Karene Asche: “My heart is in calypso”

Garry Steckles salutes T&T Calypso Monarch 2011, Karene Asche, and reflects on a British queen with a secret love of the region’s music

Asche performs at Dimanche Gras 2011. Photograph courtesy Trinidad ExpressKarene Asche. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Express

Calypso, according to conventional wisdom, is dying.

There’s no doubt that the traditional and beloved form of calypso, with its emphasis on a melody that stays with you and lyrics that say something to you, has not exactly been in the best of health since the emergence over the past couple of decades of the ragga sub-genre of soca – a music that’s more closely related to the raw dancehall of Jamaica than actual soca.

Which is just one of the reasons I couldn’t help being delighted that the winner of this year’s Calypso Monarch title in Trinidad & Tobago, the most coveted accolade in the calypso-soca world, was a mere 20-something – the youngest winner of the title, as far as I could establish, since the Mighty Sparrow claimed the first of his eight crowns in 1956 at the age of 21.

I was kicking myself that I hadn’t been there, but, with the wonders of modern technology at my fingertips, I wasted no time in firing up YouTube to check out what this new monarch was all about.

I could hardly have been more impressed. The first of the two winning songs, “Uncle Jack”, was a catchy, politically incisive calypso about one of Trinidad & Tobago’s most controversial politicians, Jack Warner (Minister of Works and Transport and also vice-president of FIFA). The second, “Careful What You Ask For”, was an admonition to people – particularly young people – to think twice, and preferably more than twice, about making major decisions that could have potentially disastrous repercussions.

What impressed me the most, though, was that a young calypsonian had somehow not become caught up in the jump-to-the-right-jump-to-the-left-shake-your-booty-wave-your-flag stampede. That this young artist had not been overwhelmed by peer pressure. That calypso, just maybe, had a new flagbearer who might help nudge it back to good health.

Those hopes were reinforced when I caught up with this year’s monarch, 26-year-old Karene Asche, by telephone a few days after her triumph at the Savannah – and quickly discovered that this is a serious calypsonian, with an understanding of the music and what it’s really all about – to inform and educate, as well as to entertain. It also quickly became clear that this is a young woman who knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Her first words to me – after a pleasant long-distance hello – just about said it all: “My heart is in calypso.”

It was a recurring theme during our conversation. Responses like “calypso is so informative, I would always stick with calypso” (replying to a question about whether she might be tempted to change her style), and “I think calypso will never die”, were about as unequivocal as you could get.

I know, I know – the monarch title is one of the last bastions of good old-fashioned  calypso and not exactly a yardstick of what’s hot and what’s not in Trinidad & Tobago. But it was enormously encouraging to see a young winner, rather than a veteran (and more power to the veterans; no disrespect intended) and I hope we see more in years to come.

Caribbean queen?

Like many people, I was intrigued to read recently that the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, was a big fan of ska and steelband music. Intrigued, but not at all surprised; she was a widely travelled, sophisticated woman who seemed to have an appreciation of an eclectic range of life’s pleasures (including another with a Caribbean connotation, a pink gin – the pink coming from a splash of Trinidad & Tobago’s Angostura bitters).

What I found rather unpleasant, though, was the use of the word “eccentric” by some of the British press reporting on the release of the Queen Mother’s record collection. Particularly as it was clearly directed at the Caribbean content of the collection. The Daily Mail (for whom, I’m ashamed to confess, I once worked) also described her appreciation of the wonderful Desperadoes Steel Orchestra as “surprising”. How ignorant. Why would a British royal appreciating the sublime music of the Desperadoes be surprising to anyone? Reinforcing the newspaper’s ignorance, they referred to Despers as “a calypso band from Trinidad”. And all these years they thought they were a steelband.

We know the Queen Mother’s collection included a Despers album, but I haven’t been able to track down the titles of any of her other Caribbean records. It’s a safe bet, though, that the collection wouldn’t include Sparrow’s “Philip, My Dear”. Or would it? The song, written by Winsford Devine and recorded by Sparrow after a late-night intruder mysteriously found his way into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace in the early Eighties, implied that the visitor might not have been a stranger, and might, in fact, have been a welcome guest. And Sparrow’s double-entendre speculation about her daughter’s nocturnal activities just might have appealed to the Queen Mother’s impish sense of humour.

For the record, Karene is only the fourth woman to win the Calypso Monarch title. Before her came Calypso Rose in 1978, Singing Sandra (Karene’s close friend and mentor) in 1999 and 2003, and Denyse Plummer in 2001.