Calypso dreams come true

Garry Steckles anxiously awaits the international release of Calypso Dreams, a movie that brings together Trinidad and Tobago’s best–known performers

From left, Superior, Brigo, Conqueror, Sparrow and Christo. Photographer courtesy Calypso Dreams

It’s been almost three years since I wrote in this space about a wonderful new film that I predicted would have the same sort of global impact on calypso that Buena Vista Social Club had on the music of Cuba and The Harder They Come on reggae.

Calypso Dreams, I forecast, would give a Caribbean cultural treasure the sort of international exposure it sorely needed at a time when its survival was being increasingly threatened by the mostly tuneless, mindless “jump-to-your-left-jump-to-your-right-shake-your-booty” music that has dominated the Trinidad scene since the early to mid-90s.

I wasn’t the only one captivated by a movie that brought us, among other things, footage of Lord Kitchener, Ras Shorty I, Sparrow, Blakie, Explainer, Pretender, Brigo, Superior, Relator, Mystic Prowler, Calypso Rose, Duke, Terror, Valentino, David Rudder, Conqueror, Resistance, Sugar Aloes and Regeneration Now. The critics raved. So did the audience when the film made its Trinidadian debut. The American producers, Geoffrey Dunn and Michael Horne, planned a soundtrack album and a major tour featuring many of the film’s stars.

It’s about time, I thought, and I waited eagerly for Calypso Dreams to take the world by storm.

Then some hurdles cropped up. Nailing down the rights to the songs in the movie was one of them. Geoffrey Dunn’s diagnosis with advanced colorectal cancer was another.

Calypso Dreams was suddenly in limbo. And, like many fans of vintage calypso, I was starting to wonder if it would ever resurface and fulfil its seemingly huge potential.

So I couldn’t be more delighted to report that not only have most of the problems the movie encountered been resolved—the music rights are secured, and Dunn has bounced back from his illness, as enthusiastic and determined as ever—but the film has been enhanced by the addition of new and vintage footage and historic photos, and is again on the verge of international release. That’s not all; along the way it has been the inspiration for a new calypso tent, the creation of Lord Superior, one of its stars and its co-producer.
More about the tent in a moment.

First, the updates on the movie itself. The added film content consists of historic footage of Trinidad Carnival in the years following the Second World War, along with new music by a handful of calypso greats that I can’t wait to see and hear.

The vintage Carnival footage is of mas costumes that Dunn describes simply as “amazing,” along with street bands and pan-round-the neck, all shot by tourists in the 40s and early 50s and returned to Trinidad by their family members, after which it went into the archives of the Carnival Institute…and was more or less forgotten about, until Dunn got wind of its existence and set about tracking it down and working it into Calypso Dreams.

The collection of vintage photos consists of copies of old black-and-white negatives from the vaults of the Trinidad Guardian that were taken by an American visitor to Trinidad. Calypso Dreams co-producer Michael Horne, also a talented artist, hand-coloured them, and they have been incorporated into the movie.

By no means all the additional content is from days gone by. On a recent trip to Trinidad, Dunn gathered a handful of musicians for a “jam” at a home in the Port of Spain suburb of Diego Martin. The result: Black Stalin, Lord Superior, Lord Relator and panman Clyde “Lightning” George tearing down the house with versions of Stalin’s Dorothy Wait and Kitch’s Road Made to Walk.

Problems over music rights—a thorny issue that could potentially have derailed the entire project—were resolved while Dunn was doing battle with cancer. Enter Eddy Grant, the multi-talented, Guyanese-born, Barbados-based producer-singer-songwriter, who joined the Calypso Dreams A-team as an executive producer, and Allison Demas of the Copyright Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT). Working with Calypso Dreams co-producer Alvin Daniell, they played what Dunn describes as a huge role in securing the rights to the dozens of songs featured in the movie.

Along the way, Calypso Dreams was still being screened selectively. It has become something of a cult hit in Cuba, where its title is Grito de los esclavos (Cry of the Slaves) was selected as part of the first Travelling Caribbean Film Showcase, sponsored by Unesco, and played in 17 Caribbean countries this year.

Next up for Calypso Dreams, says Dunn, is international screening, and as I write this negotiations are taking place with potential distributors.

And next up here, Lord Superior’s Vintage Kaiso Brigade tent.

Calypso tents, one of the art form’s great traditions, have been on the decline for years now, under the combined onslaught of the new wave of music that has little in common with calypso and the hugely popular “all-inclusive” parties that have been all the rage in Trinidad for more than a decade.

Superior, in fact, sees his tent as part of calypso’s fight for survival. As he puts it, “We are going into battle against the current apathy and ignorance and disillusionment directed toward the great calypso art form. We view it as an epic battle against the status quo. We are a throwback to the old-style tents of the 40s through the 70s. This is when calypso was really alive, vibrant.”

Among the old-school calypsonians lining up on Supie’s side in the battle have been Stalin, Valentino, Duke, Relator, Power, Luta, Funny, Brigo, Trinidad Rio, Brother Akil, Mudada and Regeneration Now, with the great guitarist Tony Voisin leading the tent’s house band.

The Vintage Kaiso tent, says Superior, is essentially a live incarnation of Calypso Dreams.

“People have loved Calypso Dreams, so we felt they will love seeing these performers live and in person. This is the music of Trinidad that promotes our culture internationally.”

Supie, by the way, has been engaged in another battle. He too, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, and found himself in California, staying at the home of his brother-in-arms Geoffrey Dunn, while they were both fighting the disease. Says Dunn: “During our cancer battles, Supie and I did extempo on each other. Laughter is a great healer.”

So, it would seem, is calypso.