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Calypso's love affair with cricket

21 May 07 10:04 GMT
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Barbados

It's rush hour in Barbados on the morning of the cricket legend Brian Lara's last international match and car radios are spewing out a popular calypso ode to the great batsman.

" Back in the alley of Port of Spain
From New Delhi to Calcutta
It's Lara again
In every cricket arena
It's Brain Charles Lara again
"

Alston Becket Cyrus's lilting tribute to one of the greatest cricketers comes easily in the Caribbean where calypso, written with passion and sung with verve, is inextricably linked to the game.

If you are a calypso singer, and you haven't sung cricket songs, you are simply incomplete.

So when the West Indian cricket team's fortunes are soaring or when their chips are down, the region's legendary calypsonians raise a toast or try cheer people up with their limpid songs, often spiked with subtle innuendo and modest pontification.

Across town, leading Trinidad-based calypsonian David Rudder is trying to cheer up the West Indies cricket team, which is fighting a steady decline in their fortunes for over a decade now, and have performed miserably in the recently concluded World Cup.

"Nobody does it better, when we're on top of our game
No fire can burn brighter, than our Caribbean flame
It's a communion, feel the energy the vibe
A connection, it keeps us alive
"

After watching a game of cricket at the Kensington Oval ground, calypsonian Red Plastic Bag aka Stedson Wiltshire, a veteran of 400 songs, says he wrote a song called Stroke It, disgusted with the way the West Indian team was performing.

"It is a message," he says, "to our cricketers not to hit every ball that comes their way."

To top it all, leading Trinidadian calypsonian-academic Dr Hollis 'Chalkdust' Liverpool breaks off a lecture on cricket and culture one evening, picks up his guitar and breaks out in a song to a sedate audience - "Who is the greatest batsman on earth or Mars," he sings, "Anyone will tell you he is the great Sir Garfield Sobers!"

"Calypso was born in the islands before we played cricket. So the music helped fashion our cricket. Both gave our people dignity and the ability to resist the domination of whites," says Dr Liverpool.

Strong links

The once world-beating West Indies' glory days in cricket may be long over, but Dr Liverpool, Rudder, and his fellow musicians ensure that the genre's strong links with cricket remain, in spite of newer and peppy hybrid dance music like soca - soul and calypso - which fuses traditional calypso with slick electronic percussion.

The increasing commercialisation of cricket, a pet complaint of local cricket fans, and the rise of hybrid dance music genres has meant that a lot of calypso writing has turned upbeat too.

"Calypso is still part of the cricket landscape but it's more celebratory as opposed to the topical and heavy social commentary of the past. Caribbean cricket to many now is a huge party with a game taking place on the side," says Rudder.

But many young calypsonians like 26-year-old Keann prefer football. She says she will sing cricket songs only if somebody hires her to do one - the only song around cricket she has done is a ditty for a travel company hawking World Cup tours.

"Calypso singers of our generation aren't singing much about cricket. They think the game is too long," she says.

'Editorial music'

Calypso was born in Trinidad at the beginning of the 20th century, and it is believed that it began with African slaves talk singing to each other as they were not allowed to speak at work.

As Rudder says, calypso is essentially "editorial music, a musical newspaper with story telling at its centre", with uniquely Caribbean rhythms laced sometimes with jazz.

Calypso stars like Rudder and Red Plastic Bag are ardent cricket fans, and Rudder had even prepared a song in advance in case his team lifted the World Cup. Sadly that was not to be.

"As soon as something big happens on the cricket field for the West Indies, calypso songs will emerge like rain flies after a downpour," says Rudder.

So the calypsonians wait patiently for their team to pick up the pieces and be counted again in the world of cricket, and they are not being as rude about it as many of the writers of newspaper editorials.

As Rudder sings in Lifted, a up-tempo inspirational to his cricketers to stand up and be counted:

"Twenty two yards in your life
twenty two yards of the truth
Are you gonna stand there and tremble my friend
Or baby are you gonna shoot?
"

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