Lust for life and protest to the sounds of calypso in London, Trinidad and Zurich

Fantastic costumes at the parade along with hot Calypso-sound at the Carnival in Port of Spain on the caribbean island Trinidad

Let’s stay in the Caribbean for a while. At the end of the 80s, I traveled for seven weeks from Barbados via St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada and the Grenadines down to Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of Venezuela, in other words through the entire Westward Islands. And the highlight was the carnival in Port of Spain. What started in 1777 with the French immigrants and was reserved for a colonial minority, developed into a musical protest movement after the liberation of the slaves. Thus, the carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is for many the event that has become the purpose of life. It is celebrated in ecstatic joie de vivre inspired by hot calypso sounds. For several months, a whole family is busy preparing for the costume creations and the parade. In addition to glamour, prestige plays a major role; the family’s fame and prestige increase considerably when a queen or king of the carnival can be added to the family chronicle. To be there is everything, to win is even more beautiful. Long before the parades, the favorites among the steel bands are determined in elimination procedures. Not only the playing virtuosity counts, also the provocative originality of the lyrics is evaluated and awarded. Because calypso knows no taboos. everything is allowed what pleases and arrives. Even after the slave era, the calypso remained the satirical and also cynical mouthpiece of the oppressed. The lyrics of the singer-slaves were peppered with socially critical undertones and rebellious political slogans.

Then, at last, come the three magical days of steel drum parades through downtown Port of Spain, their sound setting the movements of the drifting dancers to a swinging rhythm with eruptive force, transforming Queens Park Savannah into a seething witch’s cauldron. In the process, the dancers hugged each other close to the skin and rubbed against each other provocatively and lightly clothed. And the girls had fun to dock in pairs from the front and from behind, to take you in the sandwich and to rub against you with heated bodies. So you learn to dance in a flash and to move rhythmically to the hot Calypso sounds. And this happened in an environment that was as Catholic as it was Muslim and Chinese, for Trinidad is a melting pot of all these and many Caribbean and Latin American nations living peacefully together on an island no larger than the canton of Bern. In 1833, tens of thousands of Indian contract workers also arrived on the southernmost, small Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. The island, which also includes the neighboring island of Tobago, has been independent since 1962. Trinidad owes its name to Columbus, who remembered the holy trinity, Trinity, at the sight of the three mountain peaks. When Columbus arrived in 1498 on his third voyage, there were two Indian tribes living there, which were wiped out within a few years of the Spaniards‘ arrival. But back to Carnival and the calypso to which Trinidad’s folklore owes so much.

Long before the opening of the carnival, in relentless elimination procedures, the best steel bands are chosen to participate in the parade. However, it is not only the pure musical virtuosity on the sound instruments welded together from gasoline barrels that counts – much more important are the cheeky, provocative lyrics, because calypso knows no taboos, neither when singing or playing nor when dancing. Anything that catches on and pleases the strict jury is allowed. The original folk songs and dances of the suffering slaves remained satirical to cynical mouthpieces of the oppressed against the colonial masters and authorities even after the end of slavery. The lyrics have always been peppered with socially critical and rebellious political tones, this tradition continues today with much wit and charm. The band’s motto usually also determines the choice of costumes. Here, too, an enormous amount of imagination and creativity is involved. An excellent band has no chance of making it to the final round without original costumes. The graceful glittering robes exceed the body size by several times. This daring gigantism can only be accomplished with sophisticated technology and elaborate landing gear. For several months, entire family clans are busy making the costume creations and mythical creatures.

It is already midnight before the start of the carnival, which begins with the opening parade at four in the morning, as it does here. Time drips by. Minutes turn into hours. Alcohol is already flowing and will continue to do so for the next few days. Finally the time has come, everything is streaming outside, the narrow streets lined with tropical bushes are flooded by a pulsating stream of people moving towards the city center and epicenter of the carnival. Apart from glittering eyes and garishly painted faces, not much can be made out in the darkness just before sunrise. Diesel engines roar abruptly: The first semi-trucks start moving and join the stream of people creeping forward. On top of them, 20 to 30 steel drums and other instruments are united and large towers of loudspeakers are set up, whose sound with eruptive power and hurricane-like bass vibrations catches the movements of those drifting in the stream and sets them to a swinging rhythm.

