When Roderick "Chucky" Gordon won the Calypso Monarch contest, many people didn't even know he was the new calypso king. "For instance, I was on the road Carnival Monday and Tuesday, and people were coming to me and asking me how I did in Soca Monarch," said Gordon, incredulously. "They didn't even know I had won the Calypso Monarch the night before, and that I had never even entered Soca Monarch…They were into the more commercial aspect of Carnival.
"But in the community that I came from, Laventille, even people who I had never seen before were just driving by and stopping, congratulating me. They pay attention. There is a bakery right before me, and a lot of people frequent the bakery, and they knew I had won the Calypso Monarch. They were paying attention. "That taught me a lesson. The commercialisation of Carnival seems opposed to the foundational aspects of Carnival-the calypso and the pan. Who pays attention to that?"
He feels there's an alarming disconnect developing at both an artistic and at a national community level: "People are getting more fragmented…"
In the rush to commodify Carnival and make profits from it, Gordon implies we're focusing too much on the superficial party aspects-and neglecting the core of what truly differentiates a T&T Carnival "product" from any other: our own traditions, our own history, and our own potential for creative, indigenous innovation that can develop into a unique, quality product-whether it's a song or music, or a design or a theatrical production.
The power of teamwork
Despite that, he's elated to win T&T's highest calypso contest-and grateful for all the support he's received from fellow performers, artisans, technicians and community members. "It's a wonderful feeling," said a beaming 26-year-old Gordon, of his Calypso Monarch win. He's among the youngest to wear this crown and he wholeheartedly credits his team for his winning performance.
"We worked hard the day before on Saturday, to rehearse for the second song…the team was about 52 people, including Malick Folk Performing Company dancers and actors, Shiv Shakti actors and dancers, extras, Malick tassa drummers, members of the Skiffle Steel Orchestra, people from San Juan Laventille Rhythm Section, and Best Village members who helped in sound, lighting and props."
Gordon has a talent for collaborating with others. Indeed, his winning songs themselves are the result of creative collaboration. His first sing Wey Yuh Think is a political commentary on the pressures of leadership. Written by Larry Harewood, it is about a female leader heading a "government on the brink," facing internal collapse of a coalition, as well as a more jaded population who are "no longer hoodwinked." With so many challenges, what's wrong if she "fires one" or takes a drink, Chucky asks, with sly irony. The song was popular at both Skinner Park and in the Queen's Park Savannah.
Gordon's second song, Shaadi (The Wedding), has lyrics written by Fazad "Uncle Joe" Shakeer and Ray Holman, and music by Ray Holman. It's about a marriage between chutney and soca-a metaphor for musical fusion as well as a light, happy celebration of our ethnic influences. The first calypso was lyrically stronger; the second was more musically experimental, using chutney, pan and soca flavours to portray a dream of ethnic harmony.
Proud of Laventille culture
Born in Laventille, Gordon grew up with family for whom music was a natural part of life. His uncle was calypsonian Penguin, his father was a music teacher, pan arranger, and all-around music fanatic who always had some form of music playing in the house.
"In our house, everybody got excited around Calypso Monarch time because Penguin was involved, so I was seeing that as a little boy. That engendered an interest and a passion. Then Daddy was arranging for parang rehearsals at home, having voice training for choral people at home, and I was also exposed to music by my aunts.
"My foundation is in Laventille: my parents, my aunt, they all spent their entire life in Laventille. My grandparents are from Laventille. Laventille has a rich history in terms of the artistic culture…There's a preconceived stereotype that Laventille is for the impoverished, that it's crime-ridden, when in fact it is not so. So you feel an added sense of pride and responsibility to do well."
Student, actor, social worker
Gordon is a very disciplined, enthusiastic, community-oriented person. In addition to singing calypso, he is a university graduate (he gained a BSc in social work from UWI in 2008), an actor (he used to be a member of Malick Folk Performers and is now on the board), and a very grounded individual who balances his creative life with practical career goals: he's currently pursuing a master's in human resource management.
Why did he study social work?
"I had a passion for sociology–understanding people and societies-when I was studying A-levels at St Augustine Senior Comprehensive. My sociology teacher Mr Chinapoo and my father were very good friends from since they were little boys growing up in the Laventille community…They are both huge mentors for me. "I really started exploring the arts at St Augustine Senior a lot; I was involved in parang in school, in Best Village, and I was doing Junior Calypso…and Mr Chinapoo really helped me to focus on my academics.
He inspired me to work hard in both directions-school and performing arts. Later, he helped me decide to switch from pure sociology-which was theoretical-to social work-which was, for me, more practical and solutions-based." Gordon is not shy about crediting his mentors, family and community for the vital guidance and support they gave him when he was growing up.
"In Laventille, people pay attention," commented Gordon.
What makes good kaiso?
Some have criticised the Calypso Monarch judging this year, with claims that other songs may have been better crafted and that one of Gordon's songs-The Wedding-may not even have been a "true" calypso form. What cannot be disputed is that Gordon performed well on the contest night, with a good supporting cast of actors, singers and musicians, and a confident, effective delivery.
What, to Gordon, makes a good calypso?
"Well, what is calypso?," he asks reflectively: "It was born out of an 'anti-massa' sentiment-it was a form of resistance; it was a form of commentary on the established order; from that, it transformed to revelry and a celebration of the African experience, because that's where it really came from. Calypso then expanded to deal with many topics. And in doing that, it drew on different influences.
"Soca in its original incarnation-Ras Shorty I with Om Shanti Om-that was a chutney influence...Nanee Wine was on a Dimanche Gras stage…it didn't win, but it was considered calypso. Black Stalin's 1995 song Sundar was even more chutney influenced than my song The Wedding. The musical mixing has been going on for a very long time. "A good calypso for me has to have all the major elements: good melody and good lyrical structure, so that it can be palatable to all audiences. And it must be well presented."
Advice for youth
When he's not on a stage or beating books, Gordon relaxes with football, cricket, "taking a sweat," and he's a huge movie fan. And now that he's a millionaire, he has a double focus: fulfilling his dream of developing his own home recording studio and investing some funds wisely for the future. He says many youths contact him through Facebook asking for advice on getting into the calypso scene. His advice is to be very aware of the level of commercialisation in music and Carnival these days.
"It's all about the money. If you can't bring money to somebody's table, they're not going to take you on. So you really have to work hard to get your name out there. "You must understand the entertainment industry, the radio stations, understand copyright, do your research, learn as much as possible, be an apprentice. "Look at other people and see what they do. Don't just love your own stuff so much that you cannot objectively assess it. Like Barbara Streisand said, don't ever be your own fan."