Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leaders no longer fear calypsonians

Monarch Kurt Allen:

Kurt Allen is a thinking calypsonian and, quite possibly, the most socially-conscious monarch in recent times, apart from Chalkdust and Gypsy. Allen’s size and demeanour belie the fact that he has been a calypsonian for 28 years. He was also a journalist and does some playwriting, in addition to other activist pursuits. Allen sat down for an exclusive Sunday Guardian interview.
Q: The lyrics of your winning calypso, Too Bright, point to frustration with our national leaders. What prompted those strong lyrics?
A: The sentiments being expressed by the man in the street is what prompted the lyrics. The lyrics basically reflect what we see manifesting in the society.
A poet once said the people were ahead of their leaders. Is that the case in Trinidad and Tobago?
If the people are ahead of their leaders, then why do they continuously choose leaders with whom they are dissatisfied? If that was the case, then the people should be held responsible and accountable for creating a vision to treat with the social challenges facing the nation and not blame or rely upon the politicians for their salvation.

As a calypsonian, playwright and former journalist, what do you think about the state of governance in Trinidad and Tobago?
There is definite room for improvement and public
education, given our political system. I believe we can seek to raise political awareness among young people by educating them about the role and function of government and, by extension, good governance. Young people who are educated about their civic responsibility meaningfully participate in debates that relate to good governance.
Does the calypsonian still have the historic responsibility of championing the national issues of the day? 
Yes; most definitely. But I am not completely convinced that the calypsonian is fully aware of this responsibility and is ready and prepared to take up the challenge to continue the legacy of Lion, Atilla and Tiger.
Many people have commented on the number of socially-conscious calypsos this year. Is the political calypso enjoying a renaissance?
I see that more and more calypsonians are slowly venturing to tell it like it is. I remember the days when Watchman, Cro Cro, Chalkdust and
Sugar Aloes used political commentary to attack and shake up both the government and the opposition. Political commentaries now are not as biting and stinging, but we are seeing a movement toward that direction.
How much was the art form hurt by certain calypsonians being blatantly politically partisan and caustic against certain ethnic groups?
Once you are dealing with people, you are dealing with emotions and feelings. Whenever feelings are hurt, you can expect a backlash, as the natural law of karma—cause and effect—takes shape. Whether or not the particular artiste maliciously intended to offend any particular person, based on political affiliation or ethnicity, there is no doubt that this dark cloud over our art form placed some strain on its forward movement.
What, essentially, has been your core message in calypso? 
My core message is that we, the people, must take responsibility for the choices we make in life. The country, and by extension, our Caribbean civilisation, is for us to make and we have the power to create a vision for our future.
Do you think our leaders listen to and are guided by the wisdom of our calypsonians?
I believe they listen on some level or the other. I also believe they no longer respect and fear the calypsonian, as they once did. It is easy to recognise that the calypsonian has softened over the years and has compromised his integrity, in many instances. The leaders themselves have been able to use the calypsonian conveniently and then spit them out without protest. Additionally, I think the composers can increase their chances of success by paying greater focus on information literacy. We will then be taken seriously and given the respect we deserve.
Which artiste has impacted on your career the most?
The calypsonians who have had the most impact on my career are
Sparrow, Cro Cro, Stalin, and Chalkdust.
Is calypso in safe hands?
The people who have calypso in their hands must take personal responsibility for its safety and sustainable development.
What does being Calypso Monarch mean to you?
It means that I am now officially mandated by the people to demonstrate the true and intended role and responsibility of the calypsonian. I intend to take up this challenge with both hands and pump a refreshed breath of air into the bowels of the art form.
What are your other major accomplishments during your 28-year career?
They are Stars of Tomorrow, 1992, Young King, 1993. Soca Monarch, 1999.
You won those titles?
Yes, I did.
What are your calypso ambitions?
To be consistent; always aim for congruence and spark greater interest of participation in the art form from the youth.
What other professional activities are currently engaging your attention?
I am the director of Caribbean Vizion, an organisation that lobbies for economic and cultural co-operation among Caricom member states. We work closely with the Caricom Secretariat, UNESCO UNAids and government agencies in developing programmes to create awareness on SCME, HIV/AIDS, and risky behaviour among young people. My daughter, Choc’late Allen, is the CEO, and spearheads all of our projects.
Do you inspire Choc’late, or does she inspire you?
We both inspire each other, on different issues. We are a family and depend upon each other. Also, my wife, Fabienne, has been a great source of strength to me. We have known each other since we were 13 and 14 years old. She is a classic example of “behind every successful man is a woman.” I strongly believe in family values. The family structure is important to me. It has given me a sense of balance.
Why do you describe yourself as “the last badjohn of calypso”?
In the early 1990s, Pretender and Terror insisted that I adopt a sobriquet. But that was the time when artistes like David Rudder and Machel Montano were going without sobriquets. I called myself “the last badjohn of calypso,” because that is what I am. I am a diehard; I give 100 percent to calypso. I am the voice of social consciousness.
Who have been some of your prime supporters through the years?
Garnet Henry, John Phillip and Elson Nelson have helped me greatly. And Alvin Daniell has been my greatest supporter of all. He has been there throughout my career.

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