Steel bands come from all points of the compass, transforming Queens Park Savannah into a seething cauldron of witches. Silhouettes of the parade ramp and grandstands loom in the dawn. Stalls are set up all around, dazzling booth magic beckons, and everywhere the loudspeakers are cranked up to the max. An indescribable cacophony that makes you lose your hearing and sight. In the afternoon, the bands and their costumed entourage parade behind them through the streets of Trinidad and up to the grandstands in Queens Park Savannah, where the jury is also seated and the hawsers parade down an alley between the grandstands. Now you can see the gigantic, filigree, magnificently glittering and fan-like swinging works of art, which are decorated with thousands and thousands of glittering sequins, especially well. The giant fan and wing-like birds of paradise flutter rhythmically dancing through Trinidad’s streets. A city out of control, but with all the anarchy and the apparent dissolution of all laws, the precise timing of the end of the carnival seems incredible: As if swept away by a thunderclap, the spook dissolves at midnight after two intense days and nights.

On a second sailing trip from Grenada to Trinidad, which I organized for some friends, the carnival in Trinidad swept us away in such a way that we wanted to bring it to Zurich. And we succeeded, thanks to the Trinidadian percussionist on board the schooner. Ralph R. and his wife Angi, who both played steel drums passionately and Ralph also taught several steel drum bands and children’s bands in Zurich, were the ideal candidates to bring the most famous calypso musician Mighty Sparrow on board. Through Ralph’s contacts we were able to invite Mighty Sparrow, the eight-time „King of Calypso“ to an exclusive gala concert at the „Hotel International“ in Oerlikon. For this we arranged an open-air at the market place in Oerlikon with eight Stelldrum bands the day before, on a Saturday. Thanks to the cooperation with the „British West India Airlines“ (BWIA), which flew new to Zurich at that time, we were able to fly Caribbean top chefs to Zurich during six weeks before the „Calypso & Steeldrum Festival“, with all fresh ingredients and plenty of tropical decoration, to offer Caribbean flair, tropical cocktails and delicious exotic specialties and dishes at the „Hotel International“ in Oerlikon. Through the „Calypso & Steeldrum Festival“ I was allowed to cooperate with Roger Schawinski’s „Radio 24“ and was his guest for an interview and a special broadcast. Also „Radio DRS 3“, which did a one-hour show about the Calypso from Trinidad and about Mighty Sparrow, gave a big boost to the promotion. In addition, Frederic Dru of „Radio Tropic“ was also interested in really celebrating this event. Swiss Television was inspired by the Mighty Sparrow concert and the Caribbean for their first travel show, since „SRF“ travel editor Kurt Schaad. and the music editor of Swiss Television had freaked out at our gala concert. Although we had to seat people due to fire regulations, people soon stood up, clapped, sang and danced and so we quickly cleared the chairs away. It was a bomb atmosphere and definitely the craziest concert ever held there.

Equally gratifying was that as a result I began working at „Radio Tropic“ on a voluntary, unpaid basis and then soon produced my own travel shows with the airlines, tour operators and tourist boards, and had complete freedom to do so. What a brilliant experience! I was able to do two-hour specials on Australia, Africa and the Caribbean on the commercial-free radio station, and two years later I had the opportunity to produce shows at „Radio Kanal K“ as well. The station in the canton of Aargau, which is also known as a music and culture radio station, also gave me a lot of leeway and so, to everyone’s amazement, I invited the four cantonal party presidents to the studio for the hotly debated „Asylum Initiative“ of the SVP and moderated the debate. Among them was Gerry Müller, who later became mayor of Baden. The next protagonist was Andreas Glarner of the SVP from the Aargau municipality of Arni, who achieved media presence through his scandals in matters of migration policy (ban on veiling and minaret initiative). In addition, the two cantonal FDP and CVP presidents also came to the studio for the debate. This was my first highly political and at the same time high-profile interview with four top politicians on one of the hottest topics in Germany at the time. And it was a very committed and controversial discussion, which I, as the moderator, had a good handle on. Through the cooperation with the British West India Airlines (BWIA) at the „Calypso & Steeldrum Festival“ in 1993 and later with the French airline „AOM“, I was able to fly frequently to the Caribbean and during one of these trips and a side trip to Grenada, which I visited for the second time, we received a special invitation.

Dieser Beitrag wurde am von unter Foreign Affairs, Humanitäres Inland, News, Reisetipps veröffentlicht.

Über gmc

1992 gründete der Zürcher Fotojournalist Gerd Müller die Presse- und Bildagentur GMC Photopress und reiste hernach als Agenturfotograf und Fotojournalist in über 80 Länder. Seine Reportagen wurden in zahlreichen Reise- und Spa-Magazinen publiziert. 2021 publizierte er Auszüge aus seinem Buch Highlights of a wild life -Metamorphosen politischer und ökologischer Natur.

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