly loves the stage. My only quibble would be with his two selections, Calypso Reform and What’s On Your Mind. Both were catchy with effective hook lines but lyrically shallow. At times it felt like lines were being repeated to make up for what the song lacked in substance. Also, What’s On Your Mind features a riff reminiscent of Cupid’s 20/20 Cricket World. At any rate, it’s good to see young performers capable of elevating calypso and assuming the mantle.
3. Steve “Iceman” Weekes ($6,000): Yes, he lost the crown, but he gave two decent performances with Wrong Decision and So Much Pain. His visual challenges have been well documented and Iceman should be commended for his perseverance. Despite his failing eyesight he is still a social visionary. My only nitpick would be that his new songs are starting to reveal melodic similarities with his previous material.
4. Kenneth “Yogi Laser” Greenaway ($4,000): When I heard Laser’s song Serious Time about a month ago I immediately picked him as a dark horse in the competition. Yogi has endured hard luck in the competition in recent years despite solid material. His studio recordings are diligently produced and it’s clear he loves calypso. His second entry, Living in Hell, was commendable. His placement was well deserved.
5. Delroy “Delz” Joseph ($3,000): As with Trevvle, I was heartened to witness the debut of Delz. I was even more impressed that one of his selections, Calypso Lyrics, paid homage to calypso’s roots. Some have said that the melody is hackneyed, but I am impressed that a young performer showed interest in the organic calypso style of storytelling and double-entendre. “Saltfish” never goes out of style. His second selection, Black Lives Matter, was well-written and catchy, too.
THE OTHERS (each received $2,000)
Brian “I-Cultural” Charles: The man with the catch phrases “Hee! Haw!” and “Tun It Up” always has fun on stage. But when required to deliver intricate lyrics he struggles because he prefers the unconstrained soca arena. His songs Marie Warner and Virus in the Stimulus were humorous but were never going to challenge for a crown. It’s a shame the Soca Monarch was canceled. He deserved a forum where he could be unrestrained.
Kelvin “Tabu” Duberry: Tabu has been trying in vain to replicate the lone crown he won in 1991. I had him picked in the Top 3 and was stunned that he didn’t place. He took an introspective route this year with his song A Work In Progress. During his performance, the artistically gifted Tabu depicted Christ, which is always a controversial proposition. His second selection, Before It’s Too Late, was also thoughtful. I’m not sure what turned off the judges but I saw two very solid performances.
Kevin “King NattE” Farrell: The former monarch again embraced the task of entering the competition and also playing lead guitar with the Black Rhythms band. Man Who Shapes The Future paid tribute to three prominent Montserratians. It’s a formula NattE has utilized for several years now. His other entry was Formula, about the government’s decisions during COVID-19. NattE, who was added to the Finals due to a technical glitch involving another artist, has a wonderful voice and conjures poignant melodies but he has been unable to duplicate the impact he made in 2016.
Herman “Cupid” Francis: He captured the Most Creative Song award again with When The World Stopped, which also won Best COVID-19 song. But despite two consistent performances (his other song was Behind The Mask) he was an also-ran again. His presentation for When The World Stopped was excellent, especially the effect of the band going silent between verses to accentuate the song’s title. However, a line in the song mimics the words and chord progression of the classic song The End of the World by Skeeter Davis. Perhaps the judges picked up on it and he was docked originality points.
Reinford “Kulcha Don” Gibbons: I was impressed by his first song, Fire For Them, which addressed a controversy from the calypso eliminations. Decked in military gear, Kulcha gave an energetic performance, although the melody was not original. His second song, Glory Days, featured a brilliant presentation with a madras-clad young lady representing Montserrat. But there’s something about that song that seems to tie Kulcha in knots. He stumbled over his words and seemed out of breath at times.
Stevel “De Rod” Rodney: He won the Most Improved award but can’t seem to get over the hump and contend for a crown despite his zeal. Let The Young People Shine was a well-penned commentary advocating for the youth of Montserrat and steps that can be taken to assure they don’t migrate. COVID-19 Assassin was a fairly pedestrian song about the pandemic. Full disclosure, I once wrote for De Rod during his junior calypso days. He is a quick learner, easy to work with and is not afraid of the moment. But there is an element about his voice that refuses to evolve. He badly wants to win the crown. I badly want to see him win. Voice training might help. He has all the other tools.
Baptiste Wallace: It is often said that when one starts at the top the only place left to go is down. Since sweeping aside the competition in 2013, Baptiste has not remotely threatened to win another crown. His two songs, Let LIAT Fly and Pay De Black Man E Money, were simply OK, which is not good enough.
We should all be grateful that a show was held in the first place. I commend Montserrat Arts Council director Kenneth “Rabo” Silcott for pulling off the event. He faced tremendous pressure to cancel the show but stood steadfast, and it appears his gamble paid off.
Speaking of MAC, kudos are also in order for Sharlene Lindsay, who hosted the show and interviewed each calypsonian after their performances. Her steady and unflappable demeanor helped the show run smoothly when it’s very likely there were technical issues the viewing and listening audience was not aware of.
As for the show itself, recycled melodies are creeping their way into the material more and more. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s blatant. Often I believe it’s unintentional. Melodies are not easy to create, and calypsonians who write their own songs often become creatures of habit. The chords enter the brain in a similar pattern.
As mentioned above, I was surprised that veterans Tabu and Cupid did not place higher. I suspect that when one enters the competition every year they begin to morph into monotony. Perhaps Tabu and Cupid would be well served by skipping a year. Let the public miss you, then come back with a renewed sense of purpose.
Looking ahead, let’s hope for a return to the customary calypso finals in 2021: outdoors, massive audience, a visible band and more inspired performances.
Favorite song of Carnival: Social Media Lover, Undertaker
Best Performance: Call Daddy, The Voice
Best Presentation: When The World Stopped, Cupid
Most Humorous: Calypso Lyrics, Delz
Best written song: (Tie) When The World Stopped, Cupid; Before It’s Too Late, Tabu
Most brilliant decision: MAC having a mini-competition between the three female competitors from the eliminations.
Additional kudos: To calypsonian Vickie “Storm” Locker for her “watch parties” on Facebook that draw a significant audience and generate interest in the competition. And to Nia Golden for doing yeoman’s work again as a backup singer.
Calypso crowns by De Bear (The Voice)
|1992||Montserrat Festival||Back to Basics & Face The Truth|
|1993||Montserrat Festival||The Time Has Come & Show Respect|
|2007||Antigua Carnival||I Say No & Support Party|
|2007||Leeward Islands Competition||I Say No & Man Is Dust|
|2010||Antigua Carnival||Leopard Come Home & Don't Sing Bout de Judgment|
|2011||Antigua Carnival||Melee For Sale & We Get The Change Ivena|
|2012||Antigua Carnival||Time To Take Our Place & Freedom for Mandela|
|2012||Leeward Islands Competition||Time To Take Our Place & Freedom for Mandela|
|2014||Montserrat Festival||Don't Forget Your Juliet & Got To Go|
|2015||Antigua Carnival||Can't Stop The Bear & Sing A Different Song|
|2015||Leeward Islands Competition||Can't Stop The Bear & Sing A Different Song|
|2019||Antigua Carnival||Let The Master Show You & On A Ray Of Hope|
|2020||Montserrat Carnival||By Faith & Call Daddy|