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PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 4 1997 (IPS) - The political overtones of the words in some calypso songs, the famed musical form of the West Indies, has aroused the ire of authoritiers in Trinidad-Tobago and Guyana.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the battle is between calypsonians and the Basdeo Panday administration over “calypsos that seek to divide the society on racial grounds.” In Guyana, the state-run electronic media has banned one song critical of the government of Cheddi Jagan, which has held power for four and-a-half years.
Prime Minister Panday, stung by a string of calypso tunes criticial of Indians, has warned of “guidelines” for state- supported Carnival competitions “to prevent people from using (such) occasions to spread racism and to disparage and denigrate women.”
The calypso-singing fraternity has taken Panday’s statements on the issue to mean he may instruct the withdrawal of financial support for competitions at which such calypsos are being sung.
“The state cannot allow taxpayers money to be used to divide the society whether it be on racial or any other grounds,” Panday was quoted as saying.
In the case of Guyana, one of the more popular calypsos for the Mashramani celebrations last month was taken off the air. The calypso “Political Lies” by singer “Mighty Rebel” was too strident and came close to slandering President Cheddi Jagan, authorities said.
Officials of Guyana Broadcasting Corporation said: “The lyrics might be construed as inferring imputation of impropriety and deceit in the person of the president.”
Calypso singers have run into trouble with regiopnal authorities for years, and radio stations – mostly state-owned in the Eastern Caribbean, have played a heavy role in dampening the popularity of calypsos deemed to be either indecent or slanderous.
Trinidad and Tobago, widely regarded as the birth-place of the musical genre, has also had its share of calypso bans and, at one time, all calypsos were considered inappropriate for the post- Carnival Lenten season and were banned for the entire pre-Easter period.
This time, the attack is on another, perhaps more painful, front. Director of Culture, Hollis Liverpool, himself a controversial calypsonian, has said he would never support prime ministerial or ministerial censorship of political calypsos. He has however stressed that calypsonians should not use their compositions to “libel, slander and defame persons.”
“The prime minister’s call is for art, as against malice,” Liverpool said. “Too many (calypso) judges succumb to the will of the crowd.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) has meanwhile responded very sharply to the soundings from official circles. “There have always been attempts to censor the artform but our history has shown it has never been successful,’ said TUCO general secretary, “Brother Resistance.”
“Government cannot silence the calypso singers because they are the voice of the people,” the TUCO official said. “Calypsonians are warriors in song and have no fears about anything.”
Such brave words, however, are betrayed by the heavy reliance of calypsonians on the popularity generated by high-profile competitions staged under the auspices of the National Carnival Commission (NCC) which has, itself, fallen under the critical scrutiny of calypsonians over the years.
The opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) has, as well, seized the political moment. Party chairman Linda Baboolal has branded Panday’s statements as “another attempt at censorship … controlled censorship by the government.”
Referring to Panday’s confrontation with the country’s journalists association last year, Baboolal charged: “They tried to censor the media and now we feel that by the statement of the prime minister that he is warning calypsonians that their calypsos will be censored in the future.”
Like Guyana, however, anything short of outright censorship does nothing but provide free marketing for controversial calypsos. While state-controlled radio stations refused to play “Political Lies”, it was widely aired at street parades and privately-owned TV stations still play it on a regular basis.
Similarly the calypsos, against which Panday might have had a grouse, were not very popular on the airwaves, but the calypsonians performed them on stage before live radio and television audiences on competition nights during the Carnival season last month.
Commentators have suggested that while there is no special constitutional protection for calypsonians, convention has it that they are not open to libel and slander writs neither are they usually open to anti-sedition laws.
While ‘Mighty Rebel’ in Guyana has yielded to the suggestion that there ought to be restrictions on the playing of his song during the critical illness of president Jagan, his Trinidad and Tobago counterparts show no sign of yielding vital territory to those they claim are bent on impinging on a sacred freedom.
For the most part, there is every indication the issue is destined for a protracted, highly partisan debate in both Caribbean territories.
PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 3 1997 (IPS) - The political overtones of the words in some calypso songs, the famed musical form of the West Indies, has aroused the ire of authoritiers in Trinidad-Tobago and Guyana.
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