/ 4 December 2020

Excerpt: ‘Taking a Six for a Nine: Sexual imagery in the Trinidad Calypso’

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Mighty Sparrow performing in the mid 1950s. (courtesy Calypso Dreams)

In 1956, the calypsonian who would go on to proclaim himself calypso king of the world, the Mighty Sparrow, won almost instant acclaim singing about Trinidadian women of easy virtue.

His Yankees Gone, popularly known as Jean and Dinah, told of their being forced to sell their wares for almost nothing with the departure of the US soldiers after World War II. Despite the instant popularity of that calypso, it was not until several years had passed that it was played on the local radio. 

It was never clear whether the denial of airplay stemmed from the calypso’s biting social commentary, or from the fact that Sparrow had sung, among other things, about getting “it” all for nothing. It was suspected, however, that it was the risqué lyrics that led to the auto-censorship by the radio stations.

If the listener had to guess what “it” was in Yankees Gone, Sparrow left no doubt what he was singing about in his Mae Mae, also considered too risqué for airplay in the late 1950s. Mae Mae was also an immediate success, as all lovers of this particularly Trinidadian artform bought the newly released LP record, and young and old alike sang with Sparrow: “Making love one day/ With a girl they calling Mae Mae/ I pick up Mae Mae by the railway/ And we take a taxi straight to Claxton Bay/ Before we lay down on the carpet/ She start catching fit.”

But it was the chorus that caused eyebrows (if only those) to be raised: “Sparrow don’t bite me/ Don’t do that, honey/ I never had a man to ever do that to me/ Oy yo you yo you, doux doux darling/ Look me pores raise up/ You making me feel so weak/ Stop, Sparrow, stop”

Initially published in 1992, this collection featured writing by Ntozakhe Shange, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor

What had been announced from the very first verse was thus described in somewhat graphic detail for the 1950s in a colony still under British rule. Sparrow had done the unthinkable. He had actually come right out and sung about making love to a woman, describing in every detail her reaction, telling even about the sandfly that bit him “down dey”. It was unthinkable only because it was so direct. Sparrow was telling it like it was. 

For years, calypsonians had been doing the same thing, but had found every imaginable way to talk around what they were describing. They had dressed up their lyrics so cleverly at times that the public was duped into believing it was hearing one thing, when it was hearing something else. It was taken in by double entendre. It was taking a six for a nine, as we are fond of saying in Trinidad when we have been bamboozled.

For all the directness of a calypso like Mae Mae, Sparrow did not introduce a new era of sexuality into the artform, and he and other calypsonians still regaled listeners with their many imaginative ways of singing about what men and women do together. The portrayal of sexuality in the calypso continued its traditional way, and the overriding interest we have in each year’s crop of calypsos comes precisely from the pleasure we derive from deciphering how cleverly we are made to take the six for the nine.

In the male-dominated world of the calypso, countless songs have dealt with women and their relationships with men, and, to be honest, the treatment of the female has not always been pleasant. Year after year, one hears complaints from the public that, once again, the calypsonians are denigrating their sisters by singing about their physical attributes, or lack thereof, their personal hygiene  and the like. But although some of these complaints are justified, what must also be noted is that the calypsonians are celebrating sexuality and one of its offshoots.

For all the complaining by certain sectors of the public, there can be no other conclusion but that the calypsonians have struck the right nerve when it comes to dealing with sexuality. For all the puritanical pretence that it does not like the continued emphasis on male-female interplay, the conservative sector of the public still enjoys the cleverness of a well-composed “smutty” calypso. 

Furthermore, calypsonians, whose songs provide the music played during the yearly carnival, are acutely aware of the carnival/sexuality connection. They see how carnival draws thousands of men and women into the streets; they see how scantily clad the majority of these players are; they see how people who normally would not give you the time of day allow themselves to be hugged by others they hardly know; in other words, they see revellers predisposed to celebrate life to the fullest, and they know that it would be futile to pretend that sex is not part of that celebration. 

If this were not so, why would the local Family Planning Association issue its yearly warning to “love carefully”? The simple fact, then, is that calypso and carnival are part of a climate that makes enjoyment of sexual innuendo a communal experience.

This essay excerpt is taken from Erotique Noire: A celebration of Black Sensuality edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis, Reginald Martin and Roseann P Bell (Corgi Books)