In the politics of calypso, crooners hitting an off note?

Beyond banana boats and lost loves, Trinidad's calpyso was born of political protest. But now there's protest over a new strain of singers.

Calypso singer David Rudder strides defiantly on stage dressed in a flowing white dashiki and copper bracelets. The audience cheers as he launches into some of his best known songs.

"Somebody clean out the weed real fast. But somebody letting the cocaine pass," goes the song "Madman," a protest against corrupt officials who uproot local marijuana plants while letting cocaine cartels ship the more lucrative drug to US markets.

A far cry from Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and other feel-good tunes, Mr. Rudder's songs aren't odes to lost loves or banana boats. Following in a longstanding calypso tradition, Rudder's music criticizes government corruption. But while calypso has always been a means for citizens to critique the political elite, some singers are crossing a longstanding boundary and using their songs to advocate for the political parties.

But not Rudder. "The calypsonian stands on the outside of things," he says. "You should not be a tool for any government or party."

The roots of calypso reach back to the early 1800s, when black slaves began improvising rhyming lyrics set to syncopated rhythms.

Through clever word play and double entendre, the songs criticized slavery and British colonial rule in the West Indies. Because their press was censored by British authorities, Trinidadians later used calypso to convey anticolonial political messages to ordinary people.

"It was like an editorial in song," says Rudder. "One phone call could stop an article going in the newspaper. Nothing could stop the calypso mouth from saying what should have been printed."

The tradition of populist, social criticism continued after Trinidad and Tobago won independence in 1962.

"Calypsos have been seen as a major social force in the country," says Jocelyne Guilbault, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is in Trinidad working on a book about its music.

Politicians, for one, closely follow the calypsonians' lyrics to look for political trends, says Member of Parliament Patrick Manning, head of the opposition People's National Movement (PNM). "When you want to get the pulse of the people, go to a calypso tent."

Government leaders from the United National Congress (UNC), which took power in 1995, haven't much cared for what they've heard in those tents in recent years. The UNC, which draws most of its support from Trinidadians of East Indian ancestry, angers many black Trinidadians who feel they are being excluded from government jobs and other benefits. The UNC argues that it allocates jobs based on merit, not ethnic origin.

"Cro Cro" Rawlings, a PNM supporter and prominent calypso singer, criticizes government policies that favor ethnic Indians, who first arrived in Trinidad as indentured laborers alongside black Africans, who arrived as slaves.

"Today they [Indians] are driving a car," says Mr. Rawlings, paraphrasing his lyrics. "So rise, African arise." UNC supporters say lyrics like those are divisive and anti-Indian.

Winston "Gypsy" Peters is a part of the trend. He is not only a well-known calypsonian, but also an elected UNC member of Parliament and junior minister in the Ministry of Human Development, Youth and Culture. While he faces a legal challenge over holding political office, because he holds dual citizenship in Trinidad and the US, Peters defends his music, saying he brings a special perspective to government. Being a calypsonian, he says, is "a people's way of life, and I'm at the grassroots level."

But in Rudder's view, Peters gave up the grass-roots perspective when he joined the government and began representing its conservative policies.

Calypsonians should remain political in the sense that they defend the poor against the rich, says Rudder. But that's not the same as becoming a spokesman for a mainstream political party.

"I think some of the Calypsonians get confused with that difference," Rudder says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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