Women of Calypso
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 1-2
Tickets $20 general admission, $15 CAC members, $10 students
Women of Calypso Discussion and Workshop
8 p.m. Thursday
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3800; www.cacno.org
The calypso music of Trinidad and Tobago is often associated with legendary male singers such as Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) and Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts). Americans may also think of Harry Belafonte, whose "Banana Boat Song" (or "Day O"), was a hit from his 1956 album Calypso, which brought a commercialized version of the genre to listeners around the globe. But in roughly the same period that Caribbean music came to be dominated by reggae and other sounds, women have joined the ranks of top calypso singers in the Caribbean nation.
"There was a time when women were only in the chorus or sat on the back bench," says singer Shereen Caesar (aka Queen Fayola), daughter of a calypso singer known as Puppet Master. "Calypso was always seen as a boys' club. The earlier songs were often about escapades and topics weren't always things you'd sing about with women around."
Caesar and two other stars of Trinidadian calypso, Kizzie Ruiz and Singing Sandra, complete a four-city tour at the Contemporary Arts Center this week, and there is a seminar on the genre's history. The series was created by Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones, founders of San Francisco's music and theater project Cultural Odyssey, and it was funded by New Orleans-based National Performance Network.
Ackamoor, who plays alto saxophone in the women's backing band, got the idea for the project when he visited the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago in 2006. A longtime fan of Sparrow's music, he was surprised to learn that there were many popular women singers. He met the three women in this show, and eventually got funding to do a workshop with them in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2009. In April 2010, he returned to Trinidad and they completed the show, which debuted in Miami in January and then moved to Denver ("Coldarado" as Caesar dubbed it).
The women returned to Trinidad for Carnival, much of which revolves around calypso tents, or massive tent parties featuring the nation's best known calypso singers. Performers follow a circuit of events set up in major cities, with five different tents in the capital, Port-au-Spain. On Dimanche Gras, the Sunday prior to Fat Tuesday, there's a final competition, and a top calypso artist is crowned the winner, or Monarch. In 1978, Calypso Rose was the first woman to win the competition. Singing Sandra has won twice (1999, 2003).
Calypso has its roots in slavery on the islands, developing as a combined storytelling/singing form by African griots, praise singers who maintained an oral history tradition. The modern musical genre emerged in the early 1900s, and the first record was produced in New York in 1914. As a live musical form, it's marked by satire and social commentary.
"It's the poor man's newspaper," Ackamoor says. "Songs are all about topical events and politics."
Caesar has written songs about topics ranging from love to HIV and physical abuse.
"The best part is realizing people understand the point you are trying to make," she says. "It's nice when people say you touched their heart